Writing for RogerEbert.com: Vol. 4

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Kelly Preston and John Travolta in “Gotti.” Photo credit: Brian Douglas.

A surreal and wonderful event occurred during my coverage of the 90th Academy Awards for RogerEbert.com. I was in the official press room surrounded by 200 other journalists, including Ebert Fellow Carlos Aguilar, who was coincidentally seated right across from me. As each winner entered the room to answer questions, the live feed of the telecast (visible on various screens) was muted, though if we still wanted to listen in, we could through earbuds connected to portable radios. I just happened to put in an earbud at the precise moment Roger Ebert’s voice materialized during a montage commemorating the Oscars’ 90th anniversary. “The purpose of civilization is to be able to empathize with other people,” his voice declared over images of classics from the past century of cinema. “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” I immediately looked at Carlos, who had the earbuds in as well, and our eyes glistened with joy.

For this brief, magical moment, Roger’s voice once again filled the room where he had covered the ceremony for decades. Even when he could’ve easily snagged a seat in the theater, Roger insisted on covering the evening like a true journalist, and I made it my duty to do the same. I got the chance to ask Oscar winners Roger Deakins (Best Cinematography for “Blade Runner 2049”), Lee Smith (Best Editing for “Dunkirk”) and Sam Rockwell (Best Supporting Actor for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) questions, while compiling notes for my epic report, which I wrote into the wee hours of the morning.

For Part II of my anniversary retrospective at Indie Outlook (click here for Part 1), I’m sharing the work I’ve published at RogerEbert.com over the past twelve months, beginning with my film reviews. They are ranked from best to worst, beginning with two unmissable pictures that earned four stars. Click on each highlighted title, and you will be directed to the full review.

Human Flow

As the world becomes more enlightened and connected, fanaticism increases to counter the progress, building walls that render the life existing on the other side an abstraction ripe for hateful propaganda. Terrorists thrive when their victims embrace xenophobia. With this extraordinary picture, Ai Weiwei is encouraging us to unite against the shared enemy of ignorance, while flipping it the bird in the process.

My Happy Family

Consider the scene where Manana enters a family’s apartment, posing as a gas meter reader. The shot begins over her shoulder as her eyes lock with the boy who answers the door, but only gradually do we realize the child’s identity. By the scene’s end, the framing has flipped, causing us to peer over the boys’ shoulder at Manana, whose carefully modulated expression now speaks volumes. Nearly every scene is anchored by Shugliashvili’s face, which unceasingly fills in the blanks intentionally left by Ekvtimishvili’s deftly nuanced dialogue.

Bronx Gothic

In a riveting montage, Rossi fuses images of mutilated slaves with the recent murders of men like Eric Garner, as Okpokwasili describes the ontological crisis spurred by the endless cycle of watching black bodies be destroyed without consequence. Her stated question of whether she exists if her existence can be so easily erased lends an overarching spiritual component to the show that crystallizes in the final act.

Rogers Park

Cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos gives the actors very little room to hide, often framing their faces in extreme close-up during bracing moments of emotional nakedness. There are echoes here of Cassavetes’ most agonizing stretches in “A Woman Under the Influence,” as casual pleasantries detonate into a fiery inferno of resentment.

Paterno

Pacino’s work here is as wrenching and richly textured as any in his astonishing career. Many of his most shattering moments contain no dialogue at all, such as when Paterno is forced to hear his team lose in their first game since his ousting. For perhaps the first time, he finds himself unable to watch the screen, pressing himself against his bed as he listens to players flailing about on the field, cast adrift without the coach’s guidance that had always sent a ripple effect through the stadium.

My Art

Ellie’s video art could be interpreted as a hybrid of Herbert Ross’ “Play It Again, Sam,” in which Woody Allen’s neurotic protagonist found himself uttering the same words as his idol, Bogie, in “Casablanca,” and Allen’s own “Zelig,” the playful comedy where the filmmaker inserted himself into archival footage.

Benji

It’s the sort of film where grown men, bereft of irony, will say lines like, “That dog wasn’t following protocol—he was following his heart!” The world of Benji is the same one inhabited by Lassie, where the barking of dogs is meant to signal more than, “Feed me,” or, “Don’t leave me!”, or, “I really need to go out.”

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

A more accurate title for “Boom for Real” would’ve been “Graffiti Guys Talking,” since that is what the film primarily consists of, along with a vividly etched mural of archival footage. When it comes to conjuring a sense of place, Driver’s film succeeds spectacularly, though it comes up short in other areas.

Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction

As it stands, the film is a sporadically successful indictment of how U.S. policy has been synonymous with alternative facts over the last century. Though our current president is never mentioned by name, the term “trump” leaps off the screen every time it is mentioned, much like the word “knife” in Hitchcock’s “Blackmail.”

Entanglement

Clearly obvious details aren’t prone to catching Ben’s gaze. This observation proves to be a sizable understatement throughout “Entanglement,” in which clues arise not as breadcrumbs but entire pre-sliced loaves.

Beuys

In terms of provocation, “Beuys” could certainly provoke me into reading a book on its subject, a fine alternative to sitting through this evasive misfire again. I’m convinced that Beuys’ voice is a valuable one to have revived in the modern sociopolitical discourse, but this film is not a sufficient vehicle for it.

Rebel in the Rye

Alas, forgiveness isn’t always easy, especially if you’re Joyce Maynard, one of the many young female admirers Salinger reportedly seduced for sexual favors before promptly abandoning them. Perhaps “Rebel in the Rye” glosses over Salinger’s treatment of women precisely because of these disturbing claims. After all, they certainly would render the film’s stated conviction—that Salinger produced work without expecting anything in return—resoundingly phony.

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards

Coppola viewed Antoinette as a trophy wife resigned to losing herself in shopping as a method to avoid her loveless marriage. The poignance of this observation, hinting at a deeper reason for why people make extravagant purchases, is instantly upended once a cartoon of Antoinette’s decapitated head bounces comically off the screen.

Fallen

Since wings may be deemed less cool than fangs among the target demographic, the filmmakers decide to visualize the feathered appendages as CGI outlines that crackle like discount lightsabers. Regardless of how cheap the wings look, the flying sequences are so poorly executed that we never for a moment believe that anyone is lifting off the ground.

For the second time in my life, I had the pleasure of serving on the New Directors jury at the Chicago International Film Festival alongside Ella Taylor, professor of cinema at USC and film writer at NPR.org; Andreas Ströhl, director and commercial manager of the International Munich Film Festival; Fabrice Rozié, the Cultural Attaché at the Consulate of France in Chicago; and Wenhwa Ts’ao, professor and associate chair of the department of cinema and television arts at Columbia College Chicago. I was elated when my favorite film among the selections, Laura Mora’s Colombian drama “Killing Jesús” was embraced by my fellow jurors and went on to win the coveted Roger Ebert Award. I also had an unforgettable conversation with Vanessa Redgrave, whose harrowing documentary, “Sea Sorrow,” screened at the festival (I reviewed it for the Ebert site).

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Carlo Nero, Vanessa Redgrave and myself at the Chicago International Film Festival.

As for the interviews I conducted over the last year, I had the tremendous honor of speaking with my lifelong hero (Frank Oz), my favorite actor of my generation (Michael Cera), two of the greatest living filmmakers (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) and one of the most iconic stars in Hollywood history (John Travolta). Needless to say, it was a very good year. Click on each of the highlighted names, and you will be directed to the full conversation…

“Puppeteering is an art, although I’m not really a puppeteer. Puppets don’t mean much to me. There are brilliant people who perform lots of puppets—the king and the queen and the roller-skating bear—and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in characters, which is why the Muppets are so singular. There are no real characters in the world of puppets like the Muppets.”—Frank Oz, director of “Muppet Guys Talking”

“For me, acting is all about trying to mimic being a human being. I think everyone does that, though. From the time you’re a baby, you’re starting to mimic and you’re trying to fit in. I think a lot of people are acting more than they’re not in life.”—Michael Cera, star of “Lemon”

“At its core, the film is about the bravery that it takes to just show up and be yourself. That’s why I got so emotional when I watched it because it immediately transports you back to when you were a kid. We develop a whole series of ways to not feel things so that we can go about our day, but when you’re young, you haven’t really built those up or fine-tuned them as much.”—Daveed Diggs, star of “Wonder”

“Most of the films I’ve done have been dramatic or slightly controversial and dark, and everything has to be talked about and controlled. Anytime it goes past the point of being in a safe environment, where you feel like nobody is checking in on you or you’re being pressured to do things you don’t want to do, that’s when it crosses a line.”—Evan Rachel Wood, star of “Allure”

“I approach acting in almost the exact same way as I approach dance. Dance instills this sense in you that you have to be observant of your surroundings. You have to be observant of the teacher and of your own body—of how it moves and the lines that you create through that movement. An actor must observe everything.”—Jamie Bell, star of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

“Look at Vincent Vega in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ So much of what one enjoyed about that character was watching how he behaved. [in Vega voiceHis speech was slower, his shoulders were slumped when he ate, he rolled his cigarette and lit it in a certain way, and it looked as if he were sauntering through mud to get to a door. […] His dance skills were nowhere near the level of Tony Manero or Danny Zuko. He was real slow and jazzy. He was like a Picasso sketch.”—John Travolta, star of “Gotti”

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Me and John Travolta after our conversation at Club Lucky in Chicago.

“I wasn’t experienced with animating voices before making this film. I was used to doing onscreen acting, but I found that by moving my arms and making facial expressions, I could feel the scene more. I had no idea until afterward that the animators were using a lot of my expressions and body movements and putting them in the movie.”—Anthony Gonzalez, star of “Coco”

“We like having a lot of constraints in the spaces we film, and are adamant about working within them. When you view a character in profile, you are aware that there is a certain amount of reality that is escaping the lens. We want audiences to believe that our characters don’t need a camera in order to exist.”—Jean-Pierre Dardenne, co-writer/co-director of “The Unknown Girl”

“What if the handsome prince/boy Cyd meets in the coffee shop is actually a handsome girl? Maybe this attraction doesn’t mean that Cyd is a lesbian, it just means she’s fallen for a handsome girl. There are boys I could’ve cast in that role who would’ve been more feminine than Malic, and at that point, what are we even dealing with here? In my own life, I’ve dated one boy and one girl, and the girl was more masculine than the boy. You have to start asking yourself, ‘What is sexuality, really?’ There are services and then there is sensibility.”—Stephen Cone, writer/director of “Princess Cyd”

“Over the years, I’ve felt this sort of disconnect between the people I’m filming and my life in different ways. You go out to dinner on a weekend at a pretty nice restaurant and between you and one other person, you’re spending well over $100. For people I have filmed, $100 would be a pretty serious chunk of change, and I just blew it on dinner.”—Steve James, director of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”

“It’s not a coincidence that the place in the industry where women are represented and granted the opportunity to play top creative roles is the low-budget, low-paying world of documentaries. It’s only when big money is involved and budgets start to number in the tens of millions that people suddenly don’t want to bring women into their project. In some ways, Betsy and I being in this position is great, and in other ways, it shows part of the problem.”—Julie Cohen, co-director of “RBG”

“It’s really a story about two people who are so starved of love and affection and so desperate to find it that they kind of latch onto each other in a very unhealthy way. It almost has an addictive quality for them, and I think, on some level, everyone can relate to that—clinging onto things that we know on some deeper, subconscious level aren’t great for us.”—Julia Sarah Stone, star of “Allure”

“Michael and I have a mutual attitude towards happy endings, in that they’re bullshit. The story hasn’t ended yet, because it doesn’t end, really, and at best, all you can hope for is that it will continue in a positive direction. You hope that everything will remain as good for the characters as it is prior to the fade-out. That’s really the best thing that you can hope for. There are no guarantees.”—Scott Neustadter, co-writer of “The Disaster Artist”

Rounding out the rest of my writing for RogerEbert.com is a review of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale: Season Two,” not one but two dispatches from the 2017 Pens to Lens festival, a look at various highlights from this year’s DOC10 festival and a report on the final two days of Ebertfest 2018 (I’m not including the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in this retrospective because, well…I’m still there).

Earlier in the week at Ebertfest, I joined festival director Nate Kohn in moderating an onstage Q&A with writer/director Kogonada, and producers Andrew Miano, Ruth Ann & Bill Harnisch and Danielle Renfrew Behrens, following a screening of their masterful film, “Columbus” (you can watch the full conversation in the video embedded above). I also got to be on an Avengers-sized critics panel, seated at the same table as such esteemed guests as Leonard Maltin, Michael Phillips, Sheila O’Malley, Nell Minow, Matt Zoller Seitz, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon and Richard Roeper. Yet the greatest pleasure of all was getting to chat at an after-party with Mr. Maltin. We spoke until 1am about everything from his favorite movie, “Casablanca,” to his priceless cameo in “Gremlins 2: The New Batch.” Like Roger, the man is a class act.

For links to the past three volumes of my writing for RogerEbert.com, click here.

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