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Updated: 2017-06-28T08:31:02-05:00

 



Pop Aye

2017-06-28T08:31:31-05:00

Elephants are the gentle giants of the animal kingdom. Widely considered to be intelligent by contemporary ethologists, elephants have exhibited such complex behavior as grief, self-awareness, and empathy, even for other species. Case in point: when I was five years old, I went on an elephant ride with my parents in India. Along the way, I fell asleep and somehow my sock fell off my foot and onto the ground below. The elephant reportedly stopped in its tracks, picked up the sock with his trunk, laid it on my lap, and then continued on with the ride. Kirsten Tan’s debut film “Pop Aye” co-stars a large elephant and much of the film’s emotional heft hinges on his warm visage. He necessarily dominates the frame, even in long shots with plenty of negative space, and his tender presence lingers over the action at all times. He lumbers along and occasionally sprays water from his trunk. Though his expressions are neutral, he nevertheless conveys kindness and grace. There’s something to be said about an animal so large and so benevolent that everyone he passes must stop and engage with him. However, the elephant is only one-half of the equation. “Pop Aye” also stars Thaneth Warakulnukroh as Thana, a sad-sack architect in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He’s being squeezed out of work by younger, more ambitious employees in his office. His landmark Bangkok high-rise is set for demolition. His wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) feels sexually unsatisfied and generally resentful towards him. He walks through the world in an existential haze until he encounters Pop Aye the elephant, a childhood companion he had in his rural village, on the streets of Bangkok. Thana feels invigorated almost immediately and soon sets off for his hometown to return Pop Aye to his natural habitat. Though “Pop Aye” essentially tracks the relationship between Thana and Pop Aye, specifically how the former projects his own internal fears onto the animal, Tan adopts a traditionally episodic approach akin to most road trip films. Thana meets various people on his journey, including Dee (Chaiwat Khumdee), a lonely drifter who wishes to be reunited with his brother in heaven, Jenni (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a trans woman prostitute in a roadside bar, and eventually Thana’s uncle Peak (Narong Pongpab) who has remained in their childhood village to raise a family. These interactions ostensibly embody a weighty significance for semi-obvious reasons: they remind Thana about the importance of life’s small pleasures and to allow one’s mortality to invigorate rather than paralyze. “Pop Aye” has a pleasant, amiable tone, buttressed by Chananun Chotrungroj’s warm photography and picturesque framing as well as Lee Chatametikool’s purposeful editing scheme, and yet the film feels lacking overall. It’s difficult to place blame at the feet of any one individual as the parts more or less excel even though the whole feels slight. Warakulnukroh, a Thai progressive rock musician in his first acting role, imbues Thana with loneliness and yearning that feels achingly familiar. Tan engages with the alienation of urban and rural life through her script and direction, accurately pinpointing the feeling as both an internal struggle and an external capitalist malady. “Pop Aye” has a light touch that neatly disguises much of its grander thematic ambition. Yet, “Pop Aye” never quite reaches that magical, elliptical quality that it appears to be striving for. There are scenes that scan as powerful in the abstract, like a duet between Thana and Jenni in the bar, or an impromptu funeral shared with two complete strangers, or any of Thana’s placid childhood flashbacks, but they don’t assume much gravity in conjunction with the rest of the film. It’s possible that the road trip material is too mundane or that its microcosmic relationship with Thana’s interiority and/or Bangkok’s urban dilemma doesn’t come across as well as it should. It’s also possible that Pop Aye and his place in the film are too oblique to ever achieve much emblemat[...]



“Injustice 2” Breaks New Ground For Superhero Games

2017-06-28T08:31:31-05:00

2013’s “Injustice: Gods Among Us” was a clever fighting game, a title that essentially worked from the “Mortal Kombat” template but replaced that series’ iconic characters with those from the comic books of the DC Universe. Ever want to perform a finishing move as Batman? On Superman? Now you could. The myriad combinations—who would win in a fight between Cyborg and Green Lantern?—allowed for hours of entertainment, leading many to wonder how it could possibly be topped in this summer’s “Injustice 2.” Given that the previous game was a PS3 generation title, the new edition would surely have better graphics and probably more characters/arenas, but those predictable expectations are shattered by a game that offers more than any fighting game ever has before. Merging elements of the RPG and the events-based gameplay that has made titles like “Destiny” and “Overwatch” so successful, “Injustice 2” isn’t just one of the best games of 2017; it’s one the best fighting games I’ve ever played and a new standard on the current generation. The skeleton of the game is still the same. NetherRealm Studios use their “Mortal Kombat” template to provide a smooth, fantastic fighting experience that is easy to play but hard to master. Again, each character comes with dozens of moves, from basic attack combinations to what are called Supermoves, accessible after a meter fills and allows often-hysterical cutscene animations of absolute destruction. For example, Catwoman runs her opponent over with a motorcycle and then turns to jump the chopper itself on to her enemy. Each fight sequence plays out a little differently, not just because of the wide variety of moves but because even the arenas can impact the outcome. In certain places you can interact with the space itself, from throwing a ceiling fan on your enemy to kicking them into a giant statue in the background. If “Injustice 2” was nothing more than a great fighter it would be worth playing, but it’s the depth beyond that and the customization allowed that makes it so accomplished and addictive. As you play through the game, in various modes, you will find boxes of gear designed to customize and upgrade your fighters. Finding just the right mask for The Flash or gauntlets for Batman could make just the difference in the outcome of your fight. And each fighter has individual XP that ticks up with each battle, allowing them access to new gear. It’s such a simple idea but it’s never been accomplished this successfully before—each fighter is turned into an RPG character instead of just a combatant who will be the same each time you pick up a controller. The game even expands to include something as minor as purely visual customization—different color outfits for your fighters—and something as major as actual new abilities, only opened as you level up and earn them. How do you get all this superhero swag? “Injustice 2” includes all the expected modes, including Online combat, local Multiplayer combat, and a relatively-long Story mode that is basically an animated film with a whole lot of fight scenes for you to play out. The coolest new addition is something called the Multiverse, which is basically a series of events that change each day and allow you to build up your fighters and earn new gear. They are sometimes just a series of fights—a ladder of 3-8 fights of increasing difficulty—but they also often have neat twists on the structure. For example, in one series, gravity plays differently, allowing you to juggle your slow-falling opponent with a series of blows. In another, you can call in a tag-team assistant at certain intervals. In yet another, the entire floor electrifies every five seconds. The Multiverse events create new challenges and new ways to play the game for you every single day. And as the game expands with downloadable heroes and other content, it feels like the rare fighting game that will be as fresh six months after its release as on the day it came out. It's be[...]



"It's Peckinpah-tastic!": On Edgar Wright's Feature Debut, "A Fistful of Fingers"

2017-06-28T08:30:31-05:00

Long before “Baby Driver,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” or breakout film “Shaun of the Dead,” writer/director Edgar Wright was just a young 20-year-old filmmaker who wanted to make a feature film with his most immediate resources: a camera, some friends, some cowboy hats. In 1995, he made his feature debut with the rare spaghetti western spoof “A Fistful of Fingers." It played a single screen during its initial release and has only received a handful of special screenings since then, all while Wright has ascended to become one of the filmmakers in the game.  “A Fistful of Fingers” received its second screening in the United States this past June at Chicago’s Music Box theater, who presented a very clean restoration of the movie by Wright’s personal request during a festival in his name. Wright introduced the movie himself via a brief video, sharing the history of how it played not in cinemas but “in cinema,” and introduced us to the kitschy wonders of the MilkyBar mascot, one piece of "British ephemera" that makes its way into "A Fistful of Fingers" for a huge comedic pay-off. Wright also shared the idea that he wanted to make a feature when he was really young, just like Orson Welles did with "Citizen Kane." A "Citizen Kane" of ruthlessly goofy debuts, “A Fistful of Fingers” is the dawn of a filmmaker who thinks primarily in how to make a movie consistently gripping in the cinematic sense.  The screening was pre-packaged with interviews about an even younger Wright working on small projects: a stop-motion animation project that won him a camera; the short that followed in which he used said camera to make a horror-comedy about his friend unable to run away from the first-person POV camera that terrorizes him. For both of these shorts, introduced by footage of a giddy young Wright being interviewed on some local hip talk show, the values remained the same: elemental filmmaking in which a camera and an edit are the primary tools of cinema. As noted by Tony Zhou’s incredible “Every Frame a Painting” video essay on Wright’s career that would follow, the filmmaker is one of the best working today for his allegiance to camera work and editing to convey story and comedy. A lot of Wright’s work gets information or comedy across without dialogue but the same elements of pure cinema that he would have had in 1995 with little budget and a camera: shot composition, editing, and an inspired idea. In the case of “A Fistful of Fingers,” Wright chose the Sergio Leone aesthetic, which already comes packaged with some basic visual ideas: snarling close-ups, rising scores, quick edits between drawn-out stand-offs. Like with how he tackled zombie lore in “Shaun of the Dead” or the end of the world with “The World’s End,” the genre requirements became a type of sandbox for Wright and his fellow young collaborators. The production for “A Fistful of Fingers” is essentially a group of British kids goofing on American tropes while making a movie on a location that looks like a hiking trail. Its story involves a cigar-chomping, squinting Clint Eastwood-like character (played by Graham Low, who sounds more like Dirty Harry than The Man With No Name) hunting an outlaw named The Squint. Joining Walter along the way is a Native American named Running Sore (Martin Curtis, in cringing brown skin make-up and with a deep voice), as the story becomes a type of buddy journey as they run into various people along the way (including more outlaws) and stumble upon some treasure. Characters pretend their riding real horses a la “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and numerous cheap jokes abound for Native American and Mexican characters that Wright might have thought were ironic (which might be one reason the film is slow to wider public release). Start to finish, the movie is delightfully dorky, irreverent and scrappy, the exact kind of project a young filmmaker would make if they just wanted to make fellow nerds l[...]



Netflix’s “Gypsy” Wastes Talented Cast on Soapy Nonsense

2017-06-27T09:26:15-05:00

Netflix’s “Gypsy,” premiering in its entirety this Friday on the increasingly prolific streaming service, is a depressingly bad show for the talent it wastes on horrendous dialogue, unbelievable characters, and the kind of soapy plotting you’re more likely to see on a Lifetime TV movie than prestige drama. Naomi Watts and Billy Crudup are the undeniably talented actors adrift in this pop psychology thriller about a woman who breaks from her stifling routine but they’re given too little to do that’s believable enough to commit to spending ten hours of your life with them. Just so everything is clear, I only made it three. Could the show turn around and deliver on promises that felt thin in those early hours? Sure, but in my experience of reviewing television for over a decade, if a show’s not working after three hours, it’s probably not working seven hours later either. Watts plays Jean, a New York therapist who gets bored enough with her life that she basically starts digging into the lives of her patients. In the premiere, leadenly directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fame, Jean decides that she’s attracted enough to a barista named Sidney (Sophie Cookson) to come up with alternate persona of Diane, a freelance journalist willing to experiment with drugs and unattached to suburban anchors like a husband and child like poor Jean. To say that this quick switch isn’t sold believably would be a massive understatement. The first couple episodes hinge on Jean/Diane’s attraction to Sidney, and I didn’t buy a single minute of it. Oh, did I mention that Sidney’s ex-boyfriend is one of Jean’s patients? Of course, he is. If the Sidney obsession is the “A Plot” of the first few episodes of “Gypsy,” there are plenty of B plots. Jean’s husband (Billy Crudup) works too much, and Jean clearly doesn’t trust the fact that he spends most of his nights in the office with a gorgeous assistant. We meet other patients of Jean’s in horribly-scripted therapy scenes—Jean is really bad at her job—including an overprotective mother played by Brenda Vaccaro and a young drug addict played by Sophie Boynton. “Gypsy” also has echoes of “Big Little Lies” in the way it captures the dog-eat-dog world of suburban mothers who compete with each other for more socially ostentatious signs of wealth, and Jean’s daughter might have some gender identity issues, displaying more outward appearances as a boy. And we eventually learn that Jean’s mother (Blythe Danner) wasn’t the most supportive figure in her life. The fact that “Gypsy” has so much going on in the subplot department makes Jean’s “bored housewife” routine feel all the more hollow and her character less likable. I’m comfortable with The Age of the Antihero in modern TV, but I don’t think we’re supposed to consider Jean’s dalliances in the city as “anti” as much as her expressing a long-hidden side to her personality. Bluntly, despite Watts’ best efforts, Jean is just not a character one wants to spend long periods of time with. It seems likely that Jean will learn the error of her ways, but watching this unlikeable character set up the house of cards that will surely fall just isn’t fun or believable. Worst of all, none of it rings true. Jean is the kind of character who says to Sidney, “You’re like a human Rorschach test,” and Sidney doesn’t just respond with “Nobody talks like that! Who are you?” “Gypsy” is filled with scenes of overwritten dialogue directed with blatant self-importance. If I was the show’s therapist, I’d suggest it stop taking itself so damn seriously. Pick up the pace and give us something to care about. Get to the point and stop dancing around your issues. Because no one wants to dance this slowly. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/y67_16zSMwk" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> [...]



All Roads Lead to This: Edgar Wright on "Baby Driver"

2017-06-28T08:30:19-05:00

Edgar Wright likes to turn movie genres upside down and inside out. With “Shaun of the Dead,” he turned a zombie film into a coming of age love story.  In “Hot Fuzz” he turned an action movie into a story about home. And “The World’s End” not only upended the apocalypse genre, he switched up the expectations he had created for us in his earlier films about his most frequent stars, casting Simon Pegg as the irresponsible mess and Nick Frost as the stable, reliable character.  Wright does the same with “Baby Driver,” the most stylish adrenalin rush of a film you will see this year. It has eye-popping chases and shoot-outs, a sweet love story, scary bad guys played by Emmy and Oscar-winning actors, and an instant classic soundtrack that ranges from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to T Rex, the Beach Boys, Dave Brubeck, and the Simon and Garfunkel song that gives the film its title.  Unlike the long list of movies about long-time criminals facing one last job. “Baby Driver” is about a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is only 20 and wants to get out of the business. “He’s the opposite of [“Goodfellas’”] Henry Hill,” Wright told an audience in Washington DC following a screening of the film. “He’s been a sort of unpaid intern” working for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). “Hill was a young guy who wanted to get into crime; Baby wants to get out.” Even when Wright made use of a more conventional approach to a character, he added detail for more depth. “You’ve always had the archetype of the strong, silent type in action films. I thought it would be interesting to give a reason why. I hope the movie will make people think about how they hear things and how other people hear things.”  In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Wright talked about the diegetic use of the songs in the movie. Instead of a score that the characters are unaware of, everything the audience hears is what Baby is listening to. In one scene, the LP albums with the songs on the soundtrack are spread out on the floor. “I actually laid them out myself to make sure you could see all the album covers.”Baby has tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears, following the car accident that killed his parents. So he listens to music all the time via ear buds connected to his seemingly endless collection of mp3 players. “If you’ve been stealing cars since you were ten years old,” Wright said, “what you have a lot of is what people leave in their cars: mp3 players and sunglasses.” But those two items are symbolic as well. “The headphones and the sunglasses are like a ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ approach. He is using those things to blinker himself to the consequences. And then there’s a key point where he gets his sunglasses knocked off so then at least with one eye he is clearly looking at the problem and what to do about the problem.” Wright himself had tinnitus as a teenager, though he says he was not as clever as Baby in using music to manage it. But he did listen to a lot of music in his teens and 20’s and picked out the first song in the film, “Bellbottoms” from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, as just right for a chase scene. As he worked on other films over the years, Wright said, he just kept hoping that Quentin Tarantino would not use it first.  And as he wrote the screenplay, Wright listened to music. “The songs inspired the movie and some entire scenes are completely dictated by the music. Songs actually dictate what the action was. ‘Bell Bottoms’ is a good example because it has maybe two and a half minutes of buildup to where the actual rock really kicks in. I listened to that track about 22 years ago and straight away thought: ‘Oh, this is the guy sitting outside. The other guys have gone into the bank and then while he’s singing along with the music he is looking at what’s happening in the bank. And then[...]



#305 June 27, 2017

2017-06-27T00:01:08-05:00

Matt writes: July 18th, 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Roger Ebert's birth. To honor his unparalleled legacy, we have compiled a few of his finest articles into a birthday table of contents. I'd also like to share the clip embedded below of Roger asking Alfred Hitchcock a question via phone on a talk show (thanks to Eyes On Cinema for unearthing the footage on YouTube). width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fTsYrVH8l5Q" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="">Trailers Marshall (2017). Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Written by Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. Starring Dan Stevens, Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman. Synopsis: About a young Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, as he battles through one of his career-defining cases. Opens in US theaters on October 13th, 2017. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/C_bfOWof0Sg" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> To the Bone (2017). Written and directed by Marti Noxon. Starring Keanu Reeves, Lily Collins, Carrie Preston. Synopsis: A young woman is dealing with anorexia. She meets an unconventional doctor who challenges her to face her condition and embrace life. Debuts on Netflix on July 14th, 2017. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/705yRfs6Dbs" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Thank You For Your Service (2017). Written and directed by Jason Hall (based on the book by David Finkel). Starring Haley Bennett, Miles Teller, Amy Schumer. Synopsis: A look at how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects American servicemen and women returning home from war. Opens in US theaters on October 27th, 2017. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GTl5SHYJxz4" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Flatliners (2017). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Written by Ben Ripley. Starring Nina Dobrev, Kiersey Clemons, Ellen Page. Synopsis: Medical students experiment on "near death" experiences that involve past tragedies until the dark consequences begin to jeopardize their lives. Opens in US theaters on September 29th, 2017. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gUDV0CUzG0k" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Souvenir (2017). Directed by Bavo Defurne. Written by Bavo Defurne, Jacques Boon and Yves Verbraeken. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs, Johan Leysen. Synopsis: A forgotten European Song Contest singer, fading away in a pâté factory, falls in love with a young aspiring boxer. Together they decide to attempt her comeback. US release date is TBA. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ffA8k5SXEX0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Nobody Speak (2017). Directed by Brian Knappenberger. Synopsis: The trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media pitted privacy rights against freedom of the press, and raised important questions about how big money can silence media. Debuted on Netflix on June 23rd, 2017. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/PHow1B32WZw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Bird of Prey (2017). Written and directed by Marion Hill. Starring Clare Cooney, Sam Raysby, Rachel Sullivan. Synopsis: A married woman in her forties navigates the fine line between love and infatuation with her friend's daughter. US release date Is TBA. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/XGANt9KUoGw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""> Pitch Perfect 3 (2017). Directed by Trish Sie. Written by Kay Cannon. Starring Ruby Rose, Anna Kendrick, Elizabeth Banks. Synopsis: After the highs of winning the World Championships, the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering t[...]



Baby Driver

2017-06-28T08:30:19-05:00

Baby is a young man who creates remixes of his life. He records conversations had around him (almost always around and not with him) on an old-fashioned mini-cassette recorder, and then mixes them into songs with some wonderfully antiquated keyboard and rhythm equipment. The first one we see him create is called “Was He Slow,” using a question asked by an accomplice about Baby’s mental capacity as a hook. Much like Baby turns the world around him into music, writer/director Edgar Wright remixes the movies and tunes that have influenced him into the wildly joyous and fantastically entertaining “Baby Driver.” As CGI robots clang into each other and superheroes take to the sky, here’s Wright to ask if you remember how movies used to thrill us with a turn of phrase, a squeal of a wheel, a diving plot twist, or a romantic kiss. “Baby Driver” feels both influenced by the modern era of self-aware, pop-culture filmmaking and charmingly old-fashioned at the same time, which is only one of its minor miracles. It’s as much fun as you’re going to have in a movie theater this year. Yes, his name is “B-A-B-Y, Baby” (Ansel Elgort). At least, that’s the name he gives people when asked, although he’s more often ignored. He’s the nearly silent getaway driver for a robbery syndicate managed by Doc (Kevin Spacey), who organizes the crime, hires three criminals, and then puts them in Baby’s car. You see, Baby can drive. But he needs music to do it. After a car accident as a kid left him with tinnitus, he spends the vast majority of his waking hours with ear buds in his ears to drown out the ringing. And the world around him moves to the music on one of his many iPods—he has various ones for different moods. Sometimes the world seems to respond to his choice, sometimes his choice seems to influence the world around him—either way, music is as essential to the success of “Baby Driver” as it was to “La La Land,” maybe more. Take the riveting first scene. Three criminals—Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal)—leap from a car outside of a bank just as Baby cues up “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in his 'buds. Everything from this point on moves in rhythm with the music from the slamming of the car doors after the bank robbers return to the squealing tires of one of the best car chase scenes in years. We’ve seen countless action scenes scored to pop or rock songs, but how many have you seen in which the action works in unison with the music? And Wright takes this brilliant concept a step further, making even everyday normal activity feel like it’s part of Baby’s soundtrack. The sound of someone typing a text message on a phone or placing stacks of money on a table will work with the beat of a song, creating a film that has a rhythm, flow and structure from first frame to last that works in conjunction with its soundtrack. It’s fluid and jaw-dropping—the kind of thing you want to see immediately again after it’s over to catch all the things you missed. The last paragraph probably makes “Baby Driver” sound like a music video, and has likely pushed out potential viewers looking for more substance than style. Trust me when I say that Wright doesn’t skimp on the former. There’s enough story and action here to satisfy without the music that drives the filmmaking. Much of the joy of this film is watching it unfold so I’ll be brief with plot. Baby had a brief dalliance with crime, and he made the mistake of robbing from Doc, who now forces him to drive as penance. He’s almost done. He has one more job for Doc and then he’ll be back to his normal life. Of course, we all know how that typically turns out in crime movies. And when Baby meets a lovely waitress named Debora (Lily James), he finds a reason to go straight. That’s all you need to know. At its core, [...]



Los Angeles Film Festival 2017 Recap

2017-06-26T12:18:43-05:00

When the judges and the audience agree, you know the movie has to be special. "Skid Row Marathon," won the LA Muse Documentary and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival this year. It was one of many Los Angeles stories screening at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival held primarily in Culver City, but other films explored jungles both real and emotional. Directed by Mark Hayes, "Skid Row Marathon" didn't make me want to visit Skid Row Los Angeles. The Skid Row of Los Angeles is walking distance to City Hall and the Superior Courts. When I worked in that area, everyone at my workplace had their car broken into at least once. I came out after dark and surprised the homeless person still inside my car, but, luckily, I was not alone. One evening, while it was still light and I was alone, a person was building a lean-to against my car. Even waiting for the bus on the same block as city hall could be a challenge: A homeless man walked up and straddled my legs while I was sitting down. I had to push him away. Yet "Skid Row Marathon" shows a man, Craig Mitchell, running alone through the darkened early morning streets of downtown Los Angeles. Mitchell is a criminal judge who has a running club for men and women recovering from addiction. In court, he sentences offenders to prison, sometimes life sentences. He feels not "weighed down to what you're committing another human being to." When one of the men he sentences to jail after his release asks the judge to visit him at the Midnight Mission--just a city block away, the judges does and decides to share his love of running. He promises each participant a free trip to an international marathon. One of the first to join was David Askew who confesses, "At my lowest point, I was living there," pointing to a drainage pipe hole under a bridge along the LA River. He was living with rats and pigeons. "That's what alcohol, drugs will do to you." Alcohol and drugs also destroyed the musical aspirations of Ben Shirley who came to Los Angeles to play bass guitar with a heavy metal band. He ballooned up to 300 lbs. Drugs weren't the problem that put Rafael Cabrera in jail. He spent most of his adult life in incarcerated after murdering a man as part of his gang activities. Due to parole restrictions, Rafael isn't able to join the others when they make their first international marathon run in Ghana. Director Mark Hayes and producer Gabrielle Hayes, a husband and wife team, followed this group for four years, getting up as early as 4:30 a.m. and running 5-7 miles each time. What they have produced is a tear-inducing, hopeful movie that asks us to look at the homeless people from a different angle. As the judge says, "One horrendous act does not define a person in his entirety." "The Night Guard," which won the World Fiction Award, is a darkly humorous look at one work shift by an honest security guard, Salvador (Leonardo Alonso). To get to work, Salvador must take a train and then a bus before he walks to his workplace. The body of a young boy has been found in a van not far from the construction site. Salvador has given a statement, but the officers and Salvador must wait for his coworker, Hugo. When he finally arrives, Hugo brings more problems for Salvador. Ros seems to be asking how does a good man, an honest man, survive in a world oppressed by ever-present smog of rampant dishonesty and the continuous threat of bad men. "The Night Guard" also received the Best Film and Best Actor awards at the Morelia Film Festival. "Liyana" is how every kid imagines their stories should be. Aided by master storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, a group of five orphaned children in Swaziland create a new hero, Liyana, a young Swazi girl who must battle the natural and unnatural dangers to rescue her two twin brothers. Directed by Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp, the movie is both[...]



A Returning Visitor: Comparing the Two Versions of “The Beguiled”

2017-06-26T09:08:55-05:00

What a difference a gender change makes. When I first heard that Sofia Coppola was going to write and direct a feminist-infused revision of “The Beguiled,” I felt a sudden rush of emotions. Curiosity, excitement, anticipation—and trepidation. That is because the original “The Beguiled,” based on a pulpy Southern gothic novel about an injured Yankee soldier held captive at an all-girls Confederate boarding school in Louisiana during the Civil War, was one of the seminal films of my impressionable youth. I managed to see the 1971 R-rated release, a flop during its theatrical run, when the drama found its way to TV later that decade with some of the juicier and more violent scenes edited. I was initially drawn into the movie not because of its leading man, a pre-grizzled Clint Eastwood whose “Dirty Harry” later that same year and with the same director (Don Siegel) would take him to the next level as an action hero, but because of the ethereal presence of Elizabeth Hartman, an actress that I was crazy about after seeing her in two very diverse roles in “A Patch of Blue” and “You’re a Big Boy Now.” Her teacher, Edwina (played by Kirsten Dunst in the Coppola version), is the most relatable and sympathetic character on screen and has the most “normal” romantic relationship with the film’s only male character. But once I caught wind of the premise of “The Beguiled”—females in various states of arousal and jealousy over the presence of the handsome male prisoner in their midst—me and my incubating libido couldn’t stop watching.    Years had gone by since I thought about my first and only encounter with this overheated if highly watchable potboiler. But the arrival of a new “Beguiled” gave me permission to revisit it on DVD. Surprisingly, I found myself riveted by the opening credits, which I am sure I missed the first go-round: sepia-toned photos of soldiers in violent combat are shown while a military drumbeat is heard on the soundtrack. Those images dissolve and we see a barefoot young girl (Pamelyn Ferdin, a ubiquitous child actress at that time) with a basket slung on her arm, looking for all the world like Little Red Riding Hood as she plucks mushrooms along the way through the forest. Her Big Bad Wolf shows up soon enough in the form of Eastwood’s Union soldier, swooning from loss of blood. We learn he is Corp. John McBurney. He asks his savior, Amy, how old she is. “Twelve. Thirteen in September.” Replies McBurney, “Old enough for kisses,” and he helps himself to her lips. Whoa, I did not see that coming. Needless to say, such underage liberties do not exist in Coppola’s opening scene, where Colin Farrell’s McBurney bonds with Oona Laurence’s Amy—whose brother died in battle—in a more sibling-like fashion. He isn’t initially in the same league as Eastwood’s wounded warrior when it comes to being a master manipulator, either. It takes him time to figure out each female’s soft spot to guarantee his safety and usefulness. But what the 1971 intro establishes—partly thanks to the jittery rat-tat-tats provided by Lalo Schifrin (creator of the “Mission: Impossible” theme) and the gun-powder-hazy visuals amid Spanish moss by ace cinematographer Bruce Surtees—is a world in chaos, where normal societal rules don’t necessarily apply. With cannon fire within earshot, the girls go through the motions of learning French and proper manners. When Amy finally drags the half-dead McBurney to the school, one of the older students fears the enemy soldier might “rape every one of us.” That threat will be alluded to again in the form of other potential male attackers who pass by outside the school’s gates and come knocking on the door in the dark. Meanwhile, spinsterish head mistress Martha (G[...]



Roger Ebert's Birthday 2017: Table of Contents

2017-06-25T21:58:46-05:00

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SUNDAY, June 18, 2017, WOULD HAVE BEEN ROGER'S 75th BIRTHDAY. So we decided to commemorate it this week with a combination of articles that he wrote himself, like his interview of Paul McCartney in 1984, whose birthday is the same day and same year, June 18, 1942. We compiled other articles in this brief Table of Contents, including Roger's article explaining how he understood his Catholic religion at a certain point in his life; as well as his philosophical article "How I Believe in God," one that I constantly read and re-read. I also chose an article that I find infinitely fascinating about the Frenchman who didn't sleep. That article, for me, summarizes Roger's curiosity and ability to discover eccentric and very interesting people. That is one reason he was never bored or boring. 

Brian Tallerico chose Roger's anti-gun column, "Body Count," which he wrote in 2012 right after the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, because it is as relevant today after last week's tragic shootings in Washington, D.C. Matt Zoller Seitz chose an article about the errors of political prayers. And on a lighter note, Nick Allen chose a collection of Roger's Pixar reviews as a comparison with "Cars 3" which opened last Friday. 

And to cap it all off, I am including a video of the Google Hangout we had for Roger's birthday in 2014, including a cake and a discussion with Werner Herzog, Steve James, John Singleton, Alan Polsky, Anne Thompson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Josh Golden, Sam Fragoso, Ali Arikan, and Kartina Richardson. Oh what a day that was!

ARTICLES BY ROGER

Paul McCartney: Give My Regards to Broad Street

How I Believe in God

How I Am a Roman Catholic

The Man Who Didn’t Sleep

The Body Count

The Error of Political Prayer

ARTICLES ABOUT ROGER

Celebrating Roger’s Birthday on Google Hangout

A Collection of Roger’s Pixar Reviews