Aladdin and What Robin Williams Meant to Me

I didn’t even think about the moments I’m about to describe until I read the numerous articles surrounding Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. Everyone has been talking about their favorite Robin Williams’ movies, especially people my age who grew up with him and never realized just how important he really was to our formative years.

Williams’ filmography is like any other actor’s resume. He has some great films (Awakenings, The Fisher King, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society – which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here) and some terrible dreck (The Final Cut, Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams, RV, Popeye - which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here). But Williams was always an exciting performer who was more versatile than people give him credit for. He deserved his Oscar and his death represents a loss of great talent.

But there’s more to it. The outpouring of grief I’ve seen is not the norm, even for a famed performer. He’s still dominating every conversation and every headline around the world – and there’s no sign that’s going to change. Compare the response to Lauren Bacall’s death. She’s had tributes, she’s had her fans talk about what she meant to them, and her death is also a sad loss of another great talent. But her death didn’t spark a national debate. Her death didn’t result in touching memories from performers across so many different mediums. Sad as it is, Bacall’s death will probably not lead to any great re-examination of her work. Her legacy was secured long ago. Everyone is taking a second look at Williams and his filmography.

Why?

I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. And I think it has something to do with the fact that Williams was an important part of my childhood and what I saw in movies.

People often ask me what the first movie I can remember seeing was. I have brief flashes of seeing Beauty and the Beast in theaters, but I can’t remember anything about the experience. I do remember watching two films in particular and falling in love with the adventure. I could follow the plot and get the sense of excitement when the bad guy was defeated and the good guy found happiness.

Those two films were Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Aladdin. And the thing that linked them together was Williams. I didn’t think about that at the time – obviously his Genie and Peter Pan were not the same to me. But I can still remember scenes from them even though I have seen the films in many, many years. I can remember the scene in which Williams’ Pan shot down a rival by screaming, “don’t mess with me kid! I’M A LAWYER!” And when he realized that he could still fly – what a moment! Still clutching his childhood teddy bear, he levitates at first, and then takes off through the clouds. Thinking about it now brings a smile to my face.

But I think the Genie is who really stuck with me as a kid. He was such a bizarre force – always talking and never repeating himself. I didn’t get all the jokes -how could a child know who Groucho Marx or Ed Sullivan were? How could they get the tributes he played to Rodney Dangerfield and Jack Nicholson? I didn’t laugh at those jokes. Mostly I remember laughing at that scene where the Genie blew a raspberry through his lamp and when he turned into a sheep to make a “baaaaahd boy” pun. I still don’t know everything that I’ve missed in his dialogue. But I could respond to it even at a young age. Williams was such a smart force that he could connect with everyone in his audience. There are not many performers who can say that.

Williams, of course, was the man who popularized celebrity voice overs in animated films. But there are no other performances I can think of that accomplishes quite what Williams did. Most famous actors are phoning it in when they take a voice over role. Williams didn’t. He used the opportunity as a canvas to do things that he would never be able to do in any other film. It’s taken me a while to realize just how brave and unique that film is for Williams.

And that’s the moments that make me realize there is something special about those giant moving pictures in those dark rooms. They can capture something about artists and performers that no other medium can capture. They can take risks and reveal the truth about our emotions in a way that affects the entire population.

Aladdin and Robin Williams was those things for a four year old boy sitting in that theater. Williams was a huge force that made me fall in love with movies as a kid. It’s something that’s continued for a long time. I guess I ultimately have Robin Williams to blame for where I am now. I can think of worse fates.

I close with this song that I had previously posted on my Facebook page. I didn’t say anything at first, but now I feel it reads as rather prophetic. Williams inadvertently stated exactly what his legacy would be. He’s right – we never had a friend quite like him. And I don’t think I realized it until now.

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A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy

I know I’m late to this party, but I spent last weekend taking in Boyhood while everyone else was laughing at the antics of a talking raccoon and that dude from Parks and Recreation.

I know I’ve started a little glib. The truth is, the hype surrounding the movie made me skeptical. It currently holds the 36th position on the IMDB top 250 and was tied with Boyhood on Rotten Tomatoes. Usually, when this happens with a blockbuster, I am setting myself up for disappointment. It happened with Frozen and it can happen again.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a disappointment. It is a fun populist science fiction movie. There is plenty to like, from the bizarrely unique characters to the very good special effects.

But so much about the film feels safe and sterile. I do understand why – the Marvel comic is not among the most well known properties and it obviously cost a great deal of money to bring this world to life. So the script had to be comfortable for everyone.

Most of Guardians is based on The Avengers’ formula of getting different characters together, realizing that they’re different, but coming together when a major city is threatened with destruction. In this case, the protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a human who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988. He still carries a mixtape that his mother gave him. (A mixtape? How has that lasted thirty years and several light years?) Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a bounty hunter who is the daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited) and sister of the villainous Nebula (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame under heavy makeup). Next, we have Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a talking raccoon who is joined by Groot (Vin Diesel) a living tree. Finally, there’s Drax (Dave Bautista) who seeks to avenge his wife and child. They’re trying to stop Ronan (Lee Pace) from using a MacGuffin (actually something called an infinity stone that is a remnant of existence from before the big bang) and destroying the universe.

As I typed that preceding sentence, I realized just how simple the film can be described. It doesn’t feel simple at first, particularly during the first act. This is mostly because the characters are well defined. Rocket, in particular, is delightfully weird. Even the pop culture obsessed Quill is engaging, even though such a character has been copied in every decent space opera for a while now. Still, his speech about the earth legend Footloose was inspiring. And Groot – Groot is just a giant tree that can only say his name. Still, he’s very useful in a fight.

The worlds they travel too are also appropriately wonderful. When you have an alien planet that’s actually the skull of an old god, you know you’re in pure adventure territory. What’s amazing is how subtle some of these differences are. There are all sorts of subtle signs and moments that gave me the feeling of a larger world. One example involved a humanoid with an obviously alien family. There is no reference to it, but it did gave me a lot to ponder. What are alien/human relationships like? Are they tolerated on other planets? Is this planet meant to be a utopian paradise where no one questions that? What does that say about our planet? One moment, with no dialogue, left me wondering. That’s skillful film-making.

Yet it’s the characters that make the film work. There is an actual dynamic there and they do seem to be products of the world’s they inhabit. One of the biggest problems with science fiction films is the endless time that is devoted to explaining what is happening and where the characters are. Wouldn’t they already know that? Guardians of the Galaxy assumes the characters are smart and doesn’t revel too much in the exposition.

But that’s also because the plot is safe. I wasn’t kidding when I said this was basically The Avengers. The entire third act deals with the destruction of a huge city. They repeat that joke with the Hulk pounding Loki into submission (only this time it’s with a spaceship running someone over) and there is the second act conflict where one of the characters loses control and brings destruction to his team. Considering Avengers made a billion dollars worldwide, it’s easy to see the motivation they had. Still, with such great characters and an awe-inspiring setting, I can’t hate the film.

There is a reason people flock to the familiar. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t insulting and is engaging during its run time. I certainly enjoyed it, but I have to confess it is getting rather tiring. I seem to always loop back to Iron Man in any Marvel review, and that’s because I think people are forgetting the impact of that amazing film. It was a great achievement, filled with imagination and skill. But it also broke several molds and took everyone by surprise with the thought that had been put into Iron Man and his world. I feel that’s been missing from the subsequent Marvel movies. They’ve found a routine that they’re sticking to. It works for now because they still hire skilled filmmakers who understand that appeal of the comics. But if Marvel and Disney aren’t careful, they’re going to find themselves in a lot of trouble down the road.

Maybe that Howard the Duck movie they tease in post credits scene will help. It can’t be any worse than the last movie based on Howard.

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A Review of Boyhood

I didn’t think a film like Boyhood could exist anymore. It is one of the most ambitious films ever made. And despite the conditions in which it was made – the film is basically a series of shorts strung together – the film is a seamless narrative that never threatens to collapse under its own weight.

I had heard rumblings of the film in passing. Richard Linklater (the director of Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and more mainstream fare like School of Rock) began shooting in 2002. He would shoot with his cast every year for twelve days at a time. They would go off and reconvene. Linklater was writing the script as he was shooting and did not know where he would end up.

The film is the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltraine) life. His sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and him both live with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She is separated from their father (Ethan Hawke) and is trying to piece together her life. We see Mason grow up, become wiser, and end with his hopefully bright future.

It’s rather difficult to describe the plot. There are certain pieces that are important. Patricia, in one scene, marries a college professor who turns into a violent alcoholic that places the kids in danger. We later see that Mason’s father has remarried and has had a new baby with his wife. We do have scenes with Mason’s first girlfriend. But it is difficult to fit all the pieces together.

So yes, the narrative is clearly not planned out. There are characters (like the drunk stepfather) who disappear completely and are barely mentioned again. At times, it is difficult to figure out exactly what year the scene takes place in and how old Mason is. Usually, we can only tell when something is taking place based on a news report or when a pop song is being played. But for me, that made the film feel more like life. Can YOU recall exactly when certain events happened? Have people disappeared from your life? It is Linklater’s way of being honest about memory.

I’ve said that the best films are the ones that are true about the way people feel. Even when a film is exploring deeper philosophical questions, it must connect the audience with the characters who are asking these questions.

Boyhood is the best example of this connection in a very long time. For example, there’s a scene late in the film where Mason muses about how deleting his Facebook page would allow him to live again. This is poignant in its own way, but it follows many amazing scenes where Mason has had to find solace from his feelings on Youtube videos. Earlier in his life, he endlessly watches Will Ferrell’s comedy short The Landlord (remember that?) while dealing with his own exposure to the dangers of alcohol.

It’s a very skillful trick, one that people may not pick up on. But it’s also the key to understanding why Linklater did what he did. That’s how lives and minds are molded – by seemingly inconsequential moments that are only recalled years later. Those changes are very gradual. The Up series of documentaries technically did it first, but Linklater’s film shows the most realistic process of growing up.

What’s also incredible is how we see the talent of the child actors developing the longer they’re on camera. Arquette and Hawke are both well established, but the kids were unknowns. Linklater was a natural young actress (I laughed quite hard when she responded to one of her mother’s orders with “yes sir, mother sir!” and at her repeated insistence that the family would not move to Houston) but Coltrane goes from an introverted kid to a rather likeable young man. Never once does Coltrane’s performance waiver. It’s easy to understand why – he’s been playing this character for most of his life. Still, it feels like the sort of natural performance most method actors would kill for.

Most of the proceedings are relatively standard Linklater. He has a great ear for conversation and popular culture. But I don’t know if it’s ever worked as well as it does in Boyhood. For once, Linklater’s dialogue does feel like someone who is trying to come to terms with the world. Everything about the film works.

It has never been safe to make this sort of film. But right now, it is downright insane. Linklater’s skill extends beyond his patience producing the work. He has not lost his eye for youth culture and just how important those formative years are. This is a phenomenal work, one that really only does come once in a lifetime.

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The New, Official Worst Film I Have Ever Seen

In order to properly analyze films, it is imperative that someone know what is good and what is bad. People are always eager to share their favorite films. But their most hated is buried in the same place as childhood trauma. There are some smart-alec writers who pride on watching and surviving bad films. But this is different. This is something that is as personal, and wounds as deeply.

For many years, I thought the worst movie I would ever see was the 2002 live action version of Scooby Doo. Now, I have seen films more ineptly made and I have seen films that are just as frustrating to watch. But this was different. This was a bunch of people acting stupid for the sake of acting stupid. It’s rare for me to see someone treat a film with such disrespect. Every single decision made was done out of laziness and sloppiness. In some cases, a film is bad because the people making it are in over their heads and don’t have a clue what they are doing. In other cases, people are there to collect a paycheck. But Scooby-Doo tried to pretend to have some sort of love for the original (stupid) cartoon but did not want to examine why it may have worked and what, if anything, needed to be said about it.  The result is unwatchable and offensive. In a medium that has produced artists like Ingmar Bergman, the fact that something like Scooby Doo can exist is something I cannot comprehend.

But I now have a new reigning champion by which all awful films will be measured from now until the end of time. It is a film that fails on every level. It is a film filled with bad performances, even for those actor who are bravely trying to have fun. It is a film that I hated looking at. It is poorly written and poorly plotted. It shows the same disrespect as Scooby Doo but takes it to another level.

That movie is 1997’s Spawn.

You may not remember Spawn. The Todd MacFarlane created comic is still being published today, but I don’t know how often it is discussed. Still, back in the ’90s, the character looked to be the next great super hero. MacFarlane had become an artistic superstar and the comic was being written by some talented writers including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. This is the part where I say that I have never read the comic and I don’t know anything about the mythology. But it’s easy to see why it attracted its audience.

It’s also easy to see how the film was greenlit. I learn from Box Office Mojo that it made twice its production budget during its theatrical run. It was made at a time when comic book movies were not taken seriously. (It was released the same year as Batman & Robin.) And considering its themes about hell and redemption, as well as being the first movie with a black superhero, it should have been very popular.

But something went wrong.

I’m not even sure what. Sure, the graphics are among the worst I’ve ever seen in a high budgeted film. The scenes in hell are woeful – the Satan character has a mouth that does not move whenever it speaks. I cannot tell what anyone is standing on at any given time. And remember how, in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would suggest crowd scenes by waving lights at the camera and dubbing in cheers? Spawn does that too – except it gives us long shots of the lights being shaken. There are no crowds and no suggestions of actual beings.

But that was just a preamble. Spawn’s flaws goes far beyond visuals. For one, the main hero has no arc. It’s not that he has a bad arc. It’s that his arc doesn’t exist. Al Simmons is a special ops soldier who is betrayed and burned to death. He comes back to life after he agrees to lead Hell’s army. Why would he agree to do that? We are never told. He does have a mentor who’s name I can’t pronounce (Cogliostro?) but that man never actually mentors him beyond showing him the magic of chains that fire out of Spawn’s nipples. We are also never told what changes his mind and why he decides betraying Satan is a good idea. The ending fight (which takes place in hell) is terribly anti-climatic. Parts of it takes place in the leading lady’s apartment. Spawn promptly leaves after the big bad is defeated and (I’m going to have to take Wikipedia’s word for it as I sure couldn’t figure it out) “dedicates himself to justice.” He doesn’t even get the goodbye kiss. At this point in the movie, I desperately wanted something so lowbrow and hackneyed.

I guess that was Spawn’s motivation  – his girlfriend. He thinks leading hell’s army is the only way to get back to get back to his girlfriend, but other citizens of Hades seem to be able to leave the realm just fine and…oh, never mind. It’s not even until the last twenty minutes that he learns about his powers. You would think that vengeance drives Simmons, but that’s not the case. He does attack the people who wronged him (and kills one of them) but it’s quickly forgotten as we get more scenes with the atrocious clown character.

Ah yes. I have not even mentioned John Leguizamo’s clown character. I think he has a name, but I really don’t care to look it up. (OK, it’s Violator. You’re welcome.) I have never seen a more loathsome character in a film. He is meant to be the comic relief but never once delivers a funny line. He is massively obese and short – and constantly brings attention to that physical attribute. Now, this could be made funny in more talented hands, but I was distracted with my endless questions about the character. He is meant to be a denizen of Hell. What did he do? Why does he look like an obese clown? Was he created that way? Is that part of his punishment? What sort of powers does he have? Why, at times, can he turn into a giant monster? And why does he think that eating maggot covered pizza is funny?

Do you see what I mean? There are some intriguing questions to be asked, but the film just can’t be bothered. It doesn’t realize what about the original material worked. It was replaced with junk.  It’s not even cliched – cliches are above the film.

There will be other bad films. There will be other films that give me certain physical reactions that are best not described in great detail. There will be other films that insult the audience watching and anyone who harbors a notion that films are meant to be enjoyed.

But none of them will be as bad as Spawn.

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A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What if I told you that the current top of the box office was a film that addressed complex geopolitical themes, incredible views on the foundations of civilization, a complex look at the nature of war, mind-blowing effects, and complex characters who have to earn their sympathy?

You would probably think I was describing some film that had been released in time for Oscar season. But I’m describing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. I expected it to be good; Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good film that featured amazing special effects. But this takes the source material to a level I didn’t know existed.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place about ten years after the original. If you’ll recall, the finale of the original film focused on a retro virus that made apes intelligent and killed human beings. In that ten years, humanity has been virtually wiped out (the exposition at the start of the film states that the virus had a survival rate of 500:1). So, for most of the first act, we focus on the apes and how they are thriving as a society.

Caesar (Andy Serkis, the king of mo-cap who deserves at least an honorary Oscar) is the leader of a tribe somewhere on the west coast of the United States. We see how the apes hunt, how they live, and how they form relationships with each other. We see Caesar’s children, and how they disagree with aspects of his rule.

These scenes are amazing. There is almost no dialogue in the first act of the movie (the apes talk like the Frankenstein monster), but we get a sense of all the issues at stake. The fact that these nonhuman characters are the most sympathetic in the film says something about director Matt Reeves and Serkis. We get a sense of what’s at stake for the Apes and why there would be a conflict between them later. But there’s very little dialogue. The apes, particularly Caesar, are able to talk but mostly rely on sign language and grunting. How is it possible to communicate their language in this manner and make people really get it?

It’s a difficult task, but Reeves succeeds. The apes are the best characters in the film even though they can barely speak. This continues after human characters are introduced The primary conflict in the film is between Caesar and Koba (Toby Kebbell). Caesar is willing to work with them, while Koba despises them for the medical testing he endured. It is not simply a question of good versus evil – the film never says who is truly correct and the humans and apes are equally capable of evil. But mostly, they just want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam in ape territory and start rebuilding their own civilization. There are great scenes between Caesar and his new human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke). They don’t trust each other, and there are good reasons why, but they do realize they will need to at least cooperate.

It’s a very complex relationship that has a lot to say about current geopolitical battles. Both sides may have a point and the decisions the characters make will be hated. But even those who want to respond violently are at least able to explain why.

The third act of the film does devolve into a simpler action film. But even then, the themes of the work have been set up so well that it makes sense. It’s simple, but it’s something that could happen given what we’ve been told. Koba’s hatred for humans is reinforced by the massive arsenal of weapons they’re building and his actions take on a desperation. Koba isn’t exactly evil – he’s become blinded by his own beliefs. There is something Animal Farm-esque about Koba and how he arrives at his conclusions.

The last act also features some of the best moments from Cesar as he contemplates on why he is more willing to trust apes than the humans who had not made a deliberate invasion against their society. And that final fight actually means something – it is not just a reason to showcase CGI. It is a battle of ideologies. There is an “evil” side, but it one that makes sense in the context of the world and isn’t simply dismissed or defeated. The conclusion is very satisfying and is the preamble to how these two societies will get along – or if they’ll be able to. The third film in this revived franchise, if it’s done correctly, is going to take these questions to new heights.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes knows exactly what it needs to do to be successful. It addresses its themes with a level of confidence and skill that I thought would be impossible for this time of year. It’s an amazing movie and the revived Apes has the potential to be the greatest blockbuster franchise in a long time.

I can’t wait for the third one. Hopefully they’ll bring back the pantsuits.

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A Review of Life Itself

Roger Ebert died on April 4th, 2013. That’s a year and three months ago. There are certain moments in a person’s past that feel so intangible that it may as well have happened to someone else. Then there are those few moments that simultaneously feel as if they happened yesterday and feel as if they are so buried into your consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine what life was like before then.

When Einstein articulated that time was relative, he was greeted with prizes and a status in our culture that has yet to be equaled. Why? Was it because he used numbers? Everyone, even the smallest child capable of conscious thought and memory, can describe the moments in their life where it’s impossible to measure time in any meaningful way.  It’s only when someone looks at those moments do they realize how fleeting the human experience can be.

I don’t know what it says when I say that Ebert’s death was one of those moments for me. I never met him, I was never in a position where I could have met him., and the more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he wouldn’t have cared for me too much. But still, it remains one to me. Ebert was a figure I greatly admired as I read, not just his reviews, but his battles against his illness and his thoughts on current events and complicated political subjects. I certainly didn’t always agree with him, but he was an important stepping stone for me in examining why I felt the way I felt and why I think the way I think.

I write this preface to surrender myself. When watching a movie, you must wait for it to have its effect. I walked in knowing what its effect would be on me and I would be dishonest if I tried to ignore that.

But we need a review. So goes nothing.

Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoirs, began production about five months before his death. Ebert worked with director Steve Jones (of Hoop Dreams fame) to document his life and what he was going through. One can get a sense that Ebert really felt this was the last big project he would be involved in. At one point, Ebert predicts that he will not live to see the documentary get released. We see footage of him in the hospital during his last great health scare over a broken hip that turned out to be the first sign that cancer had returned to his body. This footage interspersed with friends talking about him and clips of Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. We hear Ebert’s voice read from his own memoirs. (I have no idea if this narration was recorded before or after his death. It’s possible that Jones used the same computer program Ebert used in his final years.)  It’s an ambitious project that not too many people would have signed up to do.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9ud1HUHgug]

The hospital sequences show Ebert in a previously unseen human light. I think my favorite scene in the movie is when Ebert is going home after his next to last hospital stay. He is wheeled in his wheel chair and then told to stand up and walk to the stairs. Ebert grows frustrated, making hand gestures and slapping his leg to signal for someone to bring him a note pad so he can write down instructions. We don’t see Ebert’s face (his back is to the camera) but it’s easy to imagine the pain he was feeling.

Ebert had always put a brave face on when talking about his illness and the effects it had on him. I was constantly wondering how he could maintain this. Didn’t he miss talking to his wife? Didn’t he really miss eating? I am not in any position to judge those writings or guess just how he was really feeling, but I did wonder just what else was happening. We see it all here. But, despite the physical pain, Ebert still found time to make jokes about what was happening.

Life Itself shows us, for better or for worse. I know many people will be uncomfortable by those scenes of Ebert in obvious pain. But for me, they bring him down to a new level that I had not seen Ebert at before. We see him in the hospital, having his throat irrigated. I had seen the famous Esquire picture before of Ebert after his jaw had been removed, but here we get nice, long looks at his face. He’s still making jokes and reflecting on his favorite parts of Chicago.

I realize now the point of the film isn’t so much about Ebert. It’s about someone who knows they don’t have much time left in their life and what that means. It’s also a reflection of what happens when anyone is gone. Chaz Ebert is the undisputed hero of the piece. She grows frustrated at times, but is always there and the way she describes Ebert’s final moment (Ebert’s final days are not captured on camera, as the doctors refused to grant Jones permission to film)…well, it doesn’t depend on what happened. What matters is Chaz’s expressions as she told it. Maybe that’s the secret to life itself – finding someone who will be able to tell your story in that way after you’re gone.

The rest of the movie focuses on his past and has people affirming what he wrote about in his memoir. Friends talk about his working at the Sun-Times. Martin Scorsese (who is also an executive producer of Life Itself) is barely able to hold back tears as he discusses carrying Ebert’s review of his first movie around in his pocket. Ramin Bahrani (the director of Man Push Cart) talks about a gift that Ebert gave to him. And we see clips and outtakes of Siskel & Ebert of the two men constantly bickering but finding mutual respect for each other.

If I have any complaints, it’s that these scenes are not presented in any particular order. We cover the largest events – his beginnings, his Pulitzer, his work with Gene Siskel and the response to his death, his work with Russ Meyer (including the sex scenes scenes that probably give the movie its R rating), his love of Cannes, his illness. But there’s really no order to it. We go to his alcoholism, to his early years, to Siskel, to Meyer, back to his childhood, and back. It was hard for me to find the connections to Ebert’s own memoirs or see where the biography was going. Maybe that just means I need to watch the film again?

I certainly don’t an excuse. As an obituary and a tribute, I can’t think of anything better than Life Itself. Now that a year has passed, I think it’s time that we not mourn the fact that there won’t be any more reviews. I think instead it’s time to step back and look at Ebert’s accomplishments. Life Itself is the perfect place to start. We hear from the people who cared about him and the filmmakers who were encouraged to continue after hearing his words of encouragement. Steve Jones was one of the filmmakers inspired by Ebert and it’s easy to see he cared for his subject. If everyone cared as deeply about their subject as Jones did, documentaries as a whole would replace the summer blockbuster fare that threatens to drown out his movie. That’s unfair. Life Itself deserves to be seen and cherished for as long as films can be watched.

Thumbs up.

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A Review of the Lego Movie

After another week of disappointing theatrical releases, I decided to stay in and review something that everyone has been telling me I should be watching – The Lego Movie.

I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the movie. The Lego video game series is good for a chuckle, but the joke seems to be, “boy, you sure can build a lot of things with these toy blocks.” It surprised me when the raves started coming in, but I remained on the fence.

Well, I am not sure if everything is awesome, as the catchy theme song repeatedly asserts. But the movie is. It is probably the best true spoof since Scream.

The film is absolutely a cliche of every single kid’s adventure film. You can practically see the dog-eared copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in the background. None of the characters go beyond the level of the flat pieces of plastic that make them. The plot is incredibly convoluted – how you can shoehorn Batman (Will Arnett) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) into the same scene is still not something I quite understand.

So why am I not destroying the film? There are two reasons.

The first is that the film acknowledges each of its short comings and uses it to cast a wide net on what most kid’s films are like. The main character, Emmett Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is such a terrible character that he would be insuffereable in any other movie. He is relentlessly happy, following his “instructions” to the letter. He is useless in a struggle, no one he meets remembers him,  and his favorite past time seems to be watching his favorite sitcom, Where are My Pants.

So when people tell him he is “the special” who is destined to save the world and get the girl, Emmett doesn’t believe them. And the weird thing is that he doesn’t change throughout the film, but then again, arcs are rare things in the modern animated canon. I wouldn’t say that Emmett has an arc, but that’s the point. He saves the day by “following the instructions” and not changing his worldview at all.

The entire movie is like that, with the tongue firmly in the cheek. The person who calls the hero to the adventure is named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), who is a literal wizard for no reason other than to give the film a fantasy element. The main villain uses household items that he doesn’t know the names of – in one scene, he refers to nail polish remover as “the remover polish of Naile.” Even Wyldstyle, the girl who falls in love with Emmett, is not hyper-sexualized like is disturbingly normal in animated films. She looks like any other Lego figurine. Badcop (Liam Neeson) is named after his primary trait and we never learn just WHY there is such a character.

Not once does the film take any of this seriously. The primary joke is about how this has all been done before and has been considered original or even acceptable. The Lego Movie never considers its plot to be good.  Its strength rests in the knowing twinkle throughout the film. There aren’t many films where, upon the destruction of their homeland, the character who is a literal cross between a unicorn and a cat will yell out, “Marshmallows!” in an attempt to stay positive.

The second reason is that the film really does feel like something a kid would create with a little imagination. That’s the best advertisement for Legos, and it’s so subtle that it is not immediately evident. I won’t spoil how this is addressed, but the film is smart to put the film on the level of the toys.  It also explains all of the cliches I described above. What The Lego Movie is saying is that most of its peers could have been written by an eight year old with an overactive imagination. We have discovered repeatedly that is right.

I gave Frozen a lot of grief because it took itself and its dated themes so seriously. Had The Lego Movie taken such a tone for even one scene, it would have crashed and burned into something horrible. But luckily, it never did. The film recognized its strengths and used them for its entire run time. It’s an endlessly clever film that’s perfect for kids and the parents who watch it with them.

I can’t imagine a better animated film coming out in 2014.

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VHS Still Belongs Dead

After the two tiered disappointment I had last weekend, I’m avoiding the theater. The Fault in Our Stars is a movie that’s out and I do imagine it’s more unique than Tom Cruise’s Groundhog’s Day with Aliens and Fire, so if you are reading for a recommendation, go with that.

Instead I’d like to look at something else that I keep hearing about from the fringes of film collectors – the growing boom of VHS nostalgia.

VHS, for those increasing number of people who grew up after the format died (you kids with your music and your scooters) was an analog format that burned images onto magnetic tape. This tape was read by a VCR. It was, throughout the 90s, absolutely revolutionary. It put people in control of the film and what they could see. It allowed for the most obscure materials to become available. It lead to labels with the biggest film geeks in charge. In the 70s, the first film generation of directors graduated. The 90s independent boom owes much of its success to VHS. After all, Quentin Tarantino didn’t go to UCLA. He worked as a clerk at a local rental shop.

Because of the importance of the format, there has been a growing amount of nostalgia amongst the same crowd that buys instant cameras at Urban Outfitters. This is reflected in a growing number of documentaries. First, there was Atom Egoyan’s documentary on VHS, called Rewind This. Rewinding was how you got the tape back to the beginning and…I’m just going to stop shaking my fist like an old man before I get really depressed.

There are also documentaries like Adjust Your Tracking, that is far more about audience and their relationship with tapes.

It’s that second documentary and the feelings that are presented by the participants that I feel deserves a response. I understand the nostalgia for VHS. But that’s not what inspires these people. They want to revive the format, or at least try to discuss how there is virtue and how nothing is better.

That is nonsense. When Lloyd Kaufman is the voice of reason in any argument, your stance is bad.

Video tapes were evil little devices with a bad picture quality (especially on high definition TVs) and were about as brittle as a dead leaf. I’m not going to count the number of times that I had tapes wear out on me. And even if it was better at recording (which VCRs were), that was a moot point because it a) impossible to tell how much space you had left b) impossible to edit out commercials and c) not designed to last a long time. When your movie viewing experience turns into a Mission Impossible style event, you have problems.

So, why do people still hold onto their tapes? Well, there are some things that have never properly been released on DVD, Blu Ray, or streaming. So that’s your only place to go. It also may take people back to a simpler time in their lives. But there is no reason for anyone to claim that this was the greatest way to view films.

I liked Atom Egoyan’s documentary. It examined the medium for it is, but did not try to pretend like it was something worth romanticizing. I haven’t seen Adjust Your Tracking, but it looks like it has all of the problems I’m describing. The collectors in that film describe their collections as the pinnacle of their existence. One person sniffs his tape as he describes it. A joke, sure, but not one that is particularly funny with how revealing it is.

VHS was important, but is not any longer. There is no point in pretending you belong to a secret club that still possesses the knowledge on these magical monoliths that couldn’t even hold any extras. Next thing you know, you’ll want to open a blockbuster franchise. The world has changed – that is the one thing we know will come. Don’t try to stop time.

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A Review of Maleficent

By now, most of you have already seen Maleficent. But if I can make anyone think twice about seeing it, this exercise would be worth it.

This is a bad film, and it’s bad at the most fundamental levels. It hides it very well beneath a beautiful design. This film will win a number of Oscars next year for it’s technical achievements. And it will deserve them. I can’t imagine a better looking film this year. Maleficent creates a wonderful fantasy world and shows how much the line between animated fantasy and live action has blurred.

And…that’s about the only nice thing I’m going to say about it.

Maleficent is such a poorly written film that I can’t even put everything I want to say into this simple review. This is a movie where everyone has to be an idiot in order for the events that happen to actually happen. Characters change on a whim and forget why they are doing what they are doing. We are told that characters feel a certain way, but we never show how they get to that point. This is a film about magic, but we’re never told how it works. This is a film that takes place over the course of many years, but it still feels rushed an incomplete.

I know screenwriter Linda Woolverton also wrote the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, which practically defined “style over substance” for this decade. But that script was Chinatown compared to this. Alice was at least a well defined protagonist and we got a sense of why she felt that way she felt about her world. We never get that sense with anyone in Maleficent because they keep changing their motivations to match the Sleeping Beauty story. Don’t think that this is some huge re-imagining of that myth. It’s the Sleeping Beauty story with extra Maleficent scenes thrown in. About the only major change is what breaks the curse – I won’t spoil it except to say Disney already played that hand with Frozen and it wasn’t particularly revolutionary then.

It’s a shame this has to be Angelina Jolie’s first film in four years. (OK, first in three years if you count Kung Fu Panda 2.) She gives a fine performance and you can tell that she loves the character, such as it is. I was tempted to praise Jolie on that alone – she really is a charming actress. But the character is so poorly defined that Jolie is forced to play dumb, something no one should ever do. There are times her Maleficent is appropriately camp. But for the most part she is a dopey witch and I left wondering why they even bothered to make a movie about such a half baked character.

I’ll give you an example. After Maleficent places the famous curse on Aurora (the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Disney film and the classic fairy tale), the baby goes off to live with the three fairies I’m sure you are familiar with . One of them is played by Imelda Staunton, which is kind of creepy. Anyway, as their antics devolve into an extended Three Stooges routine, Maleficent follows Aurora and ends up making sure she has food to survive. She’s actually the one that practically raises Aurora.

Why? The entire reason she placed a curse on her at all was to get revenge on King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who looks strikingly similar to Michael Bay) for faking his love for her and then stealing her wings in order to take the throne. Why on earth would someone who cursed a child to a sleeping death not five minutes before turn around and save that child from actual death? The movie never says. Surely if the goal was to hurt Stefan, watching him suffer after his daughter’s death would be a great way to do it. Nope. I thought it had something to do with making sure that Maleficent’s curse goes through or else she may have to suffer, but that’s never brought up as a possibility.

Neither is their subsequent bond, which leads Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) to believe Maleficent is her “fairy godmother.” OK, first off, she looks like this:

Come hug me. That is not a request.

Second, Maleficent is too happy to play along with the charade without every explaining why. It comes across as stilted and unrealistic.

There are a hundred ways it could have played. Maybe Maleficent was just toying with Aurora to hurt her later? Nope. Maybe time heals all wounds? Maybe, but we never get that sense that this was a gradual change in Maleficent. It just…happens.

How do you expect us to become engaged in these classic characters and appreciate the changes made to them when everything they do makes no sense?

I’m not against these reinterpretations of fairy tales. It’s lead to some great things, like ABC’s absolutely charming Once Upon a Time. But most of the films have been piles of limp mush which barely do any re-interpretation at all. It’s the same story with a new cover. But Maleficent doesn’t have the story or the cover. It has nothing but prosthetic cheekbones and a lot of CGI. That’s not what has kept these stories alive for centuries.

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A Review of A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane needs to fail.

When I say that, I don’t say that because I want to see him crash and burn. He has proven himself to be an  exceptionally talented voice over artist and occasionally funny writer. I will defend his stint as Oscar host because he was willing to actually take shots at the crowd rather than fawn over them a la Ellen DeGeneres. (Plus, everyone seems to misunderstand “We Saw Your Boobs.” The joke was on him and how cheap his laughs usually are – not about the actresses filming nude scenes). So, I want him to be funny. I say that Seth MacFarlane needs to fail because he is in a position where he no longer challenges himself – and can justify that because everything he does is successful. It’s called George Lucas Syndrome, and MacFarlane seems to have a very bad case.

Ted, MacFarlane’s previous film, was a phenomenal success at the box office but not with me. I liked the bear, but I found the rest of the film to be completely lacking. It’s plot was a tired romantic comedy and the film seemed to forget that it had a talking teddy bear. It didn’t even recognize the good ideas that it had.

A Million Ways to Die in the West has even fewer good ideas. It barely even knows what it wants to be. Mel Brooks took the western satire about as far as it can go with Blazing Saddles, and MacFarlane was smart not to try to outdo it. Rather, MacFarlane’s Albert Stark is a geeky man who hates the time and place he lives. He hates the sheep he farms, he dreams of going to San Francisco, and he passes the time complaining to his friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) about all the ways the land can kill you. These conversations actually lead to the biggest laugh of the film, when Albert points out the town’s mayor has been dead for three days and everyone is just letting him lie in the gutter to be taken away by wolves.

Anyway, his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris) and a new girl in town, Anna (Charlize Theron, one of MacFarlane’s targets in “We Saw Your Boobs”) who teaches him how to shoot and be a man to defeat Foy in a gun fight. Get it? It’s basically the “fix up” plot of any number of romantic comedies that just happens to be set in the old west. OK. I shouldn’t have to tell you then that Albert will have to take on the “meanest gunfighter in the west” Clinch (Liam Neeson) to “win the girl.” And the gunfight has to take place at noon. This is a plot that has been done to death and about five minutes in anyone who’s ever seen a movie can guess how it will end.

I am not criticizing the film for not being original. That’s not the biggest question and Blazing Saddles didn’t have an original plot either. The question is – is it funny?

Well, yes and no. There are funny moments but it’s all in the subplots and quickly gets buried by Albert repeating the same five jokes for the entire run time. Edward and Ruth are far more interesting characters than Albert. Ruth is a prostitute who services ten men “on a bad day.” Edward is her fiance. There is never a question that the two are truly in love. But they refuse to have sex because “they’re both Christians.” When the disparity is pointed out to Edward, all he can say is, “my job sucks too.”

There is a huge amount of comic potential there. Why not have Ruth fall in love with a client, who just happens to be Clinch? Or have him try to get into the profession himself? Why not have their faith challenged?

All of that is ignored in favor of MacFarlane’s western nerd fantasy. It’s the same problem that killed Ted for me. MacFarlane had a great idea and then completely ignored it in favor of a tired plot with little comic surprise remaining.

He’s not even able to recognize the funniest part of his own jokes. One scene late in the second act has Foy being fed laxative by Anna. Duty calls, and he grabs a hat to relieve himself. The first hat isn’t enough, so he grabs another. Then we get a shot of one of the hats being tipped over, and all I will say is I never want to eat chilli dogs again. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – one of the many famous scenes in Blazing Saddles is an extended fart joke. The funniest part of that sequence is when Foy goes for the second hat, and is constantly batted away by the cowboy. It’s subtle, it emphasizes Foy’s rising tension and bizarre request, and it require no dialogue or sound effects. But that’s not what we’re supposed to laugh at. Based on the countless fart jokes, tasteless items, and out of place pop culture references, it’s clear what MacFarlane wants. We’re supposed to laugh at the hat being tipped over.

This is why MacFarlane needs to be challenged. Family Guy used to be a great piece of television anarchy before it was revived and MacFarlane grew increasingly smug and complacent. His live action sitcoms are apparently duds (I haven’t seen Dads, but the quick cancellation speaks for itself) but they not slowing him down. MacFarlane is smart – he can be funny. He just needs to remember what is funny and why great comedies of the past are still laughed at across generations. Blazing Saddles was just released on a great 40th anniversary edition Blu-Ray. A Million Ways to Die will be lucky if it is not found in a bargain bin or buried on the Netflix homepage in three years.

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