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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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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.

The Dark Knight Rises, an American genre falls

I love the Dark Knight Trilogy for one simple reason: it gave me the permission that I didn't know I was looking for to dislike all the rest of the Superhero movies. The high point of my dislike came in the highly ambitious "The Avengers" of this past summer. Don't get the wrong idea: as far as superhero movies go, it is one of the best, or at least it is one of the biggest. But something was wrong. It suffers from the same thing that the whole genre has suffered from. First and foremost, we are watching a bunch of costumed adults pretending that they're children in an expensive suburban Daycare. Second, the genre has otherwise exhausted itself to the point of exciting ritual. Third, the movies in the Dark Knight trilogy are solid and smart entertainment (though not without their flaws).

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Faces in the crowd: Here's looking at you, Nashville

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For some reason I have the notion that the guy with the camera, getting the low-angle shots of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) against that American flag that stretches across the Parthenon from sea to shining sea, is the cinematographer Paul Lohmann. Is that right?

I didn't know it at the time, but 35 years ago the course of my life was set into motion. It began, no doubt, the previous summer with Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," followed the next June by Robert Altman's "Nashville." If those two movies -- seen at the impressionable ages of 16 and 17 -- don't thoroughly transform your world, then I don't know what would. I'd always loved the arts, but from that moment on I knew for certain that movies were the art form of the century -- my century -- because never before could such vibrant, kinetic masterpieces have been born. They made me feel fortunate to have come into the world just at the moment in human history when, at long last, such miracles became possible.

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Reviewing Altman

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Richard Schickel wrote a book review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Except that, rather than review the book, he chose to review Robert Altman's capacity for drinking and dope-smoking:

It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.

Shocking, isn't it?

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The Seitz-geist

View image The House Next Door.

Now that Matt Zoller Seitz has announced that he's moving on, back to Dallas from Brooklyn and into full-time filmmaking, I thought I'd take a quick glance over the shoulder at some of the writing he's done at his home, The House Next Door, since he opened the place January 1, 2006. Of course, he's done a lot of other writing -- for The Dallas Observer, The Newark Star-Ledger (the Sopranos' hometown paper), the New York Press and the New York Times among other outlets -- but he became a habit with me through the House.

Matt has been a generous proprietor (sometimes perhaps too generous, but that's hardly a grievous fault). Today the House Next Door masthead lists more than 40 contributors -- novices and vets alike -- including the invaluable editor-cum-landlord Keith Uhlich.

At the same time that I'm excited for Matt (who, by the way, I've never met face-to-face), I'm not going to pretend I'm not bummed. This is how I deal with the grief part: Let's celebrate MSZ for all he's done in (and for) the blogosphere. Consider this a very short clip reel. As the lights go down on one phase of Matt's career, and the curtain opens on another, sit back and immerse yourself...

Oh, and sorry about that headline, guys. (That's as in Zoller-, not polter-.)

Open House (first House Next Door post, January 1, 2006): My grandfather, a self-educated German-American farmer from Olathe, Kansas, believed that no journey, however seemingly circuitous or self-destructive, was ever truly unnecessary, or even avoidable. Sometimes we just have to continue along a particular path for inexplicable, personal reasons, disregarding warnings of friends and family and perhaps our own internal voices, until we arrive at our destination, whatever it may be. This type of journey, my grandfather said, was the equivalent of "driving around the block backward to get to the house next door."

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Close-Ups: A free-association dream sequence

View image Marlene Dietrich, "The Scarlet Empress" (Josef von Sternberg, 1935). A pivotal moment of (re-) birth after providing her country with a male heir -- though not one fathered by her husband, royal half-wit Grand Duke Peter.

View image "Scarlet Empress": "... one of those extraordinary women who create their own laws and logic..." Beds, dreams, filters.

Memory starts one image pinging off others across time and movies. Ruminating upon the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at the House Next Door (which, obviously, I can't stop doing), I see close-ups flowing into and out of one another, dreams within dreams within nightmares, on themes of memory, loss, identity, the process of consciousness and the end of consciousness -- you know, the stuff movies are made of.

View image "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Sergio Leone, 1968): Mrs. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in Sweetwater to find her family slaughtered. After the funeral, she is alone in a big bed in a small room in a vast new land.

View image Final shot, "Once Upon a Time in America" (Sergio Leone, 1984): David "Noodles" Aaronson flops down in an opium den to smoke away his pain and drifts off into a narcotic dream...

In the Godardian spirit of making a movie as a critique/analysis of other movies, here's a free-association visual essay/commentary on close-ups (with inserts, jump cuts, switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards...) that got synapses firing in my brain as I flipped through shots in my memory -- and my DVD collection. Looking back, most of them seem to be filtered, obscured, freeze-framed or reflected faces of characters reaching an impasse or a reckoning -- largely from the endings of some of my favorite movies. I wish I could actually cut the film together, so that I could show them in motion, control how long each shot remains on the screen and fiddle with the rhythms (flash cuts, match cuts, reversals of motion), but I don't know have the technology or the know-how for that at the moment. So, imagine this as a (sometimes perverse) little movie, a "found footage" montage sequence... Kuleshovian, Rorschachian, Hitcockian, Gestaltian, however you want to look at it. I suppose it's also a look in the mirror.

Hope you can see the associations, juxtapositions, oppositions, contradictions I was going for, although I'm not sure I consciously understand all the leaps myself. They just flowed together this way. Feel free to make your own connections. (And, of course, be aware that you may find spoilers surfacing. With a broadband connection all 38 enlarge-able images should load in about 10 seconds.)

View image Final shot, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (Robert Altman, 1971): The camera moves in on Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), in an opium den while snow drifts outside.

View image Flash cut to final shot of "Petulia" (Richard Lester, 1968): Petulia (Julie Christie), in labor, feels the hand of someone (husband? lover? doctor?) on her cheek just before she blacks out under anaesthesia.

View image Flash cut to final close-up, "Le Boucher" (Claude Chabrol, 1970): Drained and devastated after a long and harrowing night-trip to the hospital, Helene (Stephane Audran) drives herself to a dead end and stares across the impassible river in the cold light of dawn.

View image Flash cut to final freeze-frame close-up, "The 400 Blows" (by Chabrol's New Wave compatriot, Francois Truffaut, 1959): Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) reaches the ocean at the edge of the continent. Where to go from here?

View image Flash cut to final moment of final shot: "Nights of Cabiria" (1957) (Federico Fellini): Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) pulls herself together, puts her game face on, looks into the camera and smiles through tears in a tender moment of quiet triumph. Another of the most famous movie-ending close-ups.

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Do the Contrarian (Part II)

The great Rufus Thomas, the World's Oldest Finest Teenager, does "The Breakdown" (follow-up to "The Contrarian").

"I enjoy the occasional flaying of a sacred cow." -- anonymous movie critic

Can your monkey do the dog Can your monkey do the dog Well, my dog can monkey just like you But can your monkey do the do the do the dog like I do? -- Rufus Thomas

The first thing you'll notice about an auto-contrarian (or reactionary) piece, whether it's an op-ed column or a movie review, is that it doesn't so much try to build a point-by-point rebuttal or counter-argument. Instead, it prefers to disparage something or someone by association, by making ad hominem attacks on (real or imagined) supporters of whatever it scorns.

So, for instance, when Stephen Metcalf writes a "What's All This, Then?" piece tearing down "The Searchers," he first attributes the film's reputation not to any merits it may or may not possess as a film, but simply to his generalizations about people who like it. Then he derides them as "film geeks," "nerd cultists," "critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of film studies as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline," and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and George Lucas, whom he labels "well-credentialed nerds." So, you get the idea. Rather than make observations about the movie itself, you insult those who admire the movie and use that to smear the movie. It's a schoolyard tactic: If you like "The Searchers," you're a nerd! Notice how the discussion is no longer about the movie, but about who Metcalf thinks is a nerd. (And never mind that "The Searchers" is a "termite" movie : Critically overlooked/dismissed as just another western when it was released, it's a movie that grew in stature over time, as more critics and moviegoers got to see and evaluate it.)

If Metcalf had written a piece that dissected "The Searchers" from a new angle, that demonstrated what the film does (or fails to do) and why he felt that was or was not a worthy achievement, then I might have enjoyed his flailing of a sacred cow, too -- even if it didn't persuade me to change my own view of the cow. Moo. I find this sort of thing happens rather often, where I'll read a critic's take on a movie and think: "Wow, I'd probably feel the same way if I saw that movie, but that's just not the movie I experienced."

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Pearl of the South: A tale of two reviews

John Fitzgerald Kennedy's early cameo appearance in "Nashville," at Lady Pearl's Old Time Picking Parlor.

Please consider this my initial contribution to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon -- happening all weekend at No More Marriages!

View image Inside Pearl's Parlor: Red, white and bluegrass. Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) enters from behind the flag at center.

How can two critics see (or remember) the same movie, and have such contradictory interpretations of how it works and what it means? And what better case-in-point than Robert Altman's 1975 "Nashville" -- now being remembered in the wake of Altman's death last week, and seen through the prism of Emilio Estevez's recent release about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, "Bobby"?

View image Lady Pearl: "The only time I ever went hog wild, 'round the bend, was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different."

From two reviews of "Bobby":

View image "... and the asshole got 556,577 votes."

Watching the movie, I kept thinking of "Nashville." And not just because Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece remains the most politically and psychologically astute big-ensemble/where-America's-at movie ever made (it's got a presidential campaign and ends with a beloved public figure gunned down, too). There's a minor character in it, played by Barbara Baxley, who's a Kennedy-loving Yankee married to a country music star. In one boozy monologue, she expresses all that was both hopeful and delusional about what the dead Kennedys represented for progressive citizens. I've never forgotten that speech, while the more simplistic and diffuse "Bobby" is already starting to fade from memory.

-- Bob Strauss, LA Daily News

View image Alone at Mass.

Despite its reputation as an exuberant classic, "Nashville" knows zip and cares even less about country music or the city of Nashville (where it was shot) -- which doesn't prevent it from heaping scorn on both. It even ridicules a dowager who tearfully reminisces about John and Bobby Kennedy, and it shamelessly encourages viewers to share its contempt for the rubes. The relentless cynicism that Nashville brandishes as proof of its hipness ultimately gives way to glib, high-flown rhetoric in the climactic repeated shots of an American flag filling the screen while a nihilistic pseudocountry anthem, "It Don't Worry Me," builds to a crescendo, asserting the concert audience's unembarrassed cluelessness.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

First, I want to point out the obvious: Bob Strauss is right even when he's wrong (I don't think Baxley's character is minor or a Yankee) and Jonathan Rosenbaum is wrong even when he's right (Altman admitted he wasn't interested in making a movie about the real Nashville or country music; after all, he let the actors write their own songs). Rosenbaum's preoccupation with his own perception of "hipness" (which he deems extremely uncool) appears to have obscured his view (or his memory) of what's happening on the screen in Altman's movie. As I said in a comment over at The House Next Door, using "Bobby" to bash "Nashville" makes as much sense as using "Neil Simon's California Suite" to bash "Short Cuts" -- or "The Towering Inferno" to belittle "Playtime." Yes, there are superficial similarities (as Bob points out), but in terms of ambition, complexity, vitality and sheer movieness, there's no comparison.

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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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'Vincent' nudges director Robert Altman into '90s

You always know with a Robert Altman film that you'll get some kind of nudge, a dig in the ribs to wake you up and make you think differently. In the days when he was riding high with "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville," and now in these latter days when his eccentricity isn't fashionable, that hasn't changed. When you ask him why he's working in Paris or on Broadway or cable TV, Altman always grins and says, "I fiddle on the corner where they throw the coins." It's one of his favorite expressions. But he fiddles where he damn well pleases.

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Interview with Warren Beatty (1975)

HOLLYWOOD - Warren Beatty in sunglasses and a Mercedes sports convertible provides a presence that is not a million miles removed from the image of George, the libidinous hairdresser he plays in "Shampoo." And that is perhaps part of the reason for the film's enormous success (it is now being projected as one of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time, and in the Chicago area alone has played to more than half a million people). Beatty the person has inflamed the imaginations of the readers of movie fan magazines for so long that Beatty the actor can bring a conviction to George's desperate bedroom escapades that few other actors could approach without unseemly narcissism.

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Pauline Kael: On art & trash, life & lice

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It's a notion that takes some growing used to, but Pauline Kael makes her case persuasively: "Almost every interesting American movie in the past few years has been directed by a Catholic." And then she names the three directors she feels are making the most exciting movies right now: Francis Ford Coppola, an Italian-American; Martin Scorsese, who grew up in New York's Little Italy with a Sicilian background; and, above all, Robert Altman, a German-American Catholic from Kansas City.

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Five years of criticism

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In this racket, you see maybe 250 movies a year. When I first got into it, the pace seemed incredible, and I didn't see how anyone could possibly last five years as a movie critic. I used to tell people, in fact, that five years of this ought to be enough for anybody. There were times, in fact, when five minutes of it seemed enough for anybody. The first five minutes of "Vengeance of She" were five of those

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