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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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#267 December 9, 2015

Sheila writes: Mike D'Angelo over at the A.V. Club has written a very interesting article called "What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies". He speaks of the challenge, as a film critic, to see as much as he can in any given year, not just the hits but the secondary films, the ones that don't generate any "buzz." In doing so, he started thinking about "the first 10 minutes" of films and how crucial they are. D'Angelo writes, "Basically, I give the movie 10 minutes to grab my attention. Most of them fail, and get turned off at that point. If I’m still interested, though, I’ll watch for another 10 minutes. There are two more potential bail-out points at 0:30 and 0:40; if I still want to keep going after 40 minutes, I commit to watching the entire film, even if it turns awful later." His essay has a lot of observations about screenwriting, first of all, but also the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling.

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Cut to Black: "The Sopranos" and the Future of TV Drama, Part 4

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Part 4 of "Cut to Black," a videotaped roundtable discussion about the end of The Sopranos and the future of television drama. Participants include RogerEbert.com editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan, A.V. Club TV critic Ryan McGee, and previously.tv contributor Sarah D. Bunting. Shot and edited by Dave Bunting, Jr.

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Tim and Eric Mediocre Movie, Great Job!

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"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is available for streaming/download on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu and YouTube. In theaters March 2.

"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is a lot like "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!." They're both experimental video art posing as sketch comedy. In them you can see DNA from Ernie Kovacs, John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Robert Downey, Sr., Tom Rubnitz, early Beck music videos, Damon Packard, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and every other Adult Swim psychotic episode) and Harmony Korine, to name just a random few. But it's likely that actor-writer-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took inspiration from none of these freaks.

The duo's work seems to flow directly from three sources: Bad corporate promotional and instructional videos, absurd local TV programming and assaultive blockbuster films. Their collages of chopped-and-screwed sounds with spastic motion graphics and sloppy green screen don't seem much different (in effect, if not production values) from what's on cable any given Sunday. It's just that they put unattractive, demented-seeming people in front of the green screen instead of the usual telegenic emoters. They spout nonsense where platitudes and corporate messages usually go. When celebrities appear on the show, they flub and stutter like robot hologram versions of themselves. It's as if the show's editor was a spam bot.

Whether any of it is funny is almost beside the point. The creeping surrealism often takes away your ability to blink, especially, I suspect, when, like me, you have no history with the show.

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Racial Purity, Part II

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl

"A Mighty Heart," Michael Winterbottom's film based on Mariane van Neyenhoff Pearl's book about her husband Daniel, a journalist who was kidnapped and executed in Karachi, Pakistan, opens this weekend. I've had my say about the casting of (Czech / Haudenosaunee / American) Angelina Jolie as (Dutch / Cuban / French) Mariane Pearl. And so has Mariane Pearl, who told Newsweek: "This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her. Aren't we past this?"

Marianne Pearl as Marianne Pearl.

Well, some people are. And some aren't. Like, I guess, the people who hired Halle Berry to play white Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill in the upcoming "Class Act." (Berry's at least as much white as she is black. But will she wear "whiteface" in the movie? Do you care?) Or, perhaps, the ones who hired John Travolta to play a woman in "Hairspray." Or even those who think it was just wrong for Marriane Pearl to have married a white Jew in the first place. (Miscegenation!) Let's take that logic to its inevitable extreme. Some people are sticklers for racial, cultural and gender purity. If only race, culture and gender were really that monolithic and clear-cut...

And we're talking about actors here. I'm not advocating blackface or whiteface minstrelsy (that implies bad acting, doesn't it?), but these people are supposed to be able to play characters other than themselves. That's what they do.

Maybe Jolie is terrible and totally miscast in the part. I don't know, I haven't seen the movie yet. But a commenter at the site concreteloop.com succinctly summarizes my own feelings about the matter at this stage: At first it does seem a bit odd, because I am sure there are women of African American or Afro-Cuban descent who could play that role but I would not say this is modern day black-face. If it were some blond-hair, blue-eyed non-talented actress, I would really have a problem. However, I do think Angelina is a great actress and as a matter of fact Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina to portray her in the film. So shouldn’t her wishes be respected?Producer Brad Pitt, who hired his honey for the part, said he was nervous about doing it, but he felt it was the right decision for the movie: "I knew the part had to be played by someone with Mariane's strength and understanding of the world, but I didn't know how to broach the subject. It feels a little like Wolfowitz trying to get his girlfriend a job. [...]

"I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles (for people of color), but I think they've picked the wrong example here."

Halle Berry plays Tierney Cahill (pictured -- either the one on the left or the one on the right) in an upcoming movie. You see the resemblance. Gotta problem with that?

I guess it also depends not only on whether you think Mariane Pearl has a (moral? contractual?) right to approve who plays her in a movie made from her own book, but whether you consider Angelina Jolie an actress or just "Brad's girlfriend" you know, half of "Brangelina." (Or even whether women are capable of making such important judgments, since those who cry "racism" here insist that Jolie and Pearl do not have the personal or professional credibility or authority to make such decisions for themselves.)

And whether you consider the fact that both share Northern European / Caucasian heritage. Much of the criticism I've seen has focused on the tabloid "Brangelina" phenomenon (as if that were real anywhere beyond the supermarket checkstands), or has tried to tie this casting into the history of racist portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood movies. (In that regard, I recommend Donald Bogle's book, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks.") But is that really an appropriate conclusion to draw in this particular instance?

I agree that actors of color should be offered more and better roles including those that weren't originally written to be one race or another. (Sigourney Weaver played a man's role in "The TV Set" without changing a word. Other parts have been re-written for the actor selected for the part.) But is the problem really one of casting people with the same racial make-up as their characters? Or is it more significant that writers and directors and casting directors are not making films with enough characters of color?

On the practical side... well, a star is a star. Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry are Oscar winners, marquee names, not struggling unknowns. (Not that struggling unknowns or semi-knowns don't deserve a chance, but they're unlikely to get one in such a high-profile project.) Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina Jolie to play her, sought her out, and sold the rights to Brad Pitt's production company. Based on this "package," the film was able to get a greenlight from Paramount Vantage, with the expectation that they would make a profit. The question becomes: Is the only form of "good casting" to make sure the racial balance of the character matches that of the actor?

Is Beyonce really too light or too dark — to have played a character based on Diana Ross in "Dreamgirls"? Is Denzel Washington really too dark to have played light-skinned, reddish-haired Malcolm X? Was it racist to have cast Chinese actress Gong Li as a Japanese woman in "Memoirs of a Geisha"? Were Al Pacino — or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio or Robert Loggia — terrible in "Scarface" (1983) because they are not Cuban? Was it wrong for Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican-American) to play a Mexican cop in "Traffic"? If these actors were good or bad in those movies, was it because of their racial background, or because of the roles and their performances in them?

I wonder what happened to a sense of proportion here. This isn't exactly Mickey Rooney playing a grotesque caricature of a Chinese guy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Doesn't the performance itself count for anything — or is it all about appearances? (OK, if Jennifer Aniston had been cast as Pearl, I'd be a lot more skeptical. Even though she's only two years younger than Pearl, while Jolie is seven years younger. But if Jolie is playing Pearl in 2001-2002, then she's just about the perfect age, no?)

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The comical jocularity of humorousness

The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted itself to comedy this weekend -- and you know how funny the New York Times Magazine can be. Actually, there's a very good article by A.O. Scott on the art of the pratfall in which he explains why some of the greatest modern comedy (from "Little Miss Sunshine" to "Borat") is of the well-executed physical variety. (Not to be confused with what Chris Farley used to call, with an undertone of dismay, "Fat Guy Falls Down" -- a desperate stunt that may elicit knee-jerk laughs, even if it's not inherently funny.)

As part of its comedic survey, the Times Mag asked some 22 comedians, well-known and not-, to name five of their favorite "Desert Island Comedies" on DVD. I don't like any of the lists much (while agreeing wholeheartedly with a few individual choices) -- but I salute David Cross (somebody I've long thought is really funny) for the humor inherent in choosing "Homer and Eddie" and "Rent."

To paraphrase an old David Steinberg routine: There are those who say... (that's the end of my paraphrase) that to analyze comedy is anti-comedic. I could not disagree more strongly. I say if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you. You could be crying or sneezing and it's probably the same thing. But let's put that aside for the moment and concentrate on some lists of very personal, very funny movies.

I suppose I could choose the great movies that have made me laugh the most -- the first that come to mind, such as: a Keaton ("Sherlock, Jr." or "Steamboat Bill, Jr."), a Fields ("It's A Gift" or "The Bank Dick"), a Marx Bros. ("Animal Crackers" or "Duck Soup"), a Sturges ("The Lady Eve" or "Miracle of Morgan's Creek"), and, let's say, a classic comedy (preferably starring Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur, and written and/or directed by Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder or Mitchell Leisen, like "Trouble in Paradise" or "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) or "Bringing Up Baby" or "His Girl Friday" or "The Major and the Minor" or "Some Like It Hot" or "Easy Living" or "Ball of Fire"...). But those are all 50-75 years old, and I haven't even mentioned my modern-era favorites, like Luis Bunuel ("The Exterrminating Angel," "Simon of the Desert," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty"), Monty Python ("Life of Brian" -- greatest comedy of the last half-century), Christopher Guest & ensemble ("Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show") or the Coen Bros. ("Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski"). So, I thought I'd just offer up a few relatively obscure, underappreciated or, at least, off-the-beaten-path comedies that I think are hysterically funny and invite you contribute some of your own:

"I Was Born, But..." (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932) I know it's an acknowledged masterpiece by one of the greatest directors in movie history, but how many of you have actually seen it? Two boys, big belly laughs. Some of this material was re-worked in "Ohayo" ("Good Morning") in 1959.

"The President's Analyst" (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967) I love this movie -- the perfect paranoid Cold War 1960s espionage satire companion to "Dr. Strangelove" and James Bond, with James Coburn in the title role. Who is writer/directorTheodore J. Ficker, anyway? Well, according to IMDb, he directed episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E., "The Andy Griffith Show," "I Dream of Jeannie," "Night Gallery" and "Barney Miller."

"Taking Off" (Milos Forman, 1971) You couldn't find a better time capsule for 1971 -- which Forman has captured with his characteristically uncanny ease and naturalness. Buck Henry "stars" as a father whose daughter has run away to some sort of "hippie" musical audition -- probably in the Village. The whole thing feels spontaneous and improvised -- but it was written by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrierer ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty," "Birth"), John Guare ("Atlantic City," "Six Degrees of Separation") and Jon Klein. One of the late, great Vincent Schiavelli's finest moments: teaching a group of uptight, wealthy parents with missing kids how to smoke pot. Early cameos by Kathy Bates, Carly Simon and Jessica Harper, among others. (Long unavailable, this recently showed up on the Sundance Channel, which I hope means it will soon be released on DVD.)

"How to Get Ahead in Advertising"(Bruce Robinson, 1989) Robinson's equally brilliant and demented "Withnail & I" is the official masterpiece (and object of obsessive cult veneration in the UK), but this is Richard E. Grant's finest hour. He's a London advertising executive so sick with self-loathing that he grows a foul-mouthed boil on his neck. How's that for a premise?

Coldblooded" (Wallace Wolodarsky, 1995) In some ways, this is a precursor to "Dexter." Jason Priestly is magnificently deadpan as an empty young man who is recruited to become a hit man -- and turns out to be mighty good at it. Co-starring Peter Riegert, Robert Loggia (getting ready for "Lost Highway"), and Jay Kogen -- who, along with writer/director Wolodarsky, wrote some of the classic early episodes of "The Simpsons."

"Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy" (Kelly Makin, 1996) Critics were mostly bewildered or repulsed, but this movie gets funnier every time I see it (and I've seen it at least a dozen times). It plays GREAT on the video screen -- better, I think, than any of the TV shows. A drug company speeds a new anti-depressant to the market, only to find that the insanely popular Gleemonex has a troublesome side effect: It puts people into comas of happiness. Each of the "Kids" has at least a handful of indescribably (but not inexplicably) funny moments. Including: "Cat on my head! Cat on my head!"; "I'm an elephant rider!"; "Tasty"; "How pleasing!"; and "Just... a guy." Should be seen alongside the great documentary, "The Corporation."

I cheated. That's six. But, OK, I've left out hundreds of great titles. Your turn. And the more obscure/underappreciated the better, please.

P.S. Anybody else remember the rest of the sentence from that David Steinberg bit?

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