The Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios Superman theatrical cartoons (1941-1943)

Fleischer-superman

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

“Look up in the sky—it’s a bird—it’s a plane—it’s Superman!”

It is not often that a definitive adaptation of a character or work comes around. Almost always it is left up to each individual’s preference, but in the case of Superman there is a clear beacon that so hugely affected the character that he was never the same again.

The Fleischer theatrical serials were and are unlike anything to come out of Hollywood animation before or since. They are completely self-contained miniature movies that perfectly encapsulate the appeal of superheroes while absolutely enthralling the mind due to their sheer imagination, breathless excitement, stunning visuals and absolutely brilliant staging. Fast, bold, vibrant, unbound by story convention and so wonderfully executed and constructed that one quickly forgets they are mere 10 minute or less theatrical serial cartoons.

This was Superman before Kryptonite, before all the woes about the character’s inherent clichés and not fitting in a modern world, before he was invincible. And it is all filled with that wonderful 30’s-40’s rhythmic snap even down to the dialogue where Lois Lane more closely resembles Torchy Blane than a damsel in distress. This has all of the excitement and adventure that has been so lacking in many modern adaptations. These cartoon shorts truly bring the character to life and brought about many of the touchstones that we now take as common parts of the Superman character.

With the Flesicher shorts, we were given so many elements that weren’t present in the comics of the time that are now trademarks of Superman: the power of flight, x-ray vision and the famed opening that still sends shivers of excitement down my spine:

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel—Superman! To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for truth and justice, Superman has assumed the disguise of Clark Kent mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.”

The famed usage of the phone booth for quick changes and the usage of “This looks like a job for..Superman” (the line originating in Clark Kent’s voice and shifting to Superman’s more authoritative tone) make their appearances to create what is essentially is true classic version of the character onscreen that does not try to make amends for being a pulp adventure hero. Also beneficial is the production taking place in the early 1940’s so that the elements of the snappy 1930’s world in which Superman was created is maintained. The characters thus speak and act like real people, more as if they are in a Pre-Code film than a later Hollywood film, doubled by the fact that most cartons of the era still played to their audiences despite this new form of censorship.

The usage of rotoscoping further sets these cartoons apart in that not only do the stories resemble the comics and engage our fantasies, but that it also looks realistic to the point of actual believability. Combined with an intense usage of light and shadow, the world of Superman leaps off of the pages of Action Comics and onto the screen with all the direct power of a radio show.

For decades these shorts have proven immensely influential to other animators, filmmakers and storytellers. They were the primary inspiration for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, not to mention the wonderful Superman: The Animated Series, and serve as the template for which every superhero story should be trying to achieve.

But halfway through the run of shorts, the Fleischer studio was taken over by Paramount and the series was carried over to Famous Studios. These cartoons are typically regarded as being inferior to the Fleischer studio episodes and are typically written off because of the inherent and obvious racist overtones that feature prominently in several episodes. This is an extreme disservice to cartons that are no more offensive than other propaganda at the time due to our entry into WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is regrettable that so many things were produced with this inherent but it should not be used as an excuse to simply write off more of these wonderful cartoons.

Admittedly, the stories began a general shift from the science-fiction elements of the Fleischer produced shorts to a more wartime espionage and general fantasy theme, much as the comics themselves shifted to tones like these throughout the 1940’s. But hey, sometimes Superman just needs to fight off some reanimated giant mummies or a underground colony of mutant birdmen.

But what is most striking, most important and the chief reason to why the cartoons still work after all this time is that they absolutely nail the character and his mission. They are absolutely passionate and human whilst retaining that defining element that inspired superheroes in the first place, the desire for betterment and to escape the daily horrors of an unjust life where striving for good did not always mean good would be returned. Superman at his core symbolizes this ideal, just as he was written originally in Action Comics no. 1 in June 1938.

And by god, you really do believe a man can fly.

EDITIONS: Falling into the public domain decades ago, the Fleischer/Famous Superman has long been seen in terrible condition with most tape and disc copies being sourced from dupes of dupes of dupes of faded 16mm reduction prints. There are only two official releases worth owning, as other slap on new sound effects and lack any restoration whatsoever.  The first is the recent Warner Bros. Max Fleischer’s Superman which uses brand new restored versions from the 35mm elements in the WB vault. The image is stunning full of the robust color unseen since their 1940’s debut, but the set is plagued with audio errors that come from using the wrong score and cue elements. (All the errors on the Warner release are quite jarring. “Never ending battle for truth and justice” is now presented as “for truth-justice”.)

For the best presentation of the shorts, one must turn to the DVD from Bosko Video, The Complete Superman Collection Diamond Anniversary Edition. This uses the old Bosko-Image Laserdisc source, re-transferred for DVD and accurately carries over the look and feel of the 35mm prints. There are some inherent defects in the audio but these are minor. Sadly this does not have the color of the Warner transfer but was done long before digital tools were available. The only downside is that Terror on the Midway is heavily damaged and that at the beginning of each short, the initial release date is superimposed for a few frames.

Consider only these two releases. (Or the bosko/image Laser.) All others are to be avoided at all costs. The shorts are also available on YouTube and the Internet Archive in varying quality.

Best version on YouTube, from the Warner transfer of the first installment:

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, Superman

Man of Steel (2013)

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn't bode well for the planet's adopted son.

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn’t bode well for the planet’s adopted son.

1.5 stars out of 4.

Are truth, justice and the American way still relevant in 2013? This is the central question behind Man of Steel that of the singular most iconic superhero’s worth in this post-modern world. Can the inherent Kryptonian Boy Scout make a difference anymore? In this Christopher Nolan produced vision it comes at the cost of the character.

The film is an exasperatingly frustrating thing to sit through. Sure the story elements are upfront, but in fact they may be too upfront at the cost of seeming redundant. Superman (Henry Cavill) comes across as more of a reactionary figure being prodded along by the plot than Earth’s lone protector. Inherent are many problems which recall those of Watchmen, a film dedicated entirely to replicating a graphic novel to the point of inducing sleep in its audiences because the presentation was so completely overdone and lacked the story’s impact.

Whoever decided Zack Snyder was the appropriate choice to direct a Superman film should have their head examined. Watchmen was a film so far away from Superman in energy, tone, characterization, plotting, length and presentation that you couldn’t have done worse if you tried. The relative backlash against the ill-fated Superman Returns (Though it made nearly $400 million for the studio, it was deemed a failure) as a quasi-sequel to Superman I and II has led to an extremely dull and relatively witless sci-fi post-modern actioner.

And this is truly a dull picture. The film opens with Kal-el’s birth, supposedly the first live Kryptonian birth in centuries because Krypton is now suddenly a dystopic sci-fi nightmare. The opening shots of this new Superman film are extremely lingering close-ups of Lara in childbirth. Yes, because this is how we need to open a Superman film after seven years. To make a longer story short (and this runs somewhere around twenty minutes or so, presumably to cram in a few more action set pieces and give Russell Crowe time in action.) Krypton is about to implode due to over harvesting of resources, nobody ever believes Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a low-key role is a poor substitute for Terrence Stamp) comes on his bid for conquest, now under the guise of attempting to save the planet (which gets very tired very quickly) whilst in actuality placing himself as sole ruler. Jor-el manages to escape and places the infant Kal in a space pod, but only after spending time in another action sequence to steal a codex containing Kryptonian genetics to send with Kal in order to preserve Krypton or somehow or perhaps to serve the plot later….

In short, Kal is finally sent off into space, Zod and his insurrection are sent to the Phantom Zone  but not before Zod declaring his vengeance against Kal-el (Does this really make any sense?) and finally if not mercifully Krypton explodes.

The pod lands on Earth, and instead of receiving any sort of conventional origin story either detailed or abbreviated, we are told in brief flashbacks whilst the young Clark Kent is drifting around the world in search of himself. (In one of many obvious and unnecessary elements stolen directly from Batman Begins, which in turn lifted from Batman: Year One.) For some reason the current trend of revealing a character’s childhood backstory in multiple short flashbacks throughout the course of the main narrative is continually re-used despite being absolutely disjointing and extremely ineffective.  (Think of the abomination that was Speed Racer.) This sets up Clark’s childhood in Smallville, living as the child of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both horribly underused) and struggling to come to terms with his strange differences from everyone else.

After several sequences of his trying and dull nomadic episodes and their eventual payoff by revealing his superhuman abilities, Clark infiltrates a government expedition where we first meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and finds an abandoned Kryptonian scout ship. After rescuing Lois form the ship’s defenses, we are greeted by the obligatory scene in these films of the dead-father-hologram-explaining-who-Clark-Kent-really-is-and-what-he-is-supposed-to-do.

Lois recovers and sets out to track down this mystery man who she firmly believes is an alien. After a few days research, she actually manages to do this and arrives at the Kent farm, where Clark recounts his adoptive father’s death. Jonathan Kent’s death is another moment in Man of Steel that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings in that it sets up a situation that is extremely contrived and also very easy for Clark to overcome while not revealing himself. Originally Kent dies of a heart attack and it is Clark’s inability to prevent his death that torments him with a sense of guilt and greater responsibility that forms a central touchstone of the character’s identity.

After more unnecessary exposition Zod announces his bid for world destruction unless Kal hands himself over. After some debate, Clark hands himself over to the military in the Superman guise, and we are finally told the plot that we already knew was coming thirty minutes in. It is now a Mano- e-Mano battle between Superman and Zod’s army, bent on the destruction of Earth in order to create a new Kryptonian world to rule.

Things blow up. Buildings crumble, a city becomes a veritable wasteland of debris, all while the human race watches dumbfounded. After a few minutes you cease to care as the images are so disjointed and monotonous that the audience is immediately distanced from the story once more. This is a film where the actors are clearly giving it their all, but are continually dragged down by the unyielding mass of junk around them. It is virtually impossible to tread water in this for longer than an hour. The film lasts nearly two and a half hours.

The most problematic element besides the cliff notes script is the camerawork that should have never been deemed releasable. There are incessant artificial snap zooms in and out of the frame that are so completely disorienting that you simply want to leave the auditorium. The action is so constant and dull that I found myself disconnected from the movie frequently, and struck more by things like the film grain visible. (The film was mercifully shot on 35mm, and the grain visible in the DI is very pleasant.) In contrast, the camerawork in the dialogue scenes is marred often by some truly horrid shakycam that absolutely wrecks the scenes in question.

The bland visuals do not help either. This film, like its modern brethren are shot in a very cold harsh light, and timed in the edit suite to be extremely harsh, devoid of any real color. It is an unpleasant film to look at. As for the sound mix, it was rather dull and all over the place. The Dolby 7.1 surround is too loud in the action at the expense of detail and too soft in the quiet moments, as was Dark Knight Rises.

Man of Steel is a picture that is no fun. I was interested in the characters, in what was going on with them and how they reacted to one another. The actors are really trying with what material they have, but are continually dragged down by the surrounding movie.

We all get it. The studio wanted a Dark Knight Superman. Supposedly, Superman is so out of place in 2013 that he isn’t allowed to exist anymore as he has since 1938, and must be heavily modified to suit modern tastes. Man of Steel is a film that stars Superman, but at the cost of mild-mannered Clark Kent. There is none of the Superman we have come to know and respect after 75 years. And yes, I know that this is supposedly an origin story. It is as lacking of the titular hero’s character as the Nolan Bat-films which feature so little of Batman’s identity that they can hardly be considered Batman films any longer.

And top all of this off by simply reusing the already tread plot elements of Superman I and II but dumbed down for a “best-of” condensation. Man of Steel had multitudes of paths to travel down, and yet for some reason it was decided to return to the same ground already tread by Richard Donner in the 1978 and 1980 films. It isn’t as if there aren’t decades of Superman stories to pull from.

What I missed most from Man of Steel was the humanity. There’s no life in the picture. There’s no spark, no vitality, no energy to really pull us into the story. Comics are all about imagination. Superman was the product of the Depression, a dream figure to inspire minds to escape their daily horrors. Despite having their flaws the reason why the the Donner films, in particular the first film, are still genuinely moving is because they have both spirit and properly motivated drama. Along with Batman (1989), Superman: The Movie began and created the pathway that all superhero films must tread. Man of Steel goes in the opposite direction. Ultimately the film is a frustrating experience along the lines of Superman Returns. It just happens to be for many of the opposite reasons.

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Film Review, Superman

The Hangover Part III (2013)

the-hangover-3-poster3

Zero stars out of 4.

The success of the Hangover pictures is built entirely on the premise of seeing the members of the “Wolfpack” find themselves in the weirdest and deepest of hot water while attempting to find their way back to reality. In the first sequel this involved running through Bangkok in a textbook exercise of mimicking a hit first film to the letter minus any character development. Thankfully for this third installment a new direction was established…or perhaps I’m getting too far ahead of myself.

Hangover 3 resembles not the earlier pictures or a narrative at all. What Hangover 3 is instead of a series of increasingly debaucherous mishaps is merely the beginnings of a narrative first act. This is one of the biggest doses of filler to come out of a studio in some time. What the film resembles is a contractually obligated sequel where those involved were out of ideas and did not want to return. So they decide to shake things up after the criticism over repeating themselves.

The problem is that they had nothing to go on. The story has our protagonists come under the thumb of a cartoonish drug lord (John Goodman) who kidnaps the always kidnapped Doug (Justin Bartha) in exchange for the Wolfpack finding the ever snakelike Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong).  What follows is a long uneventful series of setups with no payoff whatsoever. The entire premise of this franchise that should have never been is the mishaps that occur after one long and beyond rowdy night of partying. That is the reason why the audience shells out the money for admission. And instead of giving them what they want or truly doing something different, Hangover 3 merely does nothing.

This is a dark comedy that forgets to include either the darkness or the comedy. Nor is there any real drama or characterization beyond the names and faces. What is additionally off-putting is that the overall tone is extremely mean without any context.  The first two pictures had their moments of tension but this sequel seems to want to go down a darker path, yet leaves out any reason or meaning for doing so. If one were to remove all of the instances where variations of the most used phrase “What the f***?”  are uttered, this already overlong 100 minute waste would be a far more manageable ten minutes if even that long.

There is only one standout sequence, and a horribly short one at that. The boys have discovered Mr. Chow is hiding in the penthouse suite atop Caesar’s Palace and devise an insanely stupid plan to break in via bedsheet rope from the roof. The sequence is executed with enough thought to actually invoke some participation from one’s mind which has been on bored autopilot up to this point, and give some more than badly needed characterization to people we no longer give a damn about. Once inside there is some energy to the editing which lasts for all of 30 seconds and then we descend back into stupid pointless zone for the rest of this beyond tired exercise. (While managing to waste the usage of what may be the best ever Black Sabbath song. )

You would find it hard for a sequel to be any more tasteless or dumb than Hangover 2, but Hangover 3 manages to accomplish this goal by the simplest means possible. There is no inspiration in any shot of this waste of an hour and forty minutes of one’s life.

As if to make up for this, a small coda is inserted into the credits. This of course is the obligatory scene of the guys waking up hungover in a room full of weird articles, things on or done to themselves and struggling to stand up. And so, Hangover 3 begins and ends in the end credits.  The film essentially is two minutes long with a 95 minute tediously dull setup.

Why bother? Supposedly this is the final film, but the mere franchise name will guarantee enough box office returns for a sequel. Hopefully by that time they may have come up with something, but at that point who will still care?

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Filed under Film Review, Zero stars

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

This doesn't even "look" like a Die Hard picture.

This doesn’t even “look” like a Die Hard picture.

Zero stars.

When a film inspires an audience to fall asleep, it usually is because of one of two reasons. One: that said audience is very tired and at a late show. Two: Because the film is so mundane that it induces sleep.

The supposed fifth film in the Die Hard franchise follows one of those two principles. It also has no reason for being. Produced a far too long six years after the relatively successful fourth entry that had infused some new blood into a previously thought dead franchise,  A Good Day is so unbelievably stupid that you wouldn’t even select it from amongst direct to video garbage.

The plot is forgettable and the film itself frequently does just this in order to have dozens of overly dense offerings to the holy lord of CGI. The cartoon aspect of John McClane’s continual survival becomes a cartoon in and of itself.

The villain is merely a plot mover, there is a pointless female role that only grates on the nerves due to knowing the exact character arc almost immediately, the pointless and endless forced father-son banter that never quite works, the uninspired locations sitting in for Russia, the horrid constant use of terrible incoherent camerawork amidst a CGI landscape and lastly the fact that you no longer give a damn about John McClane.

Bruce Willis made his career with the original film and his portrayal of the burned out reluctant cop has matured through the years to become an action legend. He can be at once brutish and charming as McClane but always in a believable way as to always maintain that sense of being an off-duty NYC cop. Not here. In A Good Day, McClane is ineffectual, unfocused, uncharming and generally uninteresting. Even the one liners are terrible.

What can you expect from a team most notably responsible for the insipid Omen remake and the absolute filth of Swordfish? The original Die Hard wasn’t the biggest production, but what it had was both quality and originality. This is what made the film stand out and become such an unexpected hit with audiences. It acknowledged reality while still being innovative as an action film by refusing to bow down to what the limited production indicated. And the crew made a remarkably assured film that only served to better support the action narrative. The sequel maintained this and the necessary gritty element of danger that is completely gone from the later films. The first two films occupy their own world, exactly as is the case with Lethal Weapon  1 and 2, and the sequels are always going to have that sense of being several generations removed from their original source.

But this is something else entirely. This is a film by numbers, by studio marketing, where any script can be manhandled into production and slapped with a coat of enticement to draw in audiences. They just so happened to choose the Die Hard moniker this time around, and people on both sides fell for it.

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Filed under Die Hard, Film, Film Review, Zero stars

Stoker (2013)

The coldness of the poster is overwhelming in this stunningly empty waste of time.

The coldness of the poster is overwhelming in this stunningly empty waste of time.

Zero stars. Arguably the worst film of the year.

 

Many know Korean director Park Chan-Wook from his “Vengeance Trilogy” from which sprung his most famous film, Oldboy (2003). Wook is extremely oriented towards the visual world, and attempts to visually integrate an audience into wherever the story leads often at the expense of that said story.

So now we come to his English language debut, in an unsurprisingly visual film. Yay, pretty things to look at!

It has been a very long time since I have seen a narrative feature be so completely devoid of any and all point.

In Stoker, we are introduced to a recently broken family, where the husband has just died and the mother and daughter are supposedly grieving for their loss. I say supposedly because if there is anything close to a sense of emotion present in any of the main characters it’s invisible. India (Mia Wasikowska) is an odd girl who likes to run around the woods barefoot, arrange shoes, practice piano all while constantly staring a giant hole through absolutely everything. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) is a vain woman who does the opposite, nearly tripping over herself in order to play at the facade of being a grand figure.

Into to this loving home comes the dead husband’s brother, Charlie (Mathew Goode), who is overly charming and nearly perfect in every sort of way. Save for the fact that some treat him with fear and his penchant for following people around while trying not to seem creepy.

It is damn near impossible to ignore the continual parallels to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This occurs so frequently and so vividly that you spend the majority of the film wishing that you were watching that brilliantly executed classic drama.

The transitions are a real bone of contention. They become a constant annoyance bridging every scene and shot with the most obvious of parallels to cut between whether they are visual or auditory. The entire point of a cut is to be seamless and invisible so the mere idea of calling attention to the seam of a film is to reveal the artifice behind the illusion. When this is done on a continual basis it both disorients and disconnects the viewer from the narrative. However, in this case since there was no integration or narrative to begin with it only adds to the agonizingly overlong experience of sitting through this supreme emptiness.

It is only at the final act of the film that an idea of true plot comes into play, and as with Oldboy, there is a flurry of reveals with each seemingly undoing the previous one. Finally we believe a conclusion is in sight only to have that yanked back from us as well to let the film carry on stringing the audience along for another ten minutes. To add the final touch, Stoker’s denouement is so completely unresolved and poorly executed that the audience exits wondering just exactly what they spent their thirteen bucks on.

There is nothing to discuss. Nothing to question, nothing to think about, nothing to consider. No points are made, themes are merely shallow pastiches of the word, and the short 95 minute runtime feels like twice that.  It has been a very, very, very long time since I have sat through such a big waste of time.

Instead of going to your nearest arthouse or independent theater (where this film is mostly playing nationwide) and wasting the admission or even the rental price, revisit Shadow of a Doubt and marvel at its intricacies. Because there are none to be found in Stoker. Anywhere.

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Filed under Film Review, Zero stars

Hitchcock (2012)

Even the poster cannot hide the simple truth that the film wants to make it's own simplified storyline. The emphasis is on the current stars filling the roles of badly written caricatures of stars.

Even the poster cannot hide the simple truth that the film wants to make it’s own simplified storyline. The emphasis is on the current stars filling the roles of badly written caricatures of stars. Arguably the most important secondary character is hardly in the film and does not appear on the poster: Hitch’s agent the legendary Lew Wasserman.

1 Star out of 4.

What exactly did they want from this picture?

A study of one of the most prominent figures in our field? A true story behind the legend? A picture to fulfill all the gossip and hero worship?

Who knows what the intent was as the result is a biopic so muddled and so disjointed that the picture never takes off in any sense, and relies on stereotyping a year in The Master’s career into exactly the sort of audience pandering gibberish that Hitch himself loathed more than anything else.

All the right elements are there for aficionados and fans. The gossipy bits are there for the uninitiated, reducing Hitch to his obsessions and demons, let alone ever acknowledging the man in front of them. Admittedly, Mrs. Hitchcock does finally get her due, but in a manner overtly waving a giant flag in front of the audience’s face for the length of the picture.  Alma was a brilliant editor of both story and picture and deserves a massive share of Hitch’s praise, but the manufacture of such blissfully ignorant typical script drivel just makes one ask the one simple question that is death to any film: “Why?”.

Hitchcock is a continually frustrating experience in that it is not a portrait of the man or his life but a caricature of what many would like to think Alfred Hitchcock was. It features all of the so-called critical theories about his adoration of the cool remote blonde, his rejection of Vera Miles, lust for his leading ladies, his personal connection to Vertigo and everything else that has become standard baggage whenever even approaching the subject of The Master. Some of these have some basis in reality but can only remain theories. Yet the film treats these as truth to work from and in fact never gives a legitimate glimpse into the period of 1959-1960 when Psycho was made and the same period where Hitch was doing what he always did but in a completely different way.

What most people fail to realize, and arguably the secret of Hitch’s extreme longevity and success was his unmatched ability to “run for cover” and produce a project so intricately perfected that it both pleased audiences and his own artistic desires. He especially knew when he had to perform one of these feats of magic after a particularly unsuccessful picture where attempts were made to break the mold. It is of no coincidence that many of The Master’s most famed works of art were produced when they were. Strangers on a Train in 1951 turned his career back around after the successive failures of The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright. North By Northwest was a massive return to form after the absolute rejection of both The Wrong Man and especially Vertigo.

Psycho was an attempt to fully break new ground with audiences and produce something both shocking and new. Hitch was fully aware of the growing trend in low budget shocker pictures that were making fantastic returns in drive-ins and the like. In one of the few things the film gets right, the general idea behind Psycho is that what if a great movie maker made a low budget shocker picture?

This was neither the first nor last time Hitch tried to break new ground. Continually forced to bury his innovations and desire for unrestricted creativity in his work, Psycho is one if not the only time he was ever able to fully capitalize on his full creative powers. This is the key reason why so many put a larger stock in his earlier British period, where the films were technically and monetarily limited but feature an extreme and sublime amount of imagination that essentially formed the Hitchcock touch; the way his camera probes every single scene exactly as our eyes do, his devilish sense of humor even in the darkest of predicaments.

A much better, albeit far darker picture would be based on entirely different work. (This films claims to be based on the classic text Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho but instead plays much more like a tabloid article than a researched account.) A truly insightful biopic about the most revered director in the medium of cinema would not take place at his pinnacle but rather starting three years later at the apex of his downfall. It is not ever a pretty story to detail the gradual fall of any person, but in Hitch’s case it took many years and some truly mismatched pictures amidst a multitude of denied opportunities.

With his own health and that of Alma eventually becoming unreliable, the pains of trying to make a living in an ever-increasingly changed world were only furthered. And in the end, it was a truly heartfelt and sad existence, as chronicled in David Freeman’s relatively ignored and forgotten The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. A truly meaningful picture about The Master of Suspense as both an artist and man would not be about making the actors look and sound exactly like the subjects within. It would not be about trivializing the facts for general audience consumption and also would not fall into the usual trap most biopics find themselves in where every aspect of the subject’s life is glossed over to give a hugely incomplete portrait of their lives in just over two hours.

The biopic of The Master should begin in 1972 and find our hero home in the markets of London confronted by the long forgotten ghosts of his childhood while making what was to be his final triumph, Frenzy. (Itself partially made from the shattered remains of what would have been his second groundbreaking masterpiece of the 1960’s, a picture in the vein of Psycho’s shocking breakthroughs but even more daring. This was to have been the vibrant and beyond suspenseful 16mm handheld picture Frenzy-Kaleidoscope.)

The film never touches upon any of this or gives a true sense of the man himself except for one glorious and perfect moment. The film is book ended by premieres. It opens with the premiere for North by Northwest and closes with the premiere of Psycho. In the theater while the first audience is becoming entranced by one of the most legendary of all motion pictures, Hitch is shown hovering in the projection booth gazing down voyeuristically at the enraptured audience.  Then he paces in front of the entrance door waiting for the shower sequence to begin and waiting ever so patiently for the reaction. And because we know what is coming, because we know what sacrifices he had to make to make the picture, because we know our own reactions to the scene over fifty years later there is suspense in the waiting. And in the audience’s screams of terror, for one single moment in this entire picture we have a moment with The Master himself. Carried away in his manipulation of the audience, we get a glimpse of the sensitive and charming person beneath the showman who merely liked to tell stories.

“The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we plat that chord and they react that way. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie- they’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’ and we’ll frighten them…Won’t that be wonderful?”

Yes it is wonderful. That is why we make pictures.

 

EDITIONS: The Blu-ray does exactly what it is supposed to; represent the film as best it can in the home. Picture and sound are what they should be, highlighting the rather flat and drab appearance meant to convey the period of 1959-1960. The artificiality of the setting is so much so that you wish you were simply watching Psycho again and inferring yet more details for the umpteenth time. Nothing this film can ever do will compare with the best and most exciting screening I’ve ever witnessed of Psycho, an open-matte battered 16mm reduction print projected onto a theater’s outdoor wall in the parking lot.

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Filed under 1 star, Film Review

Goodbye Roger Ebert

roger-ebert-001-portrait

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds — not simply by identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it — but by seeing the world as another person sees it…. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”

Roger Ebert, Introduction to The Great Movies.

 

Roger Ebert died Thursday. I feel strange writing the words. It has taken me this long to even get them down. The day before he had published his final blog entry pointing towards a series of new directions in spite of new health problems.

It was too aptly titled “A Leave of Presence”. 

Many of us grew up with Roger in print and TV as the famed critic. But it was his conveyed humanity that endeared him to his fans, the real reason why it is so unbelievably difficult to write this.

 Roger_old_office425pix

Kael, Sarris, Bazin, Eisenstein…the names read off like titans to movie geeks. The philosophers, theorists, and critics of film. The medium that became the greatest popular art form of the 20th Century. Yet a film critic is ostensibly a cold person, a person dedicated to digging beneath the surface of cinema and rubbing our noses in that shoveled dirt. For these distillers of cinema there was one voice that stood out for a very simple reason. Roger Ebert spoke not to cinephiles, critics, industry people, journals, editors or anyone else that one would typically imagine a critic writing in mind for.

He always downplayed himself and kept a great deal of humility which many in criticism could never hope to have. Reading Ebert’s writing was not merely checking the worth of a particular film but rather like hearing the farseeing yet somehow poignant advice of a friend. Even when you absolutely disagreed.

The best in this lonely little group has now left us. Though he would be the first to deny it.

He wrote for us. Us. The audience that paid to go into that hallowed darkened room and await our dreams to be probed, stimulated and immortalized on that shining screen for all times. Roger wrote for the masses, but he also wrote for those of us who clung to cinema like our lives depended on it. Those of us who stayed awake in the dark and subsisted on films. He acknowledged a life outside the movies which seemed incredible for a critic to do. Film criticism is held in such a highbrow context that one is almost barred from displaying any shred of personal context, any sense of self is outlawed as it does not accurately reflect the proper ways of writing criticism. As if there are any.

There is no textbook way to write about films. Any film writer can write about the given topic, but it means nothing if they have no passion for the medium. Roger had it in spades. He maintained the enthusiasm of a child going to see the Marx Brothers while fueling his writing with the intense passion for cinema of Truffaut. He craved what we all do; the desire to be entertained, to escape from our lives and be fully stimulated in true entertainment that can be both artistic and fulfilling in one gasp.

And his writing fulfilled this. Roger is most famous for the groundbreaking film review TV program known under many monikers which he co-hosted with feuding arch rival and eventual close friend Gene Siskel. They fought, fought, fought, fought, fought all while attempting to give the public well thought opinions on the films in release in the limited program time. Their rating system became unanimous with film rating. The “Two Thumbs Up” moniker became almost as standard as the four star system. 

But for me, it was his writing that stood out; every review clearly showed that he wasn’t the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for nothing. Roger wrote with the passion of a movie lover and didn’t neglect his own experiences and this alone would have been enough to cement him as one of the great writers in this little club. What cemented him as different was his skill as a journalist. See, what most people fail to realize is that Roger never intended to write about films. He was a newspaperman, a journalist through and through and inadvertently fell into the job when the Sun-Times critic position fell vacant.

These elements combined into film writing that is both warm and immediate. Articles that could be extraordinarily informative and touchingly personal at the same time leave you scratching your head as to how you could ever write as effectively as this. You see, his writing was so effective that it inspired countless fans including myself to write our own criticism. Roger could tear apart a movie without getting nasty and praise silly popcorn movies without ever going off topic. His sense of focus was incredible and absolutely enviable.

How does one describe how an Ebert review read? His prose writing had the feel of an experienced voice that reeked of honesty and directness all the while still somehow feeling warm as if from a favored uncle. God, how I will miss reading Roger.  Reading an Ebert review gave you not the all-important plot synopsis but what should be and is most important: a sense of the given film’s worth. You come away from an Ebert review with a sense of the film, not merely an idea of the plot. As an aspiring filmmaker a great four star Ebert review would have meant as much to me personally as the Oscar.

Disagreements. Yes, Roger could and would often make statements that seemed so completely off or wrong to our minds. One only has to look at his early reviews from the late 60’s to begin wincing. (Complete dismissal of Once Upon a Time in the West?) But this is not a negative. In fact this differing of the minds created a certain discussion between the text and the reader that continued to play out in the reader’s mind just as it would in conversation. Even the reviews you so passionately disagreed with could touch, charm, and provoke new thought. Just as life is a constantly changing experience, so is our understanding of the movies. Roger finally acknowledged this in print by admitting Blade Runner into the Great Movies. ;)

Roger was a workaholic. He reviewed over 250 films per year, started and ran Ebertfest yearly, ran additional columns and constantly remained steadfast to the reason for even doing so.  The Little Movie Glossary is still a backbone of understanding film, the Movie Answer Man as a precursor to Roger’s later online life but his effort is exemplified by his Great Movies series.  Run on a secondary schedule, featuring the true artistic masterworks with Roger’s own cherished titles, The Great Movies series feature Roger’s conversational tone at full intensity. This series is easily the best writing about film ever done. I have long held that there are two books that are essential for loving films and wanting to somehow be involved with their production. One is Hitchcock/Truffaut, the other is Great Movies. That one volume is a perfect distillation of Roger in print. The Great Movies is a spring to return to frequently in order to reaffirm one’s love for the movies.

Stricken with cancer that took his ability to speak, eat (in addition to taking away a great deal of his face), and left in a situation that would call for absolute despair somehow Roger persevered. In a time when most would simply give in to their ailments, Roger refused to do so and became a prolific figure in a new world; as an avid blogger, Twitterer (if that is a word) and Facebook personality. He revived the TV show and brought it back to public access. (Similar to how he had continued on with Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999.) Despite being simply a fan and fellow lifelong rabid movie geek in the middle of Palookaville, it is impossible to describe just how wonderful it was to see this outpouring of honest thoughts and commentary from a cherished writer.

It was obvious that he was going through some impossible hardships, and yet this nagging idea only made each individual post like one of the rare good fortune cookies. It also reminded us as readers that there was far more to Roger than simply reviewing movies. He could suddenly speak of literature, politics, social and world events, and yes..even cooking. (I’m still wanting to read his rice cooker cookbook.)

Roger’s longtime friend Martin Scorsese, whom  he championed after seeing Marty’s beautiful 1967 debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (Then called I Call First), put it best: “We all knew that this moment was coming, but that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching. I’ll miss him — my dear friend, Roger Ebert.”

We all feel as if we’ve lost a friend. A person we never met, never knew, yet absolutely did.

The balcony is closed. The film has unspooled off of the final reel and the theater is empty once more, a darkened haunted palace of manufactured dreams.

Where the disciples of the movies feel at home.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Roger’s final blog post.

Goodbye Roger. Our deepest thanks for so passionately decrypting our love for that inescapable magic of the movies. A personal thanks for the unending debt held a young boy who absolutely came to be defined by films while stuck in the middle of nowhere and found a kindred spirit of sorts for a lifetime.

I hated hated hated hated hated having to write this.

from the Chicago Tribune.

“There are no right answers. The questions are the point. They make you an active movie watcher, not a passive one. You should not be a witness at a movie, but a collaborator. Directors cannot make the film without you. Together, you can accomplish amazing things. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll know when the director is not doing his share of the job. That’s the whole key to being a great moviegoer. There’s nothing else to it.”

–Roger in his introduction to The Great Movies

 Is there anything else to take with you into a movie?

No.

Roger’s final blog, still brimming with excitement for what life had in store.

http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2013/04/a_leave_of_presense.html

An eloquent tribute from The Nostalgia Critic:

http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nostalgia-critic-farewell-to-roger-ebert-6564382

Youtube has a treasure trove of Roger and Gene bits:

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ebert+and+siskel&oq=eber&gs_l=youtube.3.2.0i3l3j0l7.5182.8463.0.10338.9.7.2.0.0.0.124.532.5j2.7.0…0.0…1ac.1.V7IGSI0XSFM

Roger’s favorite theaters, the true places of worship for all those who love the movies:

http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/movie-houses-of-worship-roger-eberts-favorite-movie-theaters.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+FilmSchoolRejects+%28Film+School+Rejects%29

Roger’s usual seat in the Chicago critic’s screening room.

seat-1-mcn-488x651

Roger’s DVD Commentaries:

Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark City, Crumb, Floating Weeds (Criterion), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Books:

http://www.amazon.com/Roger-Ebert/e/B000API2UK/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

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