Friday, October 17, 2014

Full Of Gore And FURY, Signifying Slightly More Than Nothing

FURY (directed by David Ayer, 2014)


Either your respect for "Fury" keeps growing after you see it or it keeps falling. Here is a movie with fairly little to say but strikingly well made in saying it, whose blatant lack of encompassing statements some might see as profundity. As Staff Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) says halfway into the film, "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent." Such is the crux of "Fury." Such is also the crutch.

Director David Ayer, working from his own script, constructs "Fury" like a shaggy dog story, in no hurry to arrive nowhere. Collier commands a tank staffed by men with colorful nicknames and less colorful personalities through Germany as the European theater of World War II draws to a close. Episodic mayhem ensues along the way. Far more time for contemplation in between. In this, we meet our only real arc and "Fury"'s real protagonist - a young private named Norman (Logan Lerman) who, despite joining the Army a mere eight weeks earlier, is assigned to Collier's tank. And yes, oh yes, innocence is absolutely lost.

It is not unheard of to make a movie that can be defended or derided with neither side necessarily "wrong." Lars Von Trier specializes in such works. What makes "Fury" such a rare exception is its supporters and critics seem to follow the same arguments. Impressed by Ayer's resistance to easy morality, as he portrays war one big grey area that simply continues until it doesn't? Boom - you're in the target audience. 

Or do you feel that, "History is violent," in trying not to be an easy cop-out, is itself a cop-out? Maybe you think that portraying morality in war as grey instead of black/white is only a different kind of absolute unless you also demonstrate how we're lead to this mindset, and maybe even its effect on the human soul? You're obviously in the other camp.

"Fury" is almost a fascinating case study. How one audience can watch one movie but arrive at two different conclusions using the same road map.

What's particularly frustrating is you can almost feel "Fury" wanting to push further, and at this point, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: "Fury" is not an out-and-out bad movie. Bad movies waste your time. "Fury" does not waste your time. It just could have filled it in a more satisfying way. Lets take what is by far the stand-out sequence in the movie. Collier and his men have successfully overtaken a small German village and pause for a night of rest and relaxation. Some of the men drink. Others find local German women to screw. Collier and Norman spot a couple of young ladies in the window of one of the town's few surviving buildings and invite themselves up. Eventually they're joined by the rest of their tank comrades, and everyone sits down for a meal of fried eggs.

By now, we've spent a solid 60 or 70 minutes of screen time with these men. We know how they feel towards each other. We know how they feel towards Norman. We know how they feel towards Germans. Now here they all sit around the dinner table, with nary a gunshot to distract them, discussing the carnage they have faced and the justification in it (or lack thereof), and we tensely sit perched in our seats, waiting to see what sparks will fly.

It's an exceedingly effective scene, perfectly placed halfway in the film, earning its obvious comparisons to the famed French plantation sequence cut from the theatrical edition of "Apocalypse Now." And yet it also highlights everything wrong with the rest of "Fury." Ayer has said that he envisioned the movie as an examination of a make-shift family unit - what drives a family together and what drives them apart - and you can sense this dinner sequence as emblematic of that thesis. When he doesn't push the idea further, though, instead settling for a brazen lack of conclusion, it serves only to frustrate. 

Still, I said earlier that "Fury" doesn't waste your time. That ain't no lie. Ayer shoots combat with a kind of glorious, expertly choreographed chaos. Defiantly sticking with 35mm film after digital tests reportedly didn't satisfy, he balances the modern philosophical messiness of his script with old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship. If the Normandy sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" seemed purposefully spontaneous, as if the crew struggled to keep up with the action, the carnage in "Fury" feels consciously staged. This is not an insult, Ayer blends this deliberate framing with gritty, rough violence that prevents us from feeling too much awe as people die.

Even this reaches frustrating ends in the last act, however, as "Fury" attempts its only real "plot" and it becomes Collier's tank against more or less the entire German army. What was once a fairly realistic, almost clinical portrayal of violence becomes bro-tastic "Fuck yeah!" antics, with us meant to cheer as our team of merry men mow down swarms of Germans in ridiculously over-the-top fashion.

I understand the inherent satisfaction in war action scenes. But do we really need timid young Norman shouting, "Motherfucking Nazis!"?   

Still, are you just a fan of war movies wondering if "Fury" is worth your time? Go for it - if nothing else, the movie is immaculately paced. The subgenre of WWII pictures isn't exactly gasping for additions, though, and in its lazy stab at hazy morality, "Fury" can't quite justify itself.

Mostly it seems meant for those who saw Pitt's own "Inglourious Basterds" and thought, "That was nice...but did it have to be so much fun?"


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

THE SKELETON TWINS Becomes Overly Indie, Whatever That Means

THE SKELETON TWINS (directed by Craig Johnson, 2014)


"Indie," like "hipster" or "dudebro," is one of those Rorschach Tests of words. Maybe it once had a clear definition, but now it means whatever you want it to mean. It's an easy, even shallow, way to categorize someone or something, and with just a modicum more effort, we could dig beneath the surface and discover the hidden complexities.

That being said, man, is "The Skeleton Twins" ever an indie movie. From sad sacks staring blankly out a moving car window to sad sacks screaming obscenities to themselves after making particularly grueling mistakes to sad sacks lying morosely in bathtubs, director and cowriter Craig Johnson never breaks the surly bonds of his Guide To Getting Picked Up At Sundance, eschewing genuine human moments for the limply dour.

Remember "The Savages," that lovely 2007 dramedy of adult sibling rivalry with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney? There's a movie that found time for honesty, thoughtfulness, and even a few moments of levity between. "The Skeleton Twins" instead never met a cliche it couldn't mistake for a breakthrough.

When we meet Milo (Bill Hader), a struggling, gay actor in Los Angeles, he's alone at home, slashing his wrists in a bathtub. Smash cut to Maggie (Kristen Wiig), his twin sister living in New York, on the verge of swallowing an overdose of pills, but something's holding her back (a lazy attempt at twin telepathy or something, I guess) when she gets the phone call about her brother. Milo comes to stay with her and her amiable doofus husband Lance (Luke Wilson), allowing for the twins to reconnect for the first time in ten years and open festering wounds.

Lets talk about Hader and Wiig. God knows they deserve it. If anyone can convince us "The Skeleton Twins" is anything more than a limp exercise, that there's a forest in them thar trees, it's these two. Casting them is almost a cheat on Johnson's part, cashing in on their public relationship as SNL cast members and filling holes in the writing with their pre-established chemistry. But hey - if it works, it works.

Where lesser actors might not see past the flat characterizations and few easy traits, these two find the infinite. They create rounded, realized individuals from the ground up, allowing Milo and Maggie to grow beyond symbols of Johnson's typewriter into distinct people we feel like we know. They singlehandedly make "The Skeleton Twins" worthwhile. 

That's not just good acting. That's heroic acting. 

One scene between them in particular arrives halfway through the picture. We know Maggie cheats on Lance and has done it again. Hating herself and the lies she inflicts on her undeserving husband, she heaps all her anger onto Milo. But her brother doesn't flinch, seeing his sister is hurting, and instead walks to the stereo, playing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Suddenly Milo comes alive, lip syncing to the song with all the force and passion of someone who's going to cheer up the person he loves now. Maggie resists as long as she can, but even she can't hold out, and soon they're putting on a lip sync concert in their living room.

It's an exuberant, downright life affirming moment, played with heart pounding gusto by Hader and Wiig. Even the most jaded member of the audience would have trouble feeling anything but temporary, unbridled happiness. It also illustrates everything wrong with the movie around it. For a few shining, fleeting minutes, "The Skeleton Twins" forgot it was about blank slates and instead became about these two people right here. 

Too bad it reverts almost immediately back from the color to the grey. Johnson has two potentially sublime characters here, each with their own quirks and faults and hopes and broken promises, yet he hampers them with a screenplay that relies too much on convenience and plot contrivance. Sibling enjoying an illicit relationship with someone they shouldn't? Of course the sibling leaves their cell phone out for caller ID to be visible. 

These aren't people making choices. This is a screenwriter shuffling around the pieces. The final scene, in particular, relies on a character knowing something he or she absolutely should not know, only because Johnson is trapped and needs it to happen.

"The Skeleton Twins" is a dour movie about dour subjects, no question about it. Depression, suicide, homophobia, pedophilia, infidelity, absent parents, and alcohol abuse are just a few items on the checklist. There's a difference between a depressing movie and a just plain lifeless one, though, and it's not something you fix simply by adding more jokes - no one's looking to the "Irreversible" DVD for a deleted pie fight. All you need is passion for the story you're telling. 

Johnson pulls off a few genuinely lyrical shots, and between the indie clap trap, there exists some genuinely cutting conversations about depression and how adult siblings reconcile who they were as kids versus who they grew up to be. But ultimately, "The Skeleton Twins" lies like the dead fish Wiig brings home that play an all-too-obvious symbol.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Run, Don't WALK, To Be AMONG THE TOMBSTONES!

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (directed by Scott Frank, 2014)


 In the first five minutes of "A Walk Among The Tombstones," Liam Neeson hurls a choice racial epithet, orders a shot of whiskey with his coffee, orders a second shot, adjusts his coat to reveal a gun, then as the pièce de résistance, whips out a badge. A few thugs rob the bar he's occupying, killing the owner, and, paying this victim barely a moment's notice, he follows them outside and shoots each with the blatant attempt to kill. With that, we have met our protagonist, Matthew Scudder. This is not a movie that is shy about the details.

Good thing, too, because it's in the details that this movie thrives. Much has been ballyhooed regarding Neeson's improbable late career reinvention as an action star, but that only tells half the story. No one's asking him to star in "Transformers 5: Beyond The Shadow Of The Moon's Extinction Or Whatever." Neeson isn't just the king of mature action movies. He's the king of January or September mature action movies - those wondrous two months when people don't see movies because they're good so much as because they're there.

Lowered expectations can work in one's favor, though; there's a reason people seem to like me on OkCupid. Plop down "Tombstones" in Oscar season or the height of summer, and it's dead on arrival. Key to the movie's success is that it knows what it does well, and with one minor exception to be addressed later, it knows what it doesn't do well. There's something to be said for a competent adult story, told competently, for competent adults. 

Here is a movie that moves with the leisurely pace that only comes with being sure of oneself.

Adapted from a series of novels by Lawrence Block, the plot is classic potboiler. Scudder harbors a dark, alcohol soaked past. He works as a private (albeit unlicensed) investigator; as he discreetly says, he does favors for people who show gratitude in return. A new client, who he knows better to take on, brings a story of woe and a murdered wife, plummeting Scudder into a dark, seedy underworld bigger than he anticipated. Loads of wide shots of Neeson walking in front of dirty brick walls.

As said, "Tombstones" lives in the fringes. Characters drift in and out of his life and the plot. Scudder befriends a homeless black teenager in a recurring bit that feels lifted from "What's Happening!!" instead of "The Maltese Falcon." Instead of derailing the movie, though, it's a humorous aside that writer/director Scott Frank discards and returns to at will. On the other hand, we have a scene on a rooftop between Neeson and a splendid actor named Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, playing a cemetery groundskeeper, that's so well-written and performed, it's almost chilling.

Such is the expert juggling act of "Tombstones." Rarely blatantly humorous, but not unrelentingly bleak either. It has just enough self-awareness to recognize the film noir tropes it's playing with, but at the same time, it genuinely enjoys playing with them. Thoroughly well-crafted pulp.

Perhaps it's fate (or more likely coincidence) that "Tombstones" arrives in theaters the same month as "The Equalizer" with Denzel Washington. Both movies center on sullen, detached older men who are all too skilled in killing. Both movies feature shocking outbursts of violence. But whereas "The Equalizer" postures as an adult thriller until eventually crumbling into its true, immature self, "Tombstones" is surer and more methodical in its approach. 

Frank doesn't relish in portraying violence, and in fact, he seems practically unwilling to do so, saving it for when it counts. Neeson's Scudder is instead a man who would much rather avoid hurting people - he simply wants to learn the story and doesn't much like being lied to. Frank's intent isn't that of a horny teenage boy who wants to see the blood splatter. He's far more interested in the effect, the consequences. What does it mean when someone is killed, and what happens next? When people actually do die in "Tombstones," then, it stings. 

Everything about "Tombstones," in fact, is measured and assured. Frank doesn't hurtle the movie forward like a train, but it's never boring either. He occupies the screen with fascinating moment after moment, rarely cutting too much within a scene and allowing these moments to linger. One key scene, for instance, in a basement features one character walking down the stairs with another character waiting to pounce. A lesser filmmaker would lean on edits, alternating between closeups of the one clueless person and the other hiding in the shadows, maybe earning a cheap jolt when the latter finally makes his move. Instead, Scott shoots this set-up through a single stationary shot, never forcing the confrontation, allowing us to get a feel for where everyone is and what's about to happen before the strike.

This is a movie that, by and large, knows what it's doing, which makes it all the more frustrating when it falters slightly. Although Block's novel takes place in 1992 New York, Scott updates it to 1999. Apart from the easy Y2K jokes (Remember that? Because the movie sure does!), why does Scott make this move? If it wasn't clear before, the final shot, with a sudden appearance of the Twin Towers that recalls Spielberg's "Munich," drives it home in a way that feels rather forced and unearned.

As one character comments, people are afraid of the wrong things. But in trying to connect this seedy, violent world with the post 9/11 society of today, "Tombstones" bites off a bit more than it can chew.

Still, this is an exceedingly well-constructed piece of work, granting Neeson his best role since "The Grey." We all want movies to be great. Can't we also be happy when they simply make theaters in September livable?

All Things Being EQUALIZER, I'd Rather Be In A Better Movie

THE EQUALIZER (directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2014)


There are bad movies that know they're bad movies, bad movies that believe they're good movies, and - a far more damnable variety - bad movies that fool us into thinking they're good movies. These are the pathological liars of cinema. The con men. The ones that build up our hopes only to dash them to the same smithereens that the final few reels belong.

Sadly, this is where "The Equalizer" lies. Walking in, my expectations were admittedly mild, and a funny thing happened: The movie started not half bad. Not reinventing the wheel, mind you. But smooth, stylish, and moving with a confident slow burn signaling the full, mysterious scope of its plot, with us trusting it to reveal everything at its own pace. So I did. And what started as me leaning forward in my seat reverted to upright posture, then a mild slouch. 

By the time we reached the bizarre climax which plays like, no joke, "Home Alone" in Home Depot, I was sitting as low as the same standards to which the filmmaking team appeared to hold themselves.

Such a shame. "The Equalizer" is not only dumb, it's willfully dumb, made by people who should know better. The dumb that casts Denzel Washington as some kind of exceptional genius, then demonstrates his brains largely through reading novels in public and arranging his silverware in straight lines. The kind of dumb that puts its lead in dangerous situations with zero suspense, because we become conditioned to know he'll kill everyone, no problem. The dumb that spends the first half coyly alluding to his tortured past, then basically writes it off as, "He was a spy and maybe killed some people and his wife died or whatever."

Reteaming Washington with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua (joining The John Singleton Club of people who made one great movie and decided that was enough), "The Equalizer" offers potential even before the opening credits roll. And yes, things begin promisingly enough. We meet Robert McCall (Washington), a clearly overqualified employee of a big box hardware store in Boston. He lives alone and spends most nights sucking down hot tea in his favorite corner booth at a neighborhood diner. When a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he befriends at the restaurant is brutally beaten by her employers, he seeks vengeance and his true self emerges, unleashing skills he likely hasn't used in some time as he finds himself deep among a Russian crime syndicate.

Lets talk about Denzel Washington for a second. Could any 60ish-year-old actor play this character as well? A good actor should be able to play good material, yes. But a good movie star should also elevate the bad. He or she should fool us into thinking that even a sucky movie designed solely to win opening weekend is still worth watching. And make no mistake - Washington is one of our most magnetic movie stars and actors (how many people with such a ridiculously symmetrical face could consistently play the "everyman"?). He imbues nothing with something

Lord stand by his side, for he must conjure his deepest, most magical talents to pull this one off. As written, McCall is meant to be a cypher. An enigma. His very lack of back story is his back story. All this works well enough in theory. A mysterious, troubled soul wanders the streets, solvin' problems. There's a distinct difference, though, between "concept" and "person," and without any deepening of the character, he can't advance beyond person we're supposed to root for to person we do root for. In this, Washington proves invaluable. The McCall character (and "The Equalizer" as a whole) is a blank stare brought to life, but Washington suggests history, legitimizes every bit of bland dialogue, and single handedly convinces us there's some serious shit on display. 

Maybe a skosh too serious, actually. I'm not big on comic relief for comic relief's sake. Sometimes the gall not to undercut darkness with laughs takes true conviction. But still, good grief. At the risk of sounding like a cliched dude scolding a strange woman on the street, why don't you show me a smile, "The Equalizer"? In being so somber, so dire, it plays like an overly dark superhero movie that confuses a lack of levity with depth. It even sports the origin story of a superpower - in Washington's case, that magical movie ability to never be killed by the bad guys.

What a ponderous, portentous slog of a movie. What a load of excessive violence that lacks both the verve to be silly fun or the intelligence to earn the gore. At my screening, the projectionist appeared to organize the cues wrong and the house lights partially came up with 15 minutes remaining. Not only did this clarify how darkly, poorly lit the movie is, it also fooled us that we reached the end. Cruel fate, how you tease us.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Heroes And A Half Star, Turtle Power!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (directed by Jonathan Liebesman, 2014)


Anyone out there riding high on a nostalgia kick and hoping to reconnect with the joys of their youth, with any remaining desire to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," would be wise to remember the fable of The Scorpion And The Frog. A scorpion needing a ride across a stream meets a frog. He asks the frog for a ride, but the frog wisely retorts that he'll be stung. The scorpion assures the frog he can be trusted and wins his ride. Fate being fate, he stings the frog anyway, and with his dying breath, the frog simply asks why.

"What'd you expect, something original?," the scorpion replies. "This is the summer movie season, and there's franchises to be milked. Five dollar surcharge for those 3D glasses, by the way."

Dour, tone-deaf, and astonishingly dimwitted, this latest attempt at a Turtles reboot cynically preys on our rose-tinted fondness for that which we thought we used to love. That it's dumb should come as no surprise. We are talking about sewer dwelling mutants named for Renaissance artists who fight crime and chow on pizza. But did it have to be so, I dunno...dumb about being dumb?

At the core of the movie's troubles is an almost dizzying unsureness about itself. On the one hand, director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Michael Bay can worship at the altar of Christopher Nolan and his Batman franchise, trudging along with heavy duty mythology building. On the other hand, jokes about the turtles moonlighting as a rap group! They can reflect a rather grim worldview, confusing "grey" and "serious," with action sequences shot using the requisite gritty, handheld zooms. On the other hand, eating pizza leads to flatulence! By the time a villain says, "Activate the toxin release procedure," it's actually tough to know if they're joking.

Lets lay our cards on the table. Does anyone truly care about the Turtles? I don't mean people like me who watched it as kids, and I don't mean casual fans who might keep the animated series on in the background. I mean truly care, with the fervor of Batman followers who created vicious petitions when Ben Affleck stepped in to fill the cape of their beloved crusader. "Turtles" fatally miscalculates why we respond to different comic book lore, and while Liebesman seems to recognize the inherent silliness in this origin story, he's also unfortunately timid in offending any potential True Believers out there. This creates a tiresome level of self-aware "wink wink, nudge nudge, ain't this dumb" jokes while at the same time never fully committing to that notion.

You dance with the one that brung ya, and if "Turtles" is going to be terrible, the least it could do is stick with a reason for being terrible. Instead we have this stumbling hogwash that clumsily mixes stone faced respect with levity, resulting in a screenplay from three credited writers that doesn't know where it's going and takes forever to get there. Pay for a movie about four turtles who are teenage and mutant and ninjas (you'd be forgiven for doing so)? Too bad, chump! Strap in for a movie largely centered on plucky young reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox, who never met a human emotion she couldn't aspire to).

That's right. Although "Turtles" comes advertised as being primarily about the, you know, turtles, they're relegated to virtual sidemen in their own movie, with the focus smack on April's ascendance in the journalism world from frivolous eye candy to respected reporter. And, given that we've got a franchise to build, dagnabbit, everything about the turtles and their creation and the villainous plot to release some toxin upon New York can somehow all be connected to her.

It's convenient, hammy storytelling, and if it's punctuated with admittedly effective motion capture technology for the turtles, to what end? No one shows up with a clear idea of what movie they wanted to make or why. None of these movies will ever be masterpieces. Watching the original 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie recently on cable, though, it still offered a firm grasp on its story, its world, and the four individual personalities of its leads. It knew what movie it wanted to be and who it wanted to be for.

This "Turtles" feels tailor made for hate watching, but not for people who hate the movie. This is hate watching for people who hate themselves.

NOTE: This review's headline is directly lifted from a joke made about the 2007 franchise reboot "TMNT" by my college dorm mate John Musci. Wherever you are in the world, my friend, if you're googling yourself, God bless.
 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

BOYHOOD Revels In The Immensity Of The Everyday

BOYHOOD (directed by Richard Linklater, 2014)


When an artist completes a masterpiece, it's not uncommon to call it the work he's been building to his entire career, but rarely is that as literal as with "Boyhood," the movie that writer/director Richard Linklater famously shot off and on between 2002 and 2013. We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the 6 year old product of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). We leave him as an 18 year old freshman at college. And we marvel at something as blatant and obvious as the passage of time.

Defiantly plotless, "Boyhood" resists easy arcs or lessons, despite covering a 12 year time frame, offering less a story than a series of events. People grow in small increments (both physically and emotionally). Characters who seem important drift in and out of focus. The soundtrack appropriately evolves with the times.

Linklater has said that he wanted to portray a young man's coming of age story, but frustrated with the limitations of a single shooting period, turned to this monumental technique instead. But to what end? Despite overwhelming praise (even Pixar would weep with envy at this movie's Rotten Tomatoes score), there are factions of critics who say the movie fascinates more as an experiment than a final product. That if you remove its famed production method, "Boyhood" offers little more than well performed nothingness. 

So what of it? Is it fair to love "Boyhood" as much for how it was made as what was made? Does that extend to any work of art? It reminds me of the 2007 documentary "My Kid Could Paint That," which began as the chronicle of child prodigy artist Marla Olmstead until it became suggested that maybe her father either assisted with or outright completed her paintings. But should that even matter? If people paid a pretty penny for Marla's paintings thinking they were entirely her creations, then on some level, you'd hope they simply liked the works. It's still art. The importance of how it was created should only go so far.

All of which to say, yes, if Linklater made the same "Boyhood" in a more traditional way, recasting Mason as he aged, the result might seem more bland. But he didn't, we know he didn't, and this becomes inextricably tied to our experience of the movie. Best to accept this and marvel at the "how" and the "what," because it all fuses to create a singularly, transcendentally moving experience.

What Linklater and his troupe of actors (who also contributed to the screenplay as the years progressed) made is a sort of intimate epic, whose superficial mundanity becomes all the more powerful for its mundanity. If Linklater did indeed make a coming of age story, it's not the type where someone grows through one specific experience. It's the type where a kid ages from 6 to 18 without dying in between.

You know. Kinda like life.

Linklater as a filmmaker remains steadfastly committed to this intimacy. He rarely allows wider master shots until toward the end, when Mason ventures on his own and his life leaves our focus. Before then, Linklater opts for almost exclusively plain medium shots. Nothing that calls attention to itself. Nothing flashy. Even in the opening scene, our introduction to Mason is him lying on his back in the grass, but Linklater noticeably refuses to offer a panorama of the sky from his perspective. And as we jump from year to year, there are no clear transitions or establishing shots - we're just expected to keep up.

Linklater seems to focus exclusively on the trees with our awareness that the forest is out there. Mason's mother marries her professor, who reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic, but they leave him and his character is never seen again. As he grows older, Mason experiments with drugs, but it's presented as neither life changing nor life ending. He also asks his father about girls, they discuss politics and pop culture, and his sister bugs him throughout. All of which happens during a 3 hour running time that flies with the ease of swapping stories with old friends.

None of this is presented as particularly "important." None of it has to be. "Boyhood" has the audacity to suggest that a life lived is an epic one simply because it happened to you. All of the larger arcs in "Boyhood" seem to happen on the fringes, suggested rather than portrayed. Arquette finishes graduate school and eventually teaches at a university herself. Hawke, initially portrayed as a well-meaning slacker, remarries and settles down with a new family, accepting his responsibilities as a father. Meanwhile, nothing much happens to Mason besides the same stuff that happened to all of us every day when we his age.

It's a popular theme (or cliche) of fiction, probably because it's one we universally face, to realize we're the star of our own story and the supporting player in everybody else's. If our actions seem of vital importance to the world, it's only because we're the ones doing them, day in and day out. The truth is we really don't matter, at least not in the grander scope. We each stand here as the result of coincidence, chance, and, lets face it, pure ungodly accident. 

But that doesn't mean we have to act like it. I'm 28 years old, you're however old you are, and we're lucky enough to have the full weight of those years behind us. "Boyhood," presenting an everyday life with the minutia of time lapse photography, brings that intensely moving fact crashing home. Your life is your life, and the mere fact that it's happening is kind of extraordinary.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

LIFE ITSELF, Much Like Its Subject, Is An Honest Inspiration

LIFE ITSELF (directed by Steve James, 2014)


Your excuse is invalid.

That's what I take from "Life Itself," the celebratory documentary chronicling Roger Ebert's rise to superstardom (by film critic standards) through his succumbing to cancer in 2013: Your excuse is invalid.

Or wait. Lets back that up a bit. I was all set to launch a full-on, bowing-on-my-knees lovefest for this man I feel like I know in all ways except in the real world. How, as the movie shows in unblinking detail, he spent all too many of his final days in hospitals, essentially living as a revolving door patient. How cancer robbed him of his lower jaw, his voice, and yet this period produced the best writing of his career. How Roger Ebert is better than all of us.

But that's not how Roger Ebert wanted to go down. That's not how "Life Itself," from "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James, lets him go down. He's not our messianic figure from the balcony. He's not the mere inspirational figure who overcame the odds. That's the easy answer. And "Life Itself" offers no easy answers. Unsatisfied with the typical laudatory cliches reserved for the dead, the movie instead keeps its eyes open and the camera rolling, offering a warts-and-all portrait of an imperfect man who recognized his own imperfections, accepting them to the point of becoming a better person for it.

Roger Ebert did indeed spend those final years creating the best work of his career, embracing modern communication with his blog and Twitter account, connecting with a new generation of fans, all with the support of loving wife Chaz. But as we see in unflinching detail that's almost too personal to watch, he's also the man who nearly let alcoholism consume him until the late 1970s. The man who once stole a cab from a pregnant woman (Gene Siskel's wife, who in all fairness relays the story with gentle humor). The man who, robbed of his vocal chords, passed a note to his wife with the simple request, "Kill me." 

Maybe that's what I ultimately take from "Life Itself." It's not that your excuse is invalid. Your excuse is perfectly valid. Spend some quality time with self-pity if you like. But through some positive force in your life, whether it be your own talents, the support of a loved one, the redemptive power of art, or otherwise, that very thing holding you back can also be what propels you forward. 

That's what I took from "Life Itself," and I found it profoundly moving. But it's also telling that here I am, seven paragraphs deep, and I've talked incessantly about what the movie did for me while barely scratching at the movie itself. Perhaps that's my own youthful weakness as an aspiring critic. Or maybe that's inevitable. Ebert, as much as any other film critic, joined the subjective and objective, removing the stigma of "I." Who he was sometimes affected how he saw a movie; if he had a personal reaction to something he saw, he told us. 

And try as I might, I'm finding it difficult to separate my own personal bias as a fervent Ebert disciple from the movie itself. That doesn't mean I'm blind to its minor defects, mostly structural. Obviously any documentary about Ebert's life must also touch on Gene Siskel's. Together they changed movie criticism, for better or worse, and to many in the public, their names remain forever intertwined. Still, "Life Itself" occasionally feels more like the "Siskel & Ebert Clip Show," as if James felt too enamored with classic footage of the two men bickering to look away. Much of it admittedly is classic (in no other context would "Benji The Hunted" inspire such a vigorous debate about, well, anything). And who wouldn't want to watch these outtakes on an endless loop? 

That doesn't change the fact that "Life Itself" runs a tight two hours, which when attempting to cover a man's entire life, needs all the focus it can get, and other topics disappointingly get the shaft. Who was Roger Ebert, the wunderkind who talked his way into a full staff writer gig for the local paper while still in high school? Who was Roger Ebert, the freshly hired Chicago Sun-Times reporter who essentially had the position of film critic forced upon him and won a Pulitzer for it less than a decade later? And what of his famous spat with Time Magazine film critic Richard Corliss, who proclaimed the work of Siskel and Ebert to be more like consumer advice than professional criticism? James reduces Corliss to a mere talking head in "Life Itself," allowing little more than a short remembrance before moving on.

It's not that I don't understand the bind James was undoubtedly in, trying to hit all those points. I just wanted more.

Maybe that makes "Life Itself" a little messy, a little imperfect as it heads to its triumphant finish line. How ultimately fitting for a movie about Roger Ebert, a man whose flaws were vast in a life that nevertheless contained multitudes. And what multitudes this movie captures! We choke up at Martin Scorsese confessing he carried in his pocket for years a clipping of Ebert's positive review of his debut film "Who's That Knocking At My Door." We wince at but ultimately embrace footage of nurses using a suction tube to clean the large hanging flap of skin where his jaw used to be. And we just laugh at the story involving Ebert, Siskel, and an airline pilot.

Like James' classic documentary "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert famously championed, "Life Itself" transcends its very subject, becoming less about a man who harnessed the power of a thumb and more about basic human will. Death looms unmistakably and unavoidably over this movie, but not shying away renders it all the more powerful. 

One hysterical flashback clip from their show features Siskel loudly wishing for more people today with blood boiling in their veins. He's getting a solid dig at Protestants (as opposed to Jews and Catholics). But at least he had the man sitting next to him. And, if only for the movie's running time, "Life Itself" made me want to be someone with blood boiling in my veins too.