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R.I.P. Roger Ebert

4 Apr

Roger-red-seats

I never talked to Roger Ebert, but he talked to me.

I am not all that familiar with the Roger Ebert most Americans know: the guy who hosted At the Movies and judged the merit of films with the direction of his thumbs. By the time I started paying attention to him, his cancer treatment had made it all but impossible for him to host the show. It was through his writing that I became aware of his brilliance.

When I first began to get serious about film around my junior year of high school, I got a Hollywood Video membership card and bookmarked Roger Ebert’s website. Most of my familiarity with film criticism up until then had stemmed from the 2000 VideoHound guide I kept under my bed and consulted religiously for every film that even marginally caught my interest. Once I started reading Ebert, that book started gathering dust.

He was the perfect person to guide a novice through the pleasures of cinema because he never once lost his reverence for the medium. He just loved movies. He knew they were special. He knew how to watch them. He knew how to talk about them. He treated cinema as if it were holy. When he loved a film, he endorsed it with such vigor that it was impossible not to want to see it. When he hated a film, he dismantled it so thoroughly that the dismantling was an act of entertainment in itself. Even if I disagreed with him (which was often), it was difficult to refute his points. I read him so much that he became like a voice inside my head; when I watched movies, I watched them with the ghost of Roger Ebert sitting beside me.

He became like a mentor to me (and, I soon found, others like me), guiding and shaping not only my critical thought process and writing, but my worldviews as well. He was warm, compassionate, intelligent, and witty–all the things I wanted to be. And he had the coolest job in the world.

“A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Ebert quoted this line from Robert Warshow so often it may as well be attributed to him. He treated it as a mission statement. It was impossible to separate Roger Ebert the man from Roger Ebert the critic because they were one and the same. When he started his wonderful blog a few years ago, it just seemed like a natural extension of his reviews. And that’s why his loss stings so deeply to so many. A voice that, through the years, has become ingrained so deeply in our culture is now silenced.

Werner Herzog said it better than anyone in this blurb for Ebert’s Awake in the Dark: “Roger Ebert has become a member of our households, our families. He is the one who tells us all about the movies. And, as his passion for the cinema is so deep, and his knowledge so profound, he is the one we can always trust.”

Goodbye Roger Ebert: a member of my household, my family.

Christmas Can Be Cool – A Christmas Story

22 Dec

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TBS doesn’t show A Christmas Story on repeat all day on December 25 for nothing; it is the good-time, feel-great Christmas movie. What makes it so noteworthy is the way it blends specificity with generality. The characters are fully formed on their own, yet also resemble people in our own lives. Darren McGavin is Ralphie’s Old Man, but he’s also everyone’s Old Man – our fathers may not have won as major of an award as that leg lamp, but we all watched him obsess over something just as absurd. Ralphie is us as we remember ourselves – we may not have wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but we all wanted something just as wonderful. Jean Shepherd, whose work In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash served as the basis for the film (he also narrates), specialized in this kind of nostalgic story-telling. A Christmas Story never missteps, always centering its focus on recognizable family dynamics and universal truths; it is the movie equivalent of a comforting childhood blanket.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Arthur Christmas

22 Dec

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Arthur Christmas, produced by the inestimable Aardman Studios (home of Wallace & Gromit), slipped through the cracks for many last year, despite (or perhaps because of) being paired with Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” Christmas single. This is a real shame, since it’s probably the best family Christmas film of the past decade. An exceedingly clever script written by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith goes a long way towards answering the many mysterious Santa-related questions, both age-old (How does he get down chimneys?) and new (Why can’t we see his house on Google Earth?). It turns out the role of Santa Claus is handed down through generations, and although his current operation is remarkably efficient, Santa himself (Jim Broadbent) has become a mere figurehead while his tech-head elder son Steve (Hugh Laurie) pulls the strings. Baynham and Smith understand that cleverness itself means little without heart, and after the film is done world-building, it shifts its focus to its titular character (voiced by James McAvoy), the Claus son who won’t eventually become Santa Claus. Arthur may not understand the ins and outs of the family business, but he does understand Christmas itself, and the bulk of the film follows him on his race against time to get a cherished present to a girl named Gwen (the one child in the world who didn’t receive her gift) before the sun comes up. The film has fun with detail and flashiness, but its real success shows through its characters and their relationships as they argue over efficiency and progress, all while Arthur stays focused on little Gwen and her Christmas-morning happiness.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

20 Dec

(Apologies for missing the last two days–Christmas parties, work, and a new dog have all conspired against this blog. I’ll catch up.)

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A simple story of a Macy’s department store Santa claiming to be the real thing, Miracle on 34th Street is a movie I’ve always loved, but taken on a new respect for in the past couple years. The reason is the following line: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” No, that is not a particularly profound or novel thought, especially for a Christmas movie. But what’s admirable about Miracle is how, when it comes to faith, it plays by its own rules, never giving us conclusive proof that it protagonist actually is Santa Claus. A movie like The Santa Clause will offer similar themes, but they never really function as they should because the film itself gives its viewers all the evidence they need of Santa’s existence. What is faith without doubt? In Miracle on 34th Street, we must struggle along with the characters. Is it possible this is just a kindly old delusional man? Yes. But maybe he’s Santa Claus, too. I believe in the Santa Claus of Miracle on 34th Street more than I believe in the Santa Clause of The Santa Clause. Why? Because the film respects its audience enough to allow them not to believe in him, too.

Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

15 Dec

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

(Full disclosure: I did not see An Unexpected Journey at 48fps. A movie ticket is a vote, and I refuse to vote for this process.)

Say this for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit: it makes no attempt to tonally match the earlier, darker Lord of the Rings series. After all, stakes don’t get much higher than the possible end of the known world – lighter quests deserve lighter treatment. J. R. R. Tolkien understood this; it’s why Lord of the Rings reads like mythology while The Hobbit reads like a children’s story. Likewise, An Unexpected Journey possesses a lightheartedness the other films don’t. Dwarves laugh and sing, trolls argue in comedic fashion, two characters try to outsmart each other with riddles, etc.

The problems with An Unexpected Journey, then, mostly stem from what just about everybody predicted they would: its length. There is simply not enough material in Tolkien’s 270-page novel, a simple story about well-to-do homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) accompanying thirteen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home and gold from a dragon named Smaug, to justify three three-hour films. Jackson tries to pad out the story whenever he gets the chance, sometimes expanding on events only hinted at in the book (a certain evil force looms threateningly in the south), sometimes adding entirely new characters and subplots (a grudge between lead dwarf Richard Armitage and an orc leader), and other times finding various excuses to include characters from Lord of the Rings (a frame story including Elijah Wood and Ian Holm). Unfortunately, this stretching of the plot often makes the film feel unfocused and minor, more like a television miniseries than a big-budget movie.

Perhaps most problematic is the introduction of wizard Radagast, a minor character in Tolkien’s universe who should probably remain that way. Essentially the Jar Jar Binks of An Unexpected Journey, he has a bird’s nest under his hat, poop running down the side of his face, and a sled drawn by rabbits. Even taking into account the more bouyant tone, any scene featuring Radagast feels cartoonish and out of place. Another misstep is an odd Council of Elrond-esque scene in Rivendell consisting entirely of characters from Lord of the Rings. It gives the audience no new information and amounts to little more than winking references to the earlier films.

In spite of its myriad flaws, An Unexpected Journey also has much to recommend it. Middle-Earth looks as inviting as ever, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen give excellent performances, and Andy Serkis’ reappearance as Gollum sets the stage for the film’s best and most entertaining sequence. Indeed, these elements work so well that it’s difficult not to be somewhat disappointed with the muddled end result. Here’s my idea: when the time comes in two years for the DVD boxset, Jackson should make a new cut – not adding new footage as he did for Lord for the Rings, but removing any and all of the excess from The Hobbit. I am convinced that a great adventure movie lies somewhere amid all the fluff.

Grade: B