The Passing of Ebert

by Joey Hackenjos

April 4, 2013
ebert

I’ve always had a short list in my mind of aging celebrities whose inevitable passing will impact me – genuine emotion felt for a person that I have never actually met. Recent deaths like Billy Wilder, Charles M Schulz and Kurt Vonnegut have caused me sorrow, but I feel that my “Mount Rushmore” of aging celebrities – Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, David Letterman – is beginning to crack and crumble. The face that fell off today was Roger Ebert’s (pun inappropriately intended).

Why do we mourn the loss of artists who have had long, productive, probably fulfilling lives worthy of envy? Most are long past their creative primes, but still somehow the world seems like a different place without their hearts beating. Ebert’s death is particularly sad to me not only because he is my favorite Film Critic but because although he was 70 years old, I would argue that he had just hit his prime in the last six years when cancer treatments took away his ability to speak and his movie reviews became exclusively written works.

The celebrities that I am emotionally attached to are those whose work speak to a special place in my mind. A small part of me believes that they are unconsciously creating art just for me.. or, well, for a small demographic that includes me. When I read Ebert’s reviews, I often felt like he took the thoughts that I hadn’t fully formed in my mind while watching the film and put them into elegant words that I couldn’t quite summon on my own.

Once his writing became his only means of communication, Ebert’s full talent was given a proper outlet. He watched films with a refreshing open-mindedness. It was obvious that he wanted to like every movie that he watched – not that he shied away from pointing out when a movie was terrible – but he would sift through even average films and find something to take away from it; he wanted to uncover something valuable. To me, this certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt attitude is refreshing because so many popular critics make their living off of cynicism and passive shrugging of their subject’s merit. At the same time, Ebert’s writing was highly intelligent but avoided the pitfalls of many high-brow reviewers who focus more on formulating academic, analytic angles than on just telling us how the movie made them feel. Ebert didn’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of any filmmaker’s intent, but he didn’t deny it when he was left awestruck by something intangible. I’ll try to illustrate this with an excerpt from his Tree of Life review – a film that immediately bumped into Ebert’s top 10 of all time two years ago:

“I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things”

While a less interesting reviewer may have tried to define Malick’s meaning of life with a loosely supported thesis (something about grace, the afterlife or the sleeping habits of dinosaurs), Ebert settles on simply declaring that this film made him feel something for real, damn it.

For another example of Ebert’s artful response to a magnificent film that is nearly impossible to describe clearly, I highly recommend his review of Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche,New York.

Like Vonnegut, another of my philosophical role models, Ebert was a Humanist: full of love, empathy and passion for experiencing life. He lived with an open mind, constantly sought new knowledge and always allowed his opinions to evolve; he wrote that he was frightened by absolutists and “more content with questions than answers”. In a society where so many people you meet are uninterested in the other side of their unmovable opinions, I imagine that Roger Ebert was the kind of man who you could spend hours happily dissecting any topic with.

With Roger Ebert’s passing, we have lost a unique connection to the history of film. Honestly, are there any film critics alive who have interviewed John Wayne and Ingmar Bergman and also reviewed Argo?

Roger Ebert loved movies. He helped explain to me why I love movies. He preferred human dramas with moral purpose but could also enjoy pointless comedies that made him laugh and everything in between. Honestly, what I find most sad about his death is that he won’t have the experience of seeing the many upcoming movies that he must have been looking forward to. Maybe they were some of the same movies I have on my list: Upstream Color, The Great Gatsby, Much Ado About Nothing, To The Wonder, Frances Ha, Before Midnight… plus a thousand others that I haven’t even heard of. The life you get to experience is always a gift and I’ll continue to watch movies with zeal, but in the back of my mind I’ll know that I’ll never fully understand what I’m experiencing because Roger Ebert won’t be there to help me put it into words.

Wreck-It Ralph: tear-jerking nostalgia

Look at this cast! Fucking look at it!Wreck-It Ralph is so good that I almost can’t believe it’s not Pixar (it’s by some film studio called Disney). I think I mistook it for a Pixar film because I broke out into tears several times during the course of the movie, as I usually do with Pixar’s. Seriously, my cry-count for Toy Story 3 was, well, three, while in Up, I think I broke down twice. And these are by no means depressing movies; these movies just excel at combining well-developed, easily relateable characters with relationship-oriented storytelling.

Confession: I grew up playing video games and have an unhealthy amount of nostalgia for the games of my youth. Wreck-It Ralph is a love-letter to those same games. It goes beyond clever references and homages (although there are plenty of those) and actually includes some of my favorite video game characters as characters here, beautifully rendered in 3D. Some of my favorite moments were just seeing Ryu and Ken talking about grabbing a drink after finishing a day inside Street Fighter II, or seeing Cammy and Chun-Li chatting with Princess Daisy. This movie would have made me explode with excitement as a kid, and, to be honest, I felt a sensation that can only be described as “glee” when I saw this today. It’s so darn cute and clever.

Wreck-It Ralph is about video games—more specifically, the Tron-like beings who live inside video games and what their lives are like when they’re not in use.  The story here focuses on Wreck-It Ralph, the villain of a Donkey Kong-like arcade game who relentlessly terrorizes an apartment building, much like the game Rampage. Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, is a like a homo sapien Donkey Kong crossed with Shrek: he’s huge, brutish, and terribly misunderstood. He’s resigned himself to being the villain of his arcade game, but he doesn’t like it, and grows envious of the attention lavished on the game’s hero, a Super Mario analogue named Fix-It Felix Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer, aka Kenneth the Page).

There’s actually a little bit of class tension between the slovenly Ralph and his bourgeoisie brethren. Ralph, having been evicted from his home due to some flagrant eminent-domain abuse, lives in squalor, while Felix, who inherited a magical hammer from his father and therefore has abilities much in demand, lives a healthy upper-middle class lifestyle and mingles with the elite of their arcade game world.

Anyway, Ralph grows resentful at always having to be the bad guy. When he visits a Bad Guy Support Group—attended by familiar faces like Bowser, Zangief, M. Bison, Sub-Zero, the ghosts from Pac-Man, and others—they try to remind him that this is his lot in life, and that he serves a role. Ralph can’t accept it, though, so he sets out to become a hero. The film goes into some interesting territory from there, as Ralph begins visiting other arcade games in search of glory. Along the way, he meets the star of a Halo-like shooting game, modeled after Jane Lynch, and forms a friendship with Vanellope von Schweetz, a feisty outcast of a MarioKart-like racing game called Sugar Rush. Vanellope is voiced by Sarah Silverman, perfectly cast here.

Overall, the voice-acting, animation, and storytelling are all excellent. However, it is Ralph’s friendship with Vanellope that got my waterworks going. It’s the heart of the movie. Because Ralph and Vanellope are both caustic outcasts, they don’t get along at first, but what soon forms is a sort of foster-parent friendship as they try to help each other with their problems. Their relationship is touching, and there are elements here that reminded me of another animated favorite of mine, The Iron Giant.

Wreck-It Ralph is a story for outcasts and the misunderstood, a group that largely overlaps with the group who plays videogames. It’s a great way to tell a mature story for grown-ups about parenting and acceptance. I loved it, and expect to see it on my list of the year’s best.

– Evan

Return to Horror High: So bad, it’s depressing

ImageMy most cherished Halloween tradition is to get a bunch of Chinese food and watch a horror movie I’ve never seen before—preferably a really trashy slasher movie from the 80’s. This year, I chose 1987’s Return to Horror High, hoping it would emulate the maniacal fun of that other high school 80’s slasher classic, Slaughter High. Instead, I got another nominee for Worst Movie Ever.

I’m loath to devote much of my energy or free time to trashing this piece of shit, so just trust me that it’s a piece of shit. First off, it’s not even a sequel, so don’t let the “return” in the title fool you. Second, the plot is completely nonsensical—something about a film crew returning to the scene of a multiple murder to make a movie about the murders, only to learn that the killer was never caught, but wait, every time a murder happens on-screen, it turns out that it’s just the crew filming a murder scene, and then somehow the whole thing is an elaborate charade for reasons unknown, and George Clooney is in it, and so is Marcia Brady, who for some reason is a chili-dog chomping nymphomaniac, and I don’t even understand what I watched. The movie has what I like to call “tonal issues,” in that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy, a slasher film, a meta-commentary, or coherent. It just IS, and drags you along for the ride.

As I wrote in my review of The Darkest Hour last year for Broadsheet360, Return to Horror High is a movie so terrible that it actually made me depressed about my life. What am I doing with my precious time on this Earth? Why am I wasting it watching trash like this? Why am I subjecting my dear friends to this drivel? Why won’t someone speak up and ask to turn this movie off? It didn’t help that it was also my birthday, meaning I capped off an already substandard day with an existential crisis induced by my own poor decision-making.

Never see this, ever. Neither George Clooney nor Marcia Marcia Marcia! make it worthwhile.

– Evan

The Comedy: Anything But

I was looking for something to watch on demand last night, as it was Friday night, and the end of a long week. Lately I couldn’t care less about actually going out and doing things on my weekend, like a normal 28-year-old would; it’s enough for me to recline, have a couple beers and numb my brain with pictures on screens.

Anyway, in the upper right corner of said screen, one of those twitty, blonde OnDemand hosts was interviewing Tim Heidecker about his new film, The Comedy. Heidecker toned down his usual ultra-sarcasm for the interview, but still said that he doesn’t think people will like the movie. It’s that kind of frankness and honesty that I like most about Heidecker, and also, telling me I won’t like your movie is an excellent reverse-psych way to ensure I will watch it.

So I bought it for $7.99. (I’ll pay you back, Mom.) The film opens with a group of grown, almost-naked men partying and pouring beer on each other in slow motion. Needless to say, I was fully committed from the start.

Let’s pause for some background info. Tim Heidecker is one half of the comedy duo, Tim and Eric. The guys started out on Adult Swim with Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job!, a collection of really odd, quirky and hilarious skits and sketches. Their “film”, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, came out last year, and I loved it with the fervor of a man starving for stupid comedy. They play themselves, on a mission to rejuvenate a dying shopping mall, encountering numerous weirdos along the way (John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell) and enthusiastic about the concept of business, despite knowing nothing about it.

Essentially, Tim Heidecker is known for his totally inane, foul, awkward and insulting comedy. Do yourself a favor and listen to interviews with the guy. He plays a part, that of an arrogant, angry, rude guest. He turns the interviews into bits. The result is that it’s almost impossible to know who the real Tim Heidecker is.

So perhaps, maybe, the real Heidecker emerges a little bit in The Comedy. He plays Swanson, a character so dissociated from himself that he doesn’t deserve a first name. He’s got a tight-knit group of friends with whom he likes to get fucked up and talk shit (one of these bros is played by his comedic partner, Eric Wareheim). I really loved this group of friends. In one memorable scene, they discuss how cool their group of four guys is; they’ve got the smart one, the funny one, etc., and I so badly wanted to be a part of their clique. They drink, sit around and make jokes, piggybacking off each other’s offensive and random humor.

They live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Heidecker and his director, Rick Alverson, seem to enjoy displaying elements of hipsterism without explicitly judging their subjects. For example, a scene in which Swanson and his friends ride their fixie bikes down the street while sipping Pabst just looks like a hell of a lot of fun. I wanted to be one of them. And as someone who doesn’t like the headier-than-thou attitude that many hipsters emanate, making me feel jealous of their crew is quite the accomplishment on the filmmaker’s part.

But this movie isn’t about hipsters. It’s about Swanson, a depressed, fat, melancholy man. He’s losing both his parents; in an opening scene, he relentlessly, rudely grills a male nurse about his job caring for Swanson’s dad. It’s clear displacement, an attempt to belittle another and boost his image of his own clever self. Another memorable moment is the scene with his ex-wife. Swanson adopts the voice of a slave, and he just keeps going. It’s so uncomfortable that she just walks off. We want to, too, but we’re stuck with him.

Which isn’t a bad thing. Later, on a boat ride with his ex, the two reach the dock of their destination, and Swanson stops to kiss her and hold her. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for, a minor redemption for a seemingly irredeemable character. But then Swanson straightens up, embarrassed, starts the motor and drives them away again. He hates that tender part of himself and is constantly struggling to repress it.

Inexplicably, the ladies love him. In lesser movies, this would annoy me. What’s so attractive about a lethargic, thirty-five-year-old hipster who keeps the world at a distance with jokes? The jokes are precisely what’s attractive. He hooks up with several cute young women throughout the course of the film, mostly because he can make them laugh. In one memorable moment at a party, Swanson discusses the merits of Hitler with a girl – “ya know, the cool thing about Hitler was…” Later in the film, he meets a girl at work, a restaurant where he washes dishes. They trade insults about each other’s genitalia; the chemistry is electric. “I didn’t know you were so funny!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know you were so funny,” he says, and the scene is so true-to-life, that moment when you make a connection with someone simply based on your respective, totally fucked-up senses of humor.

Typically, Swanson messes things up with these girls, ever the anti-hero of his own life. But he’s got his friends.

The final scene of the film involves the beach, and our lead literally and metaphorically cleansing himself. He has fun splashing a little boy. And the movies ends. You know Swanson’s changed, but you’re not sure how. As Heidecker said during the OnDemand interview, the movie raises way more questions than it answers. It’s a character study of a man who often uses humor as a weapon, or more accurately, a shield. It’s a way to not have to think about the bad things, the parents dying, the brother in jail. But mostly it’s a way that Swanson keeps from knowing himself.

Lastly, the title ironically, hipsterically comments on a movie that is anything but. While it has its many funny moments, mostly emerging from the monologues and weird ideas of our lead, the title is another one of Heidecker’s tricks, a guy who can’t even take the tragedy of a man’s drifting existence seriously.

The Comedy will be released nationally on November 9. It is available now on Xfinity OnDemand, $7.99.

-Josh Nielsen

Does Pitch Perfect approach perfection?

Disclaimer: I have an affinity for lady-movies, particularly those featuring ensemble casts of actresses and female comedians. My affection for these types of films makes me susceptible to a wide range of movies, ranging from bitchy high school girl dramas (think Clueless, Mean Girls, Heathers) all the way up through thirtysomething professional women comedies (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Spring Breakdown, Bridesmaids). In a way, I automatically like any movie that fits these criteria, so please approach my review of Pitch Perfect with that in mind.

So, how is Pitch Perfect? I’d say it’s pretty good. It’s not destined to be a classic, but it’s at least on par with recent fare like Easy A.

Pitch Perfect tells the story of a friendless, edgy, alternative college girl (Anna Kendrick, in her most underwhelming performance I’ve seen so far… and I’ve seen all the Twilight movies) who, upon starting her freshman year, agrees to join one of her school’s four rival a capella groups. She joins on the strength of her singing voice, which is admittedly impressive, and tries to liven up their routine through the creative use of musical mashups, which she creates on the side as a DJ. The group she joins, The Bellas, is an all-girl a capella group that is trying to recover from an embarrassing performance at the previous year’s national competition and the fact that almost all of its singers have graduated. Their rivals are an obnoxious all-boy a capella group called The Treble Makers, headed by the extremely punchable Adam DeVine as Bumper.

Stealing the show here is Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. You’ll recognize Wilson from her supporting role in Bridesmaids as Kristen Wiig’s roommate’s squatter sister… you know, the Australian one who gets the free tequila worm tattoo that quickly gets infected. Wilson is a comedic genius with a great ear for self-deprecating humor. I think the script makes her visit the fat-joke well a bit too often in this movie, but there is something charming about a girl who calls herself Fat Amy because “you twiggy bitches just call me that behind my back anyway,” and who actually is somewhat of a pimp (the movie also makes way too much out of the fact that one of its characters might be a lesbian, which almost feels like a relic of uncomfortable 80’s and 90’s gay humor).

The other standout member of the girl-group Hana Mae Lee’s Lilly, an inaudible, doe-eyed Korean girl who mutters incredibly creepy things under her breath and, at one point, makes a snow angel in a pool of vomit. A combination of Reno 911‘s Deputy Weigel and the evil girl from The Ring, Lee’s Lilly elicits loads of uncomfortable laughter.

To its credit, Pitch Perfect manages to capture the pervasive arrogance that permeates most male a capella groups. I wanted to reach into the screen and strangle almost all of the smug assholes who comprise the Treble Makers, all of whom are so powerfully lame yet somehow completely unaware of their own lameness. It’s pretty much how I felt whenever I encountered a capella singers in college.

I think the fundamental flaw of Pitch Perfect, though, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to a capella groups. McLovin has a good line during an audition scene about how their singing groups aren’t like high school show choirs, where they can sing and dance their way through all the social issues of the day—a subtle jab at Glee. The movie, however, isn’t that much different than Glee. Obviously the film is aware that male a capella groups are susceptible to their small-town rockstar mentality and develop horrible personalities as a result, and that a capella groups are basically lame. However, it seems to insist that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that a capella could be so cool if groups just stopped singing Ace of Base songs and covered hip-hop instead! I don’t think it’s possible to reconcile both of these positions, though, lest you fall into the same trap that makes The Treble Makers so annoying: that other a capella groups might be lame, but theirs isn’t like that. It’s cool. Sorry guys, but it’s still lame. Just accept it. Otherwise, you come off sounding like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls.

That being said, the movie is a lot of fun. It’s a good hangover morning rental, or something to catch with a friend if you’re bored. I just think it needs to embrace the fact that its subject matter is as geeky as LARPing.

– Evan

Does Pitch Perfect approach perfection?

Sinister – A smaller, quainter, snuffier Shining

In continuing with this weekend’s theme of being disappointed by new releases, I present to you Sinister, the latest horror film from director Scott Derrickson, whose most notable past effort was The Exorcism of Emily Rose (although Oren Peli’s name is being used to market this film, it is by no means an Oren Peli film, so don’t go into it with those expectations). Sinister had a suitably creepy trailer and an intriguing concept—an ancient demon that lives in images and inspires the murders of entire families—but it ultimately fails the litmus test of “can you stop thinking about it once it ends?” (the answer to which, obviously, is “yes”).

Taking a page out of The Shining, the story here is about a struggling writer (Ethan Hawke) who moves his family to a creepy murder house in order to get inspired for his next novel. While Jack Torrance was a fiction writer, Hawke’s character Ellison is a true-crime writer currently investigating the murder of an entire family, except for one of the daughters, who disappeared at the time of the murders. Like any low-grade ghost story, much of the drama revolves around the characters keeping massive secrets from one another—in this case Ellison not informing his lovely British wife that they are indeed living in a murder house.

More implausible than the idea of a eldrich, soul-eating demon that lives in celluloid—despite celluloid not having existed in ancient Babylon, I don’t think—is the notion that Ellison’s understandably skeptical wife wouldn’t have figured out right away that they were practically dancing on the graves of a murdered family. I’m pretty sure Google exists in the universe we’re observing here, as we get to see Ellison using it (thankfully he’s smart enough to stay away from Bing!). Just entering her address into one search engine would probably generate a photo of the family hanging in its own backyard. Additionally, when one of the family’s kids starts acting weird and painting pictures of dream demons on the wall, I was scratching my head as to why Ellison didn’t instantly recognize the demon’s face as the one he’d seen in the snuff footage he uncovered.

I only recognize one Sinister, and it's this guy!Those picky plot-points aside, the movie actually has a lot of potential to be scary, as it’s tapping so many prime horror nerves. It combines elements of the creepy kid genre with the ghost story genre and the found-footage genre (elegantly marrying the three, I might add). It relentlessly pays homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, and even has elements of Stephen King’s IT (who also wrote The Shining, duh), which was a disastrous made-for-TV movie but had a great story about an evil being that preyed on kids and transcended images. It even borrows a bit from The Ring, which is fine, because that movie is sick.

The problem with Sinister is that it botches the execution. It violates the first rule of both ghost stories and creepy kid movies: Less is More. Hints of something terrifying lurking in the shadows are ALWAYS scarier than the terrifying thing itself. Worse, when you actually show the scary shadow thing, you run the risk of having it come across as silly, instantly deflating the tension you’ve built. Sinister falls into that trap in two different ways.

The other problem is that, for all its build-up, the finale isn’t as scary as it should be. One of the plot twists is telegraphed from the very beginning of the film and therefore completely unsurprising when it’s revealed. There is a good scare in the vein of “those calls are coming from inside your house!”, but it is quickly followed by a swift anticlimax. If there had been more tension building up throughout the film, this would be forgivable, but alas, there isn’t. Sinister makes the mistake of focusing too much on the plot and not enough on generating the dread aura of fear needed to sustain the tension throughout the film. While that gambit worked in The Ring, whose finale deeply disturbed me, Sinister just isn’t able to achieve that, leaving the whole thing feeling like a waste.

Sinister is by no means a bad film—I was engaged throughout—but it isn’t a great horror film either. It won’t be remembered, so you’re not missing much if you skip this one, other than the odd image of Ethan Hawke wearing the same hideous writer’s jacket throughout the film.

-Evan

Atlas Shrugged: Part II (sad face)

ImageSo, I heard reports that the second installment of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which hit theaters today, was much better than the first tepid outing. They doubled the budget, brought in a whole new cast, and allegedly produced a much better, more professional project.

Upon seeing the film, I can only conclude that those early reports were the product of wishful thinking. Atlas Shrugged: Part II is at least as bad as the first one, if not worse, which makes me wonder where that extra $10 million went. To extras? To cardboard signs that the extras carried? To a few new vehicles? To the celebrity cameos? Because it certainly didn’t go into the special effects, which are so bad in this one that they caused the theater (and by “theater”, I mean all eight of us who were in there on opening night) to erupt in laughter on several occasions. I didn’t know it was so difficult this day and age to make airplanes look realistic on screen. They paled in comparison to the .gif files they superimposed over mountainsides to simulate smoking holes in the copper mines.

To its credit, some of the performances are better this time around, and I think they managed to make the story less confusing for the uninitiated this time around by paring it down to its essentials and sticking to dialogue that advanced the plot and the ideas. That being said, the dialogue still sounds preachy and wooden, and the philosophical ideas it puts forth sound as didactic as ever. I realize this is also true of the original book as well, but at least that was fun to read, and wasn’t dependent on anything other than your imagination to bring it to life. Each passing installment of this film reaffirms my suspicion that the book, while excellent, is unadaptable.

It’s a shame that its best components don’t seem to make it off the cutting room floor. Francisco D’Anconia’s infamous speech about money, for instance, is stripped of all the arguments that link it into the irrefutable masterpiece that it is, and is instead left as lame platitudes. The sexy relationship between Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden once again falls flat. Gone are all the ideas about sex, love and value. There just simply isn’t time in a story this jam-packed with plot to focus on character development and big ideas.

Anyway, I hate to knock a film that I would like to succeed in an ideal world, but I just don’t think this is a good representation of a novel that’s so important to so many people (myself included). Atlas Shrugged (the book) is a blast to read. This film is an embarrassment. I can’t think of a reason to recommend it, other than for a bunch of D-list celebrity cameos. If you want a dose of Randian cinema, you’re better off with Gary Cooper in 1949’s The Fountainhead.

-Evan