Writing for RogerEbert.com: Vol. 7

Melora Walters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

As I mentioned in Part I of this anniversary retrospective, last year’s lockdown dramatically shifted my priorities, both personally and professionally. I proposed to the love of my life in the actual gazebo from “Groundhog Day,” I moved from my studio into a larger apartment (with multiple rooms!) and certain long-gestating projects of mine finally took off as the rest of the world remained on pause. Even with America reopening amidst the threat of COVID-19 variants and pervasive misinformation, I am no longer motivated to keep up on the latest releases. The last press screening I attended—as of this date—remains Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” at a multiplex where it was doomed never to screen last March. Though I did take my fiancée, upon her request, to see “Cruella” in a small, nearly empty theater last month, I’m still not ready to join the moviegoing crowds in Chicago, despite being fully vaccinated.

Because of my involvement in other projects, I am currently taking a hiatus from writing reviews, interviews and other articles for RogerEbert.com, yet I am continuing to fulfill my duties there in my eighth year as Assistant Editor. Before taking this step back, I wrote the following reviews over the past twelve months, which have been arranged in order from most to least recommended. The only one of these titles that received four stars from yours truly was not a film but the first (and hopefully not last) season of a TV series from Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”). Click on each title and you’ll be directed to the full review…

We Are Who We Are 

“No matter what your age, these characters effortlessly serve as avatars for any audience member awakening to the notion that sexuality exists on a spectrum and cannot be confined in patriarchal gender roles, the very kind that the current administration hatefully prioritizes. ‘We Are Who We Are’ is a glorious feast for the senses and a tonic for the soul that aims to keep viewers warm as we plunge into an uncertain fall.”

The Twentieth Century 

“Every frame of this picture is an absurdist marvel, with its expressionist sets, ill-fated puppets and ejaculating cactuses. Not only does the film’s compressed aspect ratio and old-fashioned visuals warrant comparison to the work of fellow Canadian visionary Guy Maddin, Rankin also nails the celebrated filmmaker’s distinctive brew of humor, irony and nagging melancholia.”

Epicentro 

“Sauper ultimately forces us to question not only the perspective of documentaries such as his own, but how we choose to approach them, as fellow humans whose souls are connected with those onscreen, or ugly tourists not unlike those we see gawking at a local boy getting his hair cut. Rather than massage the ego of its progressive target audience, this film stares back at us with a piercingly critical gaze.”

The Fight 

“With fascism on the rise both in our own government and throughout the world, we find ourselves marching for the same causes that our parents did when they were our age. No wonder the wallpaper on one of the lawyer’s computers is a still from ‘The Neverending Story,’ a title serving as a poignant metaphor for the cyclical nature of history and our unceasing pursuit of justice.”

American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself

“Mike Nichols liked when an entire film could be summarized in a single image, and in the case of ‘American Selfie,’ it is that of smiling white Americans posing for pictures while standing mere feet away from Black homeless men lying on the ground. Smartphone cameras can indeed be vital tools for revolutionary change. It all depends on where you aim them.”

The Human Factor 

“’The Human Factor’ provides an essential reminder of the destruction that routinely occurs when we deny the humanity in those souls to whom we don’t see eye to eye. It’s refreshing to see a documentary populated by subjects willing to reexamine their own missteps, a theme Moreh externalizes with the immersive three-dimensional layer he gives to various still images, allowing us to view these moments frozen in time from different angles.”

Widow of Silence 

“For the entire film, Aasia straddles the line between the past and the present, heaven and hell, the living and the dead. I’ll refrain from revealing anything else about her journey, apart from that it leads to a brilliant punchline. All we hear during a crucial moment is a trickling of liquid as inconspicuous as the water Aasia uses to feed her plants in the first scene, bringing the movie full circle with a payoff that is wholly unexpected. The final four minutes turn what was already a fine picture into an unforgettable one, affirming Morchhale’s status as one of the most exciting figures of the Indian new wave.”

Erēmīta (Anthologies) 

“In an indelible tracking shot, we see a vast barrier of fences much like the ones joggers and bikers were faced with last summer along Lake Michigan. Finally, the camera rests on a message written out on the fence in caution tape: ‘Love, Be Kind.’ Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, these three words have unquestionably emerged as the commandment to honor above all others.”

Our Time Machine 

“His puppets brilliantly externalize how our minds reconstruct remembered events as abstractions based not in specific details but heightened emotion. Their ingeniously designed wires and gears represent nothing less than the mechanics of memory which, like all mortal faculties, have an expiration date.”

The Perfect Weapon 

“Maggio’s film ends by implying that foreign malware could easily infect voter registration databases, a threat that will keep viewers up at night, without much consolation that a solution will arise. Yet like all of the director’s work, it does an admirable job of forcing us to acknowledge our complicity in the ensuing crises, while inspiring us to do our part in striving for a better future. And that starts at the ballot box.”

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words

“Though Margiela’s face can be readily found via a simple Google search, Holzemer wisely respects his subject’s preference to remain in the shadows, a decision that serves as a striking rebuke to modern technology awash in narcissistic self-promotion. Apart from its ample eye candy, the film deftly illustrates how one can live a life of integrity in any profession, provided one has the guts to break the mold.”

Red Penguins 

“The democracy imposed upon Russia was rejected by its people, leaving it open for the mafia and ultimately Putin to seize control. Two decades before his ally in the White House would threaten to delay the U.S. presidential elections, the newly christened Prime Minister wishes Russia a ‘Happy New Century’ on the eve of 2000. It’s as disquieting an epilogue as any I’ve seen this year.”

I Am Greta 

“What’s surprising is how little Grossman’s film is concerned with explaining the science Thunberg tirelessly champions (the Albedo Effect and Keeling Curve are referenced but never explained) or fighting against the criticisms of naysayers who claim she can’t come up with specific solutions to the crisis. Of course, her shattering eloquence has repeatedly made her adult opponents—President Trump included—look all the more like mud-slinging infants with their bullying rhetoric.”

The Sunlit Night 

“Art can literally preserve one’s sanity, a fact that Frances demonstrates by covering the window over her bed with yellow paint, thus providing her with the proper mood lighting for a bright night’s sleep. Only by shifting our perspectives can any of us ever begin to ‘get somewhere’ outside of ourselves, and cinema can provide us with that first meaningful step.”

Spinster 

“How Deyell manages to subvert our expectations nonetheless while remaining true to Gaby’s character is what ultimately saves the entire picture. It’s tantamount to Bob Fosse wisely selecting the bittersweet yet honest ending for his underrated 1969 directorial debut, ‘Sweet Charity,’ over the more conventional one that he had shot. In fact, there is no detectable bitterness that exudes from Gaby, only gratitude for having had an experience that demonstrates how happiness is indeed achievable.”

Mighty Ira 

“All we get are fragmented stories, such as how Bobby Kennedy encouraged Glasser to take his initial job as Associate Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in 1967, a year before Kennedy was assassinated. I treasured the time I got to spend with Glasser in this picture, yet it feels more like the prelude to a more textured and rewarding conversation that has yet to be filmed.”

Proxima 

“Breaking quarantine is anything but a laughing matter in 2020, and it mars the remaining scenes that follow, which are otherwise gorgeous and poignant. Can one bad scene torpedo the merits of a movie as poetic and intricately nuanced as ‘Proxima’? Not at all, though it does cause what could’ve been a great film to feel more like a missed opportunity.”

Foster Boy 

“These children are sorely deserving of having this injustice be addressed in a film that doesn’t upstage their plight with the hollow heroics of a white savior. Had the filmmakers put forth the effort to view the story through Jamal’s eyes, they may have had a worthy cinematic counterpart to their noble off-camera achievements.”

In addition to these reviews, I also found time to interview nine extraordinary women, including my fiancée Rebecca Martin (five months before I proposed to her) and the star of one of my all-time favorite films, Melora Walters. The conversations are excerpted below, and when you click on each name, you’ll be directed to the full article…

“Paul wrote in the script that Claudia looks at the camera and smiles at the end. For me, that was the most difficult scene, because how do you go from abject hopelessness to hope? But I really think the underlying theme of Paul’s films, which is so beautiful, is love. There’s the notion that each moment of love provides a possibility of hope.”—Melora Walters, star of “Magnolia”

“People always say that a film set is like a family, but I feel like this set was the best embodiment of that I have seen. It’s funny because I don’t live in Chicago, so in some ways, I was an outsider stepping into this family. A lot of the cast, and the crew especially, have worked together many times, so they have a lot of history, and I found that really inspiring to see. You hear about this sort of family dynamic on sets all the time, but it was on this set where I really saw it in action for the first time.”—Gillian Jacobs, star of “I Used to Go Here”

“I can see the womxn whose films will be screening at this year’s festival going on to having amazing careers, and though I don’t have a lot of money myself, I do know people who can help them. What I want this festival to do, more than anything, is to help these womxn have exciting careers that will enable their stories to live on. I want young girls to see that there are female filmmakers out there who they can look up to and make them realize that their dreams are reachable.”—Rebecca Martin, founder of the Cinema Femme Short Film Festival

“We feel inspired by the resilience of our storytelling community over the last year. As we begin planning for the seventh annual festival, we do so empowered by a year of tremendous learnings and a renewed sense of purpose and dedication to our core mission. Our goal is very simple: storytellers and people onscreen should reflect the population, which is half-female and incredibly diverse.”—Wendy Guerrero, President of Programming at the Bentonville Film Festival

“Americans are so aspirational, so our conmen and women are usually selling aspirations and telling us what our lives could be, and that is what he does. He makes peoples’ dreams come true for a short amount of time at a very, very high cost.”—Rachel Grady, co-director of “Love Fraud”

“Law enforcement is not going to help women in these situations. It’s got a terrible track record, and it’s inherently sexist. If you dated a guy that scammed you, no one is going to help you. You’re on your own, so women need to be hyper-careful and men need references. You need to have three references before you go on a date with a man, and you need to call multiple people. It’s so crazy that people can invent whatever stories that they want, so sadly, defensive dating is a necessity.”—Heidi Ewing, co-director of “Love Fraud”

“This idea of owning your faults and your failures and accepting them is so hard to do. Making an effort to improve those faults is something that we are all learning to do right now, and I think it applies to so many things. In terms of my own journey and my own life, it is something that I am always trying to do. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had huge transitions in my life and trying to accept those and learn from them and move forward has been something that has really made me feel whole.”—Kris Rey, director of “I Used to Go Here”

“For many of us, when we have a creative project in our mind, we have some vague sense of what it’s going to be. Sometimes it’s clearer than at other times, and as you get into it, it starts to change. I think that’s actually a good thing. If we tried to make just what we had in our mind, we might be limiting ourselves instead of letting the project tell us what it wants to be.”—Victoria Labalme, author of Risk Forward

“Don’t make a movie or cast a movie without first passing it through a gender lens. Go through it and see which characters could be either male and female. Bring in male and female actors to audition for each part. We do this as a fun way to show that there is a lot more possibility in your casting than what first sprang to the writer’s mind, and so we hope that that’s making a change in the industry.”—Geena Davis, co-founder of the Bentonville Film Festival

For links to my other writing at RogerEbert.com, check out Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5 and Vol. 6.

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