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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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Polanski's Chinatown: A dream analysis

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WARNING: Big-time spoilers in the above video.

From the introduction to my fully explicated video, "Chinatown: Frames and Lenses," at Press Play, Chapter 4 in a week-long series: LIFE'S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI:

Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is a Panavision color film noir--a ghost story, really--about flawed vision and the inescapable resurgence of the past, made in 1974 and set in 1937.  Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he knows what's going on, but as Noah Cross (John Huston) tells him, "Believe me, you don't."  We see what Jake sees, and it's invariably filtered or blocked--viewed from a distance through binoculars, or from outside through a door or window that obscures a more complete perspective. Photographs--snippets of time recorded on film, one of the tools of the detective trade--are potentially misleading because they don't--can't--capture what's going on outside of the frame, beyond the moment. 

This video montage is a hymn of praise to a film that had a profound effect on me when I first saw it as a 16-year-old in 1974, and that I've lived with, haunted, ever since. It's also an unabashed love poem to the desperate, damaged and determined Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). 

Like "close-up," which I did in 2007, it's a free-associative critical essay/dream sequence, based on themes and images (and sound and music) from the movie. Although, like a lot of creative pursuits, the process of assembling it (from pieces of film that were already floating around in my head) was largely unconscious, I now (at least in retrospect) think I understand why each fragment is where it is.

So, I thought I'd turn around and look back at "Chinatown" through the lens (or frame or door or window, if you will) of my video essay, using it as a way of translating the film's images into critical prose. Because, in "Chinatown," every image is loaded with meanings, associations, resonances. If you're familiar with the film, you'll immediately see that this reflection on "Chinatown" isn't structured chronologically. Scenes, themes, moments and images keep circling back in fragments... not unlike they do in the film, but in a more condensed and less linear form...

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Hitchcock's Family Plot Photo Album

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I've been enjoying reading Dave Kehr's book, When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a selection of pieces he wrote between 1974 and 1986. One of them, his choice for best film of 1976, is a review of Alfred Hitchcock's 53rd and final feature, "Family Plot," which I hadn't seen since the 1970s. Boy, did I enjoy the re-visit. The structure (screenplay by Ernest Lehman ["North by Northwest"], based on a 1972 novel, The Rainbird Pattern, by Victor Canning) concerns two couples: a "spiritualist" and her taxi-driver boyfriend (Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern), amateur sleuths trying to track down the lost heir of a rich client; and a pair of slick jewel thieves (Karen Black and William Devane, who sounds -- and sometimes looks -- so much like Jack Nicholson it's scary!). Their plots intersect at a point involving a case of... not mistaken identity, but concealed identity.

Kehr wrote: "There are things in 'Family Plot' that we haven't seen in an American film in a long time; things like care, precision, and detail. 'Family Plot' is probably the most beautifully crafted, thematically dense film that we're going to see this year."

Also, there are some fun Hitchcockian puns/jokes (DK has a lovely account of the spilled white "blood" that becomes a clue). Here are a few of them, just for the enjoyment of it:

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Don Draper pitches Facebook Timeline

YouTube has disabled embedding of this video. Watch here.

"Technology is a glittering lure, but there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged beyond Flash." Or even HTML5.

(tip: kottke.org)

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Tony Bennett, movie critic (Alec Baldwin, SNL)

"I like flicks that are great..." This is why Alec Baldwin may be the best host "Saturday Night Live" has ever had. He commits. I'll put this up there with anything he's ever done on the show. To me, it's funnier than "Schweddy Balls" and "Canteen Boy" put together...

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On the whole "realism" thing...

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We've been discussing (with regard to "In the Cut Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)" what kind of film grammar Christopher Nolan was using (it's traditional narrative continuity editing -- most of the time). One of my key questions was: Is it, "as the filmmakers have said, more concerned with realism -- photographing real objects, including actors and miniatures, in real space? We can see how it does what it does. The question is: What's the result? How do these stylistic choices enhance or diminish the impact of the movie?"

Just came across this 2005 interview with Nolan (by Sean Axmaker, for GreenCine), talking about his approach to reviving the Batman movie franchise. In a word? Realism, according to Nolan:

For me, the exciting opportunity was that you had a studio with this phenomenal character, wanting to re-introduce the character to the big screen and looking for a fresh way to do it. I felt I had never seen a superhero story tackled with a real degree of reality, of seriousness, in a way, and Batman, to me, as the most mortal, the most ordinary in terms of abilities, of superheroes -- he has no super powers -- he's the natural choice for trying to tell a superhero story in a realistic manner. I just felt that would be something I've never seen before and something that would be really fun and exciting to do. [...]

It presents enormous physical challenges for the crew, particularly because I insisted on doing things for real rather than employing visual effects, so there was a tremendous amount of stunt work and so forth. And I insisted on doing everything main unit, not using any second unit action crews. We wanted the whole film to have a consistency that applied to the action set pieces as well as to the character scenes.

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Drive: An under-the-hood manual

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When I saw, and immediately wrote about, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," I knew almost nothing about it except the title and that Ryan Gosling was in it. I remembered that it had received acclaim at Cannes back in May (I did not recall that Refn had won the best director prize) and, as it turns out, I hadn't seen any of Refn's previous films -- although "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising" had been recommended to me by friends. Since then, I've been reading up on "Drive" and have discovered so many fascinating little tidbits (many of which confirm my first impressions) that I decided to put together this little primer.

I recommend that you refrain from reading this until you've seen the movie, though.

Cited influences include: Grimm's Fairy Tales, John Hughes ("Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink"), Sergio Leone, Alejandro Jodorowsky...

On the title font:

Refn: Me and Mat Newman, who edits all my movies, we stole that in the editing table from "Risky Business."

-- from an interview with Scott Tobias at The A.V. Club

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Guy Maddin: Give him a hand!

Fandor is hosting a Guy Maddin Blogathon all week (September 19-23). As part of it, Fandor Editor-in-Chief Kevin B. Lee and Press Play's Matt Zoller Seitz have collaborated on a fascinating NSFW (silent film nudity!) video essay exploring Maddin's 2004 "Cowards Bend the Knee," which they say might be his masterwork: "It feels like a signpost work, a summary of his techniques and obsessions." A hockey player for the Winnipeg Maroons, Guy Maddin, whose aunt runs a combination beauty parlor and abortion clinic called the Black Silhouette, finds himself the victim of a sinister plot when his girlfriend becomes pregnant. You can watch the essay, "Cut Up in a Dream: Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee" above (listen closely to the pastiche of popular classics that serve as the musical score); or see the entire feature at Fandor.

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Annotated Transcript: In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)

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In "In the Cut Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)," I sought to pinpoint any and all possible reasons for the confusion I've always felt while watching part of an action sequence in "The Dark Knight." Some dismissed it as nitpicking (which is their prerogative), that criticism should be limited to looking at a movie in real time. But I felt I should go beyond the familiar critical generalizations ("Adjective!" "Adverbly adjective!") and try to locate precisely what I found disorienting and understand why I found it that way.

A few others, unfortunately, became confused about what I actually said or did not say in the 19-and-a-half-minute video, so I thought, for the record, I should publish a transcript to make it easier to reference. (Then I can just send links to those who misunderstand or misrepresent.) I don't write out a script for these essays -- I watch the movie, record what I want to say and then edit my remarks. So this, to the best of my ability, is an annotated transcription (with certain passages in bold for emphasis) of the narration in the finished video:

TITLE: "It's quite easy to over-cut a sequence: make it visually exciting and lose track of what is happening and who the characters are....

"Where you can't follow action, it's not just action, it's the whole movie you can't follow. Action is very difficult, it has to be very carefully planned and conceived."

-- Lee Smith, editor ("The Dark Knight," "Inception"), interviewed in The Australian, October 30, 2010

[More from that interview here.]

NARRATION: The thing is, what he's talking about there is, I think, one of "The Dark Knight"'s most painfully obvious shortcomings. Its visual grammar is a mess and sometimes that results in scenes that are just incoherent.

So, when I saw that quote about action from the editor of "The Dark Knight," I thought maybe I should go back and take a close look at one of the movie's most famous action sequences and look at it like an editor, and try to figure out what information was being conveyed, shot by shot, and what it was that maybe I was missing...

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Drive: Yellow light, red light, blue light, pink light

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I was going to say, up front, that I had some mixed feelings about Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," but I'm not sure that "feelings" is the appropriate word. This 1980s pastiche (isn't that the "Risky Business" typeface lit up in neon pink?) is emotionally and narratively stripped down to resemble the sleek, polished surfaces of... well, muscle cars, but also movies by the likes of Walter Hill ("The Driver"), Michael Mann ("Thief"), William Friedkin ("To Live and Die in L.A."), Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo") and others. It even sports an aggressively ersatz-Tangerine Dream synth score of the kind so popular in the early 1980s, though this one also features some Euro-vocals with unfortunate English day-glo-highlighter lyrics ("a real human being and a real hero..."). Emotion, character, story -- they're not so much what "Drive" is interested in. The movie makes fetishistic use of signifiers for those things, but its most tangible concerns have (paradoxically?) to do with dreamy abstractions of color and shape and movement.

I like the red a lot. Not just the blood (which is the heart of the film, and I'll get to that in a minute), but there's so much blue (teal?) and orange and pink that when the red starts gushing in, it pumps some real excitement into what has, by that point, settled into a fairly static picture. (In some respects, I think "Drive" perversely hints at an art-house action movie -- and an erotic movie -- it never quite delivers, after a pretty [and] terrific archetypal getaway chase at the beginning, in which the Driver shows off his skills at using Los Angeles infrastructure to play hide-and-seek with cop cars and helicopters. Thank goodness, though, that it never turns into the racetrack movie it briefly threatens to become.)

So, the red: It excites the eyeballs (and signals imminent danger) in the red-and-white checkered windows at Nino's Pizza. But as I recall, it really gets going at Denny's. The nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), a movie stuntman who also works as a mechanic and moonlights as a getaway car wheelman-for-hire, sits down with his generic romantic-interest neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who wears a red uniform vest as a Denny's waitress, in a booth with red light fixtures above it and a BIG plastic bottle of ketchup on the table. I don't remember what the conversation is about -- it doesn't matter, but it's probably something about her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), who's just got out of jail and owes money to some brutal sleazebags who are threatening to physically harm him and Irene and their son Benicio (Kaden Leos), to whom Driver has also taken a shine. What I remember is the red. The film becomes pregnant with red.

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My e-mail from Reed: Netflix "apologizes," pulls a Qwikster

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Reed Hastings sent me an e-mail Sunday night -- did you get one too? -- that began:

Subject: An Explanation and some reflections

Dear Jim,

I messed up. I owe you an explanation.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing....

Oh, Reed. You don't owe me an explanation -- or any reflections -- and you know it. You're just doing exactly what you said you were doing when you made that announcement in July that you now say was lacking in "respect and humility." Only now you're doing it in a way that reeks of condescension and disingenuousness. Not an improvement.

A couple months back, I noted here that Netflix had already announced on its tech blog that it was going to discontinue mobile app support for managing DVD/Blu-ray queues. When you announced, at the same time as your price hikes, that the DVD/Blu-ray-by-mail business would be reconstituted as a separate division, it didn't take the sharpest taco on the beach to figure out what your next step would be, and now you've announced it. Netflix wants out of that business that relies on the nearly bankrupt Postal Service. OK, we get it.

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