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Transcendence

"Transcendence" is a serious science fiction movie filled with big ideas and powerful images, but it never quite coheres, and the end is a copout.

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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.

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Nelson Mandela 1918-2013; the war on smarm; Bilge Ebiri on "Inside Llewyn Davis"; Christmas with X-Men; the fan-led revival of "The Assassination of Jesse James."

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"America is not a country, it's a business."

So says professional killer Jackie Cogan at one point in Killing Them Softly, the third film by New Zealander Andrew Dominik - and considering the filmmaker's efforts to establish a connection between the events in the movie and the economic crisis started in the late 2000s thanks to the greed and lack of scruples of Wall Street, it is easy to see Cogan as an ordinary employee of any company complaining about the lack of vision of his bosses and, on the other hand, the big bankers as Armani-dressing versions of the violent mobsters who inhabit the crime section of the newspapers. More than that: fearful due to the financial disaster caused by their colleagues in Wall Street, the bad guys presented by Dominik are miles away from those gangsters who used to throw hundred dollar bills on the ground or distribute tips in exchange of a smile; instead, here they need to haggle prices with professional killers and negotiate with theirs superiors before approving a sum of a thousand dollars for framing someone.

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Gangsters, renegades and rebels

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Today looks to be a day of renegades and gangsters from the start, with "Killing Them Softly" by Andrew Dominik, the second American film to premier in competition, first thing in the morning. The all-male cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, who also starred in the director's Oscar-nominated "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. " This is a talky tough-guy movie that is heavy on long interchanges among thugs with odd accents and/or speech impediments. Talking like a tough guy means modifying every noun with the f-word (and I wonder what the grand total would be for this film).

"Killing Them Softly" is set in New Orleans, although pains are taken to avoid any distinctly identifying landmarks. The grey, wet, boarded-up desolation of the landscape could only be the post-Katrina lower 9th Ward, and I found the film's fleeting glimpses of that more electrifying than the introduction of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of lowlifes setting up a robbery with Squirrel (Vincent Curatola).

The two bumblers manage, just barely, to pull off the robbery of a high-stakes poker game, which makes it only a matter of time before they're marked men. It also makes Markie (Ray Liotta), the pudgy mid-level gangster who was running the game a suspect. Whatever higher authority these thugs answer to calls in its enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort it out.

The first and only woman, who is also the first and only black person in the story, makes her appearance one hour into the film. She's a prostitute who's treated like garbage in her approximately two minutes on the screen. This is not only a man's world, it's a white man's world.

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A letter from Chaz

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• Chaz Ebert at Cannes

Dear Roger: "We were once indivisible from every atom in the cosmos," and that is how I feel when I am sitting in the Palais watching movies at Cannes with a screen spread out as wide as the galaxy, the audience circling around like protons and neutrons breathing as one in empathy.

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Noir at its nastiest: The Killer Inside Me

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Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" is one of the deepest, darkest films noir ever made -- an unflinchingly nasty, nihilistic piece of work that pulls no punches, literally or figuratively. This is what noir is all about: facing the worst possibilities of human nature, a bottomless sense of dread that makes you feel like you're drowning in fetid bog of blood (see "Macbeth"). And it's all your fault, the undeniable consequences of following your own overpowering desires, of making your own messy mistakes. And maybe some rotten luck -- the kind you invariably bring on yourself.

Not that we totally identify with our deadpan sociopathic narrator and main character, but that's precisely what happens to Lou Ford, the clean-cut young deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas, (Casey Affleck, in another masterful performance to rank with his work in "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford"), a small-town psycho with a taste for compulsive, 1950s pulp sadism (really dirty, dangerous stuff -- let's say S&M without the safe word). One murder becomes necessary to cover the previous one until Lou is stepp'd in blood so far that, should he wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.

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Consensus and the Big Film Poll Blowout of 2007

View image Conspiracy or coincidence? "There Will Be Blood" opened nationwide on Friday and won the Village Voice/LA Weekly film poll and the National Society of Film Critics poll the same weekend! What can it mean?

"There Will Be Consensus": That was the headline for the intro by Village Voice film critic (and self-described "lapsed structuralist") J. Hoberman, accompanying the results of the annual film critics' poll co-sponsored by the Village Voice and the L.A. Weekly, which are both published by Village Voice Media (along with the SF Weekly, Seattle Weekly, Kansas City Pitch, Nashville Scene, Cleveland Scene, Dallas Observer, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, and several more). Unless you read the same piece by Hoberman in the LA Weekly, in which case the headline was "If It Bleeds, It Leads." I don't know what the headline was in those other weeklies, but you can look it up if you like.

Here, then, is the bleeding consensus, which is, as you might expect, practically everything you would expect in a consensus -- which is to say hardly anything that you would not expect. (Like Iowa.) 1. "There Will Be Blood" (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA) 2. "No Country for Old Men" (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA) 3. "Zodiac" (David Fincher, USA) 4. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) 5. "I'm Not There" (Todd Haynes, USA) 6. "Syndromes and a Century" (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria) 7. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Julian Schnabel, France/USA) 8. "Killer of Sheep" (Charles Burnett, USA, 1977) 9. "Ratatouille" (Brad Bird, USA) 10. "Colossal Youth" (Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland)No surprises there -- at least not if you've been paying any attention to mainstream movie reviews coming out of New York, Los Angeles or the major international film festival circuit (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto -- the launching pads for most of the above) in both 2006 and 2007. Compare to the indieWIRE poll results, which are almost identical -- with late-December opener "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" at #13 (IW) instead of #7 (VV/LA); "Assassination of Jesse James" at #7 (IW) instead of #12 (VV/LA); and -- the most dramatic difference! -- "Ratatouille" at #20 (IW) instead of #9 (VV/LA).

I wonder: Were it not for DVDs -- especially DVD critics' screeners -- and, to a lesser extent, On Demand distribution channels like HDNet and IFC First Take, how many of these films would have had the chance to become critical favorites outside of New York (and maybe LA) by the end of 2007? What are the odds that films that never even played theatrically in more than one or two American towns ("Syndromes and a Century," "Colossal Youth"), or that don't open in more than a few until 2008 ("There Will Be Blood," "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") would have placed so strongly in national critics' polls with mid-December deadlines? I think I'm impressed... unless, wait a minute, the success of such films is actually further evidence of insular critical hype and inbred groupthink. But why choose to think of it in that way?

From this link you can see all the vote-getters by category (feature films, performances, documentaries, first films, undistributed films, worst film), or look at the individual contributors' ballots here. Including mine, although I immediately regretted impulsively citing "Southland Tales" as the "worst" movie I saw in 2007 and still do. I'd much rather make a case against the bloodless literalism of "Sweeney Todd" (musically, sexually and politically neutered) or "Youth Without Youth" or "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." But let's keep things in perspective. None of those movies expressed a cinematic worldview quite as reductive as those reviews of "No Country for Old Men" that invoked this year's most hackneyed substitute for criticism, summarized in this clip from Hoberman's intro: In formal terms, the Coen brothers' latest pinball machine is obviously superior to 90 percent of the year's releases. But it's also a soulless enterprise, with nothing more on its mind than the expert manipulation of the spectator, critics included.The Voice didn't run a Hoberman review of "No Country for Old Men" (it reprinted Scott Foundas's admiring piece from the LA Weekly), so we may never know more precisely what Hoberman thinks he is "obviously" saying about the movie, or the movies, or himself. (Some of my responses to similar autonomic spasms can be found here and elsewhere. In what language can something that is "obviously superior to 90 percent" of movie recent releases "in formal terms" be considered the equivalent of a "pinball machine" -- one that manipulates instead of being manipulated? What is the nature or significance of such "formal" superiority if we're drawing comparisons between movies and pinball machines? Is a wristwatch formally superior to a Mondrian? Which one? Why? The answer, obviously, is Salvador Dali's 1937 movie script for the Marx Brothers, "Giraffes on Horseback Salad.")

Hoberman offers the opinion that "NCFOM" might well be his choice for the year's "Most Overrated" picture if there were such a category as that. And in his next paragraph he announces he's pleased that the strenuously over-praised and over-maligned "Southland Tales" tied with the comparably ambitious and significant "The Bucket List" for the year's Worst Film -- though each really only received five votes -- just ahead of "300" and "Hostel: Part II" with four each, and "Juno," "Margot at the Wedding," "Redacted" and "Trade" with three): You know something's happening when "Southland Tales" also headed three critics' lists as the year's Best Film [Melissa Anderson, Bill Krohn, Nathan Lee]. Time constraints have made it impossible to calculate the 2007 poll's Passiondex— my formula to measure the degree of ardor with which critics voted for particular movies—but my heart tells me that "Southland Tales" is the obvious winner. Here is a movie that some people love and others love to hate. That's double passion! And that's good.Yes, doubleplusgood passion. Something must be happening. Hoberman predicts that Pedro Costa's "Colossal Youth" (#10) might have been the year's choice for Worst Film "had more critics seen it" ... although, in fact, nobody did vote for it in that category, including critics who had seen it. This makes me wonder if, perhaps, there might have been any other films this year that some critics loved and others just hated... Nah.

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IndieWIRE crix poll: American blood, blood, blood

View image Paul Dano anoints Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood."

IndieWIRE has announced the results of its annual critics' poll, and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" dominates (picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, lead performance), followed by David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Joel & Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men.

For most American viewers, this is going to be a Netflix list: Two of the top ten movies never barely opened theatrically outside of New York ("Syndromes and a Century," "Colossal Youth"); two never played in more than 20 theaters at once ("Offside," "Killer of Sheep" -- the restoration of Charles Burnett's 1977 film); two haven't opened yet, and won't in most places until 2008 ("There Will Be Blood," "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days"); and, in these days when wide releases typically launch on 2,000 - 4,000 theaters, two never made it to more than 400 at any given time ("I'm Not There" [149], "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" [301]). Only two others ever spread beyond 1,000 screens: "No Country for Old Men" and "Zodiac." Three of the ten best selections -- "Killer of Sheep," "Offside" and "Zodiac" -- are currently available on DVD.

Poll administrator Dennis Lim noted that, compared to 2006 when "the relative dearth of truly exciting films" was lamented by many critics, this year's 106 participants were more enthusiastic about their choices. One eyebrow-raising development was cited in the indieWIRE introduction, though: If there is a strking hole to be found in this year's [poll results]... it is the utter lack of American indie films. While last year's survey celebrated outside-the-system films such as David Lynch's "Inland Empire," Kelly Reichart's "Old Joy," Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" and Andrew Bujalski's "Mutual Appreciation," the acclaimed new films from American filmmakers this year came from directly within the Hollywood and Indiewood system, starring name actors.Other poll-toppers: Best First Film (Sarah Polley, "Away from Her"), Best Documentary ("No End in Sight," Charles Ferguson), Supporting Performance (Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"), The complete results in all the categories can be scrutinized here. And the individual critics' ballots (including mine) are here.

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Toronto #6: A miracle or two

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TORONTO, Ont. -- Sometimes in a smaller theater, away from the searchlights and the 24-hour fans making privacy impossible for poor Brad and Angelina, you find an independent film that is miraculous. Such a film is “Chop Shop,” by Ramin Bahrani, the Iran-born American director whose “Man Push Cart” made such a stir three years ago. That film was about an immigrant from Pakistan trying to make a living in New York with a rented coffee-and-bagel cart. It was shot on a shoestring in less than three weeks, and won the critics’ prize at London and three Independent Spirit Awards, including best first feature. It embodied, I said in my review, the very soul of Italian neorealism.

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Cannes 1980: Preview of Coming Attractions

Cannes, France – The television crew has appropriated the garden of the Majestic Hotel and is setting up a shot that will symbolize the atmosphere here on the day before the official opening of the 33rd annual Cannes International Film Festival. The shot shows film critic Rex Reed sitting alone at a table in the deserted garden in the rain, sipping from a glass of champagne. Behind him, the great swimming pool is empty. The deck chairs are stacked like firewood. The sky is gray and the waves are pounding sullenly against the beach.

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