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Goodbye to Language

Jean-Luc Godard's latest free-form essay film may be, more than anything else, a documentary of a restless mind.

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The Great Invisible

Winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, the film is strongest when it focuses on the micro rather than the macro. How the…

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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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Scorsese, De Niro reuniting on a new gangster film; Zadie Smith on life, death, Warhol; Spike Lee speaks; our ancestors didn't sleep like us; Van Sant to headline a LGBT film fest in St. Petersburg.

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#167 May 15, 2013

Marie writes: The unseen forces have spoken! The universe has filled a void obviously needing to be filled: there is now a font made entirely of cats. Called Neko Font (Japanese for "cat font") it's a web app that transforms text into a font comprised of cat pictures. All you need to do is write something in the text box, press "enter" on your keyboard and Neko Font instantly transforms the letters into kitties! Thanks go to intrepid club member Sandy Kahn for alerting the Ebert Club to this important advancement in typography. To learn more, read the article "There is now a font made entirely of cats" and to test it out yourself, go here: Neko Font. Meanwhile, behold what mankind can achieve when it has nothing better to do....

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Django Unchain my heart (and set me free)

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Quentin Tarantino has found his actor in Christoph Waltz -- someone who can speak Tarantinian fluently and still make it his own. When Waltz uses a self-consciously ostentatious word like "ascertain" (as in, "I was simply trying to ascertain..." -- the kind of verbiage QT is as likely to put in the mouth of a lowlife crook as a German dentist, or a Francophile plantation slavemaster, for that matter), it sounds right. As someone to whom Tarantino's dialog often sounds cliche-ridden and cutesy, it's a pleasure to hear Waltz saying the words in character rather than simply as a mouthpiece for the writer-director.

Oh, stop. This isn't sounding the way I want it to.

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Goodfellas & badfellas: Scorsese and morality

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[This was originally published at MSN Movies in 2006, but MSN has taken down their archives.]

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." -- Charlie (voiceover by Martin Scorsese) in "Mean Streets" (1973)

If I do bad things, am I a bad person? Can I be a good person despite the bad things I've done? Can I compensate for the sins I commit in one part of my life by doing good works in another? Is forgiveness possible? Is redemption achievable? Or does it even matter if there's not really anyone, or anything, watching over us and keeping track?

Those are some of the Catholic concerns that have preoccupied filmmaker Martin Scorsese throughout his career. His latest film [circa 2006], "The Departed," is based on "Infernal Affairs," a 2002 Hong Kong thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, about two moles: an undercover cop who has infiltrated a criminal gang, and a crook who is embedded in the police department. So, who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? Frank Costello, the gangster kingpin played by Jack Nicholson, says: "Cops or criminals: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And what about when you're pointing one? In the cosmic sense, we're all facing that loaded gun, and brandishing one, every day. And the difference -- if there is any -- is what Scorsese makes his movies about.

Watching certain Scorsese pictures today ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas," "Casino" and others), you can appreciate the ways they both reflect and question the prevailing moral climate in early 21st-century America. It's a topsy-turvy universe in which the President of the United States himself insists that judgments about "goodness" and "badness" are not to be based upon actions, but are simply pre-existing existential conditions. Good or bad, right or wrong -- it just depends on which side you're on.

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#62 May 11, 2011

Marie writes: allow me to introduce you to Travel Photographer, founded by Chris and Karen Coe in 2003 and their annual contest "Travel Photographer of the Year".After years spent working in the travel industry as a professional photographer and finding it was mostly conventional images making it into print, Chris decided to create a way to showcase great travel photography and broaden people's perception of what it can encompass - namely, that it can be much, much more than a pretty postcard image.The contest is open to one and all; amateur and professional photographers compete alongside each other. Entrants are judged solely on the quality of their photographs. There's a special competition to encourage young photographers aged 18 and under; Young Travel Photographer of the Year. The youngest entrant to date was aged just five, the oldest 88. The competition is judged by a panel of photographic experts, including renowned photographers, picture buyers, editor and technical experts.And the 2010 winners have now been announced. Here's a few random photos to wet your appetite - then you can scroll through the amazing winners gallery!

Enal is around 6 years old and knows this shark well - it lives in a penned off area of ocean beneath his stilted house in Wangi, Indonesia. Photo: James Morgan, UK (Portfolio Encounters: Winner 2010)  [note: click images to enlarge]

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Doo Wop, cool and raw masculinity

May Contain Spoilers

There exist in this sometimes sad world, moments that remind you that you are alive.

You know these moments well. Blood rushes from your toes to your cheeks. Or from your cheeks to your toes. Either way you are made aware of its movement.

A great energy is felt in your jaw and in the ends of each strand of hair. Your fingers curl. Your hands turn into fists or claws. Everything is hot. You shudder violently (the energy must be flung off or you will be eaten alive).

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My vocation as a priest

It was my mother who decided I would be a priest. I heard this beginning early in my childhood. It was the greatest vocation one could hope for in life. There was no greater glory for a mother than to "give her son to the church." I speculated that my mother had given me birth with the specific hope of passing me on to the church.

There was a mother in our congregation at St. Patrick's, Mrs. Wuellner, who had achieved the enviable distinction of giving two sons to the church, Fathers Frank and George, and these two good men came once to visit us at our home, possibly to inspire me.

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TIFF #7: It was a very good day

I saw three new movies on Monday. Each one could have been the best film of the day. I can't choose among them, so alphabetically: Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," Atom Egoyan's "Chloe" and Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child." A story involving a cop uncontrollably strung out on drugs. A story involving a wife who meets a hooker. A story about three woman whose lives are shaped by the realities of adoption. Three considerable filmmakers. Three different tones. Three stories that improvise on genres instead of following them. Three titles that made me wonder, why can't every day be like this?

Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog were surely destined to work together. Radical talents are drawn to one another. Cage tends to exceed the limitations of a role, Herzog tends to exceed the limitations of film itself. Knowing nothing about conditions during the shoot, my guess is they found artistic harmony. If not, they ended up hardly on speaking terms. Either way would have worked.

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Inglourious Basterds: Real or fictitious, it doesn't matter...

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Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is about World War II in roughly the same way that, I suppose, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is about a haunted hotel. The war is indeed the setting, but that's not so much what the movie is about. I also don't see it as an act of Holocaust denial or an anti-vengeance fable in which we are supposed to first applaud the Face of Jewish Revenge, and then feel uncomfortable sympathy for the Nazis. The movie comes down firmly on the side of the Jews, and of revenge, of an early end to the war and the saving of thousands of lives, with barely a quibble.

But while "Inglourious Basterds" is indisputably a WW II revenge fantasy (and, of course, a typically Tarantinian "love letter to cinema"), a theme that is central to nearly every moment, every image, every line of dialog, is that of performance -- of existence as a form of acting, and human identity as both projection and perception. As you would expect from a film that is also an espionage picture and a detective movie, it's shot through with identity games, interrogations, role-playing and people or situations that are not what they appear to be...

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Some ways to watch Inglourious Basterds [sic]

"When I'm making a movie, the world goes away and I'm on Mt. Everest. Obama is President? Who cares? I'm making my movie." -- Quentin Tarantino, Village Voice interview (2009)

A wily WWII Looney Tunes propaganda movie that conjures up 1945's "Herr Meets Hare," (in which Bugs Bunny goes a-hunting with Hermann Goering in the Black Forest; full cartoon below) and the towering legends of Sergio Leone's widescreen Westerns -- and about a gazillion other movies and bits of movie history from Leni Riefenstahl to Anthony Mann to Brian De Palma -- Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is a gorgeous and goofy revenge cartoon, a conceptual genre picture about the mythmaking power of cinema. Re-writing history? That's missing the point by several kilometers. This is pure celluloid fantasy -- an invigorating wallow in the vicarious pleasures of movie-watching by someone who would rather watch movies than do anything else in the world. Except maybe talk about them.

I spent the last week preparing for "Inglourious Basterds" by watching the two Tarantinos I'd missed: both volumes of "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof." (I came to think of it as the Foot-Fetish Film Festival.) So, with that in mind, I thought I'd begin by taking a general look at how I think Tarantino's movies work -- what they do, and what they don't do -- because, although I haven't read more than a few brief passages from other "Basterds" reviews yet, people seem to think there's been a lot of misrepresentation and/or misinterpretation going around (starting with Newsweek and The Atlantic). Some clearly wanted or expected the movie to be something else. A morality lesson, perhaps. But those other movies would not be ones Quentin Tarantino has ever shown any interest in making. "Inglourious Basterds," love it or hate it (and I think it puts most contemporary American filmmaking to shame), it is what it is because it's exactly the way Tarantino wants it to be. Let's consider...

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Why the Helvetica is Trajan the movie font?

My favorite documentary of 2007 (which I haven't had a chance to write about yet) is Gary Hustwit's "Helvetica," a look at a ubiquitous typeface. It's the kind of movie that helps you to see the world around you anew, freshly attuned to all the fonts in your world. Me, I'm a Helvetica guy. I hate fonts that call attention to themselves, and Helvetica is so clean and strong and elegant you can do almost anything with it just by varying sizes, colors, weights, spacing and placement. Our good friend Larry Adylette, the superlative movie and music and pop culture blogger formerly known as The Shamus (and, before that, That Little Round-Headed Boy), has a few words on Helvetica (and "Helvetica") over at his new blog, Welcome to L.A. -- which is also the title of Alan Rudolph's funny-peculiar 1976 debut feature, starring Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman, Harvey Keitel, Sissy Spacek, Lauren Hutton, Geraldine Chaplin, Viveca Lindfors and Richard Baskin. (A parenthetical time-out to say: "Hello, Larry!," as they used to remark on NBC for a very short time in 1979-80 after McLean Stevenson left "M*A*S*H," thus providing Garry Shandling with a great network-meeting joke in an early episode of "The Larry Sanders Show.") Larry writes: Just like film bloggers who parse every frame of "No Country For Old Men," these font fanatics have obsessed about every curve and dimension of Helvetica. To them, Helvetica is either a perfect, easily readable form of mass communication or something akin to Anton Chigurh with a coin and an air-tank gun. They are an argumentative, often hilarious bunch...I have no idea what he's talking about.

But that's not really the reason for this post. It's about an entirely different (serif) font, Trajan, which as Kirby Ferguson of Goodie Bag details in the above movie, has become the movie font. "Trajan is the movie font," he says -- and then goes on to show you so many examples your head will spin. In the end, though, like me, he's a Helvetica guy. Look at those end credits. Not Trajan. Helvetica. I'll write more about "Helvetica" later, because I'm fascinated with it (the font and the movie) and I already want to see it a third time.

(tip: Ali Arikan)

P.S. Karsten (in comments below) offers an explanation for the film-font phenomenon with a link to this animated murder mystery, "Etched in Stone." (link opens new browser tab/window)

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TIFF 2007: It's alive!

View image Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro.

Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop," you know you're in good hands. I've written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani's debut feature, "Man Push Cart," from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and "Chop Shop" is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere -- California, Texas, Mexico, South America -- but the first thing you sense is that it's not: it's this particular place, even if we don't know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, "I don't need you today" -- and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.

Simple enough, but in these few seconds the movie establishes a setting, a milieu, some characters and the beginnings of a story with an ease and grace that you don't often see in the work of filmmakers who are much more established. What's more, the film develops a sense of place, and the people who inhabit that place, that few movies ever succeed in capturing. This guy knows how to make movies.

I admit I went in wanting to like "Chop Shop." I'd been wowed by "Man Push Cart," and I met Bahrani and that film's star, Ahmad Razvi, at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival a couple years ago, and I liked them and their work so much I wanted them to succeed. But by the end of "Chop Shop" I was walking down Bloor Street about 18 inches above the sidewalk, just from seeing a film that skillfully avoided so many pitfalls and cliches, and that felt so fresh, so alive, and just so right down to its last detail. (And, once again, the moment at which the movie chooses to end is both unexpected and unexpectedly satisfying. Seconds before it happens, you just feel it's so right it's inevitable.)

Here's what I knew about "Chop Shop" going in: It was directed by Ramin Bahrani and I was pretty sure it had a kid in it. That's all. Except I knew it had been shown at Cannes. I wish you'd see the film the same way (trust me), but I want to tell you as little as possible while still conveying my enthusiasm.

View image Alejandro P., director Rahmin Bahrani, and DP Michael Simmondson the set in the setting of "Chop Shop."

As usual, I'll explain next to nothing of the story, except to say that it concerns a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works any number of odd jobs (subway candy vendor, bootleg DVD salesman, chop shop assistant), mostly in and around the "Iron Triangle," a neighborhood of body shops and junkyards in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Queens.

But here's the thing: Too many of these "slice-of-life" movies feel like they're made by tourists. They shoehorn a fairly generic story and characters into a "colorful" setting in hopes of getting a distribution deal at Sundance. In "Chop Shop," the story and characters seem like details that the filmmaker has noticed within the hustle and bustle of this patch of city real estate -- as if they were here all along, and it just took someone with a sharp eye and an attuned ear to pick them out and give them shape. The texture is organic and alive; the story is an accumulation of incidents and experiences.

Listen to the hum of an oscillating fan in a tiny plywood room; the irregular tapping sounds (rain on the roof, or expanding/contracting pipes, or an overworked mini-fridge?) that turn out to be coming from a bag of microwave popcorn; the rising and falling roar of an unseen ballgame echoing off the honeycomb of metal garage doors and cement walls. Notice the mud puddles in the potholed streets; the pit bulls and the pigeons; the meats sizzling on a grill at a block party; the elevated trains passing over and through on their way to other neighborhoods, other people, other "stories" (the way they're photographed they are both part of the teeming cityscape and a reminder of a whole stratum of life going on above the low-lying realm where these characters scrape together a living, and a life).

View image Isamar Gopnzales and Alejandro Polanco, as sister and brother Isamar and Alejandro.

I don't want to use one American indie to bash another, but... looks like I'm going to. Consider "Quinceañera," a Sundance prize-winner that felt like a guided-tourist movie to me. In my review, I wrote: If there was ever a movie that seemed precision-tailored for a Park City reception, this is it -- the quintessential example of the festival's favored brand of hand-crafted, slice-of-life, youth-oriented filmmaking that expresses affection for a nicely captured American subculture. In other words, it's a Sundance specialty, right from the box.

This is a shopping-list movie: A double coming-of-age story spiced with local color; a bittersweet portrait of a Los Angeles neighborhood in transition; a warm and soapy celebration of a Mexican-American community. "Quinceañera" is also a thoroughly predictable melodrama that's both kitchen-sink and "After-School Special." You can see every plot development coming from miles away, much more clearly than you can see downtown L.A. from Echo Park most days. The story is so generic it seems put together from pre-fab modular elements... The life of a movie is all in the details, the atmosphere, and the contrast between "Quinceañera" and "Chop Shop" could not be more vital or revealing.

Ahmad Razvi, the star of "Man Push Cart," has a supporting role here as a local shop proprietor, but remains a star. The camera loves this guy, and he holds it with the magnetism of Harvey Keitel in early Scorsese movies. In fact, if Bahrani's guiding influences in "Man Push Cart" were the likes of Bresson and Ozu, he seems to have been inspired by Scorsese and Altman this time, in making a movie that recalls "Pixote" and, of course, Italian Neorealist classics like "Bicycle Thieves" and "Paisan," but without the slightest hint of sentimentality. I'm told he starts shooting his next movie in two weeks. My movie-lovin' heartbeat quickens at the news....

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On acting, authenticity and Robert De Niro

Just started Tom McCarthy's novel, "Remainder," in which the first-person narrator is recovering from some kind of mysterious brain injury (which may just be consciousness itself). He and his friend Greg go to see Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" -- just as the characters played by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in "Mean Streets" go to see John Ford's "The Searchers." Then comes this page-and-a-half passage that I found enthralling: The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between. I commented on this to Greg as we walked back to mine.

"But the character's a loser," Greg said. "And he messes everything up for all the other characters."

"That doesn't matter," I answered. "He's natural when he does things. Not artificial, like me. He's flaccid. I'm plastic."

"He's the plastic one, I think you'll find," said Greg, "being stamped onto a piece of film and that. I mean you've got the bit above your eye, but..."

"That's not what I mean," I said. I'd had a small amount of plastic surgery on a scar above my right eye. "I mean that he's relaxed, malleable. He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn't have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand."

"You mean he's cool. All film stars are cool," said Greg. "That's what films do to them."

"It's not about being cool," I told him. "It's about just being. De Niro was just being; I can never do that now."

Greg stopped in the middle of the pavement and turned to face me. "Do you think you could before? Do you think I can? Do you think anyone outside of films lights cigarettes or opens fridge doors like that? Think about it: the lighter doesn't spark the first time you flip it, the first wisp of smoke gets in your eye and makes you wince; the fridge door catches and then rattles, milk slops over. It happens to everyone. It's universal: everything fucks up! You're not unusual. You know what you are?"

"No," I said. "What?"

"You're just more usual than everyone else."

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Opening Shots: 'Little Murders'

View image Rise and shine...

What do we have here? It's the opening shot of one of my favorite 1970s comedies, a dark absurdist urban paranoid masterpiece called "Little Murders" (1971) written by Jules Feiffer ("Carnal Knowledge") and directed by Alan Arkin (as was the second, successful run of the play in New York in 1969; the first staging a year earlier closed in a week). As you might guess, it's a movie about windows and frames. Look out any window, and there's another one looking right back at you -- with a telescope, a camera, maybe even a gun. After a while, you don't want to know what's out there. You shut off the TV, bar the windows and bolt the door just to keep the madness... out?

Elliott Gould plays Alfred, a listless, benumbed photographer who shoots piles of dog shit. That's his subject. In this shot, Alfred is somewhere outside the window, getting beat up. That's Patsy (Marcia Rodd) in bed. The sounds of Alfred's mugging are drifting in her window, but that's not what awakens her. It's the phone -- another call from the heavy breather (in an era where "obscene phone calls" were the latest in pornographic technological phenomena). But although the image may at first remind you of Kitty Genovese (the murder victim whose screams were ignored by neighbors in Queens), Patsy intervenes. And that's the way it all begins.

Arkin jump-cuts into the scene a few times as the credits appear, in a way that reminds me of the percussive cuts of Harvey Keitel waking up (to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby") at the start of "Mean Streets" (1973). By the end of the film, the windows will be flung open again, to let the fresh air in... and the sniper rifles out.

P.S. Roger Ebert's original 1971 review of "Little Murders" gets at why I think it's such a good, and disturbing, comedy. It doesn't tell you when it's OK to laugh: Arkin said, shortly after the film was released, that he'd only seen his movie once in a theater, and he was afraid to go again. When he saw it with an audience, he said, he thought it was a flop because there was no pattern to the laughs. People were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily, as specific things in the movie touched or clobbered them.

That's my feeling about "Little Murders." One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America's darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don't watch out.

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The Mystery of the Missing Mandy

View image: Harvey Keitel as a prison priest on the set of "It's Pat" with Gene and Dean Ween. Unfortunately, this framing device got cut!

In my review of "You, Me and Dupree," (which, to meet Sun-Times deadlines I had to write immediately after seeing the movie Monday night), I mentioned several indications that the movie had undergone some drastic cutting and revisions. I wrote: Even more perplexing are the laborious set-ups for gags that are missing their payoffs -- the most notable being an entire character (Mandy, the love of Dupree's life for a few scenes) who never actually shows her face onscreen. We keep waiting for the punchline, but there isn't one. It seems she has simply been cut out of the movie (wait for the DVD, kids!). Perhaps, at one time, she was Annie, the fifth-or sixth-billed character supposedly played by Amanda Detmer, whom I do not recall ever showing up for work.Since writing those words, I have Googled, I have investigated, and I can't find any reports on what happened. It's unusual to see somebody with such prominent billing and so little screen time (though, undoubtedly, other examples exist). Usually, somebody who has been cut out of the movie would also be removed from the credits -- though still get paid. (That's what happened when we had to cut Harvey Keitel's priest scenes out of "It's Pat," although he was great in 'em.)

I asked Anne Thompson and she said she had no idea what had happened. I asked David Poland and he said he'd spotted Amanda Detmer (a favorite of his) in the opening wedding scenes, but didn't know why she went away. It's clear from the way "Mandy's" scenes are shot, that her face is deliberately being shielded from view. But why? I'm throwing it out there to all you knowledgable cinephiles and voracious readers out there. Anybody know what the deal is?

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