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Winter Sleep

The running time of his new picture Winter Sleep, three hours and change, suggests weight, but at it happens, this movie struck me as both…

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Mr. Turner

Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…

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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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Cast and Crew

* 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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Triceratops never existed; Coppola and DePalma betwixt passions; 8 books every educated person should read; the Syrian rebel problem; The Last Temptation of Christ revisited; Herzog + Morris.

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Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012: In Memoriam

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Andrew Sarris, who loved movies, is dead at 83. He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest. More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the Auteur Theory, the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors.

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How much spoilage does a spoiler really spoil?

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At The Frontal Cortex (a blog you should bookmark), Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer reveals his backward reading habits (yes, he likes to peek at the endings first) and cites a study that may indicate people enjoy stories more when they know spoilers ahead of time ("Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything"). Is this why some moviegoers actually want to see trailers that consistently give away not only a movie's major plot developments but the best lines and most memorable (that is, salable) images?

I'm always in favor of spoiler warnings in criticism out of respect for readers, who should be able to choose whether they care about discovering certain developments or twists if they haven't seen the film under discussion yet. If, like Jonah Lehrer, you prefer to know about endings (or story points beyond the basic premise) in advance, then go ahead and watch the trailers or skip to the end of the DVD or peek at the final pages of the book. Nobody's stopping you. But don't try to force your ways on the rest of us. The critic who delights in giving away spoilers is like the drunken heckler who's seen a stand-up comic's act and shouts out the punchlines before the jokes are set up.

I'm also interested in counter-intuitive arguments, however. (I'm fascinated that today's electric cars actually create more pollution and consume more energy than gas-powered vehicles, because of how their batteries are manufactured and charged -- which is not to say that we shouldn't make them, because the greater the demand, the more efficient the production cycle will become. And, of course, the less we rely on coal to generate electricity, the cleaner that process will get.)

While I question the statistical significance of the data in the study Lehrer cites, I do find some of Lehrer's observations intriguing. (I enthusiastically recommend his book about the arts and the brain, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist.") He concludes his post with three "random thoughts," to which I will respond one by one:

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Robert Duvall: "Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that"

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• Roger Ebert / August 25, 1983

They honored Robert Duvall the other night at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, dedicating their annual Tribute to an actor's actor who is only now entering into stardom after two decades of great character performances.

Duvall was accompanied onstage by Gene Siskel and me, on a guided tour of clips from a lot of his best movies, and when we got to one of his key scenes in "The Godfather" (1971), you could have heard a pin drop.

The scene was the famous one where Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Corleone's trusted family lawyer, goes to Hollywood to persuade a studio boss to give Johnny Fontane, the mob-connected singer, a starring role in a movie. "Godfather" fans will recall that the sequence ends with the boss refusing Hagen's request, and waking up the next morning in the same bed with the severed head of his beloved racehorse.

Anyway, when the scene was over, Duvall got to talking about the film's director, Francis Coppola.

"It's not widely known that when Coppola made 'The Godfather,' the studio had a substitute director standing by at all times," Duvall said. "One false move and Francis would have been replaced. That was incredible pressure for him to work under. It's a great picture, but under the circumstances it's a miracle he even finished it. As for Francis himself, he's like a kid with an all-day sucker. He wants his Hollywood studio, and a vineyard in Northern California, and an apartment in Paris. He's a great director, but he loves all his toys."

All this could be checked out, at first hand, because Coppola himself was a surprise guest, lurking in the back of the theater. Wearing a Panama hat, he marched down the aisle, took a seat on the stage and shared his notions of acting, directing, Duvall and "The Godfather."

"That was a strange scene to show," Coppola said, "because in the long shot it isn't even Bobby. We shot Bobby's scenes on the East Coast, and for the West Coast exteriors we used a double."

"You can tell," Duvall said, "because he doesn't have my bow-legs."

Coppola and Duvall began remembering moments from "The Godfather," especially an early rehearsal dinner.

"I assembled the whole cast for a dinner at Pearl's restaurant in New York," Coppola said. "There they all were -- Brando eating everything in sight, and Pacino looking tragic, and Duvall doing his Brando imitations every time Marlon turned his back. It was like the Corleone family having dinner. It was that night I knew the picture would work."

After two more clips from "Godfather, Part Two," we viewed perhaps the most famous single scene Coppola or Duvall has ever been involved with: The beach landing in "Apocalypse Now" that begins with a flight of helicopters playing Richard Wagner over loudspeakers, and ends with Duvall's famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It seems like . . . victory!"

"One take," Coppola said. "We did that scene in one take, the first take."

That made it all the more extraordinary, because the scene is not only an exercise in logistics, but a demonstration of physical courage. While jets thunder overhead, helicopters make close passes and shells go off within yards of Duvall, he remains totally unaffected. He doesn't even twitch an eyelash at the special effects explosions, and marches around on the sand talking obsessively about the great surfing beach he has just occupied.

"There wasn't any time to think," Duvall said. "I heard over the intercom that we only had the use of the jets for 20 minutes. One fly-by and that was it. I just got completely into the character, and if he wouldn't flinch, I wouldn't flinch."

As Duvall reviewed his career from "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1963) to "Tender Mercies" (1983), his acting approach was clearly revealed: He believes in giving himself over to the character. He talked about spending time with homicide cops before making "The Detective" (1968), and hanging out with good ol' boys from Texas to find his character, a country singer, for "Tender Mercies."

"Not to brag, but I got calls from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson telling me I had the character just right," he said.

Robert Duvall has long been known as an accomplished actor, but the range of his acting career was dramatized by the three-hour program. The scenes ranged from "True Grit" (he faced John Wayne in that great shoot-out in the mountain meadow) to "The Chase" (Duvall and Brando) to George Lucas' "THX 1138" (Duvall as a puzzled automaton) to Robert Altman's "MASH" (Duvall's love scene with Hot Lips) to "True Confessions" (Duvall as a cop, Robert DeNiro as his brother, a priest) and "The Great Santini" (Duvall as a military pilot who demands perfection from his family).

Two things stood out as the scenes marched past; Duvall never plays the same character twice, and he makes other actors look good. He brings a quality to his listening, his reactions, that charges a scene even when he's not talking.

One of the movies shown at Toronto was unfamiliar. It was "Tomorrow," a 1972 adaptation of a William Faulkner short story. The movie was never widely released, but Duvall says his performance in it, as a poor dirt farmer that loves and loses a woman and her child, is the one he likes best. "It's got the most of me in it," he said.

And what, at mid-career, what has he learned about acting? "Give yourself completely to the moment."

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Apocalypse Now: An audio-visual aid

The communal Parallax View film criticism blog, coordinated by Sean Axmaker, has resurrected Richard T. Jameson's provocative, penetrating "Apocalypse Now" review, originally published in the Seattle Weekly (then known only as The Weekly) October 17, 1979. I think it's the most lucid thing anyone's ever written about the movie, and should be required reading after every screening as a way of ensuring substantive discussion.

Jameson's piece illuminates essential truths about "Apocalypse" (and, I think, about Coppola's body of work), with a precision few critics have been willing or able to explore. You may want to argue with it (and by all means go ahead!), but if you read it closely I think it will show you things you may already have felt, even if you never quite noticed them before. That's true for me, anyway. I've just re-read it for the first time in almost 30 years, and I feel it's been there, under my skin, the whole time:

"Apocalypse Now" is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I'd seen the film again: perhaps I'd missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn't find it. It isn't there. What is there is the evidence of a reasonably talented filmmaker having spectacularly overextended himself -- Francis Ford Coppola who, having had a toney pop epic widely accepted as great cinema, felt he was ready to make "Citizen Kurtz."

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Movie Answer Man (12/20/2007)

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Q. I am a devoted fan of Ian McEwan’s novel "Atonement," one of those books that raises your heartbeat and ignites conflicting emotions and thoughts like fireworks exploding in the sky. So many nights I returned to that book to amuse myself for several hours by just repeating the poetry of McEwan’s prose, its words melting over my tongue like butter.

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If at first you don't succeed ...

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Q: "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader's long-shelved version of "Exorcist: The Beginning" is finally seeing the light of day at the International Festival of Fantastic Film in Brussels. Given the lukewarm reception toward Renny Harlin's version, is there any chance of success for Schrader's more restrained, theologically terrifying film here in the States? Chris Lettera, Youngstown, Ohio

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The direct-to-video king

CANNES, France -- Faithful readers will recall that when the home video revolution was new, I interviewed a man at Cannes who sold movies by the pound. His motto: "Back up your car and I'll load up the trunk."

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Steven Spielberg's legacy

Steven Spielberg celebrates his 50th birthday today. If he never directed another film, his place in movie history would be secure. It is likely that when all of the movies of the 20th century are seen at a great distance in the future - as if through the wrong end of a telescope - his best will be in the handful that endure and are remembered.

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Norman Mailer: Tough guy directs

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PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -- Not far down the street there has been a bloody fist fight, two men pounding each other senseless over a woman, blood on the sidewalk, the police involved, but Norman Mailer hardly hears of it, he is so engrossed in the movie he is directing.

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Tom Cruise: Color him bankable

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NEW YORK"For years, all I had were a bed, a desk and a chair," Tom Cruise said. "When I was making a movie, they put me in hotel rooms. Between jobs, I moved back into my apartment, and my lifestyle dropped considerably."

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Interview with Bette Midler

TORONTO, CANADA - About halfway into "Divine Madness," Bette Midler is doing a series of dirty jokes and somebody in the audience shouts out that she should tell the taco joke. "The taco joke?" Bette asks. "You think I'm crazy? I know what the movie audience will go for, how much I can get away with.... Remember, this is the time-capsule version."

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