Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ebertfest Report #5: No Longer (but Still) Overlooked

The Roger Ebert Film Festival used to be called the Overlooked Film Festival. The moniker change has not changed the themes of the festival. Ebertfest still celebrates overlooked films, which encompass more than just movies that weren’t seen by large audiences. The overlooked aspects of Ebertfest go as far to include past formats that are no longer utilized by the film industry. Every year the festival screens at least one silent film and usually one 70mm format film. This year was no different.

In past festivals I’ve had the pleasure to see such wondrous silent classics as the original sci-fi classic “Metropolis”, the Buster Keaton masterpiece “The General”, one of the first color pictures ever “The Black Pirate”, and the original horror classic “The Phantom of the Opera”. And almost ever year the silent feature is highlighted by the accompaniment provided by The Alloy Orchestra. Responsible for creating a movement to revitalize silent screenings at film festivals all over the world, The Alloy Orchestra is perhaps best described as they are in this year’s festival program: “An unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics allows the Orchestra the ability to create any sound imaginable. Utilizing their famous “rack of junk” and electric synthesizers, the group generates beautiful music in a spectacular variety of styles.”

In the earlier days of Ebertfest, the silents were generally some sort of spectacular, but now they’ve begun to favor the more character driven dramas and romances, like “Sadie Thompson”, “Underworld”, and “The Eagle”. This year’s entry “The Last Command” (1928) continued that tradition with the story of a former Russian general (silent great Emil Jannings) who commanded during the Russian Revolution and now finds himself a sad extra in a Hollywood movie about the revolution. One thing the silents really point out to a modern film audience is just how little dialogue really adds to those fundamental stories of glory and romance that are so typical from Hollywood fare. It’s somewhat amazing what is obvious just through action and facial expression.

On the final day of the festival Chas Ebert announced that The Alloy Orchestra would return next year with their musical accompaniment to the Russian classic “The Man with the Movie Camera” (1929).


Another forgotten format yearly touted by Ebertfest is the glorious 70mm film format. The first 70mm movie I ever saw was “Patton” presented at the 4th Annual Overlooked Film Festival. From the moment the light shown down from the projection booth through that film I was sold. While bulkier than the standard 35mm stock film used in most theaters today (now being replaced by digital projection), the picture clarity and vibrancy with 70mm is so good, it’s impossible to think this format was abandoned by the industry. But tossed out it was and Ebertfest is one of the few places left where anyone can see a movie in the 70mm format anymore.

This year’s 70mm entry was a movie that it seems the format was invented for, the wordless 1992 documentary “Baraka”. The movie doesn’t follow any sort of conventional story, but it certainly develops it ideas along insistent themes. Watching this beautiful documentary, I thought of Ebert’s frequent compliment about Martin Scorsese’s camera that there are very few shots when the camera isn’t moving. By moving the camera even ever so slightly through his locations, “Baraka director Ron Fricke invites the audience into the world he is photographing. As the camera moves we try to look around the edges of the screen to see what’s around the corner or spy some activity’s conclusion as it disappears from view.

The reason Fricke wants to pull the viewer into the action of his film is because it is about us and our residency here on Earth. His camera doesn’t move across every landscape or person. Several times throughout the film the camera simply regards the face of this person or that one.

Seen in the stunning 70mm format, “Baraka” is a unique experience even in comparison to other 70mm films. Producer Mark Magidson said before the film’s screening that he and Fricke vowed to make life-affirming movies. Throughout the film you can witness much of man’s destructive nature, and yet when it is over, you have experienced something so beautiful and unique that the term “life-affirming” is about the only way to describe it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ebertfest Report #4: Free Art Sold Here

One of the greatest features of the Roger Ebert Film Festival are the unsigned movies he invites each year. You can go to just about any film festival and see some movies that have yet to find distribution, but that can be a crapshoot. You never know what you’re going to get. But with Ebertfest those films that still lack distribution are going to be some of the best films you’re going to see each year. The greatest disappointment of these films is realizing that you won’t be able to talk about them with anybody outside of Ebertfest until they do find distribution. The truly shocking thing is that often times these movies never do.

This year there were two such movies invited to Ebertfest. Unfortunately, they are both fairly unpopular genres here in the United States. One is a documentary, the other a cartoon, and we’re not talkin’ Disney animals on parade.

“Begging Naked” is a fascinating doc about a New York City artist named Elise Hill. During Ebert’s introduction to the film he said it would be easy to describe the film’s subject in negative terms. She has been a drug addict, a prostitute, a stripper, and even suffers from mental illness. But that would be missing the vibrant, talented and exuberant person that lies underneath those pales descriptions of her activities in a life that would’ve been an unbearable struggle for most.

Hill’s best and now possibly only friend Karen Gehres directed the film over a nine-year period. Gehres described the making of the film as one unexpected development after another. She was a filmmaker looking to practice with video when Hill volunteered as a subject, then Hill’s life went off the deep end. Although she had been in the sex trade as a young runaway and her heroine days were behind her, the real hurdles of her life had yet to be set. She would soon find herself evicted from her converted airshaft apartment, struggling against severe paranoia, and homeless in Central Park. Through it all she continued to make her artwork, which is remarkable in its own right.

After the screening Gehres revealed much of the struggles of the filmmaking that went along with Hill’s personal strife, including being stuck on another job on the day of the eviction (her boyfriend filmed that sequence), and finding an editing team that shared her vision over the long process of shooting the picture. She admitted the most unexpected event that occurred with this film was the day Ebert called her to invite the movie to the festival.


OK. To call “Sita Sings the Blues” undistributed is a bit on an incorrect statement. In fact, it may be one of the most widely distributed films ever. Even if you’ve never seen it, or even heard of it, it’s quite possible someday you will. Its creator Nina Paley released “Sita Sings the Blues” on the Internet as a publically shared intellectual property. You can go to www.sitasingstheblues.com to view or download the movie or even order a special DVD edition to be released soon. But you can also Google it and find it in hundreds of other locations and formats on the Internet. However you find it, do it now. It is that good that you should see it now.

Perhaps I will review the movie eventually, but I like to take this opportunity to discuss Paley’s crusade for intellectual property sharing. It’s something that it seems corporate America has done a pretty good job of convincing people not to do. According to Paley, Copyright laws were developed in this country to encourage a continued output of new material from artists, however through retroactive extensions of such copyrights they’ve developed into a tool of corporations to create an ongoing monetary flow for artistic properties long after an artist has ceased to produce any sort of new work, usually because they have passed on from this world. At that point there’s really not much chance of encourage said dead artist to continue to produce intellectual properties.

There was a time in this country when artists were more willing to share their output of work. Paley pointed out that in the scientific community this type of work sharing is seen as a benefit to the community as a whole. With art it’s seen as “stealing”. But there is a good deal of artistic output that is squelched because of these overbearing copyright laws. Certainly at Ebertfest we’ve seen this affect more than one film. Often a film’s budget can double, or in the case of independents worse, when it comes time to pay for the music rights.

In the case of “Site Sings the Blues” Paley said she had to pay $50,000 for the use of recordings by Annette Hanshaw that should have become public domain some twenty years ago, but through retroactive copyright extensions ended up costing as much as if they were recorded ten years ago. The worst thing about this case is that these recordings aren’t being heard by anybody because of these ridiculous copyright laws, and may eventually be lost because nobody has the rights to use them anymore.

Movie piracy has become a great concern for the movie studios, and my thoughts here by no means condone such practices. In the recent high profile case of the “Wolverine” downloads, not only had the studio not released the property in any form yet, but the movie wasn’t even finished. And I do believe an artist or other owner of a property has the right to make money off of their work. They should make money. But these retroactive copyright laws are really pissing in the pool. My theater company can’t do plays that should’ve become public domain by now, and much art is just disappearing. Do you really think anybody is going to watch “Wolverine” fifty years from now if they have to pay to see it? I suppose that remains to be seen, but I suspect that once movie is released next week, people will understand what I mean by that.

This is an area where the Internet is destined to force a change. Already software engineers are leading the way by allowing public free access to software, and they’re still making a good deal of money with that software. Unsigned musicians also have a better grasp on the spoils that can be found by allowing free access to their material online. And for the past ten years or so people have been clamoring for movie studios and music labels to get with the Internet game, while the corporations have been whining about loss of profits instead of finding a solution to make it work. It seems that software developers have it figured out. It’s time for the corporations behind other art forms to catch up with the times.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest Report #3: Film Criticism 101

This morning I attended a panel discussion on “Film Criticism & the Internet”. The discussion was a lighthearted endeavor that only erupted into harsh differences of opinion at one point when moderator David Bordwell had to calm things down between a couple of the panelists. It also gave us “the first Unabomber reference of the festival” according to Richard Roeper.

The 10 person panel consisted of a broad cross reference of professional film critics, including Nell Minow, aka The Movie Mom (Beliefnet.com), Dean Richards (WGN Radio & Television), Steve Prokopy, aka ‘Capone’ (Ain’t It Cool News), Eric Childress (eFilmCritic.com), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), Kim Voynar (Movie City News), Lisa Rosman (US Weekly), Roeper (Chicago Sun Times), Pete Sobczynski (eFilmCritic.com), and Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune).

Early on the in the discussion Roeper demystified the notion of “the internet” as this entity that demanded and controlled a different set of rules for writing. He compared it to a similar misnomer of “the Media” as some conscious agenda oriented unit, some mass force out to get anybody who might oppose it. When in reality the critic, whether he is working for a publishing corporation or just writing for himself on the Internet, is only after “the elephant in the room”—money.

Monetary circumstances aside the Internet is something that all writers need to incorporate into their writing practices. “We’re all online pretty soon,” said Bordwell, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with several books on film in publication. “In fact, we just went under,” his punchline drew great guffaws of laughter from the entire panel. We laugh that we might not cry.

“The Internet has made possible a lot of views that were not possible before,” added Minow, speaking of her own success as The Movie Mom. In her not-quite-alternate persona, Minow has found a unique niche in the film criticism world of that of a critic who focuses on family themes and subject content issues that have landed her in forums and formats she may never have found herself in before the days of the Internet, when certain content ideals were required of the print critic.

While most of the critics agreed that the Internet loosed them of many of the restrictions they felt imposed upon their writing by word count and content editing, they all also agreed the were some definitive dangers in the way the Internet allows more writers more freedoms. Without editors, the Internet doesn’t create a structure in which a writer’s work in necessarily nurtured the way it should be. “It’s like when you’re having a conversation with somebody and they’re talking forever,” Richards added in criticism of how some online writers don’t know when to say when.

Bordwell brought up excess of plot summary as a common problem for the amateur critic working without an editor. This is certainly a problem I fight with myself about constantly. Speaking as someone who had a wonderful editor for a while, went through a period without one and is once again getting an editor’s treatment (however not on Ebertfest entries because of time restraints), I can say life for a writer is much better with good editing. I can just sit easier with what I’m putting out there and am able to relax as a writer once more.

Voynar added to Bordwell’s comment, “If you’re just synopsizing a film… well, a monkey at a typewriter could do that.” I’d like to meet that monkey. However, there is something to be said for a little plot summary. A review of this year’s silent film entry to the festival comes to mind. Roger Ebert chose to include a review from the original release of 1928’s “The Last Command” in this year’s program. And while it is nice to read the critical style of the 20’, there is no semblance of what the movie is even about in the article beyond the fact that the main character was a Russian General and has been reduced to being an extra in a Hollywood movie.

Ebert once wrote that even a plot summary could function as criticism. And there is truth to that statement. While some reviews can use some summary for clarity, the full-length plot summary as review leaves much to be desired. The important thing is to approach it from a specific perspective. “The unfortunate thing about the time demands [placed on critics] is that you can’t form a perspective,” injected Philips, “You can form an opinion quickly.”

Rosman added that another danger of the lone critic is that he runs the risk of getting self-referential. She said one of Ebert’s greatest strengths was that he is a generalist. He can relate the movie to the world at large, rather than with just that of his own personal experience. Bordwell was quick to point out that what can be said about a good film critic, can also be said about a good film director. They each have a larger story to tell, and that story reaches father back than the introduction of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith onto the movie scene.

Sartin proclaimed, “The Internet is voracious.” While this can benefit a critic with an outpouring of responses to his opinion, it also creates a sort of need for more immediate ways of accessing as much information as possible about the movies. This leads to the celebrity tabloidizing of productions, which might appeal to some readers, but generally acts as a distraction from the hardened analysis of movies for which critics are sanctioned.

Movie piracy is another symptom of the hunger the Internet has created for movie access. I broached the subject of piracy during the audience question and answer session. I asked the panel for their thoughts on the recent firing of Robert Friedman by FoxNews.com over the review he posted of the new “Wolverine” movie which he illegally downloaded in order to see it early. It was not a difficult subject for the panel to form their collective opinion on. They each quickly echoed the thoughts of Childress, “He got what he deserved.” (Read my parallel thoughts on the subject in my recent editorial here.)

These collective opinions appear online on sites like RottenTomatoes.com and MetaCritic.com. These collectives create a phenomenon that lead to the only volatility of the day’s discussion. In making a point about how writing should be the focus of any critic’s regimen, Childress alleged that many critics whose opinions were posted regularly as part of these collectives were tools of the studios. He said these critics who don’t really write anything, they just post a rating and a couple of blurbs are there to “get wined and dined by the studios.” “They don’t really contribute anything to the world of film criticism,” he said.

Richards was quick to retort, “Don’t write off those names you see in the print ads… Nobody’s wining and dining us; nobody’s putting pressure on us.” It was obvious the two were speaking from some specific experiences, Childress seeing careless criticism, Richards defending something he may have been accused of. But I believe the two were friends again by the end of the session.

In the end, this panel of ten experts couldn’t really find much to disagree on and had the same words of advice for any aspiring film critic who wanted his voice to be heard. Be yourself. You are your voice, and only by being true to yourself will you ever distinguish yourself as any sort of writer. Not wholly original wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.

As a side note, I felt compelled to apologize to Richard Roeper personally after forcing him to pose for a picture with me (above) at last year’s festival. I would later learn what a no no Ebert felt this was from one of his blog posts. Roeper was gracious in his denial that an apology was necessary, and said he thought Roger could be uptight about such things. Curiously, I later saw Roeper on the street and could have sworn he made an effort to avoid me. I can’t blame him though. He hadn’t had his lunch yet, and it certainly may have seemed as if that crazy guy in the NY Giants hat was stalking him. How do you think I knew he hadn’t had lunch yet?

Ebertfest Report #2: Life is Where You Make It

The first time I ever saw a film buy Guy Maddin was in 2005 when Roger Ebert selected his “The Saddest Music in the World” for his Overlooked Film Festival. I did not attend the festival that year but approximated it as best I could at home with the help of Netflix. As a film aficionado the name Guy Maddin had floated around my area of interest for a few years. I even had one of his films floating around in my rental queue, but Ebertfest allowed me the excuse to finally plunge into the world of Maddin. There is no other world in cinema as unique, impenetrable, and ultimately satisfying.

Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” is another satisfying folly that smacks of half remembered ideas from childhood about the city in which the filmmaker grew up. Ebert, with the use of his MacBook yet again, provided a glowing introduction of the movie. Roger commented on how much the movie reminded him of his own childhood growing up in Champaign, remembering things from a child’s perspective that he later realized were dramatically incorrect, such as that Green St. was the greenest street in town. He concluded with the statement, “Reality means nothing compared to the way we remember things.”

Maddin related a story from his childhood in which his mother would tell him that they were going to go to some exotic place when he returned from school, like Morocco. He would then go to school and tell everyone that he was going to Morocco when he got home and got beat up for it. He admitted, “It was a really gooby thing to say.” He also relayed that his mother would fill his belly with lint-covered mints during their home travel sessions. “I hope you brought your lint-covered mints with you,” he told the audience in the Virginia Theater.

Watching this movie brought me right back to a conversation I had with my best friend Trev over this past weekend. We were waxing nostalgic, and he brought up this old house in our childhood town. Somehow before he even described the house I knew what he was talking about. We used to take great pleasure in scaring ourselves, and there was a house near a railway trestle on the Androscoggin River that we were convinced was haunted.

As we remembered how much that house scared us, we began to realize we weren’t quite sure where we had gotten the idea that the house was haunted, beyond the fact that no one lived in it. Trev was sure either I or one of our other two best friends had actually been inside the thing when an “incident” occurred. Well, it wasn’t me and I was pretty sure it was one of those situations where one of us knew someone who had been in it, but hadn’t been in it ourselves. However, we came across our “knowledge” of the house’s supernatural qualities, all four of us were too scared of what we thought we knew about the place to even think about entering, although we plotted how we would break into the boarded up abomination on many a dark evening. How wonderful to think of what horrors an imagination like Guy Maddin could produce from those memories. But like much of Maddin’s Winnipeg, that old house has since been demolished to make way for an unexciting highway bypass between Topsham and Brunswick. Maddin says in his film “destruction is a growth industry in Winnipeg.” I think that is true of any place that encompasses our childhood memories. That is what makes Ebert’s comment so true.


“Chop Shop” was one of my favorite films from 2008. Director Ramin Barahni said before the screening that a friend of his told him he just had to see this auto shop jungle that exists “in the shadow of Shea Stadium.” He was so impressed with this hidden world that looks like it belongs in a country like India more than America that he had to make a film based there. Most New Yorkers are probably unaware of this area known as Willits Point, even Mets fans. In fact there was a man in the audience from Queens who expressed his shock in discovering this place existed “in [his] back yard.”

Barahni’s evocation of place is only one of the remarkable things about this movie. More notable is his evocation of life style. That this bubbling world of survival exists in anyone’s back yard would be a shock to many. “Slumdog Millionaire” was recently praised for its harsh depiction of survival in an India that seems exotic to us, but that film is really merely a fantasy of survival. The people in “Chop Shop” struggle day in and day out, and then begin again without becoming national heroes through a hit game show.

That is not to say this movie is all the doom and gloom of real life. It is very much a story with a beginning and an end and embodies a different kind of hope. The kind that people really survive off of. The story’s hero, Ale, is real kid with real dreams who unfortunately has to make real choices in life. But he never lets those choices crush him. Barahni noted the irony of a billboard picture in one of the scenes posted by a bank that claims, “We give you your dreams”. How humorous, or sad, considering the state of banks and the economy today.


The documentary “Trouble the Water” gives us a look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the inside. More specifically inside the hardest hit area New Orleans 9th Ward, given to us via camcorder images recorded by residents Kimberly River Roberts and her husband Scott Roberts. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal provide a good deal of shaping and buffering of those images with follow up material and coverage footage from various news sources, but it is the footage filmed by Roberts before and during Katrina that places the audience right in the middle of one of the greatest atrocities of the Bush administration.

Now I’m going to have to get this out of my system…

Aaaaaaaaarggghhh! Uhn! UM! AAAAAAAaaaah!

That is what this film makes you feel inside as you witness this great nation we live in during its darkest hour. Forget lies about WMDs. Forget elections being decided by the Supreme Court rather than the country’s citizens. Nothing has ever made me ashamed to be American than the way our government’s response to Katrina did. And seeing this movie, I realize it was worse than I ever thought at the time. Our response to the Tsunami half a world away was quicker than our response to a disaster in out own yard. But the 9th Ward was neglected long before FEMA ever forgot about them.

But what the filmmaker’s accomplish so well in this film is not losing their heads with anger. First through Roberts’ remarkable story of survival in the storm and then through all the frustration created by government facilities that seem more determined to delay any sort of relief or help with just about any excuse they can come up with, the Roberts and the filmmakers remain upbeat and determined to be grateful for what they do have.

At one point in the film the Roberts decide to leave New Orleans. In some way, this is almost a concession of defeat. I was happy to see they eventually decided to return to New Orleans so they could affect whatever change they could on the environment they call home. The experience of Katrina in many ways straightened their lives out. Approaching life with a new determination and no more illusions that their government will have their back, Kim and Scott have begun to realize potential they never knew before. Scott has become a respected carpenter helping to revitalize the 9th Ward and Kim has launched her hip-hop career in earnest under the name Black Kold Madina with the release of her debut album ‘Trouble the Water’. They are proof that a positive attitude will overcome—a lesson our government needs to learn only works if you also approach it with honesty.

Kim and Scott performed a few of Kim’s songs live for the Ebertfest audience and there was something both strange and sublime about the mostly white and middle-aged audience bobbing their heads to some pretty hardcore rhymes and beats. The talented couple brought their daughter Skyy out at the end of their performance and it was as if she were the real miracle to come out of the Katrina catastrophe. Washington take note—American’s don’t need you to be the greatest, you need us.

Black Kold Madina’s album “Trouble the Water” will be rereleased May 9. Look for it at www.bornhustlerrecords.com.

“Trouble the Water” premiered tonight on HBO. Check www.hbo.com for encore presentation schedule.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ebertfest Report #1: Ebertfest: 5 Days of Magic and Movies

Today (now yesterday) marks the first day of the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. It marks the fifth time I’ve attended the event and promises to be one of the more important Ebertfests in the history of the festival. Of the greatest importance is that this marks the triumphant return of Roger Ebert to the film festival that is his namesake.

The Chicago Sun Times critic spent the last couple of years in and out of hospitals after complications with the removal of a cancerous tumor left him quite literally speechless. He was all set to return to the tenth anniversary celebration of his film festival last year when a fall during physical therapy curtailed his trip. He has since renounced any further efforts to return the use of his voice through surgery, but even in silence, I’m sure the audience at Ebertfest will welcome his return.


This is my fifth time attending what is guaranteed to be the best programmed film festival out there, and for the first time I prefaced my trip to Ebert’s childhood home town film fest with a short visit to the city Ebert currently calls home, Chicago. I have a couple of friends residing in the Windy City, including my former editor Scott Downing and my friend since the first grade Trevor Walsh. I “crashed” at my longtime buddy’s house with his beautiful wife Charlene and their cats Huxley and Mouse. Hux and Mouse were a little more wary of the four-day intruder than their parents, but even they couldn’t resist the opportunity for some new found attention during some of the quieter moments of the weekend.

My passion for film is matched and quite likely surpassed by Trev’s and Scott’s passion for music; so in the past four days I’ve become enveloped back into the world of underground and just plain old great music. The driving force of their listening habits of at the moment seem to center around the doom/stoner rock movement being led by bands like OM, Earthless, High on Fire, Jesu, Sun O))) and Karysun among others.

In fact my personal film festival got off to an early start when Scott proposed a screening of the movie “Such Hawks Such Hounds” documenting the history of stoner rock. There is perhaps no better introduction to this seemingly obscure genre of rock that finds its roots in the 70s bands Black Sabbath, Pentagram and Deep Purple. After the screening I was out celebrating National Record Store Day looking up all the doom bands I could find. Came home with quite a few too.

There were other highlights to my pre-festival adventure. I enjoyed the best burger made by humans at a place called Kuma’s Corner. This burger is so good that it will make you contemplate the meaning of the universe, and the answer it provides is—to eat a burger at Kuma’s. I saw my first Dario Argento movie. “The Mother of Tears” is the third in the “Three Mothers” trilogy that began with his 1977 cult classic “Suspiria”. I will reserve my judgment on Argento until I’ve seen one of his films of that caliber, but I’m pretty sure “Mother of Tears” didn’t reveal anything important from to beginning of the series.

I also watched a sorely disappointing loss of the Bulls to the Celtics in their second game of the NBA’s first playoff round. To make it up to me Trev took me out to another bar at the expense of his own exhaustion at work the next day. Ironically, while there we fell victim to the scourge of movie piracy that holds Hollywood in a state of terror like the merchant vessels passing along the Somali coast. The bar tender—a familiar acquaintance with my buddy Trev—announced that he has one of those pirated downloads of the new “Wolverine” movie and because hockey sucks, that’s what he was determined to watch. Oh, what is a noble film critic to do? Somehow the night (and early morning) turned into an uproarious riot. There will be more to say on that matter in my review of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” when it is released theatrically next week. But feel free to check out my recent article decrying movie piracy here.

Now, I sit in eager anticipation of the opening night movie at the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. I’m quite satisfied with the fact that this year’s opening selection is “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music – The Director’s Cut”. It promises to construct a strong bridge between the two halves of my vacation. I’m ready for some of the best films I’ll see all year.


I walked into the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill. with a large can of Starbuck’s Mocha Double-Shot in preparation of the four-hour music phenomenon I was about to witness, and it struck me that Starbuck’s may very well be a product of that hippie nation that was formed in upstate New York over forty years ago. Certainly that event has something to do with how corporate America learned to latch on to pop cultural trends and exploit them to their fullest profit-making excess. Of course, Woodstock concert promoter Bill Graham is seen in the film suggesting to security the use of flaming oil to keep the non-ticket holders out of the venue, but alas the fact that Woodstock would become a free concert was inevitable in retrospect. However, not something today’s business oriented industry would allow.

Now, I’m perched in the upper balcony of that grand old theater realizing that my extended weekend was most certainly the result of that iconic concert in a cornfield. The doom music that dominated my outings with my friends might’ve had even those hippies running away in fear, but the music and cultural revolution that began with those three days of peace freed the minds of countless artists thereafter and countless more to come. It allowed a cultural barrier of controlled behavior to topple in favor of individualism and expression of self that has enlightened the music that has been consumed in mass quantities ever since. It has enlightened those that listened to them, and allowed them to embrace an atmosphere of self-expression that has lead to an ever-growing quantity of outlets and forums for relaying ideas and forging new ones. Extremists express most of those ideas because they bark louder than anyone else, but they have sprung forth in an era of information and worldwide access that allows anyone to put in their two cents. And most people do.

Whoa! Where did all this begin? Oh yes, Woodstock.


Michael Wadleigh was on hand to introduce his director’s cut of “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” to the capacity crowd of the Virginia Theater. He “reminded” the audience that the movie is not a retrospective. Woodstock was the beginning of a social, political and environmental movement that is still going on today. Wadleigh’s words and warnings brought great relevance to the fact that this screening was held on Earth Day.

But before the screening of the film there was urgent business to attend to. Roger Ebert returned to the stage of the Virginia Theater to a standing ovation as his wife Chas addressed the audience saying, “Heee’s back!”

She promised the crowd “this is going to be a groovy evening.” And then invited Wadleigh onstage to ask the audience the question we all were already asking ourselves, “Is there anybody in the audience who was at Woodstock?” There was one resounding “Yeeeeeaaah!” screamed from the mezzanine level. I think she was still there.

Then, remarkably, Roger addressed the audience himself with the use of a MacBook with a suspiciously British accent. Roger introduced the film as the 70mm director’s cut version, however I later discovered from the projectionist that it was actually digitally projected using a 70mm source for the digital version. Honestly, it wasn’t as crisp as the 70mm prints usually look in with the expert projection provided at Ebertfest. If someone was trying to prove something about the clarity of digital being just as good as 70mm to Roger, I think they proved Roger’s point that it isn’t. Regardless, the film looked great (just not as great as it would’ve in true 70mm), and Roger closed his introduction of the picture by cautioning the audience not to take the “brown acid.”

There is a moment in Wadleigh’s wonderful movie when a dimwitted reporter asks one of the concert organizers what musicians have that allow them to speak to young people. The organizer has no trouble deducting it. “Music”, he says. Duh!

There is another point, when Joe Cocker takes the stage. The camera focuses on his erratic hand movements, and all I could think about was the impression John Belushi did of him on “Saturday Night Live”. Then Cocker begins to sing and all those thoughts just disappear. What comes out of his mouth is magical and transformative. There is nothing else that matters at that point. And the same thing happens in the once omitted footage of Janis Joplin. And during Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. And during the Canned Heat performance when some lucky audience member somehow makes his way on stage to bum a smoke from the singer during the middle of a song. And during all the performances and interviews. Wadleigh spoke after the screening about the honesty of the movie. And generally it isn’t just the movie that’s honest, but the people in it. The Police Chief who isn’t a “cop” because he’s the Chief of Police. Or the farmer who provided a place for the food to be delivered. Or the commune couple who actually have quite an enlightened perspective on the world. Or the musicians, because they provide the music. And that’s were the honesty really is. It’s in the music. The music is everything.

"Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Ultimate Edition" DVD and Blu Ray will be available June 9.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Somali Critic

On April 2, it was reported that 20th Century Fox’s highly anticipated summer blockbuster season opener “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” had become the latest high profile movie to succumb to the growing black market of movie piracy. The studio, which had prided itself as one of the more secure studios against movie piracy, then found that their property had become the most downloaded pirated movie ever in less than one week. During that same news cycle it was also reported that FoxNews.Com had fired one of its own film critics for posting a review on their site based on a copy of the 20th Century Fox film he had obtained illegally. While Fox News and 20th Century Fox are two separate entities under the News Corp family, it seems that even corporate families have black sheep.

While initial statements by Fox News were ambiguous about the nature of the departure of Roger Friedman—the critic in question—it seems pretty clear that Friedman was forced to leave the company because of the infraction. In a statement made to the Los Angeles Times, entertainment writer Geoff Bouche commented, “The review was an audacious thing to do (or maybe just stupid) considering that 20th Century Fox, a corporate relative, had gone to the FBI to fight back against the theft and mass piracy." No doubt.

I mean really, what was this guy thinking? You are a movie critic, making a living watching movies and giving your opinion on them so the public can determine what they want to go out and see each weekend. “Wolverine”—a franchise spin-off of the popular “X-Men” movies—is one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. Fox is supposed to have it under lock and key. Certainly there is a journalistic sense of getting one over on your competition here. It gets leaked and with the rising popularity of anyone in the blogosphere giving out their opinions for free (something I know a little about), you might feel the need to get your opinion out there as soon as the pirates can. But, Hey! You work for the same corporation that has just been very publicly embarrassed. It doesn’t occur to you that there might be some form of repercussions for your illegal actions?

But aside from biting the hand that feeds you, this guy is a real twit to have this much disrespect for the very art form that is supposed to be his passion. Movies are intended to be seen a certain way, on a big screen with big sound and an audience of piers witnessing a shared experience. Any true cineaste knows there is no better way to watch a movie, especially some mega produced summer blockbuster comic book action spectacular like “Wolverine”. Those pirates are missing out on the pure cinematic experience of seeing a greatly anticipated movie on the big screen for the first time. Many of them will watch it on their computers and still go out on opening day to see it in a theater, but they will never get that thrill of staring up at the screen at a movie going experience that is completely new. And this dope gave all that up to get his opinion out at the same time as a bunch of criminals.

Not to mention the fact that he put his name on this thing in a very public format for all the people he stole from to see. Friedman’s not blogging under some blogger pseudonym, like celuloidsavior or jackmantastic. He’s got a byline that’s paid for and read by people who not only employ him, but also those who provide the material with which he sculpts his own work. Critics don’t really ask to be respected by the filmmakers they critique. They often don’t even deserve that respect, considering how vicious some can be; but to blatantly steal from them is just stupid.

The ironic thing about all this is that Friedman wrote a glowing review of the film (“it exceeds expectations at every turn”). Perhaps he thought his ecstatic approval of the film would ingratiate himself to his employers. However, if that were truly the case, he probably shouldn’t have included such a bold stamp of approval of the entire piracy experience by including comments like “so much easier than going out in the rain” in his review.

When it comes down to it, Robert Friedman was foolish in his decision to pirate any film in an industry that currently hasn’t much need for professional critics. When anyone and their mother (yes, I include myself in this group rather than the professionals) can blog and post and tweet their thoughts out into the interweb, and when corporations that once employed critics are continuing to scale back their payrolls; it’s not a good time for an opinion man to be rocking the boat by committing a criminal act, nor is it very professional. Just wait for it like everybody else who isn’t a pirate, and maybe they won’t have to bring the Navy SEALS down on your ass.

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" opens world wide May 1.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain / ** (PG)

Jack Bruno: Dwayne Johnson
Sara: AnnaSophia Robb
Seth: Alexander Ludwig
Dr. Alex Friedman: Carla Gugino
Henry Burke: Ciarán Hinds
Dr. Donald Harlan: Garry Marshall

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback. Based on the book “Escape to Witch Mountain” by Alexander Key. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements).

There’s an age where kids become aware of the universe. When they suddenly realize that Earth is but one location in a much larger reality, and from there the fascination with the possibility of life on other planets begins. For some this fascination remains only a childhood fantasy, for others it becomes a lifelong obsession. In the new Disney update “Race to Witch Mountain” there is a Las Vegas conference depicting a gathering of those in the latter category, but the film itself is geared primarily for those still experiencing the childhood fantasy.

I remember seeing Disney’s original “Escape to Witch Mountain” and its sequel “Return to Witch Mountain” as a kid. I was about the same age as my own son, who I brought along with me to the screening of this reboot. In the late seventies I watched the screen with the same look of wonder that glazed over my son’s eyes in this new movie. The magic of cinema and a world where aliens come to Earth in flying saucers work as well on this new generation as they did two and a half decades ago. But for the adult, who has matured as a movie watcher over the years, the puppet strings are a little too visible now.

A UFO crashes in the desert just outside Las Vegas. Men in black are immediately scuttled from a top-secret lab in Witch Mountain to contain the situation. Led by the ominous Henry Burke, the government tries to contain the crash to secrecy but the spaceship’s inhabitants get away. Ciarán Hinds (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) does his best not to gnash his teeth as Burke, but that’s really all that’s required of his character.

Meanwhile, Vegas cabbie Jack Bruno ends up with the alien fare. Sara (AnnaSophia Robb, “The Reaping”) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig, “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”) look like two normal Arian teenagers, however they hold extraterrestrial skills that come in handy once the government goons catch up to the yellow cab. Bruno’s driving skills from his previous career as a pro racecar driver also help, but oddly he looks more like a former pro wrestler. Actually, Dwayne Johnson (“Get Smart”) is typically charming in the role but isn’t given enough to do beyond disbelieving the kids’ story and their otherworldly abilities.

As it turns out these aliens are on the run from the government of their own planet and need some earthlings to help them save both planets. Jack Bruno—the female alien insists on calling him by both his names as a sign she either doesn’t understand our naming traditions or isn’t intelligent enough to notice that this is unusual—doesn’t feel he has the know how to keep these kids alive, so he calls upon the help of an E.T. expert Dr. Alex Friedman. Carla Gugino (“Watchmen”) is also given little to do with this character.

In fact, under utilizing talented actors seems to be a goal of Andy Fickman, who previously directed Johnson on the 2007 football comedy “The Game Plan”. He also casts Cheech Marin (“Planet Terror”) as a mechanic who should be the most sought after in the world considering the miracles he performs on Jack’s cab. Tom Everett Scott (“Because I Said So”) is relegated to a near extra role as one of Burke’s stooges. And director Garry Marshall (“Keeping Up with the Steins”) is on hand to be Garry Marshall as an alien conspiracy nut.

The movie’s other weak point is its special effects, which are sometimes adequate and other times seem as if they were made for a low budget television show from about 20 years ago.

The film’s target audience will miss most of these quibbles. Ten-year-old boys (and maybe girls) will see an action packed adventure inspired by super powered visitors from outer space. And on that level, the movie is passable. It misses a good many opportunities to quip jokes at alien hunters and sci-fi convention geeks. The writers make a half-hearted sweep at these types of jokes, but they seem more interested in taking their rather basic story seriously. I’m not sure if more humor would have helped or hurt the movie, but it could’ve made it a little more interesting and given the actors a little more to do.