Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

The art of movie reviewing has suffered yet another loss.

In this age of technology where anyone can throw up a website and start spouting their opinions as if people cared <trying not to look in the mirror right now>, the art of honest critique has been reduced to whatever inflammatory remark can generate web hits.  Yet we forget that not so long ago, we held certain public critics in esteem.

As I have mentioned before on this site, Siskel & Ebert were reviewers that I grew to know from the time I was still single-digit in years.  There were times where I thought they were too harsh on movies I liked and there were other times where I thought they were spot on.  What I didn’t realize until much later is that they helped with the development of thinking critically.  They didn’t simply tell you a movie was bad; they took the time to explain why.  While Siskel was admittedly the more artsy of the two, it was Ebert that I often agreed with more.

Roger, in his relaxed manner, never made the audience feel stupid.  He gave his critiques in common language and used analogies that sat well with most.  Watching the ease at which he seemed to fit with the “common man,” it is easy to forget that this man also won a Pulitzer and wrote a screenplay that became a major movie (one that he refused to review out of conflict of interest).  He was the one that introduced me to the concept of story being important.  He understood that not every movie was made to win the Academy Award; that at the heart of it all, movies were there to tell stories.  It didn’t matter the genre or premise, but if the story was true, and those making the movie believed in it, then the movie would blossom.  Rarely did he blame technique – the issue with most bad movies was the story or the director failing to get the cast to execute the story.

Sadly, his last few years of life were filled with constant battles.  Yet, over the past few years, Roger Ebert left the world a virtual treasure trove of written essays, reviews , and opinions about so many things beyond the world of entertainment.  Did I necessarily agree with all of it? No, but I think he wanted it that way.  He wanted to spark discussion and thinking.  He embraced Twitter and social media when he could no longer speak; he let his keyboard do that for him.  In 2010, he even started an electronic newsletter that gave you a link to more writings and all he asked for was a one-time fee of $5.  While he caught flack for that request, I gladly gave the $5 and now have 162 copies sitting in my email folder.   Sadly the last one was delivered just a couple of days ago on 4/3.

I will never know if he ever visited this site, even though I sent the link to him years ago in response to a question he asked on Twitter.  I would like to think that if he did, he enjoyed what he saw.  I do hope that wherever he is, he is reunited with Siskel in a private screening room, enjoying their favorite movies over and over again.

As the balcony lights dim for the last time, I leave you with a few quotes from Mr. Ebert that showed his character:

  • From a review of a Rob Schneider movie: “If he’s going to persist in making bad movies, he’s going to have to grow accustomed to reading bad reviews.”
  • “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”
  • “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
  • “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t”
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Footloose (1984)

Those involved with making movies dream of having that unexpected small-budget movie reap big box office numbers.  The rarer feat is when the soundtrack equals the success of the movie, and, in some cases, exceeds it.  When one thinks of iconic soundtracks in the 80’s, one of the first to spring to mind is Footloose.

FootloosesoundtrackalbumcoverFootloose has all of the ingredients needed to be a successful soundtrack in the 80’s:

  • Kenny Loggins – He accounts for 2 of the original 9 tracks, including the title song that has become the one thing Kevin Bacon dreads hearing at parties.
  • Pop tunes mixed in with what passed for rock in the 80’s
  • Several radio singles – 5 songs were bona fide hits, most notably the title track and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”

Footloose also benefits from being one of the few soundtracks that was reissued at least 15 years after its initial release.  The reissue added 4 tracks that, while decent, really didn’t do much to add value to this soundtrack.

Here is the track list:

  • Footloose (Kenny Loggins) – An infectious party song that still gets people tapping their toes and feeling good about the event they are attending.  This is one of a handful of songs that Loggins provided the late 70s and 80s that made him a go-to artist for soundtracks.
  • Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Deniece Williams) – An easily forgettable pop song that did well over the summer of its initial release, but not a song that endures.
  • Almost Paradise (Mike Reno/Ann Wilson) – The love ballad of the movie powered by the strong vocals of the lead singers from Loverboy and Heart.  You could not avoid this song for most of the 80s at weddings and dances.
  • Holding Out For A Hero (Bonnie Tyler) – Strong music combined with a raspy, sultry voice, this song became a double-threat.  Introduced in Footloose, Hero took on a life of its own by becoming the title song for the TV show, Cover-Up.  Even David Copperfield got into it by using it as the music for his levitating over the Grand Canyon trick.
  • Dancing In The Streets (Shalimar) – Another pop song that proved a one-hit wonder for its singers graces the list.
  • I’m Free (Kenny Loggins) – Loggins’s second contribution to the soundtrack is actually the better song of the two.  This was used to help showcase Ren’s gymnastic montage.
  • Somebody’s Eyes (Karla Bonoff) – I had to go back and listen to the track to remember this forgettable song.  It was most likely used as filler in one of the malt shop scenes.
  • The Girl Gets Around (Sammy Hagar) – Used to introduce the wild side of the preacher’s daughter, I enjoy this song whenever it pops up on the old playlist, particularly driving down the road.  One cannot forget seeing Ariel riding two trucks down the road like a water skier at Crystal Springs.
  • Never (Moving Pictures) – This was also used in the gymnastic montage.  While not a bad choice to end the soundtrack on, it definitely is not a song you remember for long.

My advice:  Pop this on the next time you are driving or doing housework – the fast nature of most songs will help speed up time while letting you enjoy a trip to the 80’s…

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Silver Linings Playbook

silver linings playbookAgain, I find myself talking about a movie that was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and received the Academy Award for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).  I saw this one a few days after the ceremony as well.

This movie is brought to life by the same director who gave us The Fighter, a surprising-to-me movie that I enjoyed.   Here, David O. Russell gives us the tale of a man trying to piece his life together after its disintegration due to his mental issues related to being bi-polar.  We are not forced into an “origin” story – rather, Russell trusts his audience to pick things up as we move forward.  What unfolds is a story that avoids becoming overwhelmingly dramatic and instead allows us to understand each character.  In the hands of a lesser director, this could have easily turned into a Lifetime TV movie.

Bradley Cooper gives an outstanding performance as the main character.  Within the first 10 minutes it is obvious as to why he received a Best Actor nomination.  He could have easily won it had Daniel Day Lewis not done Lincoln this year.  Robert DeNiro does well, but I am not certain it was worth a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  The most intriguing performance to me was Chris Tucker’s – he actually showed that he can dial things back and if given good material, turn in a good performance.

The standout is Jennifer Lawrence without a doubt.  She held her own acting alongside Cooper and DeNiro, and maybe even showed them a few tricks.  This is reminiscent of Amy Adams’s performance in The Fighter.  Lawrence has a long career ahead of her if she keeps getting the variety of roles she has so far that allow her to show her range.

My advice:  Big screen is not necessary, but you will not waste money if you do go see it on one; definitely check it out as soon as you can…

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Argo

argoIt seems a bit presumptuous to review a movie that has just received the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Sadly, I did not see this one until a couple of days after the Academy Awards ceremony.  This review will instead focus on what I feel made it a good choice for the Academy Award.

First area of discussion is the direction.  While I am not sure if he should have won, Ben Affleck definitely should have been nominated.  Affleck’s directing choices made this movie what it is.  The choice to film it as if it was being filmed in 1979-1981 was brilliant.  This gave the movie a feel of realism that today’s cameras would have missed.  I liked the inclusion of the 70s/80s style Warner Bros logo; that one touch helped establish the look and feel of the movie.  Affleck went for as close to reality as he could get in casting and cinematography.  I did like the inclusion of the side-by-side comparisons of cast and scenes to real-life documents that played through the closing credits – it reinforces the attention to detail that Affleck put into making this story come to life.

Casting was also key to this movie working.  Several known character actors and names appear throughout the movie and deliver each time.  Affleck faced a daunting challenge in not letting any of these actors run away with the movie while getting the most out of their performances.  Directors wanting an example of how to work with a large ensemble and producing a good product should have this as one their top 5 examples.

My advice:  See it on the big screen if you can to get a good feel for the cinematography – if you choose to see it at home, that is fine – just make sure to see it…

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A Good Day to Die Hard aka Die Hard 5

die hard 5In various reviews on this site, I have been pretty vocal about how studios, directors, and actors should know when to call it a day on a franchise.  The bigger the movie, the bigger the disappointment can be.

After Die Hard 3 (Die Hard with a Vengeance), I felt a lot of disappointment.  Some of the elements from the first two were gone, and the movie felt like it had to top the action of the ones before it.  When Live Free or Die Hard aka Die Hard 4 came out, it felt like the franchise was starting to recapture the mojo, even though the stunts were over the top.  So I felt some excitement when the head of Fox Studios announced on the Jim Rome show in 2012 that a new Die Hard was coming.

Fast forward to Feb. 13, 2013…

What was shown on the screen was a Die Hard movie in name only – it did not contain any of the true hallmarks of Die Hard movie.  The fifth installment finds John McClane in Russia trying to help his son.  Of course everything goes wrong, and McClane has to save the day…

…or does he?

What makes the original Die Hard work is that McClane is just a guy stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to keep his family safe.  He is the anti-Rambo, the anti-Terminator – He is you or me just trying to survive.  Even though the thread of this character identity fades with each sequel, it is still there.  In the first four, McClane did not try to get into danger until he was already there.

Not true for this installment.  McClane chooses to go to Russia with no plan on how to help his son.  He intervenes in chases that did not concern him.  When he finds out the truth about his son, it doesn’t have any affect on him.  I guarantee you my dad would have had a stronger reaction.   The villains are so bad that they start killing them off early just to keep the audience entertained with “action.”

Then the story serves up a location like Chernobyl, a setting rich in possibility.  Sadly it could have been any factory not contaminated with nuclear fallout.  Amazingly, our heroes get wounded and then FALL IN a pool of NUCLEAR FALLOUT WATER.  Do they die or even grow gills?  Nope, they shrug it off like it is nothing.  so now John McLane has gone from every day guy to Superman.

That is not Die Hard…

Sadly, you can tell that Bruce Willis is not even convinced this should be a movie.  He hardly commits to any of the work and cannot even be bothered to say his trademark phrase with any type of conviction.  Maybe he wanted to make sure he would never have to play this role again.

My advice: Skip it – doubt it is even worth watching on cable.  The only thing that made this disappointment bearable is that I saw it as part of a marathon and got to enjoy 4 good entries in the series before this steaming pile of celluloid…

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