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John Wick

The film breathes exhilarating life into its tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves.

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Low Down

Preiss' movie does a consistently excellent job of explaining the lure of jazz, and the psychology of addicts, their enablers and their children without explaining…

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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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Looper: Dig that crazy cloud

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I think my very favorite thing in Rian Johnson's "Looper" is a squiggly cloud. It hangs there in the sky above a cornfield and you can't help but notice it. Which is good, because this is a time-travel movie and the cloud comes in handy later when something happens again in this same spot and the cloud tells you what time it is. Thanks to that cloud, you know this is a re-run.

In one version of the present-future-past, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shoots his future self (Bruce Willis) and in another he doesn't. I couldn't remember why that happened at first just now, but then it came back to me. Johnson brought in Shane Carruth, writer-director of the meticulously planned and way more convoluted time-travel thriller "Primer" (2004) to do some special effects work, which indicates to me that RJ is fairly serious about his science-fiction. (He also wrote and directed "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom," both of which contain some nifty, well-plotted twists.)

(Update: Here's a "Looper" timeline/infographic.)

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The Master: What does it all mean?

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Or: Once is not enough?

"They love it, they don't like it, they like it better a second time, they see it a third time and they reverse their opinion." -- Paul Thomas Anderson on "The Master," in a Toronto Star interview with Peter Howell

The critics agree! Paul Thomas Anderson's new film "The Master" is... ambiguous. What they don't agree on is whether, as we say in the software world, that's a bug or a feature. Is the movie "demanding" and artfully elusive, challenging audiences by refusing to offer a conventional dramatic catharsis or provide an artificially wrapped-up ending; or is the thing just vague, opaque, muddled? The answer depends on who you ask, what they think of Anderson as a filmmaker and, possibly, what they expected going in: a historical exposé of Scientology, a portrait of post-war/micd-century America, "character study," an acting duel... Take a look:

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The Master: Who are you?

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I apologize for the lack of postings the last few weeks. A recent flare-up of heart problems left me with little energy to write. But as the emaciated old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" says: "I'm feeling much better!"

At one point well into Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" I thought that the movie was going to reveal itself as a story about the meaninglessness of human existence. But that notion was based on a single piece of aphoristic, potential-thesis-statement dialog that, like much else, wasn't developed in the rest of the movie. Which is not to say that "The Master" isn't about the meaninglessness of human life. The line, spoken by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the cult guru known to his acolytes as Master, is addressed to the younger man he considers his "protégé," a dissolute mentally ill drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and the gist of it is that the itinerant Freddie has as much to show for his life as somebody who has worked a regular 9-to-5 job for many years. The point being, I suppose, that for all Freddie's adventures, peculiarities and failures, he isn't all that much different from anybody else. Except, maybe, he's more effed-up.

(spoilers)

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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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The great movies (almost) nobody voted for

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OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.

I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.

It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.

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Verdant Vertigo: Dreaming in Technicolor

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This appreciation is a slightly revised-for-2012 version of an article originally published online at Microsoft Cinemania in 1996. It was just one of several pieces in a package celebrating the 70mm restoration release of "Vertigo" that year.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" is one of the most ravishing Technicolor films ever made -- all the more so in its VistaVision-to-70mm restored version. And color plays a key part in the mystery, emotion and psychology, of the film. Colors evoke feelings, and while Hitchcock liked to say that "Psycho" (made two years later) was "pure cinema" in black-and-white, "Vertigo" is a symphony of color, its multi-hued themes and motifs as vividly orchestrated as Bernard Herrmann's famous score.

I first saw "Vertigo" on network television in the late 1960s or early 70s, shortly before it was withdrawn from release. I think I was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old -- I know I saw it by myself on my parents' new 19-inch color TV one night when mom and dad went to some neighborhood grown-up party -- and I'm sure I didn't understand the half of it. But it stayed with me -- haunted me, you might say -- between that fateful evening and its re-release in the mid-80s. By then, "Vertigo" had become, if not quite the Holy Grail of the American Cinema (after all, "Rear Window" and "The Manchurian Candidate" had been unavailable for years, too -- and a great deal of "The Magnificent Ambersons" is still at the bottom of the ocean), then at least one of its most coveted (and fetishized) treasures.

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Lust for revenge

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Like all of us, I'm living under a death sentence. Not to sound alarmist, but to quote Woody Allen in "Love and Death": "Isn't all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o'clock tomorrow morning." Looking on the bright side of death, I think in some ways it must be nice to have such certainty. But we live in perpetual uncertainty and doubt (see "No Country for Old Men"). My own awareness of the prospect of my demise ranges between roughly five years and five seconds, according to fluctuations in the health of my heart. I've gotten close enough to peer over the threshold (and in one case, lost my grip and fell into the void for, I'm told, about 10 or 15 minutes). My point is, I don't see death as an abstraction but a... vividly imminent possibility, depending on the situation.

(Neuroscientists say it may take the human brain 20-30 years or of development to really begin to fathom the concept anyway -- to some extent we tend to feel, and behave, as if we are immortal before that. I think my brain "knew" somewhat earlier.)

My adventures in mortality are absolutely nothing, however, compared to what some of my friends and acquaintances have been through. People have asked me if my near-death (temporary-death?) experience in 2000 gave me a new perspective on life and I have to say... no. I've been preoccupied with death ever since I was old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of what that was. It used to make me a little dizzy thinking about an infinity of nonexistence, like the one I didn't experience before I was born, but I don't find anything disturbing or frightening about that. Hey, it happens to everybody. Dying is easy; living is hard.*

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Greatest Films of All Time: Where's the funny?

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The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.

I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?

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The best greatest movies ever list

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UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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