Archive for the ‘Moving Picture Shows’ Category

The Ebert Great Movies Project

As a kid, Roger Ebert didn’t particularly resonate with me. With only a minimal interest in movies, Ebert was little more than the heavyset component of the tandem that used its thumbs to grade new cinematic releases. For a long stretch of my life, I only had two vivid memories of him. One was the cameo appearance he and Gene Siskel made on an episode of the short-lived animated series, The Critic. The other was finding his 1986 movie yearbook on one of my mom’s bookshelf. It was through that book that I learned of this apparently deplorable revenge film I Spit on Your Grave.

When my interest in film swelled in my latter high school years, Ebert was still something of an enigma to me. Even into my early college years, I didn’t recognize him as much more than the guy who gave the horrendous Van Helsing THREE stars.

It wasn’t until I bought Citizen Kane on DVD and listened to Ebert’s fascinating audio commentary that I started to get hip to the guy’s wealth of cinematic knowledge. Not long after, I came across the first volume of collected Great Movies reviews. After browsing several entries, I realized how powerful this knowledge was. The reviews were nearly scholarly in nature. They not only informed and provoked thought, but also made me want to drop the book and find several of the movies on DVD as quickly as I could.

For the uninitiated, Ebert’s Great Movies reviews are reserved for, wait for it, great movies. This elite collection of reviews has few criteria. It includes modern films, blockbusters, silent films, foreign films, and animated films, to name a few. As you might expect, the film in question need only be “great” in the eyes of Roger Ebert.

So what is The Ebert Great Movies Project? It’s my own stab at expounding on a number of the films Ebert has smacked with the Great Movies stamp. In the coming months, I’ll select entries from his Great Movies cannon and examine them myself, using his review of the film as a sort of secondary source.

The indefinite project has two objectives:

1) To conduct my own dissection of films from the Great Movies collection

2) To elaborate on elements of Ebert’s review that I agree or disagree with

To me, the second objective is the most enticing. Part of the joy that comes from superb cinema is the discourse that it breeds. This includes contrasting viewpoints, which can exist even when the overall opinion of the film is the same.

In the interim, get yourself acquainted with the wealth of information available in Ebert’s Great Movies online database.

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The final curtain call

In case you didn’t notice, Michael Jackson was kind of a big news item all summer. Following his June 25 death, Jackson’s legend enjoyed a resurgence. In a matter of hours, his 15-year role as the butt of jokes was changed and (almost) everyone suddenly remembered what had made Jackson a musical icon in the first place.

Anyone who paid any attention to the hours of coverage that ensued following his death is well-versed with circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson’s This Is It.

Originally the title of what of was to be his “final curtain call” on the touring circuit, This Is It is instead a two-hour collection of rehearsal footage packaged as a gift for Jackson’s legions of fans.

But this is not a documentary intended to mourn or ponder the loss of the King of Pop. There are no post-mortem interviews. Interviews of any sort are rare commodities here.

Instead, we get a stage-side seat to witness the collaboration of a concert of grandiose proportions.

And that’s where the magic happens.

The Michael Jackson we get does not at all resemble the frail Jackson we’d become familiar with this decade. The Michael Jackson who seemed almost incapable of walking into a courtroom, let alone unleashing his trademark Moonwalk is nowhere in this footage. We see a man with a revitalized sense of purpose; someone who doesn’t only want to glide across the stage but is fully able to do so.

This Is It features several moments where we catch Jackson’s definitive knowledge of not just his own catalog, but entertainment as a whole.

At one point, he halts “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” to tell his bass guitarist precisely how much funkier he needs the song’s unmistakable groove to be.

Though we never see the finished product, we witness the meticulous planning Jackson put into making each song of the concert set list a visual delight.

“Smooth Criminal” opens with a video of Jackson edited into a shootout with Humphrey Bogart. Video effects turn 11 dancers into a backdrop of 11,000 soldiers in “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Watching Jackson own the stage for the better part of two hours is a bittersweet experience. Here’s a person who led a dual existence his entire life. On stage, there may have never been such an electric entertainer. Away from the stage, we saw a man who never seemed comfortable in his own skin.

To that end, it’s reassuring to watch This Is It, knowing that Jackson spent his final weeks immersed in the one environment where he wasn’t inhibited.

Toward the end of the documentary, Jackson and the crew join hands in a circle. Jackson thanks the crew for their patience, reminding them that the preparation is not without a purpose.

“This is escapism. We’re taking them [the audience] to places they’ve never been,” he tells them.

Jackson’s death may have prevented that from happening as he envisioned. But This Is It still provides a slice of that escapism.

Originally published in the 11.2.09 edition of The Valley Vanguard.

Rubber Spiders with Broken English

Now that most of my friends have real people jobs, I find myself looking for ways to fill my time. The typical person will usually remedy this by getting a pet or volunteering for something. But I hate cats and I don’t plan to volunteer for anything until it’s court ordered. So that means I’m dusting off the ol’ DVD shelf (not literally, of course, I’m too lazy) and watching some of the reasons why I rarely had sufficient funds in my checking account.

Anyway, I watched the original Dracula a couple weeks back. I’ve seen it probably four or five times but I always seem to forget just how… dull it is outside of a couple things.

No one cares what I think about this, but I’m going to list off my reasoning in an effort to retard my impending illiteracy:

The Good

Bela Lugosi: Chances are this is a pretty forgotten flick if not for our broken-English-speaking pal Bela. When anyone thinks of the Dracula character now, they think of Lugosi’s Dracula: suave, thick accent, charming. They certainly aren’t thinking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who was a decrepit old man with less luck with the ladies than myself.

Lugosi wasn’t much of an actor, but his own shortcomings with the English language and the subsequent halting delivery of his lines actually enhanced the Dracula character. The movie’s at least interesting whenever he’s on screen.

Dwight Frye: The dude who plays Renfield, the real estate agent who makes the fateful journey to Dracula’s castle at the outset of the movie. Most of the actors in the film have the personality of the chair I’m sitting on right now, but Frye’s range from the polite gentleman at the start of Dracula to the slithering, deranged mideon of Dracula is remarkable. He almost gets you thinking maybe it isn’t so bad to eat spiders.

The Not So Good

Everyone Else: Like I said, I’ve seen this movie four or five times. Other than the aforementioned actors along with the character of Van Helsing, I couldn’t properly ID anyone else in the movie if you put a gun to my head. Part of this blame probably can go to the static stage direction (read: almost no direction).

The Direction: Tod Browning made his mark in silent film by churning out flick after flick about social outcasts. And he did a damn find job of it, too. But the guy was clearly out of his element with sound pictures. There is no soundtrack for the movie and with the sparse dialogue you would expect from a director still stuck in the silent film mindset, there are dozens of moments with nothing but static. This will occasionally work in the favor of the film, as it creates a tense atmosphere. But elsewhere, it becomes a source of hazy focus.

Innnnn Conclusion

I surely didn’t set out to write hundreds of words about this, but I had to voice my surprise that this is only a key movie because of what it meant for the genre and popular culture, not because of its own isolated greatness.

I still wouldn’t mind being a Count, though. Count Alex. Yes, yes. I like the sound of that very much. Maybe I’ll go look into purchasing some crumbling castle.

Spaghetti Basterds

Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb theory remains perhaps the easiest way to describe suspense.

Hitchcock’s theory dictates that by showing the audience a bomb under the table two men are sitting at, the director is generating suspense. Pedestrian conversation between the two men subsequently turns into a white-knuckle experience, as the audience waits for the bomb to go off.

Quentin Tarantino uses this technique at least twice during Inglourious Basterds, his latest directorial creation, which features an alternative take on the Nazi regime and its eventual demise circa World War II.

Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, right) questions Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

The first instance of this is during the opening scene, in which Colonel Hans Landa (played by the show-stealing Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew Hunter,” visits a French dairy farmer.

Through pedestrian conversation, Landa’s purpose for the visit surfaces: He is searching for an unaccounted Jewish family. Instead of a bomb under a table, Tarantino uses the family under the floorboards. This extended scene firmly establishes Inglourious as much more than a film to later get labeled as standard war or action fare.

Yes, the film involves World War II and there are bursts of action. But Tarantino’s mastery of suspense paired with his uncanny ability to develop compelling characters and plot instantly plucks Inglourious far away from some paint-by-numbers action flick.

Some may dislike Tarantino’s revisionist history. Those people fail to understand Tarantino has no intention of translating pages from a history book to the screen.

Instead, he wants to put the Tarantino stamp on an infamous section of history. Factual characters such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels share an existence with the fictional Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his band of Basterds, who share a hunger to exterminate virtually every Nazi they meet.

In several ways, Inglourious is Tarantino’s most daring film: a loaded statement when you consider his last two films were tributes to Hong Kong martial arts (Kill Bill Vol. 2) and exploitation movies (Death Proof).

He pulls himself away from his trademark retro-modern universe where characters frequent cafes and taverns and still listen to The Delfonics on vinyl. He relocates and sets up shop in a completely different time, where he strips away the pop culture references and ‘70s-fusedsoundtrack synonymous with his other directorial efforts.

And still, Inglourious unmistakably has Tarantino’s fingerprints all over it. There’s his knack for plugging famous actors into quirky roles.

Pitt as Aldo Raine is a far cry from the clean-cut, eloquent Pitt engaging in heists with George Clooney by his side in the Ocean’s trilogy. The scar- and abrasion-covered Raine is a gruff, Tennesseeborn bootlegger, who would most certainly rather kill a troop of “Natsees” than rip off a casino.

There is the fluid dialogue that always seems to knock 150 minutes off the clock quicker than films half as long. Then there is the unorthodox manner in which several characters are introduced. We might get a quick narrative introduction or a simple scribbling of the character’s name accompanied by an arrow on screen.

And of course, no Tarantino film is complete without an homage to some film niche. With Inglourious, it’s the Spaghetti Western, a genre popularized in the 1960s by then unknown Clint Eastwood. To this effect, Tarantino drops his traditionally nostalgic soundtrack in favor of compositions from Ennio Morricone, the Italian-born composer whose scores helped define these Eastwood features.

Inglourious serves as another testament not just to Tarantino’s personal love of movies, but also his ability to dabble in new areas and still create classic cinema.

**** out of ****

"I’m Sick of All These Motherf*ckin’ White People in My Motherf*ckin Neighborhood!"


Neil LaBute has kept a low profile since unleashing the unintentionally hilarious Wicker Man into the world in 2006.

Lakeview Terrace marks his first appearance in the director’s chair since that debacle and though the results are better—how could they not be—LaBute still has a tall order in restoring the credibility he built up in the ‘90s.

Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) and Kerry Washington (The Last King of Scotland) play an interracial couple who buy their first home in a posh Los Angeles suburb. Samuel L. Jackson is Abel Turner, their strict widower neighbor who objects to such a relationship.
Tensions rise as Abel, an LAPD officer, perpetrates a series of mind games against the couple.

The caveat with movies that have racial issues at their core is it invites lazy film making. Racial conflict is such a touchy subject that it’s easy to throw together a basic premise, include a racial element, and expect quality results to trickle down. When filmmakers avoid this entrapment, you get films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which also featured Jackson) and Tony Kaye’s American History X. When they don’t, you get Lakeview Terrace.

David Loughery and Howard Korder, who can share equal blame in collaborating on the script, don’t bother to attach much depth to the characters or scenarios. Despite lots of physical contact, Wilson and Washington’s chemistry is so unnatural that you start to ask, “Why are they together?” Early confrontations between Wilson and Jackson make for unsettling moments, but as per the usual with uninspired movies, the promise of those scenes are never fully realized.

The issues examined in Do the Right Thing still divide audiences as much today as it did after the film’s 1989 release. Lee took the time to develop the neighborhood setting and its inhabitants into complex entities. Motives and actions aren’t cut and dry, which leads to a shocking conclusion without a clear antagonist.

The minds behind Lakeview Terrace don’t seem interested in such shades of gray. What little character development Jackson’s character gets feels tacked on, and even then, he at no point comes across as a sympathetic character.

It’s difficult to knock Jackson, who once again exhibits his ability to take shoddy material and deliver, at worst, an admirable performance. The energy he brings to most of his roles makes his resume scattered with clunkers forgivable. It’s that intensity that’s converted some of those flicks into cult classics (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?).

But no amount of that classic Samuel L. Jackson bravado can mask that Lakeview Terrace is a generic thriller posing as a relevant piece of social commentary.

** out of *****