Monday, April 27, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—The 39 Steps (1935) ***½

UR, 85 min.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, John Buchan (novel)
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” plays as a movie trying to break out of the constraints of its times. It is an example of how Hitchcock needed the power and scope of Hollywood to jump the cinematic art forward in just the way he did after his marriage with Tinsletown. It is a movie that bursts at its cinematic seams for greater production value and a leap forward in storytelling for the format.

As is often the case with Hitch, he unsettles his audience with his opening images. A man buys a ticket at a box office and the next few shots are those of feet. Even the purchase of the ticket fails to show us a face or even a torso of the man we are following into a theater. Without seeing any faces and with a sequence of feet walking this way and that, we are immediately placed into the mindset of a sort of chase going on. And yet, we have no notion of who is being chased, or why, or who is doing the chasing. The inside of the theater is a scene of a degree of chaos.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—The Motel Life (2012) ***½

R, 85 min.
Directors: Alan Polsky, Gabriel Polsky
Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Willy Vlautin (novel)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Joshua Leonard, Noah Harpster, Kris Kristofferson

Saturday is always the most surreal day of Ebertfest. I don’t know why. I wonder if they try to program the films in a way to produce an eerie sense of being adrift. It’s not a criticism. It just always seems that Saturday is the “lost” day of the festival, with characters trying to find their way through the morass of life. Saturday is the longest day of films and the atmosphere created by them makes it a sort of wonderful cinematic experience.

This year’s Saturday schedule included the films “Wild Tales”, “Ida”, “The Motel Life” and  “99 Homes”. I watched two of these this year and both have a distinct feel of despair about them. The first was “Ida”, with its black and white cinematography and somber subject matter; it certainly played into that atmosphere I described. “The Motel Life” is another strong fit for the Saturday feel.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—Ida (2014) ****

PG-13, 82 min.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy TrelaAdam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska

So, I’ve reviewed this film before. It’s easy to concentrate on the central character here, Anna, the nun who discovers she’s a Jew just before she takes her vows. This time I’d like to concentrate a little more on Wanda, her aunt. Wanda is a very interesting woman. This is the 1960s, and Wanda appears to be a fairly powerful woman as a state prosecutor. Wanda has as much of a journey to take as Anna here. It is Wanda who takes them on their search to find Anna’s parent’s graves. Of course, that journey leads to the revelation of a dark family secret, a secret Wanda must be very aware Anna will discover.

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—A Bronx Tale (1993) ***

R, 121 min.
Director: Robert De Niro
Writer: Chazz Palminteri (also play)
Starring: Lillo Brancato, Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Taral Hicks, Katherine Narducci, Clem Casterta, Alfred Sauchelli Jr., Frank Pietrangolare, Joe Pesci

I got a different kind of story for my thoughts on the directorial debut of Robert De Niro and the break though of Chazz Palmiteri onto the cinematic scene. I’m not a huge fan of the film “A Bronx Tale”. I mean it’s good, but it isn’t as impressive as I feel it should’ve been. Palminteri’s writing might’ve worked better on stage than it does here. His primary message has to do with the two father figures for his central character with De Niro the real father and Palminteri a mobster surrogate, and how they both want the best for the kid, which is for him to stay away from the criminal life Palmiteri’s character has embraced. There are a lot of contradictions in Palminteri’s story and a great deal of social issues that are explored but never fully developed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ’15—The Son of the Sheik (1926) ***

UR, 68 min.
Director: Geo. Fitzmaurice
Writers: Frances Marion, Fred de Gresac, George Marion Jr., Edith Maude Hull (novel)
Starring: Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky, George Fawcett, Montague Love, Karl Dane, Bull Montana, Binunsky Hyman, Agnes Ayers

The biggest disappointment of missing Ebertfest each and every year is missing the Alloy Orchestra’s live accompaniment of the year’s silent feature. This year’s film is Rudolph Valentino’s “The Son of the Sheik”, a sequel to his film “The Sheik”, not that you have to see the first film to follow the second.

I love seeing the silent films. I don’t watch a lot of silent films, but Ebertfest ensures that I will watch at least one every year. I think that’s a good rule for any cineaste. You should watch at least one silent film a year. More would be better. It was such an innovative time in cinema. At Eberfest I’ve seen some of the best. More importantly, I’ve seen something from just about every silent legend.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—Moving Midway (2007) ****

UR, 95 min.
Director/Writer: Godfrey Cheshire
Featuring: Charles Silver, Robert Hinton, Godfrey Cheshire, Dena Silver, Abraham Hinton

“Moving Midway” is exactly the type of movie that makes Ebertfest the unique cinematic experience that it is. Sure, Ebertfest screens movies with big name stars. They program incredible auteur works. But you’ll also find these little surprises here. “Moving Midway” is one of those rare masterpieces that becomes so through heart and passion that shines through without the flash and flare of budgets and known commodities. These cinematic treasures often come in the form of a documentary. This year, it is “Moving Midway” that wows and moves me with its simple premise that informs one of the most compelling and ambitious films of this year’s festival.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ebert Thoughts ‘15—Goodbye To Language (2014) **

UR, 70 min.
Director/Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoé Bruneau, Christian Gregori

I recently reviewed Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her”. It’s easy to see with that film the track that had started in Godard’s career and would eventually lead him to a film like “Goodbye To Language”. While his less narrative, more documentary style worked well with the freer thinking of the late 60s, his cinematic philosophizing has become as confused as the world itself today. While there might be some value to be weighed into that notion, the consumption of it leaves something to be desired.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ebertfest 2015

Tomorrow evening marks the launch of the 17th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. It has now been more years since I’ve been than I ever attended. I miss it. It must be the most joyful film festival of the year, because every film there is there because it strives for excellence. Every audience member is there because they love film with a passion.

More so than any other year, I will not be able to see many of the entries. Six of this year’s 12 films are either currently in select theaters—i.e. no where near the cultural black hole in which I reside—or haven’t even been released yet. The three in theaters are “Girlhood”, which is not a spinoff of last year’s excellent “Boyhood” but rather a film about a group four teenage girls who explore what friendship means and the protection it provides. It is the third film by director Céline Sciamma’s to examine what it is like to be a girl. “Wild Tales” was one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film and was even considered a dark horse to steal the prize from eventual winner “Ida” (another of this year’s Ebertfest films). It is the rare multi-story feature that works well cohesively, prompting many critics to claim it as the best multi-story picture they’d ever seen. And finally, Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut “Seymour: An Introduction” is a documentary about the great classical pianist Seymour Bernstein. This film will close the festival in a slot that is traditionally reserved for a music-oriented film.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Home / ** (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Oh: Jim Parsons
Gratuity ‘Tip’ Tucci: Rihanna
Captain Smek: Steve Martin
Lucy: Jennifer Lopez
Kyle: Matt Jones

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Tim Johnson. Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. Based on the book “The True Meaning of Smekday” by Adam Rex. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for mild action and some rude humor).

“Home” is a perfectly entertaining movie for children of a certain age. It lacks—as more and more CGI animation efforts do these days—that vigor to press the animation boundaries once shattered by Pixar. I suppose DreamWorks Animation has always been the poor man’s Pixar, but its ambition seems to falter more with every successive effort. “Home” is just the most recent in the diminishing vibrancy of family centric CGI animation.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Penny Thoughts ‘15—Moneyball (2011) ****

PG-13, 133 min.
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin, Michael Lewis (book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Reed Diamond, Brent Jennings, Ken Medlock, Tammy Blanchard, Jack McGee, Vyto Ruginis, Nick Searcy, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Nick Porrazzo, Kerris Dorsey, Arliss Howard, Reed Thompson, Spike Jonze

The 2015 regular season of Major League Baseball began today. There was a time when I never would’ve known it was the first day of baseball. I wish I still did not. I hate baseball. I hated it when I played it as a child. My parents made me play. Despite my hatred of it, that was probably the right thing for them to do. It did help build my character. They only made me play for so long and once I was a certain age they let me decide. The last year I played was the first year my age group did our own pitching; and the coach wisely chose me to be a pitcher. For the first time ever I actually enjoyed playing the game. No more left field. But sure enough, when I had a choice the next year, I didn’t even flinch when my parents asked if I wanted to play again. Nope! I was done with baseball.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Television Thoughts—Cougar Town (2009-2015)

TV-14, 6 seasons, 102 22-min. episodes

Creators: Kevin Biegel, Bill Lawrence

Directors: John Putch, Michael McDonald, Courtney Cox, Bill Lawrence, Gail Mancuso, Bruce Leddy, Chris Koch, Michael Spiller, Josh Hopkins, Jamie Babbit, Lee Shallat Chemel, Phil Traill, Ken Wittingham, Millicent Shelton, Randall Winston, Sam Jones, Brian Van Holt, Busy Philipps, Courtney Rowe

Writers: Kevin Biegel, Bill Lawrence, Melody Derloshon, Blake McCormick, Peter Saji, Mary Fitzgerald, Jessica Goldstein, Chrissy Pietrosh, Sean Lavery, Ryan Koh, Sam Laybourne, Sanjay Shah, Kate Purdy, Brad Morris, Emily R. Wilson, Michael McDonald, Gregg Mettler, Linda Videtti Figueiredo, Mara Brock Akil, Rachel Specter, Audrey Wauchope, Michael Lisbe, Nate Reger, Aaron Ho, Austen Faggen, Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, Jen D’Angelo, Eric Ernst

Starring: Courtney Cox, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, Dan Byrd, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez, Brian Van Holt, Bob Clendenin

Guest starring: Carolyn Hennesy, Ken Jenkins, Lamarcus Tinker, Sawyer Ever, Ryan Devlin, Spencer Locke, Brad Morris, Barry Bostwick, Collette Wolfe, Briga Heelan, Edwin Hodge, Nicole Sullivan, Shawn Parihk, Nick Zano, Scott Foley, Sarah Chalke, Sheryl Crow, Maria Thayer, Ryan Biegel, Lou Diamond Phillips, Yasmin Deliz, Michael McDonald, Shirley Jones, David Arquette, Jennifer Aniston, Cindy Crawford, Rachel Harris, Beverly D’Angelo, Susan Blakely, Matthew Perry, Paula Newsome, Alan Ruck, Lisa Kudrow, Nia Vardalos, Ahmed Best, Michelle Williams

Last Tuesday I had to hold back tears. One of my most beloved television shows came to an end. I wasn’t brought to the edge of tears because of the emotionally jarring conclusions for the characters’ to their story, however. No, their story’s end was just as ridiculous as just about any episode’s worth. No, I was nearly brought to tears because there just isn’t any other television series like it out there. The closest to it might be “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, but that one probably has higher aspirations.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Spring / *** (UR)

Evan: Lou Taylor Pucci
Louise: Nadia Hilker

Drafthouse Films presents a film directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Written by Benson. Running time: 109 min. Unrated (contains sexuality including graphic nudity, disturbing images, violence, and language).

After a winter like many on the East Coast experienced this year, people were ready to believe anything could be an improvement. Over the long months of storm after accumulating storm, the walls were beginning to move in on the psyche and many were ready to move someplace warmer. But, always comes the spring—a rebirth of nature and the spirit. Nature, however, holds many mysteries, and sometimes you might wish it had stayed in hibernation. Such are the discoveries of the hero in Justin Benson’s and Aaron Moorhead’s new horror/romance “Spring”, a moody nightmare that turns the tables on the expectations of the horror genre, giving way to another genre all together.