LIFE ITSELF (2014)
As much as I admired Roger Ebert, for his writing, his personality, his fortitude, his love of movies and criticism and his devotion to the ideals of being a newspaperman, I never imagined I would be so moved, so affected by this wide-ranging, funny, insightful and, ultimately, heartbreaking documentary about his life. Steve James, who directed the equally impressive “Hoop Dreams” (a film championed by Ebert), began the film five months before the prolific writer’s death in April 2013, which enabling him to interview Ebert in his final days and film him during the last rehab stint of his 10 year battle with thyroid cancer.
This is not an easy film to watch, as James does not shy away from showing Ebert’s jawless face and his struggles to recover from another setback that as viewers we know will be his last.
The film keeps returning to those final days, but the heart of the film is looking back at this man’s remarkable life, based on, and with some narration from, Ebert’s autobiography, also titled “Life Itself.” From his boyhood in Urbana, Illinois where he published his own community newspaper as a teen, to his days as editor of his college paper at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Ebert seemed destined to make his mark in newspapers. By college, he was already a skilled, impassioned writer, noted in the film by his thoughtful, moving editorial written for the school paper after the infamous bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four young girls.
After a few months at the Chicago Sun-Times (his paper for life, despite offers from bigger and better newspapers), he was given the job of movie critic without even applying or interviewing for it. He was 24 and it was 1967. Talk about timing: the movie culture and the art of criticism were about to come of age; within eight years he would become the first film critic to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
Then there’s the drinking: every night at O’Rourke’s, a hangout for journalists and other writers, he held forth. He is described by old friends and colleagues as one of the great storytellers they ever knew and, of course, always ready for an argument. By the end of the ‘70s, he was in AA and never had another drink.
The film also chronicles his somewhat surprising association with sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer, writing the script for the cult favorite “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” A few of his friends offer a simple explanation of why he got involved—and Ebert himself admitted in a book about Meyers: to hang around women with large breasts. “Life Itself” doesn’t pull many punches.
The most famous part of his working life, of course, was the television show (under various names starting in 1975) in which he and Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel reviewed the week’s movies, giving them either thumbs up or thumbs down. James again is unflinching in giving a complete report. Richard Corliss, Time magazine critic and one of the pair show’s most vocal critics, is given screen time to talk about the negative aspects of the trend in reviewing created by “the thumbs.” But more interesting for most viewers will be the love/hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert. The film uncovers some hilarious outtakes in which the critics do not mince words about their dislike for each other.
And that’s just a few of the highlights. I can’t recall a documentary about an individual that gives you such a full picture of the person. Even though I probably know more about Ebert’s career than most viewers, I was constantly surprised by the film and the way in portrayed this famous figure—certainly one of the most famous newspaper journalists of the past half century.
And even if you could care less about movies and newspapers and writing, this film offers a life-affirming, heartbreaking account of someone who never gave up (hell, became more productive) in the face of a catastrophic disease. I also came away with a greater appreciation of his wife Chaz, his constant champion who kept him going during those difficult final years.
It has been awhile since I cried as often during a film as I did during “Life Itself,” not only at the sadness of his cancer fight, which took his voice and ability to eat and drink, but the sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant remembrances of his longtime newspaper buddies, fellow critics and filmmakers (most prominently, Martin Scorsese, who became very close to Ebert). Thorough, fast-paced and superbly structured—James balances stills, interviews, clips perfectly—this is as good as nonfiction filmmaking gets and a must see for anyone who has ever spent a day in a newspaper, a night at the movies or appreciates a life well lived.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951)
When a play about an aging travelling salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, it was immediately hailed as a landmark. More than 60 years later, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” remains the essential drama of the American theater.
Yet, the film version, released just months after the original production closed, nominated for five Academy Awards and reasonably well reviewed, was released only a few years ago on DVD (I don’t believe it was ever available on video), using a poor quality print. I had never been able to get my hands on a copy until I came upon the film posted to YouTube. While it’s divided into 10 minute chunks, and is a dark and scratched-up print, it at least offered me a chance to see this film that has been at the top of my “must see” list for 30 years. While I’d be hard pressed to call it a great film, “Salesman” features one of the best ensemble performances you’re likely to see as it presents the play’s devastating indictment of the American dream.
The film has a dated, uncinematic look and the direction doesn’t do enough to emphasize the story’s tragedy, yet the acting is so riveting, filled with emotional truth and verbal fireworks, that you forget its shortcomings. (Better, in my memory, than the two later TV versions.)
Fredric March, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors in the first 25 years of sound who had won his second best actor Oscar in 1946 for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” plays Willy Loman, a tired, bitter, occasional delusional man who is also disappointed by his sons’ lack of accomplishments. Biff (Kevin McCarthy), a high school football star who was spoiled by Willy, has spent his twenties drifting around the west, while Hap (Cameron Mitchell) has held a steady job but doesn’t take life very seriously. Anchoring the family, or tying to, is mother-wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock), the one person who sees life as it is not as Willy imagines it to be, often forced to throw cold water on the pipe dreams of these foolish men. Alternating between bitter arguments and overblown optimism, this quartet represents an old fashioned belief that being well liked, fitting in with the crowd, and showing enthusiasm was all one needed to be a success. The harsh realities of modern American business, based on results not some old boy network, haven’t quite sunk in with Willy and cause much of the discord between him and Biff.
Next door, a low-key Charlie (Howard Smith) and his nerdy son Bernard (Don Keefer), understand the rules and, much to Willy’s surprise, are successful; Willy doesn’t even appreciate the money Charlie slips him every month to make up for his fading salesman income or his friendship in a world that has turned its back on him.
Willy is a tragic figure on a Shakespearean scale; a simple, common man who wakes up to find everything he built his life on has collapsed, replaced by something he doesn’t recognize and can’t grasp. In some ways “Death of a Salesman” has become more relevant in recent years as the economy, the culture, technology and the way the world operates is again taking a giant leap, leaving a generation of workers out in the cold and decimating entire industries. Our country abounds with Willy Lomans.
March, taking over the role from Lee J. Cobb who originated the iconic character on stage (and repeated the performance in a 1966 TV production; in 1985 Dustin Hoffman played the role), is especially convincing in portraying the vulnerability of this once over-confident salesman and the manner in which his mind slips back into time, suddenly thinking his sons are still teens or that he’s the company’s top man. Or the way in which he himself turns into an idolizing boy when he imagines his brother Ben, whose mining success is legendary, giving him advice. While March isn’t remembered today as fondly as Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper are, he was their equal, or better, as an actor, whose range was second to none during Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Matching March is Dunnock, who originated the role on Broadway. This tiny, delicate actress, who spent most of her film career playing crazy aunts or noisy neighbors, gives a powerhouse performance, simply mesmerizing in expressing her devotion and protectiveness of her ailing husband. In a long, agonizing scene in the kitchen in which she spells out to his sons what’s going on with Willy (“attention must be paid….”), she is devastating and heartbreaking.
Dunnock had been on stage since the early 1930s, but, at age 50, was just starting her long film and television career, which lasted until 1987. Her Linda Loman is not only the performance of her career and one of the best of its time.
McCarthy, who also went on to an incredibly long and distinguished film and TV career, made his movie debut as Biff (played on stage by Arthur Kennedy) and clearly is trying hard to keep up with March and Dunnock. Frankly, it’s a thankless role as he attempts to satisfy his father’s and mother’s ideal of what he’s suppose to be while trying to explain to them he’s not. Cameron Mitchell, another omnipresent movie and television supporting playing in the last half of the 20th Century, repeats his stage performance as Hap, the hapless brother. In the less showy role, he’s solid as he mostly sits on the sidelights as long, vitriolic arguments ensue.
Where “Salesman” falters is in the rather pedestrian and sometimes confusing direction by Laslo Benedek, who is best known for the 1953 Marlon Brando motorcycle film “The Wild One.” Benedek and screenwriter Stanley Roberts (who does an impressive job of cutting the play down to two hours) never find a smooth way to transition from reality to Willy’s memories—for viewers unfamiliar with the play the time shifting is hard to distinguish in this version.
Adapting a play, especially one so acclaimed, to the screen is never an easy assignment. Here, possibly because of a limited budget, the filmmakers fail in the attempts to open up the play with the resulting picture looking like an early TV movie rather than a feature film. The most obvious comparison is what Elia Kazan (also the stage director for “Salesman”) does in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was released the same year. Kazan brings an inventive, strong-handed direction to “Streetcar” that is nowhere to be found in this “Salesman.” But in terms of jaw-dropping acting, March and Dunnock are just a slight peg below the fireworks created by Brando and Vivien Leigh. That alone makes it worth seeking out.
A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)
I hate to use the phrase old fashioned, tempting many of my readers to hit the Page Down button, but that’s what best describes this superbly made, brilliantly acted spy thriller.
Believe it or not, before Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and even James Bond, movie spies didn’t attempt Cirque du Soleil styled acrobatics or fight off six enemy agents with a ball point pen and a kitchen chair. The top spooks, as they’re known in the intelligence community, are usually balding, fat, and alcoholic, with razor-sharp minds and an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s many bad guys.
At the center of this fast-paced, cerebral picture is German master spy Günter Bachmann, who heads a secretive anti-terrorist unit that takes care of the business legitimate agencies can’t do legally. In John le Carré’s 2008 novel, on which the film is based, Bachmann shares the spotlight with Annabel Richter, an immigrant rights lawyer, and Tommy Brue, a private banking executive. But this superb adaptation, by Andrew Bovell, brings Bachmann front and center, in the form of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives one of the most accomplished performances of his too-short career. If I had never seen Hoffman before, I would have assumed the actor was some acclaimed German stage actor giving the performance of his life.
Set in Hamburg, a hotbed of terrorist (where the Sept. 11 plot was put in motion), the story follows the fate of Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Russian-Chechen man who slips into the country to claim his inheritance held in the very secretive bank run by Brue (Willem Dafoe). Working as the go-between is the sympathetic Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who quickly surmises that Karpov isn’t a terrorist, but a very confused young man struggling with his horrific life and his father’s legacy (a corrupt Russian military officer who raped his mother).
But behind the scenes, watching every movement of this trio, is Bachmann and his team (which includes the superb German actress Nina Hoss and budding film star Daniel Brühl), who see this as an opportunity to turn a respected Muslim leader who secretly supports terrorism around the world. But Bachmann is up against a ticking clock as the mainstream German intelligence agency wants to grab Karpov and throw away the key, with the support of the equally short-sighted Americans (represented by a subtle, tough performance by Robin Wright).
Le Carré, best known for his cynical, insightful Cold War novels, often featuring disillusioned British spymaster George Smiley (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” made it to the big screen in 2011), hasn’t lost a beat since the Wall came down, now mostly focusing on the post-9/11 chaotic mess we find ourselves in. He doesn’t take sides or sentimentalize, just offers a piercing look at the way the world works; or doesn’t, in most cases.
Dutch director Anton Corbijn (who made the slick, lamentable “The American”) serves the great writer well in “Most Wanted.” Actually, le Carré has been pretty lucky with the film adaptations of his works, with first-rate movies made from “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “The Russia House,” “The Tailor of Panama,” “The Constant Gardener” and the aforementioned “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (which in 1979 was also turned into a brilliant TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness).
McAdams, who has never had such a serious, juicy role, captures both the idealism and the efficiency of this gutsy, resourceful lawyer (if not her accent). Though the role has been pared down from the book, it still offers this actress, who mostly finds herself stuck in maudlin romantic fantasies (or a sexy diversion for “Sherlock Holmes”), a chance to show she is more than just a pretty face. She’s extraordinary in her mostly wordless scenes during an intense interrogation.
But everyone pales in this film to Hoffman’s consummate portrayal of Bachmann. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t earn Hoffman a rare posthumous Oscar nomination. There’s a scene late in the film when he’s sitting at his desk (a rarity, he usually is on the move), drinking, of course, and pondering the case. Suddenly you can see in his face that he’s figured something out, that he knows his next move. Nothing needs to be said. It’s all in his eyes, the subtle shift in his body. Hoffman clearly understands this character; a man who lives for his work and is extraordinarily good at it.
For nearly three hours, writer-director Richard LInklater leads viewers on a guided tour of the life of Mason, from age 6 to his first day of college. That this ambitious film felt like a tour to me explains what it lacks: an intimate, emotional connection that elevates drama to something more than play acting.
In Linklater’s recent films---“Me and Orson Welles,” “Bernie,” “Before Midnight”—he has created a distance between his story and the audience, for better or worse. In “Boyhood,” I found it a distraction; even as I wanted to feel sympathy, attachment to the main character, the film kept me at arm’s length.
But reading the overwhelmingly positive reviews, I find myself in the minority. Most critics have anointed the film a masterpiece, with much of the praise centered on Linklater’s method rather than the results. If you’ve missed the stories on the movie, the director filmed it over a 12 year period, shooting a few days every year or so, allowing the main actors (most importantly Ellar Coltrane’s Mason) to age naturally on screen. A fascinating idea—a documentary-like concept (as done in Michael Apted “Up” series in seven year cycles)—but, for me, it didn’t change the movie going experience. Having the same actor playing a character from age 6 to age 18 makes for a nice story, but, for me, adds nothing to the quality of the movie.
There is plenty to enjoy in this methodical epic as Linklater’s dialogue is spot-on; few screenwriters are better at capturing how people communicate, with both words and silence and expressions. As we watch Mason and his sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) raised by single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette in her best role in years) and part-time father Mason Sr. (Linklater favorite Ethan Hawke), there are more than a few poignant moments that will no doubt hit home for parents. Yet most of the plot points—changing schools, dealing with step-fathers, teen rebellion, first romances—can be seen in various forms every night on television.
Most of film focuses on Mason dealing with his parents, shortchanging his relationships with contemporaries; the scenes with his high school buddies and his first girlfriend are the most engaging. I used to buy into the Hollywood cliché that teenagers have nothing interesting to say, but now that I talk to them every day I see that writers have gotten that completely wrong. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had over the past three years have been with 16 and 17 year olds.
Let me be clear: I welcome a film without a real plot, without a series of melodramatic scenes, without bigger-than-life characters; yet “Boyhood” never got under my skin, never made me cry, rarely made me laugh (is real life really that serious?), leaving me wishing the director had spent more time creating compelling characters rather than being satisfied with chronicling their aging.
BEGIN AGAIN (2014)
There’s something infectious about this musical fantasy that taps into the chaotic world of the contemporary music industry, where YouTube is as big a player as Columbia Records. While it lacks the romantic heartbreak of Irish writer-director John Carney’s first hit film “Once” (now a hit Broadway musical) or that movie’s memorable tunes, “Begin Again” benefits from iconic New York City locations and a pair of charismatic performances by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.
Knightley’s Gretta arrives from English with her brink-of-stardom boyfriend and writing partner Dave (Adam Levine) and soon finds herself as unwanted baggage. Dragged to the stage during an open-mike night, Gretta attracts the attention of Dan, an alcoholic, down on his luck record producer, who can hear what her fragile song would sound like with a full band and production behind it.
The filmmakers try to be clever by showing how both of these characters arrive at this meeting point, which becomes overly repetitive and exceedingly predictable. But the film picks up steam once the pair decides to go off the record-making grid and record an album of live songs outdoors around the city. This all plays out as Gretta continues to carry a torch for her star-struck boyfriend and Dan, separated from wife Catherine Keener, tries to forge a relationship with his rebellious daughter (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld).
Yes, the entire plot is one endless cliché and all of the characters are stereotypes, but it’s done with the same sincerity and wide-eyed romanticism that made “Once” such a surprising pleasure.
It’s one of the hard-working Ruffalo’s best performances; Dan has made a complete mess of his life but he can’t help but put everything into making this thin-voiced, inexperience young woman a star. Knightley would be the last actress I would have cast in this role, but she’s convincing as an out-of-fashion music rebel, a throwback to the ‘60s who so sincerely believes in her music that nothing can make her sell out (I told you it was a fantasy.)
I realize that Levine is a major pop star, but his lack of acting skills were topped, for this listener, by his irritating singing style. Another music figure, Mos Def, has a very amusing role as a former discovery of Dan’s who is more than willing to help out on his latest, far-fetched endeavor.
Some of the best moments of the film are when Dan and Gretta are roaming the streets of New York (beautifully shot by Yaron Orbach, the DP on “Orange is the New Black”), getting to know each other in the city that never sleeps. Like in the early Woody Allen films, the city becomes the character you can’t take your eyes off of.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) and
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)
I was never a fan of the original “Planet of the Apes” movies, finding them heavy-handed and unintentionally campy, with any attempt at seriousness undercut by Charlton Heston’s oversized dramatics. I had no interest in Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot, which remade the 1968 original, and never saw it.
It seemed to be pure greed that inspired yet another franchise of “Apes” to arise in 2011 and I ignored, but the film actually scored some very good reviews, even landing on some critics Top 10 lists. So when I saw that “Dawn” was about to be released, I rented “Rise” and was impressed. Much more intriguing and complex than the originals, “Rise” takes us back to when this all started, in the lab, where a scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is furiously working on a drug to alleviate Alzheimer’s disease. But things go terribly wrong when an ape, which had been given the drug, escapes, causing all kind of havoc and forcing the end of the research program. Yet, it turns out, the drug works on humans, as Will tries it out on his dementia-suffering father (John Lithgow).
At the same time, the scientist saves one of the lab apes, named Caesar, and raises him as if he’s a child. Turns out, he’s a very smart child. Without revealing too many of the details, let’s just say that Caesar puts him newfound intelligence to good use, spreads it among other apes, essential creating a new species, destined, because the long-term effect of the drug is deadly to humans, to dominate Earth.
“Dawn” opens about a decade later, with Earth’s population down to just scattered groups who have somehow survived the epidemic, but are struggling to survive as most of man’s infrastructure has been decimated. (I was never quite clear how that all happen).
Meanwhile, the apes have multiplied and flourished in their home base in the Muir Woods, north of San Francisco.
Their idyllic lifestyle is disturbed by a scouting party of humans from San Francisco hoping to restart a power dam as their last chance to bring power to the city. Caesar, who still has some trust in humans, allows them to do their work, but a small group of apes who are jealous of Casear’s power (mostly the conniving Koba) leads to inevitable conflict and, ultimately, a battle between apes and humans.
The CGI/motion capture apes are nothing short of amazing; made distinctive enough that you recognize characters and understand the nuances of their conflicts. Of course, behind Caeser is the astonishing Andy Serkis (Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbitt” films) one of the great film artists of our time, who helps create a complex, sympathetic ape who is far and away the most interesting character in the film. Of course it helps that he can talk, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more compelling animal character in a movie.
What holds the film together is the presentation of the community formed by the apes and the way they interact with the group of humans—Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—in their mist.
Both Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba are more interesting than their human counterparts; Clarke is especially dull as the nominal lead actor (he reminded me of Matthew Perry and that is not a good thing). It would have been nice to have an actor who could stand as an equal to Caesar.
Gary Oldman, who seems to show up in all these big-budget, fantasy films, is solid as usual as the leader of the human group who does what he thinks is best, but just can’t appreciate that the apes represent the planet’s future.
The first film, directed by newcomer Rupert Wyatt, was a bit plodding, but “Dawn,” helmed by Matt Reeves (best known as the creator of the TV show “Felicity”), moves at the kind of fast-paced clip you except from this kind of popcorn picture. But, most importantly, husband and wife writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return from “Rise,” this time joined by Mark Bomback, to continue this fascinating story (using characters from Pierre Boulle original 1963 novel). Clearly this couple is the hottest screenwriting team in Hollywood; they are lined up to write the sequels to “Avatar” for James Cameron.
Like all quality science fiction, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” offers insight into how we are living our lives now and the state of humanity. Yet it is the apes that emerge as the group we root for, in large part because Caesar represents, more than any of the humans, the best of humanity. Unlike most of these tent-pole movie franchises, I’m actually looking forward to seeing where they take this one.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014)
If you don’t expect much more than what you’d get from a feel-good TV movie but do care about baseball, this story of two young Indians earning a shot to play for an American professional baseball team is rather enjoyable.
Jon Hamm plays J.B., a down-on-his-luck sports agent who (not unlike Jerry Maguire) must sign one star athlete to keep his business afloat. When that fails, he stumbles on the idea of turning a star cricket hurler into a major league pitcher. (They both throw a ball toward a batter, but the similarities end there.) After he receives backing from financier Chang (the always imperious Tzi Ma), J.B. heads off to India, with little more than a hope and prayer. There he is joined by an ambitious go-getter Amit (Pitobash) and, later, by a veteran baseball scout he’s hired (a particularly sarcastic Alan Arkin), to travel the country holding pitching contests, with the winner scoring a trip to the U.S. and a tryout.
The contest goes exactly as you expect; an endless parade of clueless wannabes until they find a couple of youngsters who can fire the ball close to 90 mph. Rinku (Suraj Sharma of “Life of Pi” fame) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittel) become classic fish-out-of-water (after Hamm plays the same role in India) as they end up staying at J.B.’s house. From there, the picture is a cute sitcom, with the Indians as “the kids” and J.B.’s next door neighbor (Lake Bell) as the prospective “mom,” while baseball training serves as their school.
The find of the movie is Pitobash, who turns Amit into a comic foil for J.B. while proving invaluable in keeping this shaky operation going. This very short, always upbeat character brings desperately needed energy to the film. Hamm, who I previously had seen only in small roles (I don’t watch “Mad Men”) seems like a pleasant enough performer, but a bit bland in a Ben Affleck/Ryan Reynolds way; he seems to spend the movie standing around waiting for someone else to say something interesting.
This rather obvious script is by the very talented Thomas McCarthy, who, as a writer-director made “The Station Agent” (2003), “The Visitor” (2007) and “Win Win” (2011), all films worth seeking out if you haven’t seen them. Surprisingly, the director of “Million Dollar Arm” is Craig Gillespie, responsible for one of the most interesting pictures of the past few years, “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007). I guess I can blame Disney for neutering the edge both these filmmakers usually bring to their work.