The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)
One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.
Life Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:
James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…
Here’s the trailer:
For the third year running, I’ve published an annual guide (sort of) to the year that was, cinematically speaking.
The 2014 Eyes Wide Open is collected like the last couple of editions, in that it starts off with pieces covering each of my 25 favorite movies of the year, then laying into the year’s 5 worst films, rounding it all off with some shorter honorable mention pieces, DVD reviews, and other ephemera.
It’s available as a paperback here and an ebook here.
Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’ (A24)
In the summer of 2014, a little film named Locke came and went from a few cinemas in an eyeblink. It’s not hard on the surface to see why: The secretive trailer promises only a one-man show: Tom Hardy in a car for about an hour-and-a-half, grousing and pleading on the phone. Just as audiences failed to find it, the Golden Globes also ignored the film, as most likely the Oscars will too.
Do yourself a favor and check out Locke, which is available on DVD and VOD now. My review is at Short Ends and Leader:
The prospect of spending an hour and a half with an actor in a car while they sweet-talk and argue with people on the phone would normally be straight tedium … But when the actor is Tom Hardy, it’s a different story. In Steven Knight’s spellbinding Locke, Hardy darts through the tense screenplay with such graceful ease that his work feels more like something lived than performed. By the time this downbeat nail-biter is done, it feels justified to finally go ahead and say that Hardy is easily one of the greatest actors of his generation…
Here’s the trailer:
Recreating the march in ‘Selma’ (Paramount Pictures)
In Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s monologue at the start of last night’s more anti-climactic than usual Golden Globe Awards, they referenced the film Selma (which, again, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leading the dramatic civil rights march through what was essentially enemy territory in Alabama in 1965).
It starts with a mediocre gag and follows up with one of the most pointed lines of any recent awards show:
… in the 1960s, thousands of black people from all over America came together with one common goal: To form Sly and the Family Stone [some laughter] … But the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement that totally worked and now everything’s fine.
(cinema image by Sailko)
Now that 2014 has drawn to a close, the theaters are full of all the films that opened in November and December that nobody has had any chance to get to. It’s not a bad thing, given the too-crowded flurry of awards-scrapping releases trying to make it in before the end of the year, mixed in with the occasional counter-programming piece of dross. But it’s also a useful time to think about how the year shaped up, film-wise.
My essay, “2014: A Most Mediocre Year,” ran this week at PopMatters:
The Interview was almost certainly not going to be in contention for anything in 2014, whether awards or places in people’s funny bones. As my colleague Rebecca Pahle over at Film Journal International put it, the movie is probably best skipped by people who “have a visceral hatred of jokes about things going into and coming out of butts.” Nevertheless, there was something about the entire hacking contretemps (on a non-geopolitical level, at least) that feels representative of where the film industry is today. Sony acted initially with brazen attitude, signing on to a comedy that never would have been contemplated, let alone released, by a major studio 15 years ago. They then folded so swiftly you could almost feel the breeze. Desperation mixed with an overabundance of caution is not a good combination for any industry. You can see both of those attributes everywhere in this year’s mostly pallid offerings…
Bradley Cooper (right) as Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper’ (Warner Bros.)
Before Chris Kyle was murdered at the age of 38, he had amassed a legendary kill record as an army sniper; possibly the most lethal one in American military history. His bestselling memoir, American Sniper, was originally planned as a Steven Spielberg project, but the film was ultimately directed by Clint Eastwood, no stranger to squint-eyed dramas of force and will.
American Sniper hit theaters today. My review is at Film Racket:
Bradley Cooper is rarely the sort to grab one’s attention at center stage; he only truly lights up films like American Hustle or The Hangover series when there’s a co-star for him to bounce his nervy patter and blue eyes off of. But Cooper’s performance as Kyle delivers the proper mix of humility and bottled-up frustration called for in a soldier from whom so much is expected. The film starts off with Kyle on a rooftop in Iraq, covering a column of Marines advancing through a city. He sees a woman hand a grenade to a young boy, who runs with the weapon towards the Marines. No other soldiers have eyes on the pair. His spotter reminds him that if he gets it wrong, “they’ll burn you”…
Here’s the trailer:
Timothy Spall in ‘Mr. Turner’ (Sony Pictures Classics)
Mike Leigh tends to be the director one goes to for deft character studies (Secrets and Lies, Another Year, and such), not gorgeous period pieces. Nevertheless, Leigh took on the life story of one of Britian’s greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner, with all the costumery and flattering lighting one could ask for.
Mr. Turner opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:
Anybody looking for a cozy holiday costume drama about a famous painter should steer clear of Mike Leigh’s uncompromising, sometimes brutal film. J.M.W. Turner is best known these days as the man who painted all those landscapes hanging in London’s National Gallery where boats on and buildings along the Thames nearly disappear into a rainbow-hued swirl of sun-dazzled shimmer. These are pre-Impressionistic, even quiet works. But in Mr. Turner, the man who heaved and hurled those paintings into life appears as a great snuffling boar of a man with coarse manners; the farthest thing from a nineteenth-century aesthete one could find…
Here’s the trailer: