Archive for June 2014

Life Itself

June 29, 2014

roger-ebert-gives-a-thumbs-up-after-receiving-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame-in-hollywood-inWell, Roger, you made it. You’re in a movie. Not only that, you’re its star and focus. Life Itself is based partly on your memoir of the same name. Readers who are not you will no doubt wonder why I’m addressing this review to you, who are not here, and not to them. Well, it’s because you had a knack for writing reviews seemingly addressed to me and me only, and millions of other readers likely felt and feel the same way. You didn’t bother much with film theory or ten-dollar words. You wanted everyone to understand you: the film buff, the folks at the bar, the kid who was just starting to develop critical thinking. The movie about you is likewise straightforward. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t get fancy. It just tells your story.

The documentarian Steve James, whose great film Hoop Dreams you tirelessly promoted, has directed Life Itself with open eyes and no fear of showing you in your least glamorous moments. You allowed James to film you undergoing an undignified throat-suction procedure, and then you emailed him that you were glad his movie would show what is seldom seen in a movie. You always respected that in a movie: something you hadn’t seen before, and something that told the truth. That suction bit, hard as it is for the rest of us to watch, is almost the defining moment of the movie, since we know it’s there because you wanted it there. You also wanted the movie to tell the truth about your lost years as an alcoholic, when you would kill hours in bars and take home women who were bad for you.

Finally you met, and married, a woman who was good for you: Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom you called “the great fact of my life.” You would no doubt be grateful to know that Chaz comes off beautifully in the movie, yet still human, someone who could get frustrated with you when you didn’t feel up to doing things you needed to do. There is a scene where you don’t want to climb some stairs, and Chaz says you have to, and eventually you do it. Many of us have lived this scene in one or both of the roles. We can all be annoying and stubborn at times, and you were no exception. You would have respected a movie that touches on realities of human relationships that Hollywood usually ignores.

Many of your friends, some famous (Scorsese, Herzog) and some only known in Chicago newspaper circles, speak movingly on your behalf. One friend, of course, is absent: Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Gene’s widow, Marlene, says at your funeral in the movie that when you were still alive she felt as though she still had a piece of Gene left. Life Itself devotes a chunk of time to your prickly partnership with Gene, with many amusing outtakes of you two roasting each other. But Marlene reads aloud a letter you sent her in your later years, saying that as you got older and sicker you thought more and more about him. You soldiered on without him, first with other critics and then as a solo act, something Gene might have snippily said would never and should never happen. But in the end he probably would have been proud that, just as you were losing your ability to speak, you gained a new voice on Twitter and in your blog. You were both tough Chicago newspapermen who wanted to keep going no matter what.

As Life Itself goes on it becomes more cinematic, as if your fading life force were naturally resolving itself into the movie it would become. It is difficult for those of us who were fond of you to see you so frail and to see the increasingly depressed-sounding emails you were sending Steve James. You sensed the movie was nearing its conclusion. You wanted to see more; you wanted to see what happened next. You didn’t want to leave Chaz and your stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. For all that, Life Itself doesn’t milk your death for cheap tears. Chaz soldiers on without you, as we all must do when bereaved, and carries on your website and your life passion. She’s sad, Roger — we all are — but she’s going to be okay, and the movie notes that. Beyond all that, your life has made for a sharp, intimate, honest and compelling film. Congratulations, Roger. Thumbs up.

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Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

June 14, 2014

the-pleasure-garden-x-5551_1Big Joy is a flavorful and affectionate documentary about a narcissist, James Broughton, who seemed to be a satellite around the cinematic and poetic revolutions of the ’50s, but whose name doesn’t seem to have endured alongside his peers. Partly, I think, it’s because Broughton’s work, his experimental short films and his verse, doesn’t seem to express much outside a diaristic impulse to record what was going on in his life and his head at the time. He was more effective, it seems, as a mystic and guru, throwing his arms out and accepting the young in their quest for love. This is a charitable way of saying that Broughton was a classic horny old goat. His films are full of young men with their kits off and their bits out.

One wonders if a James Broughton would be possible today, when it is leagues more easy (though still not 100% safe) to be openly gay in America. Broughton was in at least two serious hetero relationships; one was with revered film critic Pauline Kael and yielded a daughter, the other was a marriage to designer Susanna Hart that produced another daughter and a son. The son, Orion, is the only offspring willing to appear in Big Joy, though it seems as though he was about as neglected by Broughton as his siblings were. In the mid-’70s, at age 61, Broughton met 25-year-old poet Joel Singer and fell hard for him; he ditched Susanna and their two kids and ran off with Singer, who stayed with Broughton until his death in 1999 at 85.

What I’m getting at here is that if Broughton was a narcissist and a skunk with women, it wasn’t necessarily his fault; the times made him that way. This was a man who hit sexual maturity decades before Stonewall. Like William Burroughs, he fell into the societally approved man/woman thing as a cover story. Then he figured out he could express a lot of his yearnings through his art. His films aren’t stark like Kenneth Anger’s, nor brooding like Maya Deren’s. They embrace the juice and happy furry chaos of life, and his poems read a little much like kiddie poetry, not imagistic or sensual but straightforward odes to playfulness. Finding his voice as an artist and as a gay man, relatively late in life (he was 33 when he made his first short film), must have been cathartic for Broughton. Still, I wouldn’t want to have been the wife unceremoniously dumped with two kids at home while Broughton achieved beautiful oneness with his new boyfriend.

The movie uses ample footage from Broughton’s films, which helps keep Big Joy visually spiky and arresting. Broughton had an eye, although he was far from a technical wizard — the avant-garde cinema of mid-century America wasn’t about technique, though a lot of it sure influenced later masters like Scorsese. From what we see and hear of his work, there isn’t much darkness or pain in it. It’s wish-fulfillment, full of good cheer. Which may be another reason Broughton has more or less been forgotten. His work lacks the chiaroscuro Cold War hysteria and paranoia of that of his peers, all of whom seemed to be flashing tabloid Weegee snapshots of the horror of being an outsider. Broughton projected his own idealized fantasies — he was essentially a romantic comedian.

It seems that Broughton peaked creatively with 1953’s The Pleasure Garden, which took a prize at Cannes, though Pauline Kael generously called his 1971 This Is It (starring Orion as a toddler) “a perfect little object.” After his Cannes triumph, Broughton actually had nibbles from Hollywood, which he blew off, to Kael’s consternation (“This,” she told him, “is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made”). He didn’t want to pimp his angels out to the studios; he wanted to keep making little 8mm baubles. He was, I guess, a naïve artist, oblivious to the almighty buck — though Big Joy is tight-lipped on the subject of what exactly Broughton lived on for all those years. He was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of a San Francisco art movement that swept him up and probably kept him in benefactors for decades. That phenomenon seems unlikely to repeat. So, no, a James Broughton would be impossible today.

The Fault in Our Stars

June 8, 2014

fault-in-our-stars-movie-clipsEvery young generation deserves its own great love story. But does The Fault in Our Stars qualify? I can’t truly be the judge of its greatness; that call isn’t mine to make. (My generation has Say Anything and the Before trilogy, and I can imagine the generation before mine taking issue with that.) I am no longer a teenager, the ideal age at which to experience doomed, star-crossed love — in fiction, mind you, not in life — for the first time. Really, I can only convey to what extent the movie successfully got around my defenses and spoke directly to my inner romantic teenager. Like John Green’s mega-popular 2012 novel, on which it’s faithfully based, The Fault in Our Stars flatters its audience for its hipness to the usual tragic narrative. But when it comes time to push the time-honored emotional buttons, goddamn, the movie works those buttons, pounds them. Even my inner teenager was offended.

The Fault in Our Stars is two-thirds of a graceful romance. The self-deprecating, sardonic teenager Hazel (Shailene Woodley, charming as usual), who narrates, barely holds cancer at bay with experimental drugs and an oxygen tank. At a rather pitiful support group — the movie is rather cruel about the basement-dwelling, Jesus-loving goof with testicular cancer who runs the group —  Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an equally sardonic kid who lost his leg to cancer. They forge a bond out of shared gallows humor; Augustus instinctively senses that Hazel has no time for uplifting bromides, and the two fall with relief into easy chat. They’re smart, well-read teens — Augustus favors adventure paperbacks, though, while Hazel idolizes a cancer-kid novel written by a recluse (Willem Dafoe) who hasn’t published anything since.

The recluse’s novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel wants to know what happens after it ends, which is to say she wants to know what happens after she ends. Does the fictional cancer girl’s family go on and find some sort of happiness? Hazel worries about her mom (Laura Dern), worries that too much of her is tied up in being Hazel’s mother and that she’ll be left with nothing once Hazel goes. I felt my eyes sting a couple of times, and Laura Dern owned both of those moments; just the way she runs into Hazel’s room, expecting a disaster, when Hazel has merely exclaimed about a surprising email, is heartbreaking. Dern does a huge amount with very little here; it’s heroically open work from a great actress.

The plot takes the two kids to Amsterdam, where Dafoe’s bitter alcoholic writer hides in a clutter of ignored fan mail and refuses to give Hazel an answer. In my mind, this is the most sensible thing he can do, because there isn’t an answer, but his harshness drives the couple out of his flat and into the Anne Frank house, where they have their first kiss while other tourists applaud. This sort of self-absorption is easily forgiven among (a) the dying and (b) the young, and Hazel and Augustus are both. It’s also an indication that Hazel may not be the most reliable narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars becomes aggressively, almost brutally manipulative in its final stretch. It’s an old-school weepie, all right, and the usual weepers will weep loudly, as they did at my screening. I stayed dry, ticking off all the bullet points. The purest love, the movie says, is not long for this life; true love can only spark between two people who won’t live long enough to get sick of each other (or to have a kid with cancer and to watch their married lives become about medical bills and wolf-hour hospital runs). As long as it stays with the two kids who have suffered far too much to be anything but honest around each other, the movie is fine. But then there’s middle-of-the-night melodrama and a fake funeral and a real funeral — so many attempts to raise a lump in the throat that even the most forgiving viewer may feel a bit throttled. The movie, like the book, may gather a patina of greatness for those who look back on it fondly once safely out of their teens. But both the movie and the book should have had the courage to end mid-sentence.

Maleficent

June 1, 2014

maleficent-angelina-jolie-31It has to be uncannily accidental synchronicity, but Disney’s Maleficent — emerging as it does after a week of national conversation about misogyny — is an unintentional #YesAllWomen fable. Men — or pretty much the only men we see — are weaklings, given to warmongering to impose their power. Women stand with nature, peace, paganism. The movie is a retelling of Disney’s earlier Sleeping Beauty, wherein the evil fairy Maleficent, offended at not having been invited to the christening of the king’s daughter, put a curse on her. In the new take, the offense runs much deeper and darker.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a powerful and benevolent faerie in the verdant, misty Moors, fending off occasional attacks from the bordering human kingdom with little trouble. Then one of the king’s subjects, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who’d been friends with Maleficent when they were both younger, drugs her, cuts her wings off, and brings them to the dying monarch as proof that he is worthy of assuming the throne. In essence, Stefan roofies and rapes her. The feminist screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), understands fable and myth and symbol. Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, so he mutilates her, denies her the release of flight. There’s nothing sexual in the assault, but then rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power; and Stefan’s act violently asserts the primacy of maleness (monarchy) over femaleness (the faerie realm).

Your kids may or may not pick up on most of that, but the subtext enriches the journey. Maleficent goes mad with rage, cursing Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, but then an interesting thing happens. Keeping watch over the girl (played as a teen by Elle Fanning), to make sure Aurora lives to see her sixteenth birthday when the curse will take effect, Maleficent grows fond of her. Some will call this needless softening of a great villain, but between this film and Frozen, Disney seems tired of “great villains” who reinforce old stereotypes. Elsa and now Maleficent have layers; they use their powers unwisely and are capable of regretting it. Stefan, too, has shadings of guilt and dread; he does despicable things, but behind it all is an orphaned boy who grew up in a barn. Stefan was driven to power because he came from utter powerlessness, and his betrayal of Maleficent brings him only misery and terror.

Director Robert Stromberg has won two Oscars for art direction, and predictably Maleficent, with cinematographer Dean Semler joining Stromberg behind the camera, has an eye for the beauty in darkness. Frequently, Angelina Jolie’s bone-white, angular face is the only thing visible in the shadows, looking on with malice or amusement or affection, glamorous as all hell. The sequences in which Maleficent slowly takes Aurora into her trust and her home have the delicate poignance of The Curse of the Cat People, in which former bad girl Simone Simon embraced little Ann Carter in the world of daydreams and butterflies. Maleficent has more in common, in fact, with that undervalued Val Lewton production than with the 1956 Sleeping Beauty, a bland reaffirmation of the status quo. Here, Maleficent is described as someone who is both hero and villain, and the only one, straddling those two moral worlds, who can set things right.

Angelina Jolie could’ve played an arch, cackling, two-dimensional gorgon, and it would’ve been delirious camp to launch a thousand drag queens, but what she does here cuts sharper, and when Maleficent pulls herself up to full majestic power during the climax it’s a real fist-pumping moment. Jolie purrs, snarls, sneers, comforts, sheds a single chic tear; it’s the kind of big performance actresses used to get to sink their teeth into, paradoxically, in Hollywood’s more sexist days. Camille Paglia will tell you that women in movies back then were goddesses, iconic, rococo and formidable. Jolie’s Maleficent is larger than life: larger than the movie she’s in, which is fastidiously crafted but can’t seem to contain what Maleficent represents — not merely woman scorned but nature affronted. Violence against women transgresses the psychic soil, makes a bloody mudbath out of the earth we commonly stand on. “There is evil in the world,” Maleficent tells Aurora, guiltily meaning herself, but also referencing a place in which a faerie can have her wings torn off and her assailant can seat himself on the throne. #YesAllWomen, indeed.