Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ebert Thoughts 2010

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) ****
Director: Alan Parker
Writers: Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Bob Ezrin
Starring: Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, James Laurenson, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Wright

Roger Ebert’s description of this film for Ebertfest makes it sound terrible, but he defends that by saying the film is exactly what the material demands. I wouldn’t really dispute what he has to say about the movie. I suppose it is a difficult one, but to this fan “Pink Floyd: The Wall” is like the ultimate music video. It’s filled with original images and tells a definitive story to go along with a landmark rock album. It use of animation during fantasy sequences is one of the early influences for me of animation as an adult art form. The film is brutal and depressing, its story unforgiving. It’s a perfect expression of all the bottled up angst that music can so readily release. I can’t believe I missed probably the only opportunity I will ever have to see it on the big screen with an eager audience, in 70mm nonetheless. I envy those lucky folks in Champaign, Ill.

You, the Living (2007) ****
Director/Writer: Roy Andersson
Starring: Jessika Lundberg, Elisabet Helander, Björn Englund, Leif Larsson, Ollie Olson, Gunnar Iversson

Who knew depression could be so charming? Although I think it may be inaccurate to describe what happens in the Swedish film “You, the Living” as depressing. The film is a strange celebration of life that studies the lives of several people in short, stationary-shot vignettes. There’s a tuba player who’s wife and neighbors are enraged by his practicing in their apartment building, a girl who is infatuated with a rock singer, a woman who can’t stand herself although her lover clearly can, a shrink who can no longer stand to hear his patient’s problems, and a barber who is fed up with being ignored by a customer. All these characters’ lives are brought down by their predicaments, but there is so much joy in watching their sad lives that I can’t help but think that writer/director Roy Andersson is one of those individuals who can find beauty anywhere in life. In this film he makes the ugly and mundane in life beautiful and funny.

Munyurangabo (2007) ***½
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Writers: Samuel Gray Anderson, Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Jeff Rutagengwa, Eric Ndorunkundiye, Jean Marie Vianney Nkurinkiyinka, Jean Pierre Harerimana, Narcicia Nyirabucyeye

“Munyurangabo” is a penetrating look at genocide. But it doesn’t look at genocide as a whole. It takes the individuals who are somehow caught up into it through no choices of their own as its subject. I wouldn’t go so far as to say these men (boys) are victims of genocide. Maybe symptoms? It follows two friends, one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu. These are the Rwandan tribes that have brought their country to civil war and killed so many. But these two boys start their journey as friends, however we don’t know just what they are journeying toward. They stop at the childhood home of the Hutu boy along the way, and their views on the strife within their country become changed for each of them. The Hutu’s father is secure in his views of their country’s conflict. This has a profound effect on what happens between the two friends and shows just how hatred is a self-propagating disease that affects those who have lived with it and infects those they touch.

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979 original/2001 redux) ****
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration), Joseph Conrad (novel “Heart of Darkness”)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, G.D. Spradlin

Were I to write a list of my ten favorite films (and I may), it is very likely “Apocalypse Now” would find its way onto that list. This is one of the few films that I have seen so many times I couldn’t count them on my fingers alone. I know this movie from end to end. That is I knew it from end to end until the “Redux” version came out in 2001. Now there are scenes that I know to my inner core and some that I’m just starting to get familiar with. It’s like getting a second chance to experience first love. Often times, when an extended version of a classic film comes out, the added scenes don’t add anything to the experience. Sometime some of the scenes do, and some take away. While Coppola used the “Redux” banner to indicate this version is not his “director’s cut”, which has been a subject of debate ever since the original version was released theatrically, this version does play like a director’s cut, because it all still feels essential. There are new scenes here that aren’t essential, but they lay so firmly within this descent into madness that they only add to its power. My only disappointment with this film is that it’s so very unlikely that I should get to know this old lover a third time as if it were the first.

Departures (2008) ****
Director: Yôjirô Takita
Writer: Kundo Koyama
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo

“Departures” is one of those gems that can be found at each Ebertfest. It’s a film so full of life and joy that you can’t help but smile at it. Most of the Japanese films I watch are period pieces, and it’s always nice to enjoy a film from a different culture that plays as if you’re watching everyday people going through lives that can easily be recognized in familiar surroundings. One aspect of this movie that really struck me was the actors’ abilities to speak to the camera and audience without dialogue (not that it’s a film without dialogue). Much of the time, I was able to look at the performers faces and know exactly what their character is thinking. This is an art not embraced by American cameras. It really speaks to the power of both the material and the performances.

Man with the Movie Camera (1929) ***½
Director: Dziga Vertov

As luck would have it, the version of “Man with the Movie Camera” available for streaming on Netflix is the version with Ebertfest’s own Alloy Orchestra’s score. This adds great life to this silent classic. Sometimes the scores chosen to accompany video versions of silents are less than thrilling. It was very important that this film should have a thrilling score, since the movie itself has no story line. In the only titles that accompany the movie, director Dziga Vertov claims the movie is an experiment in pure cinema, cinema as an art form unto itself with no writing or other art forms included. Of course, the score is the use of another art form, but the movie wouldn’t work without it. At first, it appears to be just random images of people moving, a woman sweeping the street, cityscapes, a man with a movie camera superimposed on top of a giant movie camera. But after a while, a pattern begins to emerge from the images, a sort of day in the life with the man with the movie camera as the only constant showing up in each setting to capture these images. The whole film is really quite fascinating. Most remarkable to me was to see how modern life in 1920s Russia seemed to be.

Synecdoche, New York (2008) ***
Director/Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest

A couple of years ago, I was able to reassess my opinion of Ang Lee’s 2003 version of “Hulk” at Ebertfest. The second screening turned my opinion of the film around from negative to positive. This year, “Synechdoche, New York” was the film to get a second chance. My original opinion was not a negative one, but I couldn’t see it in quite the light that allowed Ebert to claim it as the best movie of the decade. This time around the second viewing did nothing to change my opinion of the movie. I certainly see the value of the film. Its exploration of how we shelter and conceal our own selves from the world around us to the point where we don’t even know who we really are is poignant and perceptive. I can’t, however, get behind the fact that writer/director Charlie Kaufman does this in such a strange and languorous way that there is little entertainment value in the final product. It’s more like a study than an entertainment, and I’m a critic that believes in the entertainment value of a movie as much as in its depth.

I Capture the Castle (2003) ***½
Director: Tim Fywell
Writers: Heidi Thomas, Dodie Smith (novel)
Starring: Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy, Tara Fitzgerald, Henry Cavill, Sinéad Cusack

While “I Capture the Castle” is a well-made period romance that does a good job observing the complications of love when close-knit family members are involved, its triumphs over the typical trappings of plots where two siblings fall in love with the same person are not what I wish to discuss about this film. Bill Nighy is a brilliant British character actor who stars in this film as the family patriarch, a one novel writer whose brilliant first book has put too much pressure on him to produce a second. Nighy is one of those actors you probably don’t know by name, but would recognize from his diverse and prolific body of work in just about everything from “Love Actually” to “Pirates of the Caribbean”, from “Underworld” to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, from “Shaun of the Dead” to the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”, and a great amount of BBC television work. Nighy was also at Ebertfest for the panel discussion of “I Capture the Castle” this year, another big miss for me. It would’ve been such an honor to meet one of the great actors of our day. It’s those more obscure character actors I find myself admiring the most for various reasons: a strong body of work, a continuing non-stop resume, not embracing that notion of stardom, the ability to just disappear in a role. These all describe the work of Nighy.

Trucker (2008) ****
Director/Writer: James Mottern
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Jimmy Bennett, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams

“Trucker” made my Top Ten of 2009 list this year. One reader, who had seen just about every title on my list, said that this was the only one he didn’t agree with. Upon a second viewing, I cannot see why. The only thing I can come up with is that the opening scenes of the film may have jarred this person. It’s not in the traditional moviegoer’s film vocabulary to see a female character behaving in the ways male characters are usually portrayed. That is how Michelle Monaghan’s character starts her journey. She does a wonderful job of transforming her female trucker from someone who has run away from responsibility all her life into one who very reluctantly embraces it, out of duty rather than desire. I was once again moved by this story about a mother who must take care of the child she once abandoned when his father becomes ill. It was the only film of the festival that I had seen recently, and it retained the same power as my first viewing. It’s still on my Top Ten of ’09.

There were four films I was not able to obtain copies of to view on my own from this year’s Ebertfest. They are “The New Age” (1994), “Vincent: A Life In Color” (2008), “Barfly” (1987), and “Song Sung Blue” (2008). Please keep an eye on The Well and my Penny Thoughts to find out my impressions when I finally do get around to seeing them. To read any of Ebert’s own Ebertfest reviews and introductions, please visit the official Ebertfest website here.

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