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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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Why don't critics, Oscars & audience agree?

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Why don't the critics, the Oscars and the box-office audience ever seem to agree on the best movies of the year? This question really bugs some people, but I've never understood it, because criticism, intra-industry acclaim and ticket-sales revenue represent such separate and distinct ways of looking at movies. If they all redundantly reinforced the same choices, what would be the point? (Only the money is necessary to the movie business, which regards reviews and awards as simply part of the promotional campaign.) The way I see it, asking why critics, Academy voters and audiences don't agree is like asking why Democrats and Republicans don't choose the same candidates for president (although I once knew a woman who seriously proposed that Ronald Reagan and Geraldine Ferraro would make a great ticket). The obvious reason is: different constituencies want different things.

Audiences want to be entertained, maybe a little inspired. Critics want to be entertained too, of course, but some also seek the greater pleasures of art. For some of us, the hackneyed phrase "mindless entertainment" is a contradiction in terms: how can something be entertaining unless it engages your attention on more than an autonomic level? Oscar voters... well, who the hell knows what they want? But we all want to feel better about ourselves, don't we? Movies, good and bad, can help with that.

Andrew O'Hehir at Salon ("And the Oscar goes to... 'Twilight'!") makes a modest proposal: "What if the Oscars -- an imaginary Oscars, a thought-experiment Oscars, the Oscars of an alternate universe -- honored movies that people actually liked?" His alt.hollywood version would be "an unholy blend of the MTV Movie Awards and the Indiewire critics' poll" in which "Melancholia," "A Separation" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" would go up against "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "Mission: Impossible."

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Why Brad Pitt should win the Oscar

Here's a wonderful video essay written by Dipnot.tv film critic, Far-Flung Correspondent, House Next Door contributor, longtime Scanners commenter and International Man of Mystery Ali Arikan, and edited by writer/photographer and Press Play producer Ken Cancelosi. As far as I'm concerned, it makes the case -- and does so even without including my personal favorite scene from "Moneyball"! (I think he should have been nominated for supporting actor in "The Tree of Life," too.)

Ali writes:

There is real mystery to Pitt's take on Billy Beane. He loves the game, but knows the game is changing. He knows he has to get wins in order to keep his job, and is more than willing to modernize for that reason. But he also knows there is something you can't calculate about the game of baseball. The scenes of Pitt driving to work or sitting in the locker room show a man who is constantly trying to figure out the odds and knowing deep down that there are some things you can't figure out.

... He brings to the role an assured quality on overzealous, yet understated, lust for ultimate success that was forged in the fires of years and years of failure. He's charming and cheeky and funny, and very good looking (despite the hideous early naughties' haircut and lumbering fashion sense). Pitt brings a subtle comedic take to what could have been a rather boring central role; his various dealings with other managers, his scouts and players, betray genius-level timing and mimicry.

OK, I really wouldn't mind seeing Gary Oldman win for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," either -- but this was Pitt's year.

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The Artist: Everybody loves/hates a frontrunner!

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There, that wasn't so painful, was it? After all the hype coming out of Cannes (and especially since Harvey Weinstein got his mitts on it for U.S. distribution/Oscar promotion), I'd been kind of dreading "The Artist." Like "Hugo," it just sounded too "charming and delightful" -- and, to paraphrase Lou Grant, I hate "charming and delightful." (Usually because, for me, that ends up translating into "strained and unctuous.") But "The Artist" turns out to be a fairly benign, occasionally clever little musical/romantic comedy/melodrama. (I would not consider it, strictly speaking, a "silent," since it relies on synchronized Foley effects in some scenes -- to pointedly dramatize the Invasion of the Talkies -- and even a few words of recorded dialog.)*

I can understand why it appeals so much to Academy voters: It displays great affection for actors and a nostalgic love for the lost grandeur of the movies in general; it addresses anxieties about how new technologies are once again changing the movie business; it's the only Best Picture nominee shot entirely in Los Angeles (something TWC's Oscar campaign is playing up, big-time).

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Missing Bingham: Alchemy and the movies

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(Photo by Russell Yip, SF Chronicle)

Since I learned Monday that my friend Bingham Ray had died of a stroke at Sundance, I've been tweeting random memories of him. He was 57, but we first met in 1984 when he was 30 and I was 27. In the years I knew him, he worked at New Yorker Films, Alive, Samuel Goldwyn, Avenue Pictures, October Films (which he co-founded with Jeff Lipsky), United Artists, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment... I can't keep track of them all, but I hadn't spoken to him since he moved west in November to head up the San Francisco Film Society. What I can't fathom right now is that I won't be running into him, as I could be sure I would, at a film festival or his office if I happened to be in town, or calling or e-mailing him on a whim... What I treasure most are the things I've been spontaneously remembering and tweeting about, like:

* Bingham Ray was a New Yorker. When he first moved to LA he took the bus [on Santa Monica] to [work at] Goldwyn -- the only passenger who wasn't a Beverly Hills maid.

(He learned to drive and got his license.)

* Great memory: Spontaneous BBQ lunch w/ Bingham Ray, Jeff Dowd, RTJ, K. Murphy, Julia Sweeney & me at the (tiny) 2000 SxSW Film Fest.

(This was one of those coincidences that wound up becoming a treasured afternoon. I remember being so happy to have these favorite people from different yet overlapping parts of my life for so long -- I'd known "The Dude," Richard, Kathleen and Julia since the 1970s -- all together at one table! You just never know which moments are going to stay with you indelibly.)

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Come ona Tree House (of Life)

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Git on up in here! Dennis Cozzalio is our host for the second annual Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule Movie Tree House -- and you're invited, too. Join returning Tree Housers Dennis, Jason Bellamy, Sheila O'Malley and me, and welcome Simon Abrams and Steven Boone to the lofty branches, where we have been discussing such life-and-death matters as...

The art and science of year-end list-making (from Dennis):

As of January 2012, it's a chore for me to recall anything but fragments of images from The Tree of Life beyond that wonderful sequence in which the oldest boy's growing up amongst his two younger siblings is compressed into a beautiful visual essay about the way a child might see the surrounding world. It seems to me it is with this gaze that Malick most clearly relates. Unfortunately, a child's focus is also all over the map, and that too is a feeling I get from "The Tree of Life." So am I crazy in having to admit that I have higher regard for "Your Highness" or "Captain America: The First Avenger" or "Troll Hunter" or "Contagion" than I do for "The Tree of Life"? You tell me.

In compiling my list for the year I also had the strange experience of having my expectations for how that list might look at the end of the year scrambled and significantly altered by three very different movie experiences, two of which I just happened to have on the same night less than two weeks ago....

The acting! (from Sheila):

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Tinker Tailor, Moneyball: Between the lines (Part 1)

May Contain Spoilers
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I would never want to read a screenplay before seeing the movie based on it. As a critic, in fact, it would be a violation of my responsibilities (and ethics) to do that. The film has to be seen on its own, as a completed work; a critic shouldn't rummage through the drafts before experiencing the finished piece -- whether it's a movie or a painting or a symphony. I'm even ambivalent about reading certain books before seeing the movie versions, too, and for the same reason that I don't like to see trailers, particularly of films I'm likely to write about: I don't want to harbor preconceived ideas (even unconscious impressions) when I watch the picture. As we all know, it's hard enough to get a clean look at a movie after all the advertising and interviews and seasonal previews and reviews...

But if you want to gain some understanding of how movies are actually made (movies in general and any movie in particular) it's often enlightening to go back and take look at how the screenplay (or various drafts, re-writes, polishes) evolved into the movie that eventually wound up on the screen. Some filmmakers like Clint Eastwood often claim to simply shoot a script "as written" (though he and Dustin Lance Black did some re-working, including adding a voiceover, on the "J. Edgar" screenplay). But it can be fascinating to see how the writer(s), director(s) and editor(s) shape the material throughout the entire process -- and how moving (or removing) images and lines from one context and placing them in another changes their meaning. This is now easier to do than ever before, because so many screenplays are available online -- legitimately (For Your Consideration at studio sites) and otherwise.

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Watching (and listening to) Fincher's Girl

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"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" has been a 2005 book (the first part of the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy," translated into English in 2008), a 2009 Swedish-language feature film by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, and a 2011 English-language Hollywood movie. In 2012 it will also become a DC graphic novel, but my feeling while watching the new movie was that the material had reached its apotheosis as A David Fincher Film.

I haven't read the novels (I've paged through some of "Dragon Tattoo" in English), but even fans I've talked to don't make any claims for Larsson as a great writer (albeit in translation), and the Swedish movie version struck me as little more than a straightforward work of adaptation: "OK, we're going to take this story and put it on the screen." It did that, but except for the presence of Noomi Rapace as the titular Lisbeth Salander I didn't find it very exciting to watch.

So, I wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing another version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I was only curious because of Fincher, whose "Fight Club," "Zodiac" and "The Social Network" I think very highly of. I saw the Fincher movie The Way It Was Meant To Be Seen™ (in Sony 4K Digital Video projection!) and, I admit, I was literally rocking out in my rocking theater seat from the first riffs of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's biting cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" -- an icy blast of frigid air over a deep black credits sequence in which our Girl Lisbeth endlessly shape-changes into various forms and substances -- all of them integral to who she is. ("Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow..." Too on-the-nose? Maybe. But the squall of sound practically rips open the screen.)

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Desert island DVDs (Matt's & mine & yours)

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Matt Zoller Seitz devotes his final Friday Night Seitz slideshow at Salon (he's starting as New York Magazine's TV critic Monday -- most deserved congrats!) to a list of his "Movies for a desert island." His rules: ten movies only, plus one short and one single season of a TV series, for a total of 12 titles. "Part of the fun of this exercise," he writes, "is figuring out what you think you can watch over and over, and what you can live without."

Matt's titles include "What's Opera, Doc?," Season One of "Deadwood," Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," Terrence Malick's "The New World" (surprise!), Terrence Davies' "The Long Day Closes" (my #1 film of 1992), Joel & Ethan Coen's "Raising Arizona" (a movie I like, but consider among their lesser efforts) and Albert and David Maysles' "Salesman." Click here to see the complete list and Matt's comments.

OK, I'm game. So, the challenge, as MZS sets it up, is not just to pick "favorites," but to choose pictures that will stand up to repeated viewing since nobody is going to get you (or vote you) off the island and "It is assumed that you'll have an indestructible DVD player with a solar-recharging power source, so let's not get bogged down in refrigerator logic, mm'kay?"

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Moments Out of Time 2012

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Here's what you've been waiting for: Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy present their annual "Moments Out of Time" ("Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year's films") at MSN Movies. It's kind of like film criticism as haiku. But, you know, without haiku rules. They're short poems.

From RTJ's intro at his online movie magazine, Straight Shooting:

Kathleen Murphy and I first threw together a "Moments out of Time" feature for the year 1971. I'd had a brief go at it in 1969 for Seattle's premier counterculture rag The Helix, and pretty perfunctory it was--only a dozen or so films referred to, in lines like "The terrible beauty of The Wild Bunch...." The 1971 tribute ran to several pages of the first 1972 issue of Movietone News, the Seattle Film Society newsletter that, just about that time, turned the evolutionary corner en route to becoming a legitimate film journal. As for "Moments out of Time," it continued, and grew, each year through the decade MTN was published. Subsequently it appeared when and where opportunity presented--including one year in the early 2000s when our host was the spiffy German film mag Steadycam. For the past half-dozen years we've been graciously showcased by the Movies section at MSN.com, where editor Dave McCoy has patiently accommodated us as we (all right, I) send one e-mail after another, tweaking words and punctuation to get the lines to bump in the right place.

A dozen of my favorites:

-- "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy": Control (John Hurt), aced out of MI6 after the disaster in Budapest, announces, "Smiley is coming with me." Smiley (Gary Oldman), his back to the camera, tilts his head a millimeter -- surprise? acceptance? both?...

-- Upside-down shadows of kids at play on gray asphalt, swinging from the top of the frame in "The Tree of Life"...

-- "Midnight in Paris": the evolution of the expression on Gil (Owen Wilson) -- F. Scott Fitzgerald has just introduced him to Ernest Hemingway -- from gobsmacked to go-with-the-flow delight...

-- A drop of perspiration falling onto a café tabletop, fatally fracturing the fourth wall of a Hungarian "play" in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"...

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When I fall in love...

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"Would you believe in a love at first sight?" "Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time." "What do you see when you turn out the light?" "I can't tell you but I know it's mine." -- Billy Shears, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sometimes I can pinpoint the very moment I first fall in love with a movie. It may happen in the first shot (Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"; Michael Haneke's "Caché"), or may be clinched in at the very end (the terminal instant of Rahmin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart"), but in many cases there is an identifiable point at which I know that I am in love, even while the movie is unspooling, and by that time it's not likely there's any going back, unless the movie simply implodes.

Here are a few of those times from 2011 when I realized I was falling hard...

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There's not so much snow as in director Tomas Alfredson's previous feature, "Let the Right One In," but it gets plenty chilly here, in Cold War London, Budapest and Istanbul. The emotional iciness sneaks up on you: by the end, as the strands of loyalty and betrayal unravel, leaving characters exposed to some very cold realities, I found it uncommonly moving. (Yes, I cried -- more than once.) Not unrelatedly, "Tinker Tailor" (no commas in this title) is one of the most hauntingly and imaginatively composed movies (both in terms of framings and shot sequences) that I've seen since... maybe the last Coen brothers picture. Early on, it catches you a little off-guard when, in the midst of a hushed, paranoid conversation in a musty apartment, there's a cut to a monochromatic, neo-Gothic Eastern European skyline (punctuating John Hurt's use of the word "Budapest" -- a word that will become code for loss, failure, disgrace).

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