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As Above, So Below

It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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The Last of Robin Hood

A title as good as "The Last of Robin Hood" deserves a better movie. In fact, it deserves a good movie.

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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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Mariachi High: Viva Zapata, Texas!

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"Mariachi High" premieres on PBS on Friday, June 29 at 9 p. m.ET (check your local listings). A DVD can be pre-ordered at www.pbs.org for August 14 release. It will also be available digitally in August via iTunes and Amazon.

by Donald Liebenson

Having had the good fortune to attend a high school with a vital arts program, I am a sucker for documentaries about the transformative power of arts and humanities education. "Mariachi High" hits all the right notes: An underdog school district, a dedicated teacher, fiercely talented and determined students, and character-defining setbacks that raise the stakes for those "exhilarating, off the charts" moments of truth.

"Mariachi High" chronicles a school year in the life of Zapata High School's championship varsity-level ensemble, Mariachi Halcon. Zapata, a small Texas border town (pop: 5,089 in 2010 when co-directors Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell began filming), is somehow "a big talent gene pool for Mariachi," observes the ensemble's director Adrian Padilla.

To say the school of 900 does not enjoy the advantages of big city schools is an understatement. One Zapata student recalls comparing eighth grade school trips with a friend. Her friend's school traveled to Washington, D.C. The Zapata kids visited an aquarium.

But Mariachi is where they make their mark.

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Something's Gonna Live: Classic movies by design

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"Something's Gonna Live" (78 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant, and DVD.

Architecture's loss was the movies' immeasurable gain. Robert Boyle, Albert Nozaki and Henry Bumstead, classmates at the University of Southern California in the 1930s could not find jobs in their studied profession. They wound up at Paramount Studios, where, as production designers and art directors, they set the stage for some of the movies' most indelible images.

Boyle designed Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur," "Shadow of a Doubt," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," and "Marnie." And those are the just the Hitchcock credits. Bumstead earned Academy Awards for his contributions to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Sting." He received nominations for his work on "Vertigo" and "Unforgiven." Tokyo-born Nozaki was the art director on "The War of the Worlds" and "The Ten Commandments," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

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Walk Away Renee: You're not to blame

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"Walk Away Renee" is available on SundanceNow's new Subscriber Video-on-Demand Program Doc Club from June 27, 2012.

When you were young didn't you think your parents were crazy? Did you swear you wouldn't turn out like them? For filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, those two worries have defined his life because his mother suffers from bipolar personality and schizoaffective disorders, something that he focused on in his award-winning 2003 documentary "Tarnation." In his new film, "Walk Away Renee," Caouette brings us up to 2010 with the focus on Caouette driving his mother, Renee LeBlanc, in a U-Haul from Houston to New York.

For a dysfunctional family, road trips can be filled with emotional landmines. For Caouette, this bonding experience starts out well, but early on, they lose Renee's 30-day supply of lithium. Without her mood stabilizing meds, you know that things can only get worse. For people who have bipolar relatives, this story might seem heartbreakingly familiar.

Caouette's "Tarnation" begins with overexposed grainy images. The highlights are blown out to white; this isn't a technical problem, but an expression of panic. His mother has overdosed and the documentary then shows the events building up to this emergency. Caouette began filming his family in 1984 and in "Tarnation" we see him as a young troubled boy, starved for attention and trying to make sense of his world, his sexual orientation and the mother he loves while being raised by his overwhelmed though well-meaning grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis.

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The Magic of Belle Isle: Press the Easy Button

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"The Magic of Belle Isle" (109 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon, Comcast, DirecTV, VUDU and other outlets. A limited theatrical release begins July 1.

Rob Reiner's "The Magic of Belle Isle" is an Easy Button of a film, as generic and conventional as its title. If you ever wondered what a Hallmark Channel original movie would be like if you threw some A-list talent at it -- namely Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen instead of, say, Jeffrey Nordling and Kristy Swanson -- here's your answer.

Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, an alcoholic in a wheelchair and "writer (of westerns) nobody reads." His books, once popular, are now out of print. Monte's nephew (Keenan Thompson) deposits him in the idyllic lakeside town of Belle Isle to housesit. Nephew's ulterior motive, of course, is that he will be inspired to stop drinking and start writing again, but the embittered Monte is a hard case. "Toss it in the garbage," he says of his typewriter. "She's a black-hearted whore, and I'm done with her."

So what will it take to turn this curmudgeon into a softie? Guy Thomas' simplistic script leaves nothing to chance. How about saddling Monte with a lazy old dog named Ringo (yes, Ringo) that has a penchant for licking itself? No? Well then, how about introducing a single mother (Madsen) who is going through a divorce with three -- count 'em -- daughters: one adorable, one precocious, and one sullen? Still not enough? Well then how about adding to the mix a mentally challenged boy who hops around the neighborhood and whom Monte takes under his wing as his "sidekick?"

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Extraterrestrial: Sex, lies and science-fiction

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"Extraterrestrial" (90 minutes) premieres simultaneously on June 15th on DVD and all major on-demand platforms. It also opens June 15th in limited theatrical release.

If you've seen the 2007 thriller "Timecrimes," you already know that Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has a noteworthy knack for developing big ideas (in this case, time travel) on an intimate scale. "Timecrimes" marked a promising debut, with Vigalondo in full command of limited resources: With only three central characters and a tightly restricted location, he executed a cleverly conceived plot with stylish economy and Hitchcockian flair.

With his second film, "Extraterrestrial, " Vigalondo presents another, more intricate exercise in thwarting expectations. Imagine the bloated-budget excess of a blockbuster like "Independence Day," with dozens, maybe even hundreds of gigantic alien spaceships hovering ominously over Earth's major cities. Now take the same alien invasion scenario, eliminate 99% of the special effects and spectacle, and shift its focus to four lovelorn apartment dwellers in an abandoned city (in this case Madrid) as they proceed to confuse each other with a comedic succession of lies.

Now you've got "Extraterrestrial," in which the only E. T. is... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you, but here's a clue: Think of Vigalondo as the anti-Roland Emmerich. He has no apparent interest in epic battles requiring Will Smith to save the world against slimy, monstrous aliens. Instead, Vigalondo attempts an audacious bait-and-switch, keeping his "epic" sci-fi entirely in the background while focusing on what is, essentially, a farcical rom-com about three guys in love with the same woman. It's a daring attempt at genre-bending that doesn't always pay off, but it's a refreshing alternative to uninspired, play-it-safe blockbusters.

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Indie Game: Super Meat Boy vs. Fez

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"Indie Game: The Movie" (103 minutes) is available on iTunes on Demand, VHX Direct Download, Steam and directly from the filmmakers.

A debate that occasionally rages over at Roger Ebert's Journal deals with whether video games can be considered art. Mr. Ebert does not believe so, and his belief has inspired numerous gamers to respond with fury. Some suggest titles that allegedly illustrate the artistic side of online games. Others suggest that a certain film critic is a crabby old man who need not concern himself with a more youthful pastime. Truthfully, I don't give a crap about the "video games as art" argument; it's an arts major argument and we science majors aren't in the business of artful designation.

But the debate popped briefly into my head while watching "Indie Game: The Movie." This smart, incisive documentary by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky follows four men who create online games they feel are extensions of themselves. One speaks of taking all his vulnerabilities and flaws and putting them into his games. Writers do that with novels, painters do it with an easel, and a lot of times, the result is considered art. "Indie Game" shows the creative process in making a game, including graphical design and the crafting of game plot and character. It's like painting a picture and writing a short story, both valid art forms. This is certain to fuel the fires under this debate.

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More sex please, we're French

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"Sexual Chronicles of a French Family" (76 minutes) is available via IFC On Demand.

Let's play a game. It's 3 AM and you can't sleep. A channel roulette session with the remote control stops your TV on a certain network synonymous with softcore erotica. Do you: a) Roll your eyes and keep flipping the dial before falling asleep to some warped infomercial?

b) Realize you need something more substantial and order "Chicks Who Dig Odienator 29" off the Adult On Demand Channel?

c) Drop the remote and make a date with Rosy Palm and her Five Sisters? If you answered a, Alex Trebek is here to say "OOH I'M SORRY!!" We've got some nice consolation prizes for you as you leave this blog. If you answered b, I thank for your $9.95, but you will also have to leave this blog. Today's entry is most definitely not your speed. But if you answered c, have I got a movie for you. It's called "Chroniques sexuelles d'une famille d'aujourd'hui" or "Sexual Chronicles of a French Family," and you can watch it in the privacy of your own home. I won't tell, and I certainly won't cast aspersions. After all, I pitched this movie to review here at The Demanders. After discovering the title, and its French origins, my exact pitch to our editor was "Mmmm! FILTH!" So this sinner casts no stones.

Unfortunately, this sinner has issues with this "Chronicles of Labia," the least of which is how to review a movie like this. I could take the high road, but if you've read this far, you are expecting me to traverse the lowest road possible. To review a comedy, one must admit if it inspired laughter. To review an erotic picture, one must more uncomfortably cop to whether it resulted in the upping of a body part that isn't a thumb. In that regard, I respectfully submit that this film didn't do it for me. I expected something a little less squeamish (read: dirtier) than what I got.

"Sexual Chronicles of A French Family" is Cinemax with subtitles, or "Le Çinemax." It has the same frustrating "hide the good stuff" camera angles as your average straight-to-cable softcore knock-off, and the same repeated positions. In its defense, the film does not contain Cinemax's ubiquitous bad boob jobs, the ones so dreadful that they turn breasts into triangles, squares and other shapes nature never intended for headlights. The boob job in this film looks fine. "Chronicles" also has a more intriguing plot than any sex film on cable at 3 AM, though this is somewhat squandered.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn: Corny and canny

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"Hemingway & Gellhorn (160 minutes) debuts on HBO May 28th, and will be available on HBO Go and HBO On Demand May 29th.

"If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it." -- Ernest Hemingway

by Odie Henderson Philip Kaufman's epic HBO movie "Hemingway & Gellhorn" is old-fashioned, corny as hell and not above using cliché. None of these characteristics is necessarily a bad thing, especially if the filmmakers know they are employing them. This film evokes the rainy Sunday afternoon old-movie fare I grew up watching on TV, movies with a tough, macho hero, a smart, brassy dame and the undeniable chemistry between them. Kaufman updates the formula to modern times with belts of profanity and jolts of sex, but "Hemingway and Gellhorn" maintains the feeling of an era long since passed, wherein its leads could have been played by Gable and Harlow or Bogie and Betty Bacall.

The titular characters are Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn is widely considered one of the greatest war correspondents in journalism history, covering wars well into her 80's. Yet, she was constantly overshadowed by her more famous ex-husband. Theirs was a torrid affair, started while Hemingway was married to his Catholic second wife and continuing through their coverage of several wars. "We were good at wars," Gellhorn said, "and when there was no war, we made our own." The screenplay, by Barbara Turner ("Georgia") and Jerry Stahl ("Permanent Midnight") is filled with prose like this, and I enjoyed devouring every purple morsel of it. "Hemingway and Gellhorn" even opens with the now-elderly Gellhorn telling us what a lousy lay she was.

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Norman Mailer: His life in public

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"Norman Mailer: The American" is available on Amazon Instant video. It is also available on DVD. Criterion has announced a two-disc Eclipse Series DVD set of Norman Mailer-directed features for release August 28, 2012: "Maidstone" (1970), "Wild 90" (1967) and "Beyond the Law" (1968).

Watching "Norman Mailer: The American," I was struck by the similarities between Mailer and Charles Foster Kane. And it's not just that director Joseph Mantegna (not the actor) at one point employs the title card for "Citizen Kane's" faux newsreel "News on the March" to setup some archival footage. Or the fact that "American" was originally the proposed title for Orson Welles' masterpiece.

Both films grapple with taking the full measure of a man who had significant influences on his times (Kane is fictional, but he was legendarily based in part on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst). As Mailer's life unfolds in all its glory, controversy and infamy, dialogue from "Kane" ran like a crawl through my brain. "Few private lives were more public... and he himself was always news." And: "Here's a man who was as loved and hated and talked about as any man in our time." But finally: "It's not enough to tell us what the man did, you've got to tell us who he was."

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Johnny Carson: The man behind the curtain

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"Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night" (120 minutes) premieres on PBS' "American Masters" at 9:00pm Monday, May 14th (check local listings). The film will also be released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17th.

As I reflect on my life, I grow increasingly grateful for having witnessed the greatest half-century in the history of the United States. Consider just a few of the crucial events that have shaped us during the past 50 years: The civil rights movements for African-Americans, women and the disabled; the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK; the war in Vietnam and its domestic fallout; landing on the moon and exploring the outer reaches of the universe; the global trauma of AIDS and seemingly perpetual threats of war and terrorism; and, perhaps most important, the emergence and meteoric rise of the digital age, exemplified by the Internet and social media with the power to literally change history through an exponential expansion of human connectedness.

If you've witnessed these decades through the multicolored lenses of popular culture, the rewards have been astonishing. Consider the careers we've seen in that time: Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Springsteen, Madonna, The Clash, U2, Nirvana... Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey... Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog... We could all make our own long lists and we'd all arrive at the same conclusion: The past half-century has been nothing short of phenomenal.

And one way or another, it all comes down to "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

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