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.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Is A Triumphant Example Of Hollywood Getting It Right

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (directed by Matt Reeves, 2014)

First things first: "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" is an inappropriate title. The previous movie was called "RISE Of The Planet Of The Apes." You can technically rise before the dawn. But why would you? Nope. It makes no sense. Flip it.

Thankfully this is my only major complaint. While the first (exceptional) installment from 2011 in this newly dusted off series rose to its lack of occasion, this one soars past its already major occasion, topping its predecessor in every conceivable way. Not only is a great summer blockbuster (which is a patronizing way of saying it's good, but c'mon), but it's just a triumphant movie, full on, no exceptions. 

A superb blend of visual wizardry, economical storytelling, straightforward action, and parable, it calls into question what the hell other mainstream movies think they're doing.

Some critics seem keen to label "Dawn," with apes and humans laying claim to their own pieces of the word and no one willing to concede, as a redressing of Israel versus Palestine. And that's fine. You can certainly make that argument. I think a more general take feels appropriate - the idea of two parties convinced of their rightness even as violence escalates isn't exactly specific to one time or place. But therein lies what makes "Dawn" special. It is whatever you want it to be. Read between the lines if your heart desires; director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver probably welcome it. Or pour a tub of artificially flavored popcorn and stay for the spectacle of apes riding on horseback while brandishing firearms.

This is a multilayered movie where you can't see the layers, all seamlessly integrated with temerity and fierce intelligence. And it's the perfect kind of intelligence, if that makes any sense. It's smart in the way that, for example, "The Dark Knight" is smart, or any great piece of pop art is smart. It's got big-tent brains, with a conceit clear enough that anyone who's willing can get in on the conversation, but not so overbearing that it ever feels like a chore.

For all the ape-on-human and ape-on-ape carnage promised in the trailers, "Dawn" is a surprisingly thoughtful movie and a patient one at that, revealing itself gradually and subtlety volleying our alliances until we accept the immutable fact that both sides in any conflict can be as right as they are wrong. As the movie opens with a swift recap of the ten years separating the previous movie and this one, mankind is rendered all but obsolete, and indeed we spend the first 15 minutes entirely with the apes, occupying a section of forest outside the San Francisco bay which feels positively Edenesque. This is our world. These are our protagonists. When humans first enter the picture, it's positively jarring - a rupture in what we've come to expect.

It's the first instance in the movie where Reeves switches viewpoints, but it won't be the last, and just as surely as "Dawn" juggles spectacle and meditation, so does it juggle our allegiances. Reeves and his writers rarely feel content to peg anyone into de facto roles of hero and villain. Everyone kind of has a point. Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, once again topping himself in a motion captured performance), the apes don't want to exterminate mankind so much as lay rightful claim to what's their's after a lifetime of servitude. And the humans, even when they push back, react less with malice and more with the instinctual desire to protect their species' very existence. 

There are no easy answers. There are no easy solutions. And when the movie arrives at its triumphant final shot, it's with the rare ellipses not designed to shamelessly set up a sequel, but with the honest inevitability of the ongoing. Sometimes all we have, ape and human alike, are the individual choices we make now which lead us into whatever comes next.

And all this comes couched in such a visceral experience! Armed with a tactile sense for the visual, Reeves tells his story with a sort of sensitive aggressiveness, pausing to observe even as he plows on through, with a motto that shuns "Here it is" in favor of "Here you are" (wait for the killer single over-the-shoulder take of an ape as it captains a tank). This world doesn't feel created. It feels lived in. It feels dirty. It feels like the result of all that came before. And this also owes no small thanks to Serkis who, along with the visual effects team, infuses a talking ape with, how else to put it, a soul.

If there's any mild disappoint in the climax, which favors summer movies' usual "epic fight makes things crash down" pattern, that's only due to its own expectations. "Dawn" merely works because it's wickedly exciting and visually sweeping. It resonates because behind it all lies a conscience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Has Just The Right Amount Of Everything

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (directed by James Gunn, 2014)

To paraphrase "The Simpsons," there's only one thing for "Guardians Of The Galaxy" to do at a moment like this. Strut.

Confident without being cocky, heartfelt without being cloying, and fun without being mechanical, this work from director and cowriter James Gunn effectively kicks open the door to the Marvel machine and becomes the life of the party, oozing honest-to-god swagger.

Maybe it's the best yet from Marvel Studios. Maybe it isn't. But it's their one above all whose universe I can't wait to return to. This is the kind of movie you want to hang out with.

What's damn near miraculous about "Guardians" is you feel by the end that it's exactly the kind of movie it set out to be. Think about what a gargantuan effort your average $100+ million comic book movie is. The multiple scriptwriters ensuring everything fits the studio's grander vision. The massive sets requiring attention now or the massive green screens requiring CGI later. The marketing blitz to ensure you think the movie is a required event even if you secretly don't care. 

You need not know how sausage is made to slice one open and see it ain't natural.

And yet "Guardians" seems less like the product of its parts than the result of a vision (in this case Gunn's). No visibly moving cogs. Just the kind of crisp, clean work you get when one creative center sits his team down and says, "You know what movies don't do enough? Get things right. Lets get everything right."

Crisp and clean. That's how I described "Guardians." But now also consider how friggin' dense this world is. This is not a timid movie when it comes to imagination. Gunn and his team created a world you want to play around in. Explore. Return to over and over to catch what you missed the first time. 

And yet it all feels completely organic. Consider, for example, the "Star Wars" prequels (easy movies to take random shots at, my apologies). George Lucas absolutely crammed detail into the backgrounds of those movies like he could only buy visual effects in bulk from Costco. Any one shot, you could delve into with a magnifying glass. But to what end? Just because you can throw things on screen doesn't mean you should.

"Guardians" understands this and starts with a universe that feels like it already exists, working from the inside out as it brings everything to life. Sweeping, panoramic shots of these creations don't feel gratuitous or show-offy. They feel earned. To call "Guardians" beautiful isn't quite correct. It's specifically beautiful.

That's the setting. Now lets move on to what's in it. We've seen Marvel movies and know the broad strokes (evil villain, MacGuffin setting everything in motion, unwilling heroes that eventually accept their fate, colossal climax with I guess the fate of everything at stake). That's the window dressing. That's not the point. When we talk about "Guardians," we talk about attitude. Ultimately here is a movie giddy with its own existence, a movie that not only portrays characters with charming swagger but joins in and mirrors them.

By the time the usual explosive battle for the universe or whatever arrives, Gunn waves these major stakes aside with casual, even ballsy, indifference. "Guardians" cares not for such trivial things. Here is the rare third act in a comic book movie where everything big goes more or less according to plan, and what really matters boils down to character.

So where does that leave us? Five core characters whose basic elements and interactions you can likely glean from the trailers - brash, wannabe Han Solo-type Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, becoming a movie star before your eyes), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the potentially lethal but bound by righteousness alien, the humorously literal Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), who fancies himself a badass despite majorly overcompensating, and a tree (Vin Diesel) whose name is Groot and has no qualms about reminding you of this. Creating five unique characters is one thing. Creating five unique characters who at first seem to only be types is something else entirely.

All five of these misfits embody a specific trait designed to sell easily in a preview, but Gunn isn't content to let these traits be the endpoint. Instead it's a stepping stone, leading us to what they're hiding beneath. Gunn doesn't allow anyone to remain their own bullet point. He starts with the basics, fleshes them out, and by the time we reach a roundtable scene marking the end of Act II where they discuss an impending battle plan, it's staged with the joy of five carefully drawn individuals repeatedly stealing the scene from each other.

Ultimately I'm just so happy this movie exists. I really am. I'm happy it's so funny, bring much needed levity to a genre that forgets it's about men in costume running away from green screens. I'm happy Chris Pratt now has a movie career that can last as long as he wants. I'm happy we have a summer blockbuster with such a freewheeling sense of fun that's infectious instead of forced. 

"Guardians Of The Galaxy" throws down the gauntlet. Here's where the Marvel Cinematic Universe can go, folks. No turning back now.