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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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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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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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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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Roger Ebert's least-read reviews; Sadness baking inspired by "Transformers"; Stop the anti-spoiler paranoia; Self-control is a limited resource; How Seinfeld paved the way for Tony Soprano.

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Fresh blood: Three Great Directors of Direct-to-Video Action

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The biggest taboo in American cinema may be the direct-to-video (DTV) market. Director John Hyams was dropped by his agent after making the DTV "Universal Soldier: Regeneration." Fellow director Isaac Florentine has said "I discovered that being a straight to DVD director is…worse than saying you have malaria." To some extent, one can understand why DTV films have such a bad reputation: just watch the SyFy channel on Saturday night, or Cinemax at 2 am any night. Yet there's a certain freedom in making genre films without the budget to use extravagant CGI effects, and Hyams and Florentine have put it to good use. Over the past few years, a handful of critics, like ex-con Steven-Seagal-expert Vern and RogerEbert.com contributor Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, have championed their work. As the concept of vulgar auteurism has become a hot topic among the cinephile blogopshere recently, something's gotten lost in all the debate about whether Michael Bay and Tony Scott should be taken seriously. At heart, what seems worthwhile to me about vulgar auteurism is its championing of the best DTV genre films. Most 1950s intellectuals would have been horrified by the notion of taking Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour" or Sam Fuller's "The Steel Helmet" seriously, and today they're considered essential.  Isaac Florentine's "Undisputed III: Redemption" (2010) suffers from a surface cheesiness that manifests itself in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that the cast seems to have been assembled as much for its fighting ability as its acting talent. However, that turns out to be a strength in the end. Vin Diesel, pumped-up muscles and all, is no longer so convincing as a tough guy. Scott Adkins, who has teamed up with Florentine six times, is thoroughly believable as a man who's spent years in jail, and the rest of the actors who play prisoners look equally rough. Adkins plays Boyka, a Russian boxer forced to compete in a contest where eight prisoners fight each other for the amusement of depraved gamblers and jailers; the winner supposedly gets his freedom.The Smashing Machine," about boxer Mark Karr, seems relevant here.) I'm not sure where the film was shot, but one can practically smell the odor of industrial decay. Cinematographer Peter Hyams, the director's father and an accomplished director in his own right, livens up the film, particularly its fight scenes, with an array of blue, red, gray and gold filters. Rarely does "Regeneration" look naturalistic—it creates its own world, with a distinctive and unique feel. Like Florentine, Hyams avoids CGI, apart from blood-splatter effects."Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" brings back van Damme, Lundgren and Arlovski, and introduces Scott Adkins to the "Universal Soldier" world, yet it feels very different from "Regeneration". It begins with the murder of John's (Adkins) wife and daughter by a group of thugs led by Luc. He falls into a coma and wakes up after nine months, but he seems to be suffering from mental problems. "Day of Reckoning" shows off Hyams' cinephilia, drawing first-person camerawork from Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void," ominous walks down corridors from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" and a boat trip down a swamp from Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." It's slightly less stylized than "Regeneration"; shot in Baton Rouge, its images sometimes resemble the real world, but that only makes John's psychological collapse more disturbing. Dozens of sci-fi films have drawn from Philip K. Dick's novels over the past thirty years; "Day of Reckoning" is one of the few to get his sense that everyday life could turn into a hallucination at any moment."Day of Reckoning" relies on the notion of living and dealing with implanted memories for its emotional charge. But what is cinema if not the art of implanting false memories? The film's DVD box features two separate quotes touting its brutal nature, and it is indeed startlingly violent. (Hyams himself describes the NC-17 cut as an endurance test.) Yet there's more to the violence than meets the eye. In an interview with Sara Freeman for the website MUBI, Hyams shows that he's thought seriously about the ethics of depicting bloodshed. "Day of Reckoning" takes place in a world where life is spectacularly cheap due to the proliferation of clones. This technology allows it to bring back a character who died in "Regeneration." Its ending shows a man dying and immediately being replaced by his clone. Both in its treatment of violence and the theme of memory, "Day of Reckoning" evokes the visceral power of good fiction and its ultimate artificiality. It's not cynical: its final scenes affirm the force of emotion, even if separated from real life.Hyams, Reine and Florentine's work seems at once part of a Hollywood tradition—their fight scenes look like Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan compared to the chaotic blur of mega-budgeted blockbusters like "World War Z"—and hyper-modern. Beyond the genre tropes, they capture the physical and psychological pressures of the world we're living in. Florentine and Reine's films are less ambitious, but "Undisputed 3: Redemption" and "12 Rounds 2: Reloaded" evoke the same kind of weight as Hyams' "Universal Soldier" films. They may be working in the DTV ghetto—technically, "Day of Reckoning" played for one week in a New York theater last year—but they're describing the same world as a more prestigious filmmaker like Olivier Assayas. (Without making a big deal of it, Florentine uses casts drawn from all over the world.) I can't say that I've been impressed by the entire vulgar auteurist canon, but in the DTV arena, its critics have made some real discoveries.

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#163 Special Edition

Marie writes: I was looking for something to make Roger laugh, when the phone rang. It was a bad connection, but this much I did hear: "Roger has died." That's how I learned he was gone, and my first thought was of the cruel and unfair timing of it. He'd been on the verge of realizing a life long dream: to be the captain of his own ship.

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Free sample of Ebert Club Newsletter

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This is a free sample of the Newsletter members receive each week. It contains content gathered from recent past issues and reflects the growing diversity of what's inside the club. To join and become a member, visit Roger's Invitation From the Ebert Club.

Marie writes: Not too long ago, Monaco's Oceanographic Museum held an exhibition combining contemporary art and science, in the shape of a huge installation by renowned Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, in addition to a selection of films, interviews and a ballet of Aurelia jellyfish.The sculpture was inspired by the sea, and reflects upon maritime catastrophes caused by Man. Huang Yong Ping chose the name "Wu Zei"because it represents far more than just a giant octopus. By naming his installation "Wu Zei," Huang added ambiguity to the work. 'Wu Zei' is Chinese for cuttlefish, but the ideogram 'Wu' is also the color black - while 'Zei' conveys the idea of spoiling, corrupting or betraying. Huang Yong Ping was playing with the double meaning of marine ink and black tide, and also on corruption and renewal. By drawing attention to the dangers facing the Mediterranean, the exhibition aimed to amaze the public, while raising their awareness and encouraging them to take action to protect the sea.

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Trapped in Disney World: Poland's movie critic of the year and our Far-Flung Correspondent, who gets smacked HARD by Woody

Like Mary Poppins, Disney World is "practically perfect in every way." But what our jolly 'oliday with Mary didn't reveal were the slight imperfections alluded to by that phrase's quantifier: Practically perfect? I'll bet Ms. Poppins' small glitches were legendary when they occurred. Maybe her umbrella flights damaged the ozone layer, or her spoonfuls of sugar helped wreck Dick van Dyke's Cockney accent. I speculate about near-perfection because I've been to Walt's Orlando resort 19 times, and while most of these visits went off without a hitch, when things did go wrong, they went wrong in unforgettable, spectacular fashion.

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#153 January 30, 2013

Marie writes: Kudos to fellow art buddy Siri Arnet for sharing the following; a truly unique hotel just outside Nairobi, Kenya: welcome to Giraffe Manor.

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Films on fire: Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan

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"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)

While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.

This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.

Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.

Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:

"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"

"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"

One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:

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It's not nice to call a superhero a "unitard"

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Or: Do comic-book movie blog posts display traffic superpowers?

New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis held a discussion of comic-book movies and that subset known as "superhero movies" in advance of the Marvel re-boot, "The Amazing Spider-Man," which opens Tuesday, July 3. (The article will appear in the paper July 1, but is now online.) This, I think, goes to the heart of the matter:

SCOTT:What the defensive [superhero] fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.

I've made some of these arguments many times before, but the one that really stands out for me here is the seriousness with which mainstream critics and intellectuals now approach comic books and comic-book movies. That's unprecedented. Distinctions between popular culture and high culture aren't nearly as rigid as they used to be. Movies that would once have been treated as nothing more than commercial entertainment products are now given serious consideration as artistic achievements. Because they can be both at the same time.

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Cannes & Cannes-not: On being a movie geek

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We all live in our own little subcultures. In mine -- loosely categorized as international film-festival cinephiliacs -- big-name contemporary filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and the Dardennes brothers (yes, they've all won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) are huge, huge stars. In fact, some of us, whether we like them or not, feel they are overexposed, on the verge of becoming more than famous: ubiquitous. Like Kardashians or something. (I'll be honest: I don't know what a Kardashian is, but I keep hearing the term.) I mean, good god, the Dardennes have been all in your face throughout the 21st century, making movie after movie and picking up awards everywhere you look. And don't even get me started on Kiarostami. That guy became the international flavor-of-the-film-fest-cicruit in the 1980s, achieved his biggest commercial success in 2010, and has a new film in competition at Cannes right now.

I suppose it's true that, to most people outside our own little coterie, the Cannes Film Festival means just about nothing. Its impact on the American box office is negligible (although Kiarostami's Palme-winner "Taste of Cherry" grossed a pretty impressive $312 thousand in the US in 1998. That's about what "Marvel's The Avengers" took in while you were reading the last sentence). I guess fame -- or importance -- depends on your perspective.

A few things got me to thinking about this. One was Manohla Dargis's NY Times dispatch from Cannes. I love her observations:

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Are these America's most prominent filmmakers?

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My friend Richard T. Jameson sent an e-mail with the subject line: "Why am I depressed?" In it he quoted the first two sentences of an April L.A. Weekly story headlined "Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling":

Shortly before Christmas, director Edgar Wright received an email inviting him to a private screening of the first six minutes of Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Walking into Universal CityWalk's IMAX theater, Wright recognized many of the most prominent filmmakers in America -- Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones, Stephen Daldry.

It was that second sentence, RTJ said, that tripped him up. (Later, in a Facebook post, he recommended the article itself, but followed that second sentence with the comment: "The parade's gone by, all right."

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Intro: "A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length"

My third collection of reviews of movies I really hated. Order A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck from Barnes and Noble, Amazon or the independent bookstore of your choice:

Introduction to the book By Roger Ebert I received several messages from readers asking me why I felt it was even necessary for me to review "The Human Centipede II." (There was also one telling me it should have been titled "Human Centipede Number Two," but never mind that one.) My reply was that it was my duty. I feared it would attract large crowds to the box office, and as it turned out I was right. I did what I could to warn people away. Certain colleagues of mine discussed it as a work of art (however "flawed"). I would beg them to think really, really hard of another movie opening the same weekend that might possibly be better for the mental health of their readers.

It was not my duty to review many of the other movies in this book. I review most of the major releases during the year, but I also make it a point to review lots of indie films, documentaries, foreign films, and what we used to call "art movies" and might now call "movies for grown ups." If I had skipped a few of these titles, I don't believe my job would have been threatened. But I might have enjoyed it less.

After reviewing a truly good movie, the second most fun is viewing a truly bad one. It's the in-between movies that can begin to feel routine. Consider, for example, the truly bad "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" (2009), the movie that provided the title for this book. I saw the movie, returned home, sat down at the computer keyboard, and the opening words of my review fairly flew from my fingertips: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. Where did those words come from? They were the simple truth. Gene Siskel always argued that he was a newspaperman first and a film critic second: "I cover the movie beat." What that meant for him is that his first paragraph should be the kind of "lead" they teach you to write in journalism school. Before you get to your opinion about a new movie, you should begin with the news. We could have an interesting discussion about whether the opening of my "TROF" review was news or opinion. To me, it was completely factual. To many readers who posted comments on my blog, it was completely inaccurate. It was opinion, and my opinion was wrong.

Yes, there are people who like the Transformers movies. I sorta liked the first one myself, in 2007. The charm wore off. The third in the series, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011) was no better. Predictably, some critics were inspired by TDOM to analyze the visual style of Michael Bay. Finding success in a Michael Bay film is like finding the Virgin on a slice of toast, but less rewarding.

Sometimes in my negative reviews I have weaknesses. I'm aware of them, and yet I indulge them all the same. Show me a bad movie about zombies or vampires, for example, and I will inevitably go into speculation about the reality that underlies their conditions. A few days ago, I was re-watching Murnau's original "Nosferatu" (1922), and something struck me for the first time. As you may recall, Graf Oriok, a character inspired by Count Dracula, encloses himself in a coffin and ships himself along with a group of similar coffins on a freighter bound for Wisbourg. He carries with him the Black Plague, which will kill everyone on board.

It struck me that this was an extraordinary leap of faith on his part. Inside the coffin he is presumably in the trance-like state of all vampires. He certainly must anticipate that everyone on board will soon be dead. The ship will be at the mercy of the winds and tides. If by good chance it drifts to Wisbourg (which it does), what can the good people of Wisbourg be expected to do? Prudently throw the coffins overboard or sink the ship to protect themselves from the plague, I imagine. But if they happen to open his coffin in sunlight, Graf Oriok will be destroyed. Luckily, he releases himself from the coffin at night, sitting bolt upright in a famous scene. But think of the things that could have gone wrong.

That's how my mind works. We are now far away from the topic of "Nosferatu." I am also fascinated by Darwin's Theory of Evolution as it implies to zombies. Since Richard Dawkins teaches us that the only concern of a selfish gene is to survive until the next generation of the organism that carries it, what are the prospects of zombie genes, which can presumably be transmitted only by the dead? And now do zombies reproduce, or spread? Oh, I could go on. Why must they eat flesh? Why not a whole foods diet of fruits, vegetables and grains? Maybe a little fish?

I know this has nothing to do with film criticism. I am blown along by the winds of my own zeal. If a good vampire or zombie movie comes along, I do my best to play fair with it. With a bad one, I am merciless and irresponsible. That's why I like the bad ones best.

Perhaps my reasoning goes like this: Few people buying the newspaper are likely to require a serious analysis of, for example, James Raynor's "Angry and Moist: An Undead Chronicle" (2004). This is a zombie movie I haven't seen so it will work well as an example. Therefore, it is my task to write a review that will be enjoyable to read even if the reader has no interest in the film and no plans to ever see it.

I suppose that explains a good many of the reviews in this book. Some of the films herein are only fairly bad. Some are not bad so much as evil and reprehensible. Others, let's face it, have no importance at all other than in inspiring movie reviews. Of all the films in this book, it is for those I am most grateful.

Click here to order a new or used copy of I Hated, Hated, HATED this Movie (2000). And here to order, new or used, a copy of Your Movie Sucks (2007).

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Berlinale 2012: The tantalizing and the taboo

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What does it take to get your film into a world class festival? That's the question asked with gleeful irreverence by "The Woman in the Septic Tank," which screened at the recently concluded 2012 Berlinale, one of the world's foremost festivals. This hilarious satire of international art filmmaking finds two aspiring auteurs sitting in a Manila café, jealously regarding a rival's Facebook photos taken at the Venice film fest. They vow to devise the ultimate movie to win festival audiences and prizes: a single mother of five suffering in the slums is forced to sell her son to a rich pedophile. But like Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1968), the project gets out of hand, and before we know it we're watching a musical version with the pedophile singing "Is this the boy / who'll bring me endless hours of joy?" It's one of many delightful detours taken by these filmmakers seeking the road to art house glory.

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Agents of chaos

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Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:

Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]

Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.

It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.

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