Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Great Movies and Life Itself


Is there anyone who doesn't know what "Two Thumbs Up" refers to?
While at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see the Scientology movie (see review, below), I popped into the gift shop. Everyone knows that gift shops are like Costco: they're Hundred Dollar Stores, 'coz you never leave without spending $100.... Hence my purchases of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies and the biographical DVD Life Itself. The former lifted me up, the latter not so much.
I decided I would buy the book if one of his 100 essays were about Kieslowski's The Decalogue: ka-ching! Okay, how about The Passion of Joan of Arc? Bingo! Was The Wizard of Oz too low-brow? Nope. Did it include other genres, like the Up documentaries? I was thrilled.
I'd never read Ebert before. Back in the days of watching TV, I saw him and Siskel bickering away like an old couple, often raising their voices over each other's. In his essays, I found a treasure trove of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays. I nodded in total agreement as I read his assessments of why films stand up years or decades later; how they make us cry; what their contributions to social culture is; when they have weak moments; and who contributed to their transcendence. Often, I thought, Yes, that's exactly how I feel about that movie, but I wouldn't have had the words to express that! For example:
"[James Stewart] was a legitimate war hero, and what he saw in the war is no doubt reflected in George Bailey's face as he stands on that Bedford Falls bridge" (on It's a Wonderful Life, p233).
"On television, [the shot of the suicidal trek across the desert] doesn't work at all--nothing can be seen. In a movie theater, looking at the stark clarity of a 70mm print, we lean forward and strain to bring a detail out of the waves of heat, and for a moment we experience some of the actual vastness of the desert and its unforgiving harshness" (on Lawrence of Arabia, p265-266).
"In a medium without words...to see [actress Maria] Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is to look into eyes will never leave you" (p349).
"The settings are much the same: gray exteriors, in winter for the most part, small apartments, offices. The faces are where the life of the films resides" (on The Decalogue, p132).
Is it reiterative to read commentary on movies you've already seen, perhaps many times, as opposed to reviews that may prompt or prevent your viewing? Especially finer films? I suppose a lot of people still don't even consider filmmaking and film criticism to be subjects worthy of academic study, let alone discussion. When they're the great movies, the reading becomes contemplative.
Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert's life, lacked balance. It started off with a fascinating look at his early writing life, his break into film criticism and his influence, along with Siskel, on Hollywood and the movie-going public. <Screeching car brakes> Then we do a sharp turn into his battle with cancer, which focuses on his seemingly indomitable spirit throughout while keeping the camera relentlessly on what remains of his unsupported jaw and on his family's reactions to his trials. There's talk of how he reviews movies and reflects on his life on his online journal, but the viewer is made into a sort of rubber-necker at a car crash scene: you don't want to see his surgical disfiguration but you can't look away. Ultimately, it is draining. Perhaps the eponymous memoir was 'moving', 'a joy' and 'transcendent', but the director's/producers' homage to Ebert focuses too long on only one part of his life. Yes, he carried on, but do people with cancer want that to be the majority of how they are defined and remembered? I think the current view is that they live alongside their cancer and not with their cancer. 
Anyway, there are The Great Movies II and III to look forward to as well, and those are how I will remember and appreciate the contributions of Roger Ebert.

Photo from http://www.rogerebert.com/memoriam

Monday, May 18, 2015

4 Films about Dealing with the Cray-Crays

First of all, don't get all freaked out about sensitivity to mental health issues because of my title: I guarantee you I am totally entitled to look on this subject with some wryness. That disclaimer out of the way, I want to discuss four films I watched recently which all deal with dealing with crazy people on some level.
The Homesman (2014, Tommy Lee Jones dir.) is the most relevant to the title in the genre of fiction--you'll see what I mean later. This quiet but disturbingly sad film demonstrates tight direction of subject matter that could have gone terribly wrong: either saccrine or Mel Brooks-worthy. Mr. T-L Jones and Hilary Swank have to transport three young women who have lost their minds on the prairie, and they have to do it with them in a box of a wagon amidst Indians, bad guys and the elements. Minor roles by John Lithgow, Meryl Streep and Tim Blake Nelson are tied up with a bow, and James Spader shows up later as...well, James Spader, but the two lead roles really carry the film and the climax is certainly not predictable. Don't watch it when you're depressed, but do watch it.
I wanted to watch Elsa and Fred (2014, Michael Radford dir.) because I am a life-long Christopher Plummer fan, ever since The Sound of Music and my day of chasing down his Caledon Hills set as a teen, only to find the detritus of the deserted film crew: I had a loaf of Wonder bread as my prize, until it went moldy. Anyway, Shirley MacLaine plays a probably-crazy woman in this film and the story never really works. Skip it. 
For real craziness, enter Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015, Alex Gibney dir.). This is the one that beats the craziness of The Homesman but in the documentary category. If you think you know how crazy Scientology is, think again. I will probably be 'visited' for the previous sentence alone. This is about lives completely ruined--emotionally, never mind the financially--and two leaders you seriously won't believe: L. Ron Hubbard, who taunted his wife that he had chopped up their kidnapped baby daughter and put her in the river, and who taught more serious students of the religion about their outer space sources [insert cartoon head-shaking sound here], and his successor, David Miscavige. The discussions of the IRS battles, child abuse, slave labour and long-term imprisonment and abuse of those not in line are completely shocking. While there are a few good lines by interviewees, such as the APA saying that Dianetics was akin to 'psychological folk art', audience laughs soon abate and by the end we feel drained. It almost, almost, makes you feel sorry for adherents Tom Cruise and John Travolta for being so sucked in. But most of all, you feel grateful that there but by the grace of God go I. Again, depressing but an absolute must-see. 

Finally, Little Accidents (2014, Sara Colangelo dir.) got some splats on Rotten Tomatoes but I thought it deals with people suppressing the urge to go crazy with guilt/sorrow/rage with restraint. It maintains a degree of suspense and a satisfying pace: too quick and it wouldn't work with the subtlety it possesses. Certainly, the performances by Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland are crazy-good. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures a few lovely moments. And I must give kudos to hair department head Christopher Fulton: it may seem like a weird shout-out, but I feel that aspect of makeup and costumes is important for this film. 
Next time, my post is going to be about film criticism. I'm going to go meta.