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Guardians of the Galaxy

In many respects, “Guardians,” directed and co-written by indie wit James Gunn, and starring buffed-up former schlub Chris Pratt and Really Big Sci-Fi Blockbuster vet…

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War Story

Director Mark Jackson’s drama is a chilly study in grief starring Catherine Keener as a war-zone photographer shattered by her experiences in Libya.

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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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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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Get the Gringo: Mad Mel demolishes Mexico

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"Get the Gringo" is available on DirecTV. A wider VOD release, along with DVD and Blu-ray releases, will follow later this year.

"Inmates with guns, that's kinda new," Mel Gibson's Yanqui with No Name (or fingerprints) growls in "Get the Gringo." "I've got a lot to learn about this place." And there is a lot to learn about El Pueblito, a Mexican prison that makes Shawshank look like Otis Campbell's quaint little cell on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Never mind how he got there, it's how he's going to get out that gives "Get the Gringo," formerly titled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," its Peckinpah-flavored juice. It's potent stuff: gritty and grungy, but not without hard-boiled humor. With a nod to the late Dick Clark: It's got good beatings and you can dance to it, depending on your taste for mariachi music. I rate it a 7.

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Booker's Place: A Mississippi reckoning

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"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story (92 minutes) is available on-demand at iTunes and Amazon starting April 26th. It will be theatrically released in Los Angeles, CA on April 25, 2012. and New York on April 27, 2012.

"Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story" asks a question about documentaries to which I admit I've not given much consideration: Can a documentary negatively affect the lives of their participants? For Booker Wright, an interviewee in Frank DeFelitta's 1966 NBC documentary, "Mississippi: A Self-Portrait," his appearance cost him a severe beating, the bombing of his business, and potentially his death 7 years later. Wright's "crime" was to speak too bluntly about life as a Black man in Greenwood, Mississippi. "Booker's Place" investigates the ramifications of DeFelitta using footage he knew was incendiary, yet invaluable to his role as one who documents the truth. Did DeFelitta also commit a "crime" in allowing the footage to be broadcast, assisting in the eventual fate of Booker Wright? Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson and Frank's son, Raymond DeFelitta, answer this and more in their must-see documentary.

The elder DeFelitta's documentary aired on NBC at the height of the civil rights movement. Hidden for decades in a vault, "Mississippi: A Self-Portrait" resurfaced as Frank DeFelitta and his son were cataloguing the numerous documentaries Frank made for NBC in the '60's. At the same time, Booker Wright's granddaughter, who had never met her grandfather, was writing a blog about her discoveries researching him. Although Johnson had heard of his NBC appearance, her searches for the footage yielded nothing but dead-ends. After the younger DeFelitta heard of Johnson's blog, he contacted her. Their meeting sent them on a journey for answers to their central questions. DeFelitta wanted to know how much, if any, effect his father's documentary had on Booker Wright; Johnson wanted to know more about her grandfather, and whether his comments were intentional or, in her words, the work of "an accidental activist."

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Sleepless Night: Opening up a sixpack of Whup-Ass

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"Sleepless Night" (103 minutes) is available on demand through various cable systems, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Instant, starting April 17th. It will be theatrically released in New York and Austin, Texas on May 11, 2012.

by Odie Henderson

A stolen bag of cocaine, a kidnapped kid, corrupt cops, a shaky camera and a dance club the size of a Super Walmart configure Frederic Jardin's "Sleepless Night," a frenetic French action film that will either get your heart or your head pounding. This is a relentless genre exercise, both exhilarating and exhausting. Its numerous showdown set pieces feature foes in gun battles, foot chases and fisticuffs. Our protagonist uses whatever's handy to subdue his opponents: People's noggins get hit with doors, bread, dishes, bullets and the cleanest part of the commode. Gendarmes go from corrupt to virtuous and vice versa, film speeds vary from slow motion to sped up, and narrow escapes coexist with near-misses. With this much activity, sensory overload is all but guaranteed.

Vincent (French comedian Tomer Sisley) is a corrupt cop who begins his day by robbing 10 kilos of cocaine from the henchmen of José Marciano (Serge Riaboukine). Marciano's godson is shot, but not before Vincent is stabbed and both he and his partner are seen by one of Marciano's men. Marciano knows who robbed him, and he also knows Vincent's son, Thomas, would make a great bargaining chip for the return of his yayo. The gangster kidnaps Vincent's son and demands the exchange be made at Marciano's restaurant-slash-dance club, Le Tarmac.

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Edwin Drood: Cold Case Reopened

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"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (120 minutes) premieres on PBS "Masterpiece Classic" at 9 p.m. Sunday, April 15th (check local listings). The film can also be watched online for a limited time beginning April 16th. It is also available on DVD.

When Charles Dickens died on June 9th, 1870, his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was barely half-finished. Almost immediately, completing the novel became a kind of literary sport, as numerous authors took it upon themselves to finish Drood in a manner fitting with Dickens's own style and substance. Speculative attempts to complete the story continue to this day, and now we have a new PBS "Masterpiece Classic" version to discuss, debate and appreciate. Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and adapted by British playwright and veteran TV writer Gwyneth Hughes (who previously penned the "Masterpiece Classic" drama Mrs. Austen Regrets), this two-hour version of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" dares to stretch credibility almost but not quite to the breaking point.

It's a delicate game being played here, so I'll avoid spoilers altogether. Suffice it to say that Hughes' solution to the mystery of Edwin Drood is in keeping with Dickens' intentions. We know from Dickens' own correspondence that it was Edwin's uncle, John Jasper, who would ultimately be held accountable for the alleged murder of his nephew. Not content to limit themselves to just this one historically well-established plot twist, Hughes and Lawrence have added a familial dimension to the story that qualifies, in this context, as a surprising (though not altogether shocking) revelation. Whether Dickens would've approved is yet another topic worthy of debate.

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"Hey, Boo": The private life of To Kill a Mockingbird

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"Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird" (82 minutes) premieres on the PBS series "American Masters" on Monday, April 2nd, at 10 p.m. (check local listings). The film is also available on-demand via Netflix and iTunes.

by Jeff Shannon

To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11th, 1960, and Harper Lee's first and only novel has been a publishing phenomenon ever since. Although its first printing by the venerable publishing house of J.B. Lippincott was a mere 5,000 copies, it was an immediate bestseller, and has consistently sold a million copies a year for over 50 years. It was a shoo-in for the Pulitzer Prize, and is frequently cited as the second-most beloved book of all time, after the Holy Bible. Some British librarians went a step further: In a 2006 poll, they ranked Mockingbird at the top, above the Bible, in a list of books "every adult should read before they die." Despite some early objections to its use of racial epithets (specifically the "N-word"), the novel has been required, if sometimes controversial, classroom reading for decades.

With its potent themes of racial injustice, inequality, courage, compassion and lost innocence in the noxiously segregated American South, Lee's novel preceded and fueled the civil rights movement that erupted in its wake. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is the most influential novel of the 20th century, considered by many to be America's national novel. The equally beloved, Oscar-winning 1962 film version -- famously adapted by Horton Foote and directed by Robert Mulligan -- was immediately embraced as an enduring classic worthy of its source material.

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Margaret Mitchell: Her own brand of rebel

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PBS's "American Masters" presents "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel" and "Harper Lee: Hey, Boo," back-to-back documentaries about two white American women who won Pulitzer Prizes for their first and only best-selling novels, Monday, April 2 beginning at 9 p.m. (Check local listings.) Both will be available via PBS On Demand and are currently on DVD.

If you're hoping for the whirling of petticoats, a colorful Virginia reel and the coquettish fluttering of lashes on the old plantation, you might be surprised by American Master's "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel." By rebel, director Pamela Roberts doesn't just mean Johnny Reb. On the other hand, if you hope that the author of Gone With the Wind is burning in hell for conjuring up a romantic fantasy of slavery and antebellum plantation life, you might be surprised. Mitchell was a wild young woman who did some shocking dances in her day, but eventually settled down and did good in ways that benefited the citizens of her hometown Atlanta and beyond.

What could be rebellious about a woman who romanticized a plantation lifestyle in which women were raised to be pretty ornaments and good wives in her 1936 novel of the Old South, "a civilization gone with the wind..."? Today, millions of women still live out their Scarlett O'Hara fantasies at their weddings with hoop-skirted bridal gowns, and through Civil War or Southern ball re-enactments. Not so many line up to portray slaves. The documentary uses many clips from the blockbuster 1939 movie, contrasted with photographs of Mitchell in her own wild youth. Even as one might enjoy the sweeping romance of the motion picture epic and attempt to ignore the racism, I suspect most people are more politically sympathetic with Alice Randall's 2001 parody The Wind Done Gone, which re-imagined Mitchell's story from the slaves' point of view.

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Racy Redline: Cartoon crotch shots & Elvis fantasies

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"Redline" is available on demand via Vudu.com and Amazon Instant Video. It is also on DVD/Blu-ray.

There are nights when I love nothing better than dressing up in a T-shirt, my saddle shoes and a poodle skirt like a high school teen from "American Graffiti" and get ready for some East Coast swing. If I could ride in a cherry retro car, that would just make my night perfect. You'd think that the anime "Redline," with its young Elvis-like rebel protagonist who flaunts his need for speed, would suit me just fine. My husband likes women in short skirts like the racetrack babes and bimbos of "Redline," so this anime should have offered something for both of us. Yet we found this futuristic racing anime a hyperactive snore. I'm not saying that 44-year-old director Takeshi Koike is musty, but the characters are dead on arrival and the techno soundtrack during the action sequences made us want to flee their funeral.

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Corman's World: Monsters, mayhem & breast nudity!

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"Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" is available March 27 on online outlets via iTunes, Vudu, CinemaNow and Amazon. Also on DVD and Blu-ray.

For B-movie buffs, exploitation film aficionados, and midnight movie cultists, the grand finale of "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," will be every bit as exhilarating as that montage of forbidden kisses at the end of "Cinema Paradiso." Taking its cue from the liberating, rebellious high point of the Roger Corman-produced "Rock and Roll High School," in which P. J. Soles and the Ramones rock the hallways of Vince Lombardi High, it offers up dizzying bursts of quintessential Corman: cheesy monsters, fiery car explosions, Vincent Price, blaxploitation kickass, marauding piranhas and Mary Woronov with a gun.

Alex Stapleton's "Corman's World" celebrates the singular cinematic legacy of the "King of the Bs," who has improbably and regretfully fallen into obscurity. Observes director Penelope Spheeris ("The Boys Next Door," "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years," "Wayne's World"): "If you ask a 20-25-year-old film buff, they won't know who he is."

This despite a career that spans almost 60 years and more than 400 films that Corman either directed or produced. But while his own name may be unfamiliar, many of the once-fledgling actors and filmmakers whom he nurtured/exploited are not: Martin Scorsese ("Boxcar Bertha"), Ron Howard ("Grand Theft Auto"), Peter Bogdanovich ("Targets"), Jonathan Demme ("Caged Heat"), Joe Dante ("Piranha"), Robert DeNiro ("Bloody Mama"), Pam Grier ("The Big Doll House"), screenwriter John Sayles ("The Lady in Red") -- all these and many more appear in "Corman's World" in new and archival interviews.

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The Moth Diaries: Young hearts aflutter

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"The Moth Diaries" is now available via IFC On Demand, Sundance Now, iTunes and other outlets. It opens in theaters April 20th.

A secret co-star of "The Moth Diaries" is cinematographer Declan Quinn. He brings to this tale of supernatural incidents at a girl's boarding school a palette of navy, teal and black to match the school uniforms, and pale flesh tones out of Vermeer. No great innovation there, but quite striking in the service of the story. Director Mary Harron makes sure these images don't overwhelm the drama by casting young ladies with powerful presences.

Model-actress Lily Cole's broad face and wide set eyes are terrifyingly beautiful, or maybe just terrifying. Either way, her turn as Ernessa, the mysterious new girl on campus, gives the "The Moth Diaries" a more solid reason for being than its familiar, "Twilight"-tinged plot. She's a head taller than the rest of the girls, striking an improbable balance between willowy and robust. Her famously red hair is dyed a deep brown (or covered in a masterfully applied wig), providing a stark frame for that porcelain doll face. In one scene, without the aid of special effects, her fleshy yet spindly arms seem to stretch out of proportion, like some Tim Burton creation. (It's easy to imagine Burton tripping over himself to add her to his gallery of living 19th century humanoids, alongside Lisa Marie, Christina Ricci and Helena Bonham-Carter.) The mystery: Is Ernessa some kind of vampire, witch, ghost or... what?

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