All posts by piers

Piers Marchant is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. His work can be found at NBC, Guyspeed, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.
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Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached.

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Film Review: Are You Here

Dir. Matthew Weiner
Score: 2.0

In a time where Indie directors are looking for ever more elusive sources of financing (hello, Kickstarter!) and studios seem reluctant to write checks for anything that isn’t a) from a graphic novel, or b) from a YA book, the fact that Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner for “Mad Men,” must have cashed in his considerable cache as the visionary for one of TV’s great dramas of the last decade.

Consider that cache thoroughly spent: His new film, a flimsy comedy of sorts concerning a pair of stoner buddies and a large family inheritance, might well go down as one of the worst films of 2014.

To begin with, despite Weiner’s extensive TV writing and show-running background, it’s shocking how illiterate and clumsy even the most basic details of his film can be. It’s one thing to pull off the delicate balances and nuances of a given scene between actors, but Weiner can’t even seem to do the most basic tasks — blocking, say, or framing a scene — remotely competently. It lends an aura of amateurism to the whole affair, and not the good kind, like you might find in student films and ultra low-budget numbers. It’s so bad it brings to question whether Weiner was actually at the helm or trying to set up scenes while simultaneously on his phone, story-boarding the final season of his TV show.

The story is equally weak and contrived. There’s Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), this charmingly vapid weatherman on a local news station, you see, who loves seducing ladies, spending money he doesn’t have, and getting righteously stoned with his best (only?) friend, Ben (Zach Galifianakis), a misbegotten, half-crazed introvert, who lives in a hovel and writes furious notes for some insane book concerning the Rwandan genocide being a call to arms for vegetarianism (and if you think that joke sounds in poor taste, you haven’t even begun to suffer the film’s brutal witlessness). When Ben’s wealthy father suddenly dies, he bequeaths a small amount of money for Ben’s sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), a money-grubbing churl; everything else of the considerable estate to a stunned Ben; and, by request, nothing for his ridiculously young and beautiful wife, Angelina (Laura Ramsey), at roughly 32 years old, some 45 years younger than her late husband.

Somehow this state of affairs boils down to a power struggle by Terri to claim pitiful Ben — whose first idea for the money and the farm in Lancaster, PA is to start a sort of anti-technological center in order to re-educate the world — as mentally incompetent and to take over the family market in town in order to turn it into some sort of super-sized grocery store. Gradually, Ben comes to realize that he is, in fact, pretty far over the edge, and he dutifully starts taking mood stabilizers prescribed by his shrink in order to normalize himself.

Steve, meanwhile, busies himself with convincing his friend to stay stoned at all time, seducing women wherever he wanders, and trying to establish a sexual relationship with his best friend’s stepmother. And this is where Weiner really loses the thread of whatever it was he had in mind: Not only does Angelina develop “feelings” for Steve, even though the smarmy stink of opportunist oozes from his pores like swamp gas, she also develops a curious thing for poor Ben, who goes through a dizzying number of metamorphoses before finally settling on becoming an unenlightened schlub, well on his way to a dull, loveless marriage and a life of rudimentary pointlessness.

About the time Steve rushes back to the farm to embrace Angelina during a sudden, flash thunderstorm, you start to question Weiner’s own sanity: Is he trying to make a satire of such romantic comedy notions? There’s nothing overt in the script to confirm it, but the sheer idiocy of all the characters and their bedraggled motivations (seriously, this script wouldn’t have even made it through a first-year screenwriting workshop without being eviscerated) suggest he simply must have had something else in mind.

Even giving him the vast benefit of the doubt on this one — and, frankly, the skill and verbal dexterity he’s shown on seven seasons of Don Draper, seems as far away as Finland from here — there’s still the matter of his inept filmmaking that leaves his movie struggling to make a simple lick of sense.

In the end, Ben is reformed — and seemingly on his way to complete obsolescence with a bland, middle-aged mother (Jenna Fischer); while his best friend is living on his farmland with his stepmother in perpetual love, an outcome that neither one of them even remotely deserves. Whether Weiner agrees with that assessment might never be known for certain, but Don Draper had been this poorly drawn a character, his show would never have seen the light of day.

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Film Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Score: 4.3

You’ve got to give the Sin City franchise this much at least: It plays like a souped-up brand machine for its various well-known actors. Both films lean heavily on casting known stars in what might be considered their most obvious signature roles for its dark, dank protagonists and twisted villains, thus Mickey Rourke plays a giant brute with a soft spot for the underdog named Marv; Josh Brolin plays a tough-guy everyman, smitten by the wrong black widow at the wrong time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a slick kid with a smarmy smile and a luck streak a mile long; Eva Green plays a femme fatale par excellence, toying with the various men under her considerable lusty power; Powers Boothe plays a smirking senator, evil to the core, and abusive of his considerable power; and Jessica Alba plays an ungodly beautiful stripper, whose lithe sexuality barely hides a fully broken heart.

Part of the success of the first film — equally dark and violent but a good deal more effective — was watching those few actors (Elijah Wood, Clive Owen) who spun out from their noir syllogisms and actually had something resembling fun playing against their type. This sequel, coming nine long years since the first title, feels a good deal more harsh and surface — something of a problem when the film’s mise-en-scene relies so heavily on the work of graphic artist (and co-director/writer) Frank Miller.

It’s a similar effect to what Zack Snyder has almost exclusively relied upon: Actors working mostly in front of a green screen, so all the dark, seedy streets, towering festering buildings and comic-like raining backdrops can be added in post. Done well, and it can closely resemble the comic its so desperately trying to emulate; done poorly (Mr. Snyder), and it’s like a wildly overdone Photoshop job of a family portrait, with every face glistening too perfectly and the shadows melting none-too-believably into a scrim of visual hyperbole.

Much like the first film, Rodriguez and Miller attempt to weave several of Miller’s pithy short stories together, but unlike the first, which had a unifying thread or two to help unspool your possible objections, this film feels far more scattershot and unsatisfying. Marv takes out a group of college frat boys who get their kicks lighting winos on fire; Hot-shot Johnny (Levitt) blows into town in a vintage car, looking to score big at a local poker game run by the evil Senator Roark (Boothe), and runs afoul of the man after cleaning him out; the hapless Dwight (Brolin) gets played for a fool by the evil temptress Ava (Eva Green), and plots a singular revenge; while lovely Nancy (Alba) schemes to have equally rabid revenge on Roarke for her own reasons, finally enlisting the aid of quite literally her biggest fan.

There is a lot of hyper-stylized violence — the blood shots tend to be of the CGI splatter variety — with many balletic decapitations and gruesome bullet entry wounds, and plenty of smoldering sexuality (there might not be 30 consecutive seconds of screentime for Green before she’s either fully nude or draped in a see-through nightgown), but none of it has any kind of emotional impact. It’s too nihilistic and downright silly to be taken as anything more than a particularly bloody comic strip in what must be the most depressing daily newspaper ever sold on a newsstand. You can understand why actors of this caliber would flock to the production — the films are practically a calling card for them — but, at least in this case, the association isn’t really doing them any favors.

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Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Dir. Woody Allen
Score: 3.5

It’s no secret that a lot of critics feel Woody lost his fastball a long time ago. The director, whose work began in the late ’60s as ribald (and hilarious) comedy, before morphing into something far deeper and more satisfying by the late ’70s — certainly his most critically acclaimed work with the back-to-back release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall in ’77 and Manhattan in ’79 — has, over the last two decades produced some 22 features, many of which utterly forgettable. For every minor hit he’s had — 2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2013’s Blue Jasmine — he’s had eight duds.

It has long been my contention that his single biggest issue has been the insane pace of his production. Allen has said he writes his next screenplay in six weeks and starts shooting shortly thereafter, allowing the near-octogenarian to average better than a film-a-year. Many of his films, even the total failures have at least a glimmer of something salvageable in them, something a seasoned writer with his ear for dialogue could take and reshape to a more accomplished sort of level, but it appears in his haste to finish the script and get a move on with the production, he eschews further drafts in favor of just loading the camera with film and calling out “action.” The only thing that has changed in recent years is Allen eschewing his beloved New York to shoot in some of the finest cities and regions in West Europe.

His latest film is set primarily in the South of France in 1928, but it begins in Berlin, in the middle of fantastic magic act. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician whose act requires him to dress in Asian costume and fake long moustache as his illusionist alter-ego, Wei Ling Soo. One night after a rousing performance, the caustic and highly skeptical Stanley is approached by one of his few old and dear friends, Howard (Simon McBurney), who convinces him to come away with him to the French Rivera in order to help debunk a young, comely self-proclaimed mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has apparently completely fooled several members of a prominent, fabulously wealthy family into believing what Howard is certain is total bunk, only he hasn’t been able to solve the manner in which she is pulling her tricks.

With a burr in his saddle (the officious and highly pompous Stanley is greatly fond of seeking out these fakes and calling them out in public), Stanley agrees to accompany Howard and the two make their way to the fabulous estate, where they meet Brice (Hamish Linklater, always a joy), the young sire of the family, entirely smitten by Sophie and hoping she’ll agree to marry him, and Grace (Jacki Weaver), the elderly widowed matriarch of the clan, desperate to make “contact” with her long-dead husband. At first, Stanley can’t fathom Sophie’s tricks — she seems, by all accounts, entirely sincere and unflappable, leading séances and quick “impression” readings that are eerily prescient — though he remains utterly convinced of his skeptical world view. That is, until the unctuous lout takes young Sophie with him to visit a dear aunt of his living nearby (played by the winsome Eileen Atkins), and is forced to admit her knowledge of well-hidden family secrets is absolutely inexplicable.

The film goes on in this manner — rude, arrogant Stanley being forced to conceive a world in which his long and deeply held skepticism might well have been utterly misplaced — while the two completely mismatched characters are meant to be falling in love. But it is but one of Allen’s colossal misfires in this film that his two leads — being nearly 30 years apart in age, and further yet in terms of personality — share precious little chemistry. At first, Stanley is too critical and scathing to even consider such a thing, but then when he deigns to believe in her otherworldly powers, other glimmers of things start entering the picture.

But none of it makes terribly much sense — Stanley’s mood swings on the subject of Sophie are easily the most unbelievable aspect of the film and forces poor Colin Firth into twisting himself up in fully unsupported gyrations, character-wise — least of all why such an enchanting and beautiful young creature as Sophie would ever consider taking a pompous curmudgeon (whom, we are told, would much rather spend his day at home alone working on card tricks than engaging the outside world) over a dedicated and fabulously wealthy young man such as Brice, who seems hopelessly devoted to her.

Allen would have it that the magic in the title refers to the blinding authority of our hearts, which overrule our rational notions and desires despite our best efforts to curb its hedonistic impulses, but nothing save a hypnotic trance or powerful narcotic would be able to make sense of this gushing mess. What is most shocking about the film is how little fun Allen seems to be having with its conceit — a winsome vehicle by which he should have been able to mine Stanley’s crisis of faith and confidence for maximum laughs and impact. Instead, billed as a “romantic comedy” the film hardly bothers with the latter and fails horrendously with the former. Perhaps if he’d run it several more times through the aging comedic genius of his brain, he would have created something more satisfying: As it is, like its pompous protagonist, it’s a painful bore that overstays its welcome far beyond its relatively benign running time.

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Film Review: Lucy

Dir. Luc Besson
Score: 5.4

Something there is in us that wants the most beautiful and accomplished members of our race to be somehow more than human. As if a person’s physical beauty and charisma — like the royals of ages gone past — suggests an altogether superior being, one of light and dazzle and super-heightened senses (probably). In this vein, it makes perfect sense that we continually peg Scarlett Johansson as an uber-human demi goddess. In the last couple of years, we’ve watched her as a Russian super-spy, able to dispatch an army of thugs while tied to a chair; a malevolent alien, luring unwise Scotsmen from Edinburgh streets and taking them to a shimmering black oil strip of death; and, now, in Luc Besson’s absurd comic-book-like action fable, as a woman suddenly able to access all of her brain’s capacity, allowing her to control matter, read minds, and manipulate waves of energy to appear on a TV screen a continent away.

She doesn’t start out like this of course. At first, we briefly see her as a flighty young college student studying and hard-partying in Taipei. She has evidently reproachable taste in men, because she allows her shady new boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk) to convince her to deliver a mysterious metal attaché case to the super luxe hotel of Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), a heavy-hitter in the Chinese underworld, whose posse of bodyguards promptly absconds with her. Before she knows it, she’s forced to be a courier for a new, powerful synthetic drug. True to Jang’s brutal style, his method of transport is particularly savage: He rounds her up with several other sad-sacks, has bags of the drug surgically implanted in their intestines and has them fly to international destinations all over the globe upon threat of great bodily harm coming to their families.

Things don’t go as planned however, after Lucy gets worked over by one of Jang’s low-level thugs, the bag ruptures in her stomach, sending a wicked amount of the drug coursing through her veins. Before she knows it, she’s able to learn languages, read light impulses and shoot a high-powered gun with flawless aim. On a path to both revenge and a sudden higher calling, she makes contact with Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman), a scientist and professor in Paris, whose theories on the untapped potential of the human brain she finds “on the right track.”

Pursued by Jang and his men, she gets locked in a race against time trying to amass the rest of the drug taken by couriers in an attempt to go all the way and access 100 percent of her capacity before the drug ends up killing her, an event she figures to take no more than 24 hours.

Besson, whose films often sacrifice narrative logic and believable emotions for cartoon-like sparks and flashes, is absolutely in his element here, though, essentially, he has something of a philosophical treatise hidden not so cleverly in the intestines of an action thriller. Seemingly aware of the rather inert quality of his premise, he returns again and again to cut-away footage, with stock visual tropes (a mouse approaching a trap; a leopard stalking its prey; a primitive human building a fire) in order to bolster the visual punch, but none of it covers up the thinness of his plot, nor the film’s curious lack of fun or style.

Part of the issue is the lead-in gives us so little to work with as far as Lucy’s character, pre-genius. We know nothing about her or her life in Taiwan, and her transformation — which involves her suddenly rolling up and around the walls of a prison cell like something out of The Exorcist — doesn’t seem to particularly faze her. Part of this could be because her heightened intelligence allows her to see exactly what has happened and why, but part also is that, as she says, she feels “no pain, no fear, no sadness,” which, if you think about it, pretty much takes out the narrative drive and gives Johansson, ever the willing conduit, very little with which to work.

Curiously, for a film about someone exceeding normal human intelligence, it appears as if Besson was distracted from his own premise, stuck on the idea that achieving full consciousness would result, 2001-like, in a regression to the singular event that began our universe’s trajectory. If that sounds a bit heavy for an otherwise dopey shoot-em-up with a hot Hollywood actress, I can’t blame you. It’s possible, of course, that Besson is, like his fetching protagonist, somehow working so far above my primitive brain that I simply can’t follow his brilliance, but somehow I sort of doubt it.

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Film Review: Boyhood

Dir. Richard Linklater
Score: 8.0

We first meet young Mason Jr. (Eller Coltrane) lying on the grass, staring up at the clouds shifting in the sky, a six-year-old, given to staring out the window in his classroom with a strange early sense of self-possession. It is a significant snapshot — beyond the fact that is the very image used for the film’s promotional materials — because this fleeting moment of seeing him, young, unadorned, curious but as yet mostly unlived, is subject to massive — oft harrowing — change over the course of the next 12 years. And this remarkable film from Richard Linklater purports to actually show Mason’s life unfolding over those years in snippets of activity as the actors all grow old with their characters.

Linklater has always been fascinated by the passage of time, and those moments we hold onto later on as significant memories. Think back to his brilliant Before series: The first film ends with the camera lovingly retracing the various locations through Vienna the loquacious young couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) took on their endless stroll the night before. The settings are the same, yet, without the couple or any one else in the frame, we are given to understand what has passed has become the past, and the significance of those specific spots in the city have been wiped clean with the new day’s dawn.

Here, following the course of Mason’s life — from dreamy child to video game-loving 10-year-old, to beer-swilling pre-teen, to thoughtful, articulate young artist — Linklater’s methodology involves us deeply in the film’s process (the first couple of time jumps, which come without warning or placard, I audibly groaned, sorry to have left the previous time period on time’s relentless march forward), but it does so in a way that never feels short of organic.

Masons’ mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, and father, Mason Sr. (Hawke, again, who will have Linklater to thank for documenting his life so thoroughly over the course of his long career) also go through significant change and re-appraisal. Olivia re-marries two more times, in both cases to hard-drinking, dictatorial men who make for lousy husbands and even worse father figures, while Mason Sr. stops cavorting around Alaska and trying to be a musician and instead becomes a steady husband and father with a new wife and a new baby boy with which to contend.

But, by definition, it’s not a film that relies heavily on plot to carry you through its narrative. The time-jumps are too jarring and inconclusive for that sort of cohesion: In one scene, Mason Jr. is eight or nine, starting yet another new school and enjoying a flirtatious encounter with a cute female classmate; the next, he’s several years older, in an entirely different city, experiencing something else entirely.

It’s the kind of seemingly structureless chronicle that Linklater so excels in producing: His films don’t build into swelling wave-like crescendos of narrative thrust, they meander around like a series of small, noteworthy tide pools. His best films — think the Before series, Slacker, even Dazed & Confused — don’t so much pull you through a story as set you down in an unadorned series of moments in the lives of the characters, letting you swim through their lives as they slip and undulate around you.

Meanwhile, Mason’s parents and sister also evolve: His father goes from being a slightly shiftless, irresponsible (though loving) rogue to a mustachioed middle-manager, his romantic dreams dampened by the yoke of his responsibilities to his current and old family. His mother moves from being an undereducated single parent who makes questionable choices in men to a PhD. professor of psychology — who still makes curiously horrible choices in men, especially in those of whom she chooses to marry.

Emotionally, she becomes the film’s fulcrum. Mason Jr. is forced to swallow various disappointments — everything from his parents’ divorce to a bad break-up with his high school sweetheart — but does so with a smooth calmness, somehow already adept at navigating these tricky waters. Olivia, by contrast, makes “poor life decisions” left and right, never sticking to one plan before moving on to something different. It is her plaintive sobbing as her son, now a preternaturally calm and sweet young adult, leaves home for college, that sticks the film’s most painful pushpin: His life is just beginning, the people he will meet, the adventures he will share, while hers already feels near over “My life is just going to go like that,” she says, in anguish, “a series of milestones. I just thought there would be more.”

And just like that, he’s on the road, heading to college on an art scholarship, everything essential he’s accumulated over the years we’ve known him reduced to a couple of boxes and a suitcase. His mom wants him to take a framed copy of his first photo with him, something to remind him of his beginnings as an artist, but Mason takes it out of the box where she placed it and puts it back into her apartment, no longer interested in documenting his past so much as sailing off into his own remarkably unbridled future.

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Film Review: Life Itself

Dir. Steve James
Score: 7.4

Over the last few years of his life, his body ravaged by cancer to the point where he couldn’t eat, drink or speak, Roger Ebert went from porcine, preening TV icon to the beloved patron saint of all film critics. Some of this was due to the courage and conviction with which he faced his most terrible health predicament — in the course of things, he lost his lower jaw, his tongue and all of the lower part of his face to the point where, near the end, there was only a loose lower mouth flap dangling like a swing under the roof of his mouth — but a lot of it was the way in which, with the launching of his blog, he finally opened up to the world at large. In this way, despite the fact that he still kept a pretty murderous schedule of screenings, reviews, and other movie-related writings, he also added much in the way of personal revelation and politics (he was an avowed liberal) to his output.

It was a particularly cruel way to go, the man whose smooth, sonorous voice had become absolutely synonymous with film commentary — apart from the various incarnations of his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, Ebert was a popular figure on the lecture/conference circuit, displaying, scene-by-scene, some of his favorite films such as Citizen Kane — suddenly without a voice to contribute. But in the aftermath of his loss, he re-doubled his efforts to be heard, even if he had no way of speaking them (later on, he got a proprietary computer program to ‘speak’ for him, a la Stephen Hawking, only in some facsimile of his own voice). And so he went from being a slightly resented, if not rich and powerful, popular critic to a true populist.

Steve James’ remarkable film, documenting the last few months of Ebert’s life as well as celebrating all that had come before his sickness and demise, from his early roots as an arrogant kid in Urbana, Illinois, to his stint as a decidedly talented but conceited editor at the Daily Illini, his college paper where he was an iron-fisted Editor-in-Chief, to his early days with the Chicago Sun Times, where he was handed the film critic job shortly after joining the ranks of the ink-stained wretches, to his long nights drinking and raconteuring with his fellow daily scribes in dilapidated Chicago watering holes, to his eventual sobriety and world-wide fame along with Siskel, as the only film criticism TV show to have made it big.

Ebert lived a life of regal splendor in many ways, at least by the standards of this occupation, jet-setting to major festivals, interviewing whomever he wanted and for as long as he so desired, but it wasn’t until he quit drinking and finally met and married a woman named Chaz, whom he knew from his AA meetings, that he really settled into being a more three-dimensional human being (Siskel’s widow recounts a story, pre-Chaz, where eight months pregnant, Ebert cut in front of her to grab a cab in New York).

His relationship with his TV spouse was so famously contentious, they often wouldn’t speak to each other outside of the confines of the show. Siskel, who worked for the far more upscale Tribune across the street, was as smooth and garrulous as Ebert was heavy and prickly. When they were first contacted about doing a film review TV show, they would have preferred working with anyone else, but over the course of time, as the film demonstrates, the two became inexorably linked, both financially and professionally, and grudgingly came to appreciate each other. Siskel died of brain cancer back in 1999, and though he wasn’t destined to be as venerated or beloved as his partner, Ebert himself was never quite the same.

If Siskel were more the blue-blooded Ivy-league man (graduating from Yale), Ebert was the anti-elitist: the too-smart kid from a small town who had made it in the big city on the strength and guile of his conviction in himself. Ironically, it was a story fit for the movies, a Preston Sturges rags-to-riches sort of affair, complete with unlikely love story and ravaging disease that somehow makes the protagonist more popular and beloved than ever. It is an irony, one can imagine, far from lost on Ebert, who died just last year, as the film was being completed. Fortunately, the veritable mountain of writing he left in his wake will forever stand as a testament to his talent — and his courage.

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Film Review: Ida

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
Score: 6.6

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has a way of constructing his frame so that his characters appear at the bottom edge, with the widest expanse of screen over their heads, as if to suggest both the vulnerable placement of his protagonists, and also the vastness of the impenetrable world around them.

The film plays out as a bit of a mystery: A young novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), in early ’60s Poland, several weeks from taking her vows as a nun in the convent she was raised in, gets to visit her only living relative, an aunt in a nearby town, whom she has never met. Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) turns out to be formidable, both a heavy-drinking and lusty firebrand, and a powerful judge at the local magistrate. Wanda explains to Anna that not only is her real name Ida, but that she is actually Jewish — her parents both being executed during the war.

Together, the unlikely pair seek out the former house of Ida’s parents, out in the rural countryside where a Catholic family now resides. In the course of their journey, Ida discovers much more about her parents’ tragic story, and perhaps the source of Wanda’s misery.

But this isn’t a simple sort of conceit, a “personal journey” wherein the closeted nun-to-be, learns about the joys of the hedonist life from her fun-loving aunt. Pawlikowski is after something much more meaningful and subtle. Ida does get to experience a significant taste of the outside world, but that hardly means it pulls her away from her faith.

It’s an old-school sort of value, enhanced appreciably by Pawlikowski’s use of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, one favored by the silent films of the ’20s and ’30s, and the lustrous black and white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, which, as with the aforementioned careful framing, is often stunning.

But none of the film’s beauty masks the difficulty of its subject matter, nor the dark, ominous skies that seem ever prevalent as the characters make their way through the Polish countryside. Pawlkiowski also favors a simplified story-telling technique, whereby he cuts scenes abruptly, with very little non-essential material. As a result its 80-minute run-time feels cut to the absolute bone, a detail that works very well with the choice of brooding subject matter. With the exception of the deeply wounded Wanda, none of the characters speak much more than they absolutely have to, a way to suggest the lack of conversation on the subject of the war and the shattering guilt still felt between countrymen.

undertheskin

Film Review: Under the Skin

Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Score: 8.0

Atmospheric darkness is a character unto itself Jonathan Glazer’s nervy, sci-fi thriller. Figures emerge from and spill into pitch blackness as a matter of course, and the film even opens from black with only a small pinprick of light in the center of the frame. Glazer’s film plays a bit like noir, with a comely, hard-edged dame making eyes at various weak-willed men with a fearsome ulterior purpose in mind, but where this avant-garde film ends up taking them is somewhere altogether unexpected.

The dame in this case is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Laura, a mysterious, dark haired alien form, arrived at Earth (or, perhaps constructed here, it remains unclear) to skulk the streets of Edinburgh in a white van, searching for men foolish enough to think she could be sexually interested in them. She takes them to a remote brick building somewhere on the outskirts of town and leads them into one of the film’s many pitch black rooms. There she casually begins to strip, still walking away from them, and they each follow suit, stripping down and hurrying towards her before the shimmering, mirror like surface beneath their feet turns viscous liquid, sending them deep into a oily tomb.

Just why this is all necessary is never explained. Nor is Laura’s true purpose — other than to ensnare men, lead them into her lair, and deposit their bodies into the vat of liquid. The film is based on the equally baffling novel by Michael Faber, but to dwell overly on the film’s many unanswered questions is to perhaps miss the billowing trees in the beautifully dour Scottish forest.

With very little dialogue, absolutely none of which could be termed “expository,” Glazer and his skilled production team, working off a script he co-wrote with Walter Campbell, give us just enough hints of the story to follow along with reasonable clarity. Relying on a sort of narrative archetype — the humanoid who first simply apes the beings it’s trying to emulate before finally succumbing to the emotion of human empathy, and going on the lam from its merciless handlers — Glazer needs never give us full explanations for the plot, such as it is, to hang together.

And to be sure, Glazer, who earned deserved high praise for Sexy Beast back in 2000, is working from the sacred texts of the avant-garde sci-fi films of yore, calling to mind such equally stunning and perplexing films as 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Liquid Sky (the latter, a bizarre tale about aliens coming to Earth and discovering the power of human sexuality, could have been a source text). The beauty in the form is the creative, visionary power of the genre: If one is to witness things that have not been invented yet, in a time that has not yet taken place, you need to be able to take a monstrous leap of imagination, which offers daring filmmakers like Glazer the opportunity to really push the limits of cinematic storytelling.

Aiding greatly his cause is lead Scarlett Johansson, who uses the film as a vehicle to show her burgeoning versatility and highlight her welcome lack of Hollywood starlet vanity you might expect from a woman so praised for her beauty. Driving at night alone in a van, she attempts to pick up men in order to trick them into the pitch black room. Reportedly, many of these scenes were unscripted, shooting with non-actors using hidden cameras (a sort of twist on the infamous drive-and-pick-up bit with Burt Reynolds and Heather Graham towards the sad end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). In these scenes, Johansson turns from stone-faced alien to full-bodied Hollywood charm bracelet in a flash. The non-actor men, naturally, have no inkling they’re talking to a world-renowned Hollywood sex symbol, until it’s far too late for them to do anything about it.

The seduction scenes in the reflective black room are also revelatory, and not just in the sense that Johansson repeatedly strips down for them. As attractive as she is, she appears very close to attainable, almost Rubinesque, flat-footed and pale, staring at the men impassively as they slowly sink down — erections still intact — into the shimmering liquid. As much as she’s on-screen, this isn’t a glamour shoot, but having a star of her caliber and fame, tooling around Scotland, speaking off-the-cuff with wholly unsuspecting rubes is most certainly an artistic coup. As distinctive as the film’s visual poetics are, Johansson carries the film on her slender shoulders.

Just what everything means can be happily debated by starry-eyed cinemaphiles for years to come, in yet another example of a film we should all be thankful got made in the first place, entirely due to Glazer’s enormous dedication to the project: He was reportedly working on it for more than a decade. The result of his tireless efforts is a hauntingly effective vision, laced with a slender undercurrent of emotional viability that gets its hooks solidly into you. After all, just because something melts into darkness doesn’t mean you can’t still feel its presence after its gone.