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Wormwood

A fascinating piece of filmmaking that challenges the form in new ways as it recalls themes its director has been interested in his entire career.

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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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Faces that bring their own light

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"The First Grader" is streaming On Demand via Amazon and Vudu, and the DVD is on Netflix and on sale.

by Steven Boone

It doesn't matter that "The First Grader" is as shamelessly, sappily manipulative as that TV commercial where Sarah Mclachlan wails a tune while the camera zooms in on miserable animals peering out of their rescue shelter cages. Nope. It doesn't even matter that the musical score, which I will give the alternate title "Mother Africa Weeps," is the World Music equivalent of an Oreo McFlurry -- a real pancreas-buster. Never mind all that. The imagery in "The First Grader" places it on par with cinema's great sentimental masterpieces, "Umberto D," "Tokyo Story" and "Ikiru." From the first frame, this film warns that it is working in a universe of pure emotion.

The film's true story concerns Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a former Kenyan freedom fighter and political prisoner who has been forgotten in the post-colonial age. He walks around the countryside in rags while the new generation of power brokers benefiting from his sacrifices zip through Nairobi in Benzes. When he learns that the government is now offering free education to all, he tries to enroll in a local elementary school. He's illiterate, it turns out, and he wants to learn how to read an important old letter for himself. Of course, the 84 year-old has a tough time convincing the overcrowded one-room schoolhouse to let him in.

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From Seattle, with free refills

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"The Off Hours" is now available on most on-demand platforms including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and most major-cable services. NOTE: The film is not available through DirecTV. It will be released on DVD in January and will premiere on Hulu and Netflix later in 2012.

by Jeff Shannon

There's never been a better time for filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest. Running the entire spectrum from filmgoers and critics to actors, writers and production talent aplenty, the Seattle film community has always been close-knit and cooperative, and its D.I.Y. resourcefulness has resulted in a slow but steady rise of intermingling talent. (Full disclosure: Several of the creative people mentioned below are casual Facebook acquaintances of mine.) Ten years ago and earlier, you were lucky if your micro-budgeted project got finished and accepted by festivals, and for several years it seemed like the Native American drama "Smoke Signals" (written by Northwest author Sherman Alexie and distributed by Miramax in 1998) would be Seattle's only claim to a locally-produced breakout success.

Undeterred, Seattle's film community continued to percolate like the coffee that stereotypically defines "The Emerald City" for most of the outside world. Abundant indie-film projects, and the passions that fueled their creation, have led to a natural progression of experience and expertise, and this year alone the Sundance film festival hosted four films shot in Washington state. When you consider the local history that led us from "Gas City" (an obscure, no-budget 1978 slacker drama shot among the aging motels and nightspots of Seattle's Aurora Avenue) to the international success of director Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (2009), it's no wonder that Seattle has become the Northwest's answer to Austin, Texas: A film- and music-loving city (per capita, Seattleites are still the nation's #1 moviegoers) where independent filmmakers can find the talent, resources, and community support to foster their projects from start to finish. Indeed, "Start-to-Finish" is the name of an innovative program, introduced by the Northwest Film Forum in 1998, designed to select and co-produce films with the goal of national and global exposure. Canadian alt-auteur Guy Maddin found NWFF so appealing that he came here to shoot his 2006 film "Brand Upon the Brain!," now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection (and photographed by the gifted Benjamin Kasulke -- see below).

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This isn't your Disney Little Mermaid

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"The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet" airs Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS's "Great Performances." It is currently available on DVD, and will also appear on PBS On Demand.

by Jana Monji

Whenever I say, "Hans Christian Andersen," in my mind I can hear the voice of Danny Kaye singing out the name of the famous Dane. Kaye played the title role in 1952 musical film, "Hans Christian Andersen. " For another generation, the Little Mermaid is part of a Disney franchise beginning with the 1989 animated feature "The Little Mermaid. " Now comes a ballet, recorded for PBS.

Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" is a visually rich, emotionally complex ballet that takes the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from its Hollywood interpretations back to its origins. This is a "don't miss" production.

In the original story, the Little Mermaid saves and falls in love with a prince. She makes a bargain with a witch, giving up her beautiful voice in order to have legs. The prince likes her, but doesn't love her and marries another. Given the choice of killing the prince or dying herself, the Little Mermaid dies, but is resurrected in another dimension.

How can you have a franchise if the Little Mermaid dies? You can't, of course. In the Disney feature, "The Little Mermaid," Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), doesn't die, and instead, does find love with her prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars, and called it "a jolly and inventive animated fantasy" that restored the magic associated with animated Disney features from an earlier era. The Academy voters gave the film two Oscars--one to Alan Menken for Best Music, Original Score and another to Menken and Howard Ashman (lyrics) for Best Music, Original Song ("Under the Sea")

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Two Parts of a Whole: The Legacy of Charles and Ray Eames

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"Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter" (85 minutes) premieres December 19th at 10:00pm on the PBS series "American Masters, " and will be available thereafter on PBS-on-demand. The film will also be released on DVD on Dec. 13th.

The six-DVD set of "The Films of Charles & Ray Eames" is available from Facets Multimedia ($79.99) and a few other online outlets, and each disc can be rented separately from Netflix.

by Jeff Shannon

If I had been a precocious six-year-old with a passion for architecture, I could've told you that my elementary school was an Eames building. It wasn't designed by Charles Eames himself, but everything about it was influenced by the design aesthetic of Charles and Ray Eames, most notably the design of the Eames' own home in Pacific Palisades, California.

A now-legendary structure known in the architecture world as Case Study No. 8, the Eames House (completed in 1949) is a geometrical marvel of steel and glass, squares and rectangles carefully aligned or offset to pleasing effect, with bold colors (Ray being the painter and co-designer, Charles being the architect) to complement the inviting lines of the structure. Like so many public structures built in the late '50s and early '60s, Seaview Elementary in Edmonds, Washington, was a wanna-be Eames House for grade-schoolers, a modest, functional tribute to Charles and Ray Eames and a symbol of their phenomenal influence on the look of the 20th century.

So ubiquitous is the Eames influence that it remains utterly unique, not merely in terms of design but in the grand design of the human species. Stroll through any major city in the world and chances are you'll see the Eames influence everywhere, from the cheap functionality of IKEA furniture to the form-fitting fiberglass of chairs in cafeterias, lobbies and waiting rooms all over the planet. When you realize that the Eames influence is literally inescapable in the lives of city-dwellers everywhere, you don't feel resentful as you might upon finding Starbucks coffee shops on both sides of the same street. Instead, you might register a kind of awestruck gratitude for how Eames designs have improved your life and the lives of everyone you know.

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Ants in Your Pants of 2006

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"The Ant Bully" is now available through HBO On Demand and HBO Go until December 18.

A boy, a wizard and a war--that's the basic formula for many children's adventure stories. In "The Ant Bully," as the name suggests, this story takes place in the insect world, but the bully is the boy named Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen). This modest morality tale doesn't go for big laughs but does deal with situations that young kids will inevitably face.

Based on John Nickle's 1999 book by the same name, this 2006 feature was the first animated film produced by Legendary Pictures. "The Ant Bully" followed two better known 1998 ant-themed films: DreamWorks' "Antz" and Disney's "A Bug's Life." All three movies have messages, but are aimed at different audiences.

"The Ant Bully," rated PG for mild violence, is definitely targeted at young children--preteen kids who might feel powerless, so far outside of the adult world. In the movie, 10-year-old Lucas has no friends and is the target of the neighborhood bully. He turns his frustrations on the anthill in his front yard, causing the ants to scurry about when he floods the anthill.

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Chaz Bono: On Being and Becomingness

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"Becoming Chaz" airs Sunday, November 27 6PM ET/PT on OWN before the 8 p.m. premiere of its follow-up, "Being Chaz."

Not too long ago, I was planning to marry a woman who was born a man, so Chaz Bono's story is a bit familiar. It's pretty simple, really, and you've heard it a thousand times by now: A transgender person feels trapped in the "wrong" body. Just for acting upon this lifelong impulse by changing their physical characteristics to better represent their true selves, transpeople are being assaulted and murdered in shameful numbers. The movie "Boys Don't Cry" might have softened a few bigoted hearts around this issue, but the killing continues worldwide.

Chaz, born Chastity Bono to celebrity couple Sonny and Cher, could have lived through his transition from female to male in private, but it's clear in the documentary "Becoming Chaz" that he knew the true cost of invisibility in such a transphobic world. He let the cameras roll during some unflattering, raw moments--the idea being that this story shouldn't idealize his experience any more than it should exploit it for freak show appeal. The aim is to show that Chaz, the man, is as real as you and I, not an illusion to be brought off. It's hard to imagine that the killers out there might be moved by all this candor, but those whose indifference or unawareness helps perpetuate discrimination should at least get a healthy jolt of recognition. "Becoming Chaz" is as much about the kind-faced "Dancing with the Stars" contestant's relationship as it is about his metamorphosis. That was my way into the film: I know a little bit about being "the partner."

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It ain't over until the postman rings

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"Il Postino" will premiere on PBS at 9 p.m. ET Fri., Nov. 25 as part of the Great Performances series. Based on the 1994 Italian film, it stars tenor Plácido Domingo.

By Jana J. Monji

The opera "Il Postino" in its name shows its curious lineage. While not a great opera, "Il Postino" does feature the performance of Plácido Domingo, one of the great opera tenors, in a role specifically written for him during the world premiere performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The opera is in Spanish, not Italian as its name suggests. "Il Postino" is also the name of the much acclaimed 1994 Italian movie that although originally released in the United States as "The Postman," is now referred to as "Il Postino" to avoid confusion with Kevin Costner's 1997 post-apocalyptic movie based on the 1985 David Brin novel.

The movie "Il Postino" was also based on a novel, Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta's 1983 "Ardiente Paciencia" (Burning Patience) which was later retitled "El Cartero de Neruda" (Neruda's Postman). The Italian movie "Il Postino" (Skármeta directed a 1983 Spanish language movie of his novel) transferred the location from Chile to Italy, changed the time period and the ending. As you might expect, the movie was in Italian.

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Woody Allen: Manhattan Moviemaker Mystery

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"Woody Allen: A Documentary" airs on PBS stations in two parts, at 9 p. m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 20 and 21. Check local listings for airtimes. Also available via PBS On Demand.

by Odie Henderson

I took this gig as a challenge. It's not that I hate Woody Allen; I just don't adore him as much as you would like. Plus, I live in the Bizarro World when it comes to his films, enjoying the ones most people hate and vice-versa. For example, I hated "Match Point," disliked "Annie Hall," and could never commit to "Manhattan" despite its astonishing, heartbreaking cinematography. Conversely, I loved "Deconstructing Harry," found "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" amusing, and I may be the only sane person who liked "Hollywood Ending." These confessions may disturb die-hard fans, but before you vow never to read anything of mine again, you should watch American Masters' "Woody Allen: A Documentary." There you'll discover that Woody Allen dislikes most of his movies, even going so far as to offer to make a different movie for free if United Artists used "Manhattan" for kindling. Compared to that, my "meh" reaction to the gorgeous-looking film is a ringing endorsement. We now know who should be getting your hate mail, don't we?

Not that Allen would care. Robert B. Weide's exceptional documentary makes clear that critical opinion is the farthest thing from its subject's mind. The prolific writer-director has been too busy cranking out a film a year for the past four decades to worry about what anyone thinks of them. You'd have to go back to the studio system's heyday for that kind of output, work that produced eleven solo and three collaborative Oscar nominations for writing. That's two more than my beloved Billy Wilder, who coincidentally never got a solo writing nomination. Add to those fourteen writing nods his six directing nominations, sole acting nod and the resulting three wins, and you have one of the most honored filmmakers in Hollywood history. He can expect a 22nd nomination for "Midnight In Paris," which I cop to liking but not with the slobbering praise afforded it by most critics. (It's like a cross between Cliffs Notes, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and a Tea Party rally, with all that "it's so much better in the past" nonsense.) The fact that awards mortify Allen makes these numerous acknowledgements the kind of ironic, funny joke one would find in, well, a Woody Allen movie.

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Forget it Ji, it's Kolkata

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"The Bengali Detective" plays HBO On Demand, beginning November 16th.

The first thing you need to know about "The Bengali Detective is that Fox Searchlight purchased the remake rights ten months before the general public laid eyes on it. Director Philip Cox's documentary features a charming leading man, adultery, triple homicide, mystery and suspense, a cute little kid, a dying spouse, corrupt officials and unbridled dancing. What studio could resist any of that, let alone be faithful to the darker, sadder grace notes that underscore the source material? The fiction version, due in 2014, will probably replace the casual matter-of-factness of "The Bengali Detective" with overdone "Slumdog Millionaire"-style schadenfreude. Unlike Danny Boyle's popular Oscar winner, this film reminds the viewer that those who cannot afford much should still be afforded dignity without the gaze of pity. Save yourself the three-year wait and watch "The Bengali Detective" now.

According to the film, 70 percent of the crimes in the East Indian city of Kolkata are unsolved. The authorities are either incompetent, corrupt or both. So the citizens turn to one of their own, the local detective who takes their cases. The titular Bengali detective is Rajesh Ji, head of the Always Detective Agency. He takes numerous cases, sometimes more than he can comfortably handle, and his motley crew of assistant detectives conduct surveillance, interview suspects, and shoulder their share of the legwork. During "The Bengali Detective, " Ji investigates three cases: One has a predictable outcome, one is a deceptively trivial crime, and the last is the harrowing triple murder of three best friends. The film gives each case a title so we know which one we're following with the detectives.

"Deepti" follows a middle-aged woman who comes to Ji with the suspicion that her husband of 24 years is cheating on her. Cox interviews her, and she talks of arranged marriage and her spouse's incredible cruelty toward her over the course of their relationship. "Just because he's a man doesn't make him lord and master," Deepti tells the camera. Later, after two of Ji's assistants tail the husband to the expected results, Deepti issues a statement to Ji that is devastating in its descriptive simplicity. "My heart is blank," she tells him, "but at least I know the truth." Cox leaves her story with a quiet long shot of the saddened wife staring at the bright green folder containing Ji's case documentation.

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An unfashionable belief in the Great Man

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"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man," premieres nationally Friday, November 11 at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on PBS. Check local listings.

by Steven Boone

Bill T. Jones looks like an epic hero of dance. His cheekbones are as intricately chiseled as his sable Jack Johnson physique. When working as a choreographer-director, he projects artistic heroism, naturally striking poses of sage leadership straight out of Classics Illustrated. Having created a show celebrating Africa's great musical activist, Fela Kuti ("FELA!"), to worldwide acclaim and Tony awards, he wasn't yet done with the subject of heroes when it struck him to complete a long-gestating piece about Abraham Lincoln titled "Fondly Do We Hope/Fervently Do We Pray."

"Bill T. Jones: A Good Man" is a documentary about Jones's attempt to understand his lifelong hero-worship of The Great Emancipator, using an entire dance company as his investigative tool. Many of the dancers grew up idolizing Jones the same way he has bowed to Lincoln since childhood -- an ingenious meta-reverberation of theme that's clearly intentional. Jones wants to know if Lincoln was, indeed, the "good man" official history portrays. Leadership in times of war and social upheaval entails traversing a minefield of cynical agendas. Jones wants to know if idealism can truly flower in such a toxic climate.

A day after bitching at many of his collaborators well into rehearsals, Jones gathers the company to apologize, but also to confess: He needs their help. Wearing dancer's tights and no shirt rather than his usual sweats and t-shirt, he appears as vulnerable as his performers. He's one of them for a moment, and he admits to having been puzzled about where he was steering this artistic ship. Now he realizes that the show isn't about Lincoln but about Bill T. Jones and his unfashionable beliefs.

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