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Time Is Illmatic

An excellent documentary that focuses more on why the Illmatic album came to be than how successful it became. Prepare to be schooled in many…

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Men, Women & Children

A potentially interesting premise is handled so badly that what might have been a provocative drama quickly and irrevocably devolves into the technological equivalent of…

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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.

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The Wolf of Broadway; Kevin Costner's potential comeback; A reporter who spent a year observing college fraternities; An examination of Kurosawa's High and Low; Dana Stevens on Miyazaki's last film.

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#204 January 29, 2014

Sheila writes: The Sundance Film Festival of 2014 is over, and it's been thrilling to keep up with the dispatches and reviews coming out of Park City, Utah. So many films, so little time! The Rogerebert.com correspondents Sam Fragoso and Simon Abrams have been filing reviews at a breathtaking speed. We have a roundup of all of their coverage on Rogerebert.com. Please do check it out! And for those who enjoy parodies, the video below has been making the rounds of film sites so I thought I would share it. The humor site Funny or Die has put together a fake trailer filled with "Sundance Film Cliches", all in one place.

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Moi, misérable: Fermer le trou à tarte

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Another brawl in the square Another stink in the air! Was there a witness to this? Well, let him speak to Javert! -- Javert, a character in the musical "Les Misérables"

I was an eyewitness to "Les Misérables."

After repeated exposure to that dreadful theatrical trailer-cum-featurette about how the singing is all done live on camera! -- It's live! It's Live! IT'S LIVE! -- I had no intention of seeing Tom "The King's Speech" Hooper's film version of the 1980s stage musical. But when it finally came out, some of the reviews were so bad that part of me wanted to see what the stink was all about. Still, I'm not a masochist; I don't enjoy going to movies I know I'm probably predisposed to dislike just so I can dump on them. On the other hand, there's nothing better than having your low expectations upended. I did enjoy that Susan Boyle YouTube video back in 2009, but that was all I knew about the musical. I remained curious but skeptical. And then ...

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The Master: What does it all mean?

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Or: Once is not enough?

"They love it, they don't like it, they like it better a second time, they see it a third time and they reverse their opinion." -- Paul Thomas Anderson on "The Master," in a Toronto Star interview with Peter Howell

The critics agree! Paul Thomas Anderson's new film "The Master" is... ambiguous. What they don't agree on is whether, as we say in the software world, that's a bug or a feature. Is the movie "demanding" and artfully elusive, challenging audiences by refusing to offer a conventional dramatic catharsis or provide an artificially wrapped-up ending; or is the thing just vague, opaque, muddled? The answer depends on who you ask, what they think of Anderson as a filmmaker and, possibly, what they expected going in: a historical exposé of Scientology, a portrait of post-war/micd-century America, "character study," an acting duel... Take a look:

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Misinterpreting the Tomatometer

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Last week Slate ran a story about the "Hollywood Career-o-Matic," which claimed to use data from Rotten Tomatoes to chart the trajectories of Hollywood careers. Interactive feature: Just enter the name of an actor or director and it will instantly generate a graph showing that person's critical ups and downs.

For example, here's one for M. Night Shyamalan, with each dot representing the Tomatometer score for the features he has directed:

Slate concludes that, according to Rotten Tomatoes data, the Best Actor in movies is Daniel Auteuil, with John Ratzenberger the best American actor, since he's voiced a character in every Pixar movie. Best Actress: Arsinée Khanjian. Worst Actress: Jennifer Love Hewitt. Best Director: Mike Leigh. Worst Director: Dennis Dugan (veteran of Adam Sandler movies such as "Happy Gilmore," "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" and "Grown Ups").

Yes, this is all so silly that the mind boggles, but let's start with the premise itself: What is the correlation between reviews and careers in Hollywood? Adam Sandler and Michael Bay wouldn't look much more impressive than Shyamalan if you looked only at reviews. And the Slate piece is riddled with misconceptions about the Tomatometer:

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Salt: It's a movie! It's a spy! It's a nuclear antiproliferation treaty!

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Phillip Noyce's (and definitely Angelina Jolie's) lean and unpretentious "Salt" is proof positive that dumb summer thrillers don't have to be stupid. That is, it revels in absurd implausibilities that are as outrageous as in the movie playing the next auditorium down the hall (and the one next to that), but it never breaks a sweat trying to convince you that it's anything other than what it is. The difference between "Salt" and most ludicrous trying-too-hard action movies is a matter of grace under pressure: a veteran director with a firm command (and respect for) the integrity of screen space; a stripped-down screenplay that gives you just enough exposition to create suspense and keep you guessing about what's going on (What's she doing? Why is she doing it? Does she know why she's doing it?); and an iconic leading lady whose poise is exceeded only by her stubborn resilience.

And then there's her face, which is the real subject of the film. You won't find a more thrilling moment in summer movies than the shot -- "Queen Christina" via "The Scarlet Empress" -- of Jolie's Evelyn Salt, wearing a Russian fur hat and wrap, standing on the Staten Island Ferry, with Ellis Island in the distance. The camera moves in on her from behind, causing the distant silhouette of the Statue of Liberty to sweep across the horizon from right to left, then swings around her into a breathtaking close-up profile. The whole movie is contained in that shot, from a far shot of the abstract Lady Liberty, into a close-up of another statuesque lady of questionable loyalties. (I couldn't help but think of Truffaut dollying around the stone bust of the Greek goddess with the serene, unreadable expression in "Jules and Jim" -- Jolie's Eve(lyn) being as mysterious and even more deadly than Jeanne Moreau's Catherine who, after all, was not CIA.) The shot has nothing to do with the plot; it just serves to get Salt to a rendezvous with a Russian sleeper cell. But it's a great movie-star moment, the kind of image you could imagine being built around Garbo or Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman.

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Don't let this affect your opinion of Juno...

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UPDATED (below): There's Ellen Page on the cover of Entertainment Weekly next to the headline: "Juno: The Little Movie That Did." Subhead: "How a Teen Rebel Delivered Oscar's 100 Million Dollar Baby." This is when I feel a little sorry for people who didn't see the movie back when they could still at least feel like they were discovering it for themselves -- even if the "Little Movie That Could" was just a Fox Searchlight marketing ploy all along. Anyway, it turned out to be a great way to sell the movie: 4 big-time Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Actress, Director, Original Screenplay) and triple-digit milliones in theaters. (And that's a digit that can't be undid.)

Game blogger Surfer Girl even started a hilarious rumor that "Juno: The Video Game" was in development, "the most realistic teenage pregnancy simulation to date, for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii. Crave could not get Ellen Page for the game, so in her place will be Jamie-Lynn Spears. For portable fans, a track-and-field title set in the Junoverse will hit DS and PSP."

(Just imagine wielding a Wii pork sword. Can you impregnate Juno -- and win?)

The post was labeled "joke," but that didn't stop Gamespot News from reporting it as a really maybe sorta true story, straight outta DICE Summit. (BTW, just above the "Juno" item, Surfer Girl offered this: "For the Blu-Ray release of 'There Will Be Blood,' Backbone Entertainment is working on 'an epic milkshake drinking adventure' that will feature the likeness of Daniel Day-Lewis, it will take up an estimated 5GB and feature at least twenty hours of slurping action, plus multiplayer.")

"I drink your milkshake!" is the golden ticket that will sell this thing with the people who are too lazy to read reviews and don't care that much about awards. It's simple, it's viral, it's primitive...it will travel. Make the "I drink your milkshake" T-shirts, hand out the buttons and bumper stickers, cut the TV and radio ads that emphasize the line over and over, and sell this brilliant but undeniably gnarly film as a kind of half-melodrama, half-hoot." -- Jeffrey Wells, January 9, 2008

The proper response to this hype and hoopla would be: "So what?" It's all after-the-fact anyway, and it has nothing to do with the movies themselves. Although, at least, the now-ubiquitous "I drink your MILKSHAKE!" catchphrase from "TWBB," which by now even USA Today has reported as a viral phenomenon, was inspired by the delivery of a line that's actually in the movie. (The brief "Friend-o" fad seems to have passed.)

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Learning from lists

Dana Stevens (at Slate.com), Susan Gerhard (SF360.org), and I are the only critics I know of who put "Man Push Cart" on our best of 2006 lists. Roger Ebert probably would have been a fourth, if he'd made a list this year -- because he programmed "MPC" in his Overlooked Film Festival. Time and DVD will no doubt correct this ghastly critical oversight.

If it hadn't been for the 1981 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, I would never have discovered one of my all-time favorite albums: Human Switchboard's "Who's Landing in My Hangar?" It's the only studio LP by a Velvet Underground-influenced band from Ohio (Bob Pfeifer, Myrna Macarian and Ron Metz), released on Faulty Products/IRS Records and, well, it didn't get much advertising or marketing support. (You can still read Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide mini-review here. See if you can find it on LP. It never made it to CD.) It came in at #11 in the poll, and ranked #10 on The Dean's List, between Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk" (yes, the one with "Pretty in Pink" on it) and Tom Verlaine's "Dreamtime" (another favorite of mine to this day).

Which is why I find it helpful to scour critics' polls (and individual lists): to alert me to titles I may have overlooked -- and, perhaps, may even come to treasure. (Just beware of those who prize obscurity -- or obtuseness -- for their own sake.) The First Annual LA Weekly Film Poll has a nifty interface, where you can click through by category, see which critics voted for what, or look at individual critics' lists. There's even a Worst Film category, the top four winners (winners?) being: 1) "Lady in the Water" 2) "Babel" 3) "World Trade Center" 4) "Miami Vice"Everything else averaged two points or fewer. (I really dug watching "Miami Vice" myself. It was an exercise in style, not unlike "The Departed," but it had a spark that, actors aside, I felt Scorsese's picture lacked.)

Other crix polls:

IndieWire Critics PollFilm Comment Poll

And, of course, the Biggest of Them All: The Master List of Top Ten Lists at Movie City News Awards Watch (now with more than 250 individual critics' lists. Editor David Poland's statistical analysis here.

And don't miss David Bordwell's Best Danish Films I Saw at the End of 2006 List. You may discover something you'll eventually love if you make the effort to see it!

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The Ultimate Review of "The Departed"

Bad, bad Jack, feasting on food and scenery.

UPDATE: Revisiting "The Departed."

Everybody's saying "The Departed" is Martin Scorsese's best picture since "Casino" -- or even "GoodFellas." And some of the (over-)praise has struck me as pretty condescending to Scorsese: "Good boy. You stick to your mobsters now, won't you?" I'll go out on a limb and say I think it's his best picture since "The Aviator."

Adding almost an hour to the running time of "Infernal Affairs," the film on which it's based, "The Departed" does indeed fill in some of what one critic called the "ellipses" in the plot of the original film (and opens up at least as many other holes in the process). And yet, as others have also observed, Scorsese's movies have never been driven by plot but character -- and, in "The Departed," the characters, performances, moral ambiguities, and even the filmmaking prowess itself (all the things we treasure in A Martin Scorsese Picture) are not as rich or developed as those of its 2000 Hong Kong predecessor, much less Scorsese's own best and most personal work. (And let me add that this is not a knee-jerk response; I'm no big fan of Hong Kong action films. What I liked about "Infernal Affairs" was that there was more going on than in most of the HK crime movies or policiers I've seen, which I thought were bursting with empty action and little else.)

I'm going to write more about "The Departed" next week (to continue what I began in my MSN Movies essay, "GoodFellas and BadFellas", but in the meantime, I've patched together some of the critical observations from others that made me go "Yes! That's it!" -- either because I felt the same way, or because they expressed something I hadn't been able to formulate for myself in my initial thinking about the movie.

Meanwhile, after taking a look at these critical observations, please weigh in with comments of your own. (Just remember, it may take a while for comments to actually show up on the site.)

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