The Magnificent Seven
Rarely have so many charismatic actors been used in a film that feels quite as soulless as Antoine Fuqua’s update of The Magnificent Seven.
Here we are at the end of 2006, which has been a challenging year. My wife Chaz and I thank you for all of your support, prayers, and kind thoughts. Onward to a Victorious 2007!
In lieu of a Best Ten List, Jim Emerson has assembled the movies to which I have given three-and-a-half and four stars. The movies appear in alphabetical order. If some of your favorite movies don't appear here, remember that I did not get a chance to see them all.
Here's wishing you Peace and Joy throughout the Holiday Season.
-- Roger Ebert
In our winning-obsessed culture, it is inspiring to see a young woman like Akeelah Anderson instinctively understand, with empathy and generosity, that doing the right thing involves more than winning. That's what makes the film particularly valuable for young audiences. I don't care if they leave the theater wanting to spell better, but if they have learned from Akeelah, they will want to live better.
Now we have the American premiere of perhaps [Jean-Pierrre Melville's] greatest film (I have not seen them all, but I will). When "Army of Shadows" was released in 1969, it was denounced by the left-wing Parisian critics as "Gaullist," because it has a brief scene involving DeGaulle and because it involves a Resistance supporting his cause; by the late 1960s, DeGaulle was considered a reactionary relic. The movie was hardly seen at the time. This restored 35mm print, now in art theaters around the country, may be 37 years old, but it is the best foreign film of the year.
Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" approaches with awe and caution the rhythms of ordinary life itself. He tells the stories of three Ohio factory workers who have been cornered by life. They work two low-paying jobs, they dream of getting a few bucks ahead, they eat fast food without noticing it, two of them live with their parents, one of them has a car. Their speech is such a monotone of commonplaces that we have to guess about how they really feel, and sometimes, we suspect, so do they. [...]
Even though I call the film a masterpiece (and I do), my plot description has not set you afire with desire to see the film... But maybe you're curious enough to check it out on cable, or rent it on DVD, or put it in your Netflix queue. That's how movies like this can have a chance. And how you can have a chance to see them.
"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" will follow this dying man for most of the night, as he gradually slips away from the world and the world little notices. The movie is not heartless but it is matter-of-fact, and makes no attempt to heighten the drama. In its relentless gaze at exactly what happens, it reminds me of the Dardenne brothers ("The Son," "L'Enfant"), whose films see everything but do not intervene.
In 1963, Granada Television in Britain commissioned a film about a group of children born in 1956. Drawn mostly from the upper and lower ends of the British class system, they were asked about their plans and dreams. The idea was to revisit them every seven years and see how they were doing. As a plan, this was visionary, even foolhardy, but here we are at "49 Up," and the children of the 1963 film have children and grandchildren of their own. Anyone who has followed he series develops a curious fascination with their lives, because they are lives. This is not reality TV with its contrivances and absurdities, but a meditation on lifetimes. [...]
Michael Apted's 'Up' series remains one of the great imaginative leaps in film.
Am I acting as an advocate in this review? Yes, I am. I believe that to be "impartial" and "balanced" on global warming means one must take a position like Gore's. There is no other view that can be defended. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, has said, "Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." I hope he takes his job seriously enough to see this film. I think he has a responsibility to do that.
"L'Enfant," which won the Golden Palm at Cannes 2005, is the new film by the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose "The Son" (2002) made such an impact; audiences were moved in a deep, rare way. The Dardennes do not make morality tales. Their character Bruno is not aware that what he does is good or bad. He is unformed. There is a scene where he and Sonia tussle playfully in a car and then romp outside in a park like a couple of kids. Does he love her? Love is outside his emotional range. He takes money, spends it, doesn't even cultivate the persona of a hustler. He is that most terrifying kind of human being, the one who doesn't feel ordinary emotions or even understand that other people do.
Bahrani, as director, not only stays out of the way of the simplicity of his story, but relies on it; less is more, and with restraint he finds a grimy eloquence. Bahrani was inspired by "The Myth of Sisyphus," by Albert Camus, the story of a man who spends his life pushing a rock up a hill, only to see it roll down again, and only push it back up again. Well, what else can he do? "Man Push Cart" is not an indictment of the American economy or some kind of political allegory. It is about what it is about. I think the message may be that it is better, after all, to push the cart than to face a life without purpose at the bottom of the hill.
It is not necessary to know anything about Marie Antoinette to enjoy this film. Some of what we think we know is mistaken. According to the Coppola version, she never said, "Let them eat cake." "I would never say that," she says indignantly. What she says is, "Let them eat custard." But, paradoxically, the more you know about her, the more you may learn, because Coppola's oblique and anachronistic point of view shifts the balance away from realism and into an act of empathy for a girl swept up by events that leave her without personal choices. Before she was a queen, before she was a pawn, Marie was a 14-year-old girl taken from her home, stripped bare, and examined like so much horseflesh. It is astonishing with what indifference for her feelings the court aristocracy uses her for its pleasure, and in killing her disposes of its guilt.
"Overlord," whose title comes from the code word for one of the invasion plans, uses archival footage to show the devastation of bombing raids, from above and below. Cooper's cinematographer, the Kubrick favorite John Alcott, used lenses and film stock that matched the texture of this footage, so the black and white film seems all of a piece. Tom's story is not extraordinary; he says goodbye to his parents, survives some hazing during basic training, makes a few close friends and becomes convinced he will die in the landing. This prospect does not terrify him, and he writes a letter to his parents, consoling them in advance.
This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination. Ben Whishaw succeeds in giving us no hint of his character save a deep savage need. [...]
Why I love this story, I do not know. Why I have read the book twice and given away a dozen copies of the audiobook, I cannot explain. There is nothing fun about the story, except the way it ventures so fearlessly down one limited, terrifying, seductive dead end, and finds there a solution both sublime and horrifying. It took imagination to tell it, courage to film it, thought to act it, and from the audience it requires a brave curiosity about the peculiarity of obsession.
What a lovely film this is, so gentle and whimsical, so simple and profound. Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" is faithful to the spirit of the radio program, a spirit both robust and fragile, and yet achieves something more than simply reproducing a performance of the show. It is nothing less than an elegy, a memorial to memories of times gone by, to dreams that died but left the dreamers dreaming, to appreciating what you've had instead of insisting on more.
"The Proposition" plays like a Western moved from Colorado to Hell. The characters are familiar: The desperado brothers, the zealous lawman, his civilized wife, the corrupt mayor, the old coots, the resentful natives. But the setting is the Outback of Australia as I have never seen it before. These spaces don't seem wide open because an oppressive sky glares down at the sullen earth; this world is sun-baked, hostile, unforgiving, and it breeds heartless men.
Have you read Blood Meridian, the novel by Cormac McCarthy? This movie comes close to realizing the vision of that dread and despairing story.
"The Queen" (2006)
[Helen] Mirren is the key to it all in a performance sure to be nominated for an Oscar. She finds a way, even in a "behind the scenes" docudrama, to suggest that part of her character will always be behind the scenes. What a masterful performance, built on suggestion, implication and understatement. Her queen in the end authorizes the inevitable state funeral, but it is a tribute to Mirren that we have lingering doubts about whether, objectively, it was the right thing. Technically, the queen was right to consider the divorced Diana no longer deserving (by her own choice) of a royal funeral. But in terms of modern celebrity worship, Elizabeth was wrong. This may or may not represent progress.
Three stories about a man and a woman, all three using the same actors. Three years: 1966, 1911, 2005. Three varieties of love: unfulfilled, mercenary, meaningless. All photographed with such visual beauty that watching the movie is like holding your breath so the butterfly won’t stir.
The director is Hou Hsiao-hsien, from Tawian, and this will probably be the first of his 17 films you've seen. “The movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-hsien,” I wrote after seeing this film at Cannes 2005.
Now comes "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," the movie, which never gets around to filming the book. Since the book is probably unfilmable, this is just as well; what we get instead is a film about the making of a film based on a novel about the writing of a novel. As an idea for comedy this is inspired, and Michael Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, show the filmmakers constantly distracted by themselves. "But enough about me," Darryl Zanuck once said. "What did you think of my movie?"
How strange, a movie where a bad man becomes better, instead of the other way around. "Tsotsi," a film of deep emotional power, considers a young killer whose cold eyes show no emotion, who kills unthinkingly, and who is transformed by the helplessness of a baby. He didn't mean to kidnap the baby, but now that he has it, it looks at him with trust and need, and he is powerless before eyes more demanding than his own.
It is not too soon for "United 93," because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11. The entire story, every detail, is told in the present tense. We know what they know when they know it, and nothing else. Nothing about Al Qaeda, nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq, only events as they unfold. This is a masterful and heartbreaking film, and it does honor to the memory of the victims.
In Pedro Almodovar's enchanting, gentle, transgressive "Volver," a deceased matriarch named Irene (Carmen Maura) has moved in with her sister Paula (Chus Lampreave), who is growing senile and appreciates some help around the house, especially with the baking. They live, or whatever you'd call it, in a Spanish town where the men die young, and the women spend weekends cheerfully polishing and tending their graves, just as if they were keeping house for them. In exemplary classic style, Almodovar uses a right-to-left tracking shot to show this housekeeping carrying us back into the past, and then a subtle, centered zoom to establish the past as part of the present.
3.5-Star Honorable Mentions: "Americanese," "Clean," "Game 6," "Hard Candy," "The Heart of the Game," "Isn't This a Time!," "The King," "The Lake House," "Look Both Ways," "The Matador," "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili," "The Notorious Bettie Page," "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," "Saving Shiloh," "Something New," "Stranger Than Fiction," "Take My Eyes," "Thank You for Smoking," "Unknown White Male," "Winter Passing."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...