Tag Archives: roger ebert

Ebert’s Greats: The Band Wagon

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Progress: 185/409Title: The Band Wagon
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Year: 1953
Country: USA

I have been burnt by Vincente Minnelli films three times before. The first time (Meet Me in St. Louis) left me thoroughly bored and frustrated with the exception of Judy Garland’s rendition of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. That bit alone saved me from turning off the rest of the movie. Then there was An American In Paris which caused me to fall asleep because, as it turns out, I don’t get Gene Kelly. Finally, I tried out Gigi and I began to despair over the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Band Wagon is the only Vincente Minnelli film that Ebert included on his list of Great Movies which speaks to how much better it is than that other three that I saw previously. It also stars Fred Astaire, who won me over a year ago when I saw him in Swing Time with Ginger Rogers.

The thing is that, unlike the other Minnelli films I have seen, I could really get my teeth into the story of a faded star (Astaire) taking on a new role in a musical destined for failure due to the pretensions of the director (played by a fantastically over-the-top Jack Buchanan who was, unbelievably, in his sixties). Then again, how a fun musical could be made about Faust is beyond me (but also the point of the film).

In terms of musical numbers the key, as with all things Astaire, is the dancing. I mean, there was never really someone quite like him and his natural timing and it shows most of all in two numbers. Firstly, there is ‘Shine On Your Shoes’ where he is dancing around an arcade with all the machines with an incredible joie de vivre considering it’s a about being happy with shiny shoes. Then there is ‘That’s Entertainment’ which, again, is a lot of fun with great lyrics.

In all this film there is someone whose appearances cause you to gravitate your attention towards them and that’s Nanette Fabray, who plays a supporting role as a playwright of the doomed play. She has an easy chemistry with pretty much everyone she appears with and also has important roles in some of the better musical numbers (‘Louisiana Hayride’ and ‘I Love Louisa’) as well as the most disturbing (‘Triplets’).

The film does run out of a bit of steam towards the end when they reach the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ but, on the whole, the film is a joyful romp that has restored some of my recently broken faith in film musicals.


Ebert’s Greats: Werckmeister Harmóniák

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Progress: 184/409werckmeister_005Title: Werckmeister Harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies)
Director: Béla Tarr
Year: 2000
Country: Hungary

This was not the first time that I have watched a film by Béla Tarr. Last year I tried out is 2011 film The Turin Horse which was, without mincing words, a bit of a chore to watch. I mean… how often can you watch an impoverished old man peel a boiled potato with his hands.

It is because of this previous exposure that I figured two things. Firstly, I wanted this to be watched sooner rather than later so I would have films less glacially paced to watch. Secondly, this was a rare night on my own and I knew this was a film that my partner would have absolutely no interest in watching because of the aforementioned pacing.

To start looking at Werckmeister Harmonies I do need to look back at The Turin Horse and remark how much more watch-able this film was. Yes, the pacing in Werckmeister Harmonies is slow. Yes, it also features the small number of long takes. However, what ties this film together is a story thread far more engaging than The Turin Horse and one that  is able to tie things together far more effectively.

The story takes place in a Hungarian town in the wake of the Second World War. The people are impoverished and aggravated about the status quo where a small number of the higher ups are living comparatively well. The central character in all this is János (played by a man who resembles a regular sized Peter Dinklage) with nearly every shot in the film featuring his role in the town’s upset.

The spark that ignites the townsfolk into rioting is the arrival of a travelling circus. Carried with them is the stuffed remains of a large whale and the Prince, a disfigured man that we never see. Through the speeches of ‘The Prince’ the riot spreads through the town with looting, arson and (as revealed through a found diary) the bloody rape of two innocent girls.

One thing that the slow pacing of the film serves well is the ultimate climax of the rioting as they storm a hospital. The reason behind this is pure visceral anger. They had already burned and looted their way through the town and the hospital appeared to just be in their way. Not content with the smashing of medical instruments the rioters also beat and murder the patients that they come across. People so weak that you don’t even hear them cry or see them fight back with any meaningful resistance. The symbolic end to their riot just works to show how pathetic and powerless the rioters are… causing the eventual end to the riots.

Werckmeister Harmonies is far from an easy watch due to both the subject matter and the languid pacing of a film which would be quickly paced under the hands of an editor. Then again, a lot would have been lost if things were edited together with the ultimate climactic siege of the hospital being less affecting.

Ebert’s Greats: In Cold Blood

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Progress: 183/409tumblr_m96acfbqON1qfsm5wTitle: In Cold Blood
Director: Richard Brooks
Year: 1967
Country: USA

If I had known sooner that there was a film adaptation of Truman Capote’s book In True Blood I know I would have seen it already. This was a book that I read in university as an experiment to see what a true crime book could be like by reading, what is arguably, the best example of one. The book was utterly gripping, and served as a great companion to the film Capote that I had watched four years prior.

When the film started I had immediate misgivings as the music was undeniably sixties, the work of the legendary Quincy Jones, which made me coil up in the fear that be more Sweet Charity and less In The Heat of the Night. I needn’t have worried though as very quickly the film won me over.

This was, in part, due to the eerie way that lead actor Robert Blake resembled real-life killer Perry Smith. If you look at a picture of him side-to-side with the official mugshot it looks like they could have been brothers. This was undeniably a factor in his casting and made extra creepy by the fact that he was involved in a trial for the murder of his wife some 40 years later.

The story of In Cold Blood is fairly obvious in many ways. The main thread is how these two murderers, having murdered the Clutter family, flee from the law before being caught and sentenced to death with the hanging being the climax of the film. By the time they have been apprehended it is easy to think that the film is close to over but actually the last 45 minutes are possibly the best there.

Firstly, I like to draw attention to the image used. This is from a scene where Perry explains his past before he is to be hung. He tells the story of how his father tried to kill him and he expresses his regrets over what has happened. As the character he looks remorseful but it remarkably stone-faced, but the way the rainfall is projected onto his face it appears like he is streaming with tears. It is a powerful shot that really resonated with me.

Then there is the actual scene of the killing. It is something that is reserved to the end since you are not meant to be sure which of the pair did the killing (although is obvious when you watch it) and you know it’s going to happen, but the tension is palpable to the point of the daughter crying as she hears her mother being shot in the other room. It is chilling.

There are many other things hinted during the movie, such as the homosexual undertones between the pair (limited to uses of “baby” and “honey” between the two and the jealousy Perry feels when his partner in crime comes in with a prostitute). Also, there is the cameo of Andy a few cells down in death row. Just reading about his crimes after the film was moderately disturbing.

As a firm opponent of the death penalty it is amazing how a film depicting such a real life atrocity can begin to rock your core belief system. The lawyer in the courtroom says something along the lines of “those who killed without mercy are now asking [the jury] for mercy”. It did give me pause for thought, I will be honest.



Ebert’s Greats: Banshun & The Scarlet Empress

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Progress: 182/409

latespringTitle: Banshun (Late Spring)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Year: 1949
Country: Japan

Earlier this year I finally sat down to watch Tokyo Story. Considering that the two leads in Late Spring also appear in that movie (one of them even has the same name) it is hard not to draw parallels. Then again, why wouldn’t you? Ozu’s style of producing deeply moving slice-of-life style movies about the Japanese working-to-middle class makes this a rather simple task, at least between the films in the so-called ‘Noriko Trilogy’.

As the titular character of this related film trilogy Noriko, played by Setsuko Hara, truly anchors Late Spring. She plays a 27 year old woman who looks after her father (presumably since her mother passed away) who is happy in her life as it is. As a young unmarried woman this makes her stand out since she is not conforming to the norms in having a husband and moving out. The thing is, she does not want to but everyone is insistent on her getting married, even if it is an arranged one to a man she has only met once.

Like with Tokyo Story this film is, at its heart, a fascinating character study. So many film scholars have written about the two central figures of Noriko and her father in an attempt to completely work out what they represent in terms of points of view. The thing is that they are both complex people. Noriko stands at many a crossroad of daughter and wife, traditional values and modern life, selflessness and selfishness. She has been described as enigma by some and others as transparent… which itself is a big contradiction. Then there is her father wants his daughter to be happy first and foremost and is willing to use subterfuge. The way he acts does not always scream father, but more of friend… until the final scene that is.

In the end the fact that these characters are still being written about years later just shows how realistically they were written and it is a true testament to the source material and the two screenwriters.

Title: The Scarlet Empress
Director: Josef Von Sternberg
Year: 1934
Country: USA

When you watch this it helps to know this following fact: this was one of the last mainstream films released by Hollywood before the Hays Code came into effect. A good thing since you can’t exactly tell the (slightly embellished) story of the rise of Catherine the Great without being a bit risque… although Von Sternberg went for a very sexual version of Catherine here.

I am not going to go into the story since a lot of it is, as I said before, claptrap but there is one thing I am going to highlight and that is the set design. It is so amazingly over the top with the random gargoyles adorning the palace, doors so heavy that a dozen women struggle to open them and (my personal favourite) a skeleton at the wedding banquet. I mean it is absolutely nuts and just serves to make this somehow realistic and yet surreal.

Ebert’s Greats: Body Heat & Barry Lyndon

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Progress: 180/409

Title: Body Heat
Director: Lawrence Kasden
Year: 1981
Country: USA

Body Heat is a curious film since it borrows so much from another film I really like, Double Indemnity, that it is really hard to watch this without drawing comparisons in my head between the two.  Instead of getting bogged down in all that, since there enough original spins to make it a good film in its own right, I have one comparison: Kathleen Turner is far more believable as the head-turning woman than Barbara Stanwyck ever was.

In fact, I’m going to dwell a bit on Kathleen Turner (known to most people as either the voice of Jessica Rabbit or as Chandler’s father in Friends) since this was her début in a feature film and by God does she own the film. She is a highly sexual and powerful tour de force in a pretty much male-only film. The character of Matty is a strange one since Turner needs to use a strange mix of raw sexuality and subtle expressions to allude to her motives. I mean I can only think of one actress at the moment who could take on this role; Scarlett Johansson.

As for the rest of the film it takes its time to establish the relationship between the two main characters, so when you reach the eventual point of them plotting to kill Matty’s husband… it actually feels organic (this is in stark contrast to Double Indemnity where it feels a little bit forced). The issue that this film has is that for all the atmosphere it creates (which is a lot) it get a little bit sleepy in terms of the pacing. Now I am not sure if this is the conscious choice to mirror the soporific effect had during a heat wave or just that it was a little bit slow… but it has a bit of an issue in the second act. A pity since the opening and closing acts are really good.

Title: Barry Lyndon
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Year: 1975
Country: UK/USA

You can never accuse Kubrick of only creating one sort of film. With a back catalogue including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr Strangelove, Lolita, The Shining and Paths of Glory I guess a period drama based on a fictional Irishman who is an absolute wanker.

Where the book would tell the story from the point of view of the main character (as a unreliable, but witty narrator) Kubrick tells the story straight and uses a more conventional narrator to set the scene. The result of this? There is no question as to what sort of man Barry Lyndon is, he is just a horrible human being who gets a just ending in the book but not in the film. It begs the question why Kubrick doesn’t follow that part of the book since Lyndon gets the comeuppance due to him…

I’m not going to dwell on the story or the actions of Barry Lyndon himself since (and this blog is a place of honesty) I actually got very bored in the final hour of this three film. I am all for films taking their time but when you are filling three hours with a thoroughly unlikeable rogue it does pay to quicken the pace at times. To think that when he gets robbed 30 minutes into the film I felt bad for him… they should have just shot him and had done with this odious man.

What you can NOT fault this film is the cinematography and use of music (mostly the cinematography though). This film is beautiful to look at, akin to staring at a painting from the 1700s even. What is even more remarkable is the techniques that were implemented to make sure that only natural light would be used; something that makes all the gambling scenes by candlelight all the richer and more natural. Similar to this is the extensive exterior shots of the Irish countryside (masquerading sometimes as Germany or England) which are beautiful and actually made me wonder if I had already seen these being used during Game of Thrones.

I know that this is a film that is widely loved by many cinephiles but… I’ll just add this to the list of films including Singin In The Rain and Lawrence of Arabia where it pains me to say “I just don’t get it”.

Ebert’s Greats: The General & The Thin Man

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Title: The General
Director: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
Year: 1926
Country: USA

Every time I stick on a silent film I have a feeling that this will be one of those silent films that I might be able to watch closely and enjoy without feeling sleepy (yes, most silent films make me feel like nodding off… I am such a philistine I know). So far I can count on two hands the silent films where I have been lucid throughout: Metropolis, Nosferatu, Napoleon, Sunrise, The Crowd, Sherlock Jr. and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The General started out well enough and after watching it you can not help but be amazed at Keaton for all the stunts that he did which could have killed or severely maimed him. However after watching a lot of Chaplin, Keaton and Arbuckle already I have just come to the conclusion that these silent comedies just are not up my alley. I mean at times I laughed out loud or amazed at his acts of fearlessness but overall… the whole experience just leaves me cold. Sorry.

thethinmanTitle: The Thin Man
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Year: 1934
Country: USA

Meet Frank and Sadie Doyle. Toast of the upper crust, headliners on the society pages and, oh yes, they see ghosts. After watching The Thin Man I finally can see where the inspiration for the characters from my favourite podcast (the always hilarious Beyond Belief from The Thrilling Adventure Hour) came from. Myrna Loy and William Powell star as Nick and Nora Charles, a rich couple who appear to get involved in mysteries for the sheer fun of it… accompanied by a lot of liquor and back and forth.

The premise of the film is simple. A man goes missing, murder is afoot and a rich couple with amazing chemistry help the police to solve it. If I appear to be underselling it then you have not seen the chemistry of Loy and Powell (who ended up appearing in a total of 14 films together, which is 4 more than the famous pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) where the Van Dyke’s allowance for on set improvisation truly pays off.

The scene in this film that epitimizes this sense of fun and, ultimately, shows off the chemistry between the two, is a 10-15 second exchange between Nick and Nora Charles the morning after she downed five Martinis in order to play catch-up. Someone comes into their apartment and talks to Nick about the missing person/murder case and they turn away to use the telephone. What unrolls is a just a short skit with the couple poking and just playing about. I don’t know if it was improv between the two of them or just great scripting but it is the perfect snapshot of why they work as a couple. Similarly, later during their Christmas party Nick finds himself  being embraced by an old acquaintance but there is no jealousy on Nora’s part… just a face hinting at how much fun she will have ribbing him about this off-screen.

To be honest a lot of the film is a bit messy whenever the camera is not aimed on Powell or Loy. The cuts are a bit too quick and a lot of the cast members feel a bit interchangeable when it comes to who the suspects of the piece are… but it doesn’t matter since sooner or later that merry couple are back on the screen joking about how a case is afoot… a case of scotch that is. Hurrah!

Ebert’s Greats: Leaving Las Vegas & 49 Up

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Progress: 176/409 Title: Leaving Las Vegas
Director: Mike Figgis
Year: 1995
Country: USA

Leaving Las Vegas is one of those movies that many people seem to hold up on internet forums when they are trying to defend Nicolas Cage as an actor. Until now the only films where I saw him in a proper role were Adaptation. and Moonstruck (I have seen Raising Arizona but I really don’t rate it too highly). Having watched Leaving Las Vegas I can add this to the list since he is able to bring a lot of sympathy to his character of Ben; a self-destructive alcoholic seeking to drink himself to death in Sin City.

Alongside Cage’s character of Ben is the love-interest of the film; Sera, a prostitute whose career is not exactly going well (then again there are not many films which feature a happy and successful prostitute). Sera is another character which, like Ben, is pretty much a stock-fictional character, but her sensitive portrayal by Elisabeth Shue makes her a truly engaging character.

In terms of plot there is not much to this film and it stands as an interesting character study of a doomed romance between characters so damaged and unable to change that heartbreak is inevitable. Yet, somehow when things reach their inevitable conclusion there is a strange beauty to the thing. I am left wondering, however, about her fate after the film’s conclusion.

49up3Title: 49 Up
Director: Michael Apted
Year: 2005
Country: UK

I had made it a bit of a mission about two years ago to start watching the Up series of movies since I would like to see the next edition (63 Up!) when it comes out with all the previous editions locked in my memory banks (not that you’d need it seeing how about 15% of the movie is composed of recaps and looking over the older footage).

For the uninitiated, the Up series are films that come out every seven years where they check  in on the life of the same group of people, the first edition taking place all the way back in 1964.

What’s interesting about 49 Up versus 42 Up is how most of the subjects have now become self-aware of how they are being perceived and how the editing might be altering the truth. It’s just fascinating how these films have altered from a political leaning, to a personal leaning to a far more meta aspect. The great joy of these films is just watching how they have been changing over the years.

Ebert’s Greats: My Darling Clementine

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Progress: 174/409

Title: My Darling Clementine
Director: John Ford
Year: 1946
Country: USA

If I had thought about it a bit more I would have probably ventured into other filmatic territory before going for another film by John Ford (since I looked at The Searchers not too long ago) but I came across this and remembered a vivid image of Linda Darnell looking rather melancholy whilst wearing a sombrero. I had to find out what the context of this image was.

If you know even the smallest possible amount about the American West you will have heard of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It is one of those events in American history like the Alamo which has had many romanticisms and false histories written about it. My Darling Clementine takes inspiration from the, now widely considered fictional, biography of Marshal Wyatt Earp and takes its own route towards the explanation towards the gunslinging conclusion.

The thing is, that for an event so infamous, the film does not dwell for too long on the gunfight. In fact you could probably cut it out and you would still have a really good western. This is mainly due to the leading three of Henry Ford, Victor Mature and Linda Darnell. It is hard to think of a film where Henry Ford has been anything other than great, his turn in The Ox-Bow Incident helped to shape it into one of my favourite films, and his pick for the lead of Wyatt Earp serves the perfect contrast to other members of the town of Tombstone, Arizona.

The forces of nature that are singer Chihuahua (Darnell) and Doc Holliday (Mature) exemplify those who we would typically find in a film of the Old West. They are strong-willed and ultimately dangerous people who keep their vulnerabilities close to their chest. Chihuaua has an intense fear of abandonment and Holliday is dying of tuberculosis; not that either of them would admit it out loud.

Then there is Earp and the titular Clementine (Cathy Downs). Neither of them fit in that well since they are clearly well-mannered outsiders who have found their way into the lawless West. There is no denying the strength of either character but they are able to get things done with their guns still in their holsters. As such this film is able to comment on the time where the West began to lose its title of wild as other more civilized people moved in from the East to live.

This collision which would eventually tame the West (exemplified by a humorous scene between Earp and the town barber who sprays him with the scent of desert flowers) is also shown through Ford’s direction. In the beginning many of the long shots focus on the untamed surroundings of Arizona but these contrast greatly with the images later on of a church construction which is the ultimate act of bringing law and order to the area.

Despite the focus on Clementine in the title there is the feeling that the events would have unfolded the way they did even without her presence. The gunfight was inevitable after the death of Earp’s brother. Chihuahua’s jealousy would have caught up with her in the end. Holliday’s tuberculosis in itself was a death sentence. Was the darling Clementine a catalyst for good, a catalyst for action or just someone who happened to be there? All I can say, is that she formed part of a great Western.

Ebert’s Greats – The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

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Progress: 173/409blimpTitle: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Year: 1943
Country: UK

Sometimes you get put off of watching a film because it has a ridiculous title. I mean how can you take a film seriously that is titled The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? Well I certainly didn’t, which is one of the reasons (other than the general lack of time) that I had yet to get around to watching this film. The fact that the colonel in question is a rather dated reference to a satirical cartoon from the 1930s is something I only discovered having watched it.

In essence there are two main story threads that can be taken from the film that follows 40 years of a man’s military career. The first is of an army man who was never able to get over the love his life; the other of how warfare changed so much that those in the army all their life are unable to cope with the concept of sportsmanship no longer applying. Seeing how it was released in 1943 as London was under the siege of blitzkrieg there are, of course, anti-Nazi overtones… but this film is by no means a propaganda piece.

The most interesting thing about this film is the character of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German military officer and best friend to the ‘Colonel Blimp’ character Clive Candy. Despite this being a very British affair of a movie whose humour is very reliant on a ‘comedy of manners’ scenario the film offers up a very sympathetic view of a German during the height of World War Two. Considering this fact it is possible to understand why Churchill sought to have this film banned from cinemas. He failed, but that didn’t prevent this film from having to spend years in the wilderness before being properly evaluated.

Towards the end of the movie Theo gives a short speech which would have probably been the great chagrin of Churchill. In it he delivers the main message of the movie; that Britain did not win World War One, Germany lost it. Due to this fact Britain had yet to learn how warfare had changed which was why Germany were able to be so dominant at that time. They were fighting for existence after years in of being a broken nation. The fact that Theo is vehemently anti-Nazi (to the point that his two “good Nazi” sons don’t speak to him) is unlikely to have taken the sting out of his speech… or his jibe that it took Britain 5 years to act against Hitler when the immigration officer chastises him for taking 8 months.

In many ways Theo (played by Austrian-born actor Anton Walbrook) is an ideal mouthpiece for the sentiment that sometimes to fight for existence you have to jettison valour. He is arguably the character who goes through the worst lot in the movie and Walbrook gives an excellent performance in this role. Then again so does Roger Livesey in his Clive Candy as his character moves from a dapper and handsome young upstart to something akin to a walrus. Then there is also Deborah Kerr (here only in her mid-20s but already commanding top-billing) who plays three characters during the 40-year span the movie takes place in, watching her here it is so easy to see how much of a star she was destined to be.

At a run-time of 163 minutes this film seemed to fly by, a definite recommendation for any fans of 1940s cinema.

Ebert’s Greats – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

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discrete charm of theTitle: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Year: 1972
Country: France

I am not a stranger to the world of surrealist cinema. I have already seen, and enjoyed, the likes of Le Chien Andalou, Glory to the Filmmaker! and Mulholland Drive. With this being the third film I have seen by Spanish-born director Luis Buñuel (the others being Le Chien Andalou and Land Without Bread) I also had an idea of what to expect meaning I would not be caught too much off-guard. Needless to say, this film is weird.

If I had to describe the plot in one sentence it would be: a bunch of middle class people fail to have their dinner on a number of occasions due to increasingly outlandish reasons. The thing with this description is that is doesn’t exactly take into account the use of dream sequences, ghosts and a framing shot following the six friends on a walk through the countryside to… God only knows where.

The idea of a film set around the various failed attempts to have a dinner doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for a decent comedy. This is especially so since it is very likely that everything in the film is just the various daydreams of one of the characters during their long country walk. I mean how else would you explain a tea-house without any available beverages or the retelling of dreams by an obviously disturbed army lieutenant? Then there is the bishop being employed as a gardener who takes vengeance on the man who killed his parents, a cocaine smuggling ring out of the office of the embassy of the fictional South American country of Miranda.

In the end it is very hard to right about this film due to the multiple interpretations it offers and the fact that it is, in many ways, slightly batshit. It’s a reminder that as a viewer our perspective is completely at the whim of the director and that with witty writing and all-round great performances from the central and peripheral cast. It’s something that is only really best talked about with someone else who has seen the film.So if you have please leave a comment since… I need someone to talk to about this film.