Writing for RogerEbert.com: Vol. 8

Thora Birch and me at Ebertfest 2022. Photo by Lou Gross.

As Indie Outlook comes to a close, at least for the time being, I have taken a significant hiatus from writing reviews and interviews for RogerEbert.com, in light of other projects taking up the majority of my days. However, I still found time to review eleven films for the site over the past twelve months, the majority of which are well worth seeking out. Click on each film title—listed here in order of their greatness—and you will be directed to the full review…


“I could write a great deal about what occurs in the film’s last half-hour, but I’d rather have you discover it for yourself. What I will say is that ‘Torn’ elicits tears in a way that is raw, unexpected and wholly earned. By inviting viewers to share in the most private of transformative periods for his family, Max Lowe scaled the Mount Everest of the soul, creating a cinematic gift that cuts to the heart in ways few films ever do.”

A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks

“The great achievement of John Maggio’s latest HBO documentary is the depth with which it delves into the nuance of indelible images such as these, which served as both vividly realized slices of life and artfully profound meditations on race. Maggio doesn’t simply gather a line-up of distinguished talking heads to inform us that Parks was important—he shows us why.”

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

“‘Who We Are’ should be made required viewing in every American school as we find ourselves perched, once again, at a pivotal tipping point. The hope found in activists of all races demonstrating together in the midst of a pandemic is underlined by the joyous gospel music over the end credits. It is Robinson’s aim to guide our eye in seeing the truth of our past that is so often overlooked. This is perhaps most indelibly expressed by the fingerprints left in walls throughout Charleston by the enslaved people who built our cities, our economy and our country, brick by brick.”

Brighton 4th

“The film’s other great performance is delivered by Kakhi Kavsadze, the Georgian screen legend renowned for his work in 1970’s ‘White Sun of the Desert’ and to whom the film is dedicated (he passed away last April at age 85, two months prior to the picture’s world premiere at Tribeca). He plays Sergo, the boarding house’s delightful opera-belting inhabitant who now works as a doorman but can’t resist incorporating songs into his day, whether or not they are requested. Kavsadze’s passing makes the film’s final, perfectly pitched moments all the more astonishing in their poignance, yet when viewed simply on the power of its narrative, ‘Brighton 4th’ has a cumulative impact that is unmistakable.” 

Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches

“To not be uncomfortable with our history as Americans is to be in denial of it. Censoring the atrocities in our collective past so as not to disturb students and their parents does nothing more than breed the sort of ignorance that fuels present and future horrors. This truth is bracingly conveyed by this documentary from director Julia Marchesi and producer Oluwaseun Babalola that plays not like a dry history lesson, but an urgent bulletin from the past which speaks to our present moment.”


“The travesties of justice on display throughout ‘President’ become so repetitive and inevitable that it renders one exhausted, grateful if only that the killing of democracy has been so clearly and meticulously documented.”

Convergence: Courage in a Crisis

“What ‘Convergence’ reinforced for me, more than anything, is simply the overwhelming gratitude I have for every essential worker who took my temperature, bagged my groceries and drove me to my desired destination over the past twenty months. I’ll never forget the benevolent nurse in Cook County who administered both doses of my Pfizer vaccine, nor the sister of a colleague who died after caring for the pet of a client infected with COVID-19 at her veterinary clinic. The client refused to wear a mask, eventually forcing the cancer-stricken veterinarian to quarantine for 25 days without chemo. No monument, however towering, could possibly encapsulate the heroism of helpers the likes of her.”

Return to Space

“As feel-good entertainment, this documentary is thoroughly engaging, containing some of the same warmhearted appeal as classics like ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Apollo 13.’ It is stunning to behold what SpaceX has been able to accomplish working outside of the system, as many visionaries do, creating technology to move us beyond Earth, which Musk dubs the ‘cradle of humanity,’ nearly a half-century after our last moon landing.”    

How to Survive a Pandemic

“Though we briefly see Cohen arguing with a stereotypical Trump supporter proudly wearing a ‘Fuck Fauci’ hat, the film is essentially preaching to the double-boosted choir, not making time to truly investigate why so many intelligent people—including members of my own family—have refused to be vaccinated, falling down the rabbit hole of QAnon conspiracy theories.”

Detainee 001

“Far more compelling is the archival footage itself, which alone makes the film worth seeing, yet editor Langdon Page’s interest in contriving suspense tends to get in the way of exploring Lindh’s psyche with sufficient depth. Rather than investigate the reasons behind Lindh’s devotion to Islam, we’re treated to recounted moments of tension, such as when an orange in Lindh’s pocket is mistaken for a grenade.”

I’m Fine, (Not) Really

“This overabundance of talking heads results in a breathless array of sound bites with jump cuts that gut the silence—and therefore the nuance—between words. In many instances, a tearful subject’s answer is accompanied by an egregiously intrusive score that instantly cheapens the moment, as if the film itself is too timid to linger in the emotion it is supposedly championing.”

Though my time has been more limited than ever this past year, I somehow managed to publish some of my largest and most rewarding interviews to date. The biggest of them all came courtesy of a chance encounter I had on Instagram with James V. Hart, screenwriter of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy, “Hook,” which became a childhood favorite of mine, despite it being disliked by the director himself. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary, I spoke over the course of multiple Zoom sessions with six actors and writers whose contributions to the picture are immeasurable. They are among the brilliant subjects whose interviews are excerpted below. Click on each name, and you will be directed to the full conversation…

A still of Barry Gifford from “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago.”

“We’re in a time now where people are hungering more for works by new voices, such as women and people of color. I happen to have a mixed family myself, so I deal with it every day of my life and have for a long time. When it comes to the issue of race, I’m not just looking for a peg to hang my hat on. I am informed on a visceral level. It doesn’t come from nothing and I realize the importance of it, but the key thing as a writer is to make it flow and have it be part of the flow as a natural event. I don’t feel like I have to beat up the reader to get to them. It’s all just part of the structure and story, and that’s what I’m after. That’s what Rob Christopher realized. At the end, he allows me to state the essence of my philosophy and politics, and it’s best encapsulated by Chekhov’s dictum, ‘I believe in individuals.’ That’s my religion.”—Barry Gifford, subject of “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago”

“As your career goes on, you see what those characters meant to people and representation. When ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ came out, Jon M. Chu—who has since become a friend—said in an interview, ‘Seeing Dante Basco play Rufio in ‘Hook’ as a kid in a movie theater was my first moment where I thought I can be a part of this industry.’ This is how the film has connected to the next generation. People have often told me, ‘You are the first cool and non stereotypical Asian I ever saw in a Hollywood film or television series,’ and it’s not something that I set out to do, it’s just how my career unfolded.”—Dante Basco, star of “Hook”

“By simply listening to that track over and over, David was inspired to create Club Silencio just for me to sing ‘Llorando.’ It was only last year that I found out David had used that scene to get funding to make his defunct pilot into a movie. From what I understand, David showed Canal+ my scene and that is how he received the additional funding to make his movie. Club Silencio in Paris exists because of that scene, and it all goes back to Thania Sanz. If it had not been for her translation, what would have become of all this? With that in mind, David is obviously an intuitive genius.”—Rebekah Del Rio, star of “Mulholland Dr.”

“Jane [Campion] would gather everyone in the small room above a hotel where John Keats actually did a lot of his writing, and she had Andrew Motion, who was Keats’ biographer, read Keats’ poetry to us in this room. This required us to take quite a trip out of where we were staying to go there, but Jane felt it was very important that the essence of the location would infuse into the nature of the performances.”—Miranda Harcourt, acting coach on “Bright Star”

Bob Hoskins and Jake Hart on the set of “Hook.” Courtesy of Jake Hart.

“The conversation of my life was with Bob Hoskins. I had graduated college and we were in London hanging out with John Napier, who was the film’s visual consultant, and Bob was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I replied that I wanted to do what they did, and he was very insistent on saying, ‘You need to take some time and get away from all of this madness. You need to go do something else—even if it’s being an usher in a theater. Do not jump into this right away.’ I still have a picture of Bob and me at the ripe old age of 21 on this trip, and it will be next to every desk I ever have.”—Jake Hart, creator of the premise for “Hook”

“Something that I love so much is having young children look up to actors and actresses and say, ‘Oh my gosh, they are doing exactly what I want to do!’ I just want kids to feel like they can connect to me and Demi and feel inspired by us. I also really love helping St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and I want to do my part in helping families have a home and shelter. Later on in my career, I hope I can get involved with those sorts of organizations, while visiting and donating to hospitals. That’s so important to me.”—Saniyya Sidney, star of “King Richard”

“I was in those marches from Hugo’s time where we had to literally go out there and fight for our place in the world. Many young people are still having to do that in the world today, so in some ways, it’s moved on, and in other ways, it hasn’t. What is inspiring for me is to watch Margaret Campbell hold her son and carry him through that odd place in one’s life where you’re 16 and looking to take your place in the world. She’s supporting him and loving him through that, and I think that love is passed on into the community, who then transition into holding him and supporting him. I do think the conversation has changed, but ultimately, it’s about the power of that love.”—Jonathan Butterell, director of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”

“In terms of getting around the censorship and restrictions in China, this truly was my most challenging film. I feel that in the future, making documentaries in China is going to be more and more challenging if they touch on any sensitive topics—politics as well as social issues. The reasons are not only because the government has tightened its restrictions and censorship, but ordinary people—because of the propaganda and the education they received—have increased their resistance toward the media, especially if they ever hear that it is foreign or from a network that is based outside of China. The government has done a really successful job of painting any member of the media who isn’t from the state-owned TV networks as someone who is trying to sabotage the Chinese government by portraying it negatively.”—Nanfu Wang, director of “In the Same Breath”

Julia Hart, Robin Williams and Jake Hart on the set of “Hook.” Courtesy of James V. Hart.

“When we arrived with Robin and Dustin at this corridor, it was jam-packed with kids in wheelchairs, on gurneys, on crutches and their nurses, all waiting to see Captain Hook and Peter Pan. I watched Robin take Julia and Jake through this maze of people, and I could see their lives changing right before my eyes. That night, we had the royal premiere where they got to meet Princess Diana and the boys. After the celebration was over, Julia came into our bedroom and announced that she had made a decision about her life. She decided that next year, she would like to raise money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital instead of getting birthday presents. That started our charity, the Peter Pan Children’s Fund, which celebrates children’s birthdays by providing them with money for their local children’s hospital.”—James V. Hart, screenwriter of “Hook” 

“In my own personal life, I have been in an abusive relationship, but the thing is that I wouldn’t have looked back on that relationship and said to myself, ‘Oh wow, I guess that was an abusive relationship.’ But it was, and I think that if we could help anybody see the warning signs, that would be fantastic because you just don’t see them when you’re in that situation. Life is beautiful and things are good and you have sweet moments and there’s love, but then it just turns. When that happens, you need to take notice.”—Thora Birch, director of “The Gabby Petito Story”

“So much happens in ‘Last Night in Soho’ that it was hard for me to take in the big picture until I saw the finished product a couple of months ago in the U.K. That’s when I realized quite how feminist it is, and how strong that theme is throughout the film. It has a message that I believe is really important for us to continue sharing. Also, Ellie is obviously having a really tough time in the film, and I can relate to that as many people do. I have experienced anxiety, and Ellie’s story reminds us to be kind to ourselves, to be okay with taking a step back and to be okay with not being okay.”—Thomasin McKenzie, star of “Last Night in Soho”

“These people just exist. This isn’t a story about Pritti being a Muslim or being a South Asian girl. She just exists in Jamie’s life and happens to be those things in the same way that I exist in Max’s life and happen to be South Asian. It’s important to tell stories about that, but also to include them in stories about other things as well.”—Lauren Patel, star of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”

Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney in “King Richard.”

“Even though tennis still ended up being one of the hardest sports I’ve ever had to learn, what made it slightly easier was I’ve been dancing since I was three or four years old, so I’ve always been able to pick up choreography. The way we learned tennis for this film required us to play like other people, so we were basically mimicking their moves. It was kind of like choreography on the court. Learning to play like yourself is different than when you’re learning to play like somebody else, so I feel like that background in dance helped me a little bit. I’m able to learn and understand things really quickly.”—Demi Singleton, star of “King Richard”

“My father is an Italian immigrant, a nuclear physicist, and an incredibly passionate man. My mother is a housewife and crazy in love with my father. I cast them as Hook and Smee, and I know their voices so well since, you know, prenatally. So I landed on that relationship of husband and wife and those personalities of an extremely passionate, dramatic person and a caring, loving partner who’s not scared of all that energy and passion, and just likes it. So I added that dimension. Also, I was raising children and they were little, and I was staying up all night. I was riding my convertible around Manhattan in the wee hours, and I was going to clubs and eating dinner at 6am at a diner in the East Village. So I knew when Hook was going to go after the children, he could tell them a horrible truth about adults that would ring true with parents whether they like it or not, particularly those who lived an extraordinary single life.”—Malia Scotch Marmo, co-writer of “Hook”

“When we first got to Soho, Thomasin and I actually stayed for three weeks in the same building where Thomas De Quincy wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so the history of the area was very much infused in our surroundings. We wandered around Soho and caught a production of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.’ This was pre-COVID, so we would go out at night when the place was just teeming with people. The bar across the road, known as the Pillars of Hercules, was where a lot of the quintessential British writers, such as Ian McEwan, used to congregate, so we’d go there and get a drink. Edgar and Krysty’s story looks at how the environment haunts those who live there, and we really felt that when we were living in Soho.”—Stuart McKenzie, father of “Last Night in Soho” star Thomasin McKenzie 

“The songs are so delicate and the lyrics are so beautiful. When the lyrics are really easy to speak and the thoughts come, hopefully the music can take you to that next place of really connecting with the characters. That’s what I think Dan and Tom do so beautifully with the music in this film. We’re not trying to convince people that the pop fantasy world is real, but by the time we’ve won them on that, you get to a moment toward the end where my mom and I sing ‘My Man, Your Boy’ in the kitchen, and it’s as if we’re just speaking to each other.”—Max Harwood, star of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”

Charlie Korsmo in “Hook.”

“I remember when we were filming the sequence where the crocodile falls down. It looked like a pretty cheesy mechanical thing. When the jaw opened, it bounced up and down a couple times. At the time, Steven was in preproduction on ‘Jurassic Park,’ and I remember him sitting there with his head in his hands. It was as if he was thinking to himself, ‘How the hell am I going to do ‘Jurassic Park’ in six months if this is the best we can do with an animatronic crocodile?’”—Charlie Korsmo, star of “Hook” 

“Priscilla brought a softness and a femininity to him and his world, as well as the notion of family. After he lost his mother, that aspect of his life wasn’t there anymore. By birthing their child, she brought family home to him again, and I think that’s a really special aspect to their relationship as well. There is strength in softness. That is a huge thing that I, as a young woman, took away from the shooting experience and I hope that other people do too.”—Olivia DeJonge, star of “Elvis”

“I wanted to interview different fans of the show because I was so fascinated by the fact that if I found out that someone likes ‘Twin Peaks,’ I probably could be friends with them. That’s not true of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ There is an overall pain in Lynch’s work. To accept the pain that is on the screen means that you are a caring person, and so you are bound to meet other caring people. I didn’t know you before the retrospective. My wife and I met a couple there, and they invited us to the renewal of their vows in October. There were people among the attendees who I talked to every day, and we had great conversations. Lynch opens the mind and the heart.”—Scott Ryan, author of Fire Walk With Me: Your Laura Disappeared

“If the actor isn’t honored or given the opportunity to connect with the audience, then what does it matter? Who cares? That’s where the real stuff happens, and James got that. That’s why he cast me and Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston. And that’s why Jan cast me in ‘The Haunting’ because he wanted a real actor, which obviously helped against the CGI. But you don’t need all this bullshit, and Barry understands that as well. I think what we’ve kept coming across in this interview is people who respect human beings and their imagination.”—Lili Taylor, star of “The Conjuring” and “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago”

Caroline Goodall in “Hook.”

“We’d had this whole hilarious rigamarole with a leaf landing the wrong way on my shoulder. In those days, you couldn’t CGI it, so we had a very heavy footed props guy trying to land a leaf that hung on the end of a fishing pole. I found it hard to muster the needed emotion when Moira’s children returned, since I knew that they were standing around the corner waiting for their cue. Dustin was on set, and he told me, ‘When you get to your knees, don’t hug them immediately. Push them away from you and look at them, in their faces, and then embrace them.’ That gave us the moment for that mutual emotion to happen, and the recognition of everything that went on. That’s how I was able to get the real tears to come out.”—Caroline Goodall, star of “Hook” 

In addition to these reviews and interviews, I also provided in-depth previews of last year’s Nashville and Reeling film festivals, which included such unmissable titles as Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s “Clara Sola” and Angelo Madsen Minax’s “North by Current.” After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Ebertfest finally returned to the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, where I had the supreme pleasure of moderating an onstage Q&A with one of my favorite actors, Thora Birch, and one of my favorite directors, Terry Zwigoff, following a screening of their 2001 masterwork, “Ghost World.” It was nothing short of a dream come true…

Here are links to Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, Vol. 6 and Vol. 7 of my published work at RogerEbert.com.

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