Sunday, July 6, 2014

NEW REVIEW: Life Itself


Many people knew Roger Ebert from his show with Gene Siskel, "At the Movies," which ran in various forms for 24 years.  When Mr. Siskel passed away in 1999, from complications following surgery for a brain tumor, Mr. Ebert continued the show with various other critics (finally settling on fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper).  I can remember looking forward to seeing "Siskel & Ebert" every week.  They always had something interesting to say, often reviewed at least one movie you wouldn't hear about otherwise and, of course, the two of them just might get into a heated argument over their opinions on something they were reviewing.

Those days are long gone now.  Ebert tried to keep the show going as long as he could, even after he could no longer fully participate in the on-air presentation himself.  Siskel and Ebert remain the only film critics who successfully used the medium of television to bring their brand of criticism to national prominence.

The documentary Life Itself is a film begun by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) with the collaboration of Roger Ebert, and his wife Chaz, all of them understanding that Mr. Ebert might not be around when the final product was completed.  It covers a lot of ground, telling his story of growing up and becoming a journalist.

We learn where he gained his outlook on the world (dad was a hard worker and a Democrat; Mom was a housewife).  There are accounts of how his professional relationship with Gene Siskel evolved over the years.  Friends and colleagues tell us how deeply entrenched his alcoholism was, and how he could sometimes be arrogant or egotistical.  What's refreshing is that we see and hear Ebert, himself, on these subjects.  

There are funny and insightful stories, like the time he was doing a seminar on film and a student asked him why people should listen to him.  He simply stated he was appointed film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and turned the question on the student by asking "would you want to listen to you?" Or his unlikely friendship and work with controversial film maker Russ Meyer, for whom Mr. Ebert wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

Director James covers a lot of material, and weaves it all together with interviews.  What makes this film so moving, and even fascinating, is witnessing Roger Ebert in his final days after his own battle with cancer.  It is clear how loving and inter-dependent his relationship with his wife Chaz was.  How apparent it is that he struggled to make every day count, and mean something after all he'd been through, is very touching.  Life Itself shows us how one man led a full life and how valuable Roger Ebert was to the world of film.

NEW REVIEW: Snowpiercer


In the near future, a botched attempt to avert the effects of Climate Change leads to a frozen age where everyone but a select few survive.  These people live on a constantly moving train built like an ecosystem, with the 1% at the front and the poorest relegated to the rear.  (Yes, it's got a political message)

An eccentric buck-toothed woman (Tilda Swinton, The Grand Budapest Hotel), backed by uniformed guards, keeps order in this totalitarian system, assuring the people that "everyone has his place" in the society as determined by the designer of the train that runs on a global track through icy mountain sides and snow-covered land.   The people in the back of the train are beaten down by the guards, made to eat strange "protein blocks" and their children are routinely taken away for unknown reasons.  A band of self-appointed warriors, led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans, Captain America), are planning a rebellion against these oppressors.

The plan is a risky dream, until it is discovered that the guards' ammunition seemingly ran out years ago.  This opens the opportunity for a fight to reach the engine in the front and take over the train. Enlisting the drug-addicted train security designer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho, The Host) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung, After the Banquet) to help them open the various gates throughout the train. As they implement this plan and start moving forward, they find that each compartment is increasingly cleaner and richer.   We see train cars with pools, aquariums, clubs, and an especially odd one where children are taught that the people in the rear are terrorists.  Not subtle, true, but beautifully rendered imagery nonetheless.

The film does sometimes get a bit lost during its action sequences, which slow down the story a bit.  Every moment, every move, every intruding snowflake is lingered on for maximum effect.

One could question the purpose of certain characters, like a seemingly unstoppable killer who comes at Curtis and his crew along the way, or whether the ending featuring Ed Harris (The Truman Show) as the train's founder makes much sense.  But there's no denying that the production design, most of the acting and the unusual setting are imaginative and interesting.

NOAH: Available on DVD and Blu-Ray July 29, 2014


Darren Aronofsky is best known for smaller scale fare, like "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) or "Black Swan" (2010).  Now he's taken on an epic movie, based on a fairly brief Biblical story. 

Some will debate whether the film's approach is sufficiently respectful of its origins.  Aside from the odd appearance of rock people who were fallen angels banished to earth, the film does take on a spiritual tone.  However, Aronofksy seems surprisingly more interested in creating an action picture than in getting too deep into the meaning of the story.

A young Noah (Dakota Goyo, Real Steel) witnesses his father Lamech's (Marton Csokas, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) death at the hands of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone, The Proposition).  Flash forward years later, Noah is married to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind), with three sons.  They are Shem (Douglas Booth, 2013's Romeo and Juliet), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll, Fred Claus) and Ham (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).  The family also adopts a little girl whose village has been destroyed. 

One day Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant out of the ground.  He begins to experience harrowing nightmares of the world's destruction, and goes to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) for advice.  He is given a seed from Eden, which grows a forest within mere seconds, providing the material for the fabled Ark.  When discovered by Tubal-Cain, a stand-off occurs where a vow of revenge is made against Noah for refusing his men passage to the Ark.

As the time draws near to the flooding from his visions, Noah's family begins to breakdown in a series of arguments over whether they are meant to survive.  Ham wants a wife, but Noah sees the nearby camp settlement as a swarm of sin and forbids it.  Nevertheless, the son goes and finds a woman only to arrive at the same time as an attack by Tubal-Cain is in progress.  When the girl is killed, Ham blames his father, thus setting up a scheme by Tubal-Cain later in the film to take down Noah.  Meanwhile, Naameh pleads with Methuselah for help.  Her plea leads to the once barren Ila (Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), their adopted daughter, to become pregnant by Shem.  When Noah learns of this he is furious, convinced that it is not part of The Creator's plan for mankind, and vows to kill the baby should it be a girl.  Thus sets up the finale, where a final conflict between Noah and his offspring stand-off, with Tubal-Cain attempting to use that as a weapon against him.

Noah is an ambitious action film, rather than a Bible story that happens to have action in it.  I think this is an important distinction, because the goal here seems to be to tell a fable with lots of special effects.  It is not, apparently, to tell the story faithfully. And you know what? That's okay.  Noah succeeds in being an entertaining movie.  There is a sense of spirituality in parts of the film, such as when Noah explains the creation of the universe to his children, but it's mainly in the service of action and effects.  As an entertainment, this is sufficient.  Chances are, you will enjoy the movie.  But it doesn't reach greatness, because it hedges its bets in order to reach the largest possible audience by toning down its religious origins, thereby losing some of the passion it might have displayed.