Friday, December 30, 2016

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Director: Simon Langton                              Writers: Andrew Davies & Jane Austin
Film Score: Carl Davis                              Cinematography: John Kenway
Starring: Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman

Back in the late eighties, the A&E network actually lived up to its name, delivering artistic films and entertaining television shows that couldn’t be seen anywhere else, even on PBS. In fact, A&E had a relationship with the BBC at the time and it showed a lot of their content that PBS either didn’t have the time or the money to be able to air. So it makes sense that they would eventually combine to produce new content for both of their networks. That’s how Pride and Prejudice was born. For many people this is the definitive screen version of Jane Austen’s classic novel for the simple reason that, in being able to film six fifty-minute episodes, it is so complete. Despite impressive, and successful, attempts to adapt the story for feature films, those adaptations necessarily leave much of the original novel out which results not only in a slightly different story but a much quicker pace. The one aspect of this mini-series that is so unique is that the slowed down pacing gives a real sense of the time period, with character sitting around and the camera content to linger on them as they walk or talk, or play cards or read a book, and allows the relationships to develop more naturally. The story is able to unfold in essentially the way that Austen intended it and for fans of the novel--as distinct from simply fans of the story--nothing else is going to come close.

The story begins in the home of the Bennett family. Patriarch Benjamin Whitrow and his wife, Alison Steadman, are in the unfortunate circumstance of having five daughters and no sons, which means Whitrow’s estate will pass on to a cousin on his death and his wife and daughters will inherit nothing. Wealthy gentleman Crispin Bonham-Carter has recently rented a nearby estate and his friend Colin Firth is visiting. It’s during a local ball that Bonham-Carter falls in love with the eldest of the Bennet girls, Susannah Harker, and where Firth takes an instant dislike to her younger sister, Jennifer Ehle, who feels the same way about Firth. The rest of the story is a wonderful series of misunderstandings that prefigure the kind of romantic comedy tropes popular today. Ehle hears reports from unreliable sources, mainly Adrian Lukis, confirming her bad opinion of Firth. And when the two are together she can’t help but mock his serious, disapproving, and aristocratic manner. His pride at being a noble, combined with her prejudice in believing she knows everything about him, serves to keep them apart for most of the story. Meanwhile, Steadman is doing everything in her power to get her daughters married off, with both comic and tragic results. But, as always happens at in Austen’s novels, everything comes out as it should in the end.

The driving force behind the project was Sue Birtwistle, who wanted to do a more modernized spin on the story while staying true to Austen’s words and story. To do this she hired Andrew Davies, who has made a career of adapting classic works for the screen. This was his first Austen adaptation and it shows the kind of touch that he would add to all the author’s works that he would turn into screenplays, trying to convey the real sexual tension beneath the mannered behaviors of the early nineteenth-century world of England. And to top it all off, the great Carl Davis--who had unsuccessfully been working on a ballet of the novel for years--made himself available to score the project and did a tremendous job of enlivening the story for modern audiences emulating the most popular music of the day, namely Mozart. Jennifer Ehle is an interesting choice to play Elizabeth Bennett, as she had only done television work for a couple of years prior to this, but that anonymous quality works well. Colin Firth already had a successful film career, but this was the first of the kind of historical dramas that he would become known for. The rest of the cast, while not quite up to Hollywood standards, does a very convincing job and are quite enjoyable overall, especially the dry witted Benjamin Whitrow. For all of these reasons, this BBC and A&E co-production of Pride and Prejudice remains one of the best versions of the classic Jane Austen novel ever produced.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Persuasion (1995)

Director: Roger Michell                                  Writer: Nick Dear
Film Score: Jeremy Sams                              Cinematography: John Daly
Starring: Amanda Root, Ciarán Hinds, John Woodvine and Susan Fleetwood

There’s almost nothing to choose from in British productions of Jane Austen novels. In this case the production is by BBC television, but it is arguably the best adaptation of Persuasion whether on television or theatrical release. It was actress Amanda Root debut performance, and it’s a good one. The film was shot chronologically, allowing Root the luxury of her emotional arc as a character following the natural progression of the plot. If there’s a downside to the television production it’s the claustrophobia of the sets due to the lack of money. The initial scenes in the country come out fine and there’s a sense of the openness of the early nineteenth-century English countryside. But once in towns like Bath and Lyme, the film is suddenly confined to very tight and specific locations that actually give a sense of the limitations allowed for television versus a theatrical release. This is ironic, considering that the BBC actually partnered with Public Television station WGBH in Boston in order to finance the filming in Bath and Lyme. That said, however, the story itself and the production design are excellent, which genuinely attempted to replicate the period, from the lived-in look of the clothing to the lower standards of hygiene. Similarly impressive is the solid direction by Roger Michell, who would go on to film Notting Hill a few years later. Nick Dear adapted Austen’s novel for the screenplay, electing to leave out the interior thoughts of Root’s character and have her convey those emotions visually.

Amanda Root plays the Austen heroine Anne Elliot, the oldest daughter of British noble Corin Redgrave who has lost his wife and has spent all of his fortune. His dire financial circumstances have forced him to vacation in Bath so that he can rent his estate to navy admiral John Woodvine who he finds contemptibly beneath him in station. And yet Redgrave is quite demonstrably an ass, who ignores the creditors at his door and indulges his equally snooty oldest daughter Phoebe Nicholls as much as he neglects his younger daughter, Root. After Redgrave and Nicholls head for Bath, leaving Root behind, neighbor Susan Fleetwood reassures Root that she did the right thing in being persuaded to turn down the proposal of a young man who had no fortune several years before, Ciarán Hinds, the brother-in-law of Woodvine. She flees the house to stay with her hypochondriac younger sister, Sophie Thompson, though essentially ignored by everyone else, dismissed as being only fit to become an old maid. So when Hinds comes to visit his sister, Fiona Shaw, and her husband Woodvine, he is immediately accosted by all the eligible young girls in the village while simultaneously ignoring Root in the process. It’s not until a trip to Lyme, to see one of Hinds’ friends, that Hinds begins to really notice her again. At the same time Redgrave’s cousin, Samuel West, accidentally sees Root and becomes quite smitten with her. Unfortunately for West, Root has set her cap on Hinds.

One of the challenges to staging a Jane Austen novel is to cast a woman in the lead who is beautiful but can be made to look frumpy, and Amanda Root certainly fits the bill perfectly. By the same token, the lead male must be handsome but stoic, and Ciarán Hinds is terrific in the role. In fact, all of the actors are remarkably good, from the wicked step-sister-like Phoebe Nicholls and her cluelessly desperate father Corin Redgrave, to the early mother substitute Susan Fleetwood--who tragically died shortly after the production--and what would become Root’s role model in Woodvine’s wife, the lovely Fiona Shaw. The story is an interesting one, though seemingly not as intricate as her more popular works. There is less intrigue and emotional upheaval as the plot simply centers on Root’s character as she tries to figure out how to convey to her former suitor that she made a mistake and wishes him to reconsider--without being able to say a word of it to him directly. Nevertheless, the ending is as satisfying as all of Austen’s novels, even if the getting there is not quite as fun. Screenwriter Nick Dear saw in that distinction that Persuasion was more of an adult novel, necessitating a less animated telling of the story, which did result in significant changes to the underlying themes of Austen’s work. Though shown on television in England, Persuasion was released theatrically in the U.S. and received generally positive reviews. While not the best Austen adaptation overall, it is certainly at the top for this particular work, and a must see for Amanda Root’s performance.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000)

Director: Jeff Bleckner                                    Writer: Kirk Ellis
Film Score: Gary Griffin                                  Cinematography: Brian J. Reynolds
Starring: Frederick Weller, Matt Letscher, Nick Stabile and Kevin Dunn

This ABC miniseries about the genesis of The Beach Boys is surprisingly one-dimensional, and yet it still manages to hold interest, which is probably more a function of the actors than anything intrinsic in the writing or direction. In fact, Brian Wilson, who was a consultant on the film and helped in producing the soundtrack, was unhappy with the final product and felt that far too many liberties were taken with his story. Nevertheless, The Beach Boys: An American Family, is worth a peek, just to see what all the fuss is about. Credit for the distortions, which have apparently been going on for decades, have been attributed to Mike Love who has been in court numerous times over the years to avenge his version of the truth over that of Brian’s. One of these happens in the beginning of the film when Mick Stabile as Dennis Wilson steals his dad’s T-Bird and heads to the beach with his surfboard. On the way he stops at a gas station where cousin Mike Love, played by Matt Letscher, closes shop and grabs his board to surf with his pal. From all non-fiction of accounts of the group, however, Dennis was the only one of the boys that ever surfed, and apparently Dennis and Mike never liked each other very much at all. Throughout, Love is portrayed as providing the impetus for getting and keeping the group together, and especially for harnessing Brian Wilson’s talent as well as providing the lyrics for every song that is shown being written in the film.

At the same time Brian is portrayed as a tortured genius who needed guidance, first by his father and then by Love, and the second half of the film that deals with his mental breakdown seems incredibly phony. Dennis is made to look like a disturbed bad boy, immature and unable to control his rebellious streak, and while some of that may be true the aspect of his personality that shows him frightened all the time is certainly false, and again begs the question of whose perspective the story is being told from. Ironically, the character who comes out looking better than he really was--in addition to Love--is the boy’s father, Murray Wilson, played by Kevin Dunn. In the film he is shown as a middle-aged dreamer who wanted to live through the success of his sons, which certainly was the case, but according to the most thorough biography to date, Heroes and Villains by Steven Gaines, he was much more heavy-handed, intrusive, and controlling than in the film. But worse than his domineering personality, the Wilson’s father virtually stole the rights to the group’s music and sold it for a fraction of what it was eventually worth. There’s certainly an element of irony in the subtitle of the film: an American Family. But what there’s no denying is the intrinsic artistry of their songs today, especially the music written by Brian Wilson. And in that regard, there’s little to argue with in looking at the rather juvenile lyrics of Mike Love compared with the transcendent musical vision of Brian Wilson. And no one has ever thought Love had a good singing voice. The film certainly benefits from Wilson’s participation, despite the negative views he had about the film or its artistic failures.

The film itself centers on Frederick Weller as Brian Wilson, who is unfortunately given very little to work with in Kirk Ellis’s screenplay. He comes off as innocent and indecisive, hating nearly every aspect of making music for the group, which just rings false even if you know nothing about the group. But Weller does about as well as anyone could do, especially given the circumstances. Matt Letscher, on the other hand, is riveting as Mike Love. He has the speech patterns down as well as the physical gestures, and his onstage movements are so good it’s eerie. Nick Stabile also does a very nice job as Dennis Wilson, especially in the scenes where he plays the drums. His movements are, again, so precise that it does conjure up the image of the first of the brother’s to die. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, is decidedly average. Ryan Northcott as Carl Wilson is a good actor but the screenplay barely touches on the brother with the angelic voice. The same goes for Ned Vaughn as Al Jardine, while Dublin James as neighbor Dave Marks simply comes off as an idiot. It’s interesting to see Alley Mills as the Wilson’s mother, especially after her iconic role as the mother in the Sixties comedy-drama The Wonder Years. Kevin Dunn as Murray Wilson, however, doesn’t seem to be a very good choice. He does as well as he can, but lacks the underlying menace that can be seen even in pictures of the man from the era. The Beach Boys: An American Family suffers from the same limitations as most TV movies: limited budget and lesser talent. It manages to hold interest, barely, but even the most cursory reading of the history of the band will reveal its weakness as genuine pop music history.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Salem Witch Trials (2002)

Director: Joseph Sargent                                 Writer: Maria Nation
Film Score: Jonathan Goldsmith                      Cinematography: Pierre Gill
Starring: Kirstie Alley, Jay O. Sanders, Rebecca De Mornay and Gloria Reuben

This is an interesting look at one of the signature moments in U.S. History. Produced just a few years after Arthur Miller was able to film The Crucible, his dramatic take on the event, CBS launched their own version as a two-part mini-series based on the historical record. Salem Witch Trials uses some B-list actors along with well-known names like Kirstie Alley, Rebecca De Mornay, and Gloria Reuben, and the venerable Peter Ustinov and Shirley MacLaine in supporting roles to give their story of colonial Massachusetts drawing power with television audiences. The film was written by Maria Nation, who had a strong background in writing for television, and the novelization of the screenplay was done by Kathryn Wesley. One of the smart decisions she makes is to stay away from the story of John Proctor and Abigail Williams, which Miller focused on in his play. Instead she takes as her viewpoint characters of the minister of Salem Village, Samuel Parris, and the much-aggrieved Thomas Putnam, to look at their part in creating and perpetuating the fear of witchcraft to further their own personal goals, through their implicit control over the girls--both of them had daughters--who cried out members of the community as followers of Satan.

Part One of the mini-series begins in Salem Village in 1692 in the middle of the delusion, with children crying out in church and naming members of the church as witches. They are led by Katie Boland as the daughter of the Putnams, a wealthy family who had very little land. The narrative then flashes back ten months to a night time fire that burns down the barn of one of the villagers, and the stillborn death of Mrs. Putnam’s child. Kirstie Alley plays Mrs. Putnam and Jay O. Sanders her husband. While Alley becomes more and more convinced that the Devil is responsible for this, the third of her children lost, Sanders is intent on using this belief to rid the village of some of his enemies and get their land in the process. Meanwhile Boland falls increasingly under the sway of the religious fervor exhibited by the town’s minister, Henry Czerny. When Alley gets no satisfaction from Czerny as to the reason her babies are dying, she seeks the comfort of the village witch, Shannon Lawson. But Boland is watching. And when Boland sees the affection her father gives to their dog, she begins barking like one herself. In meantime Sanders’ step-brother Zachary Bennett, who owns most of the Putnam land, has decided to marry the daughter of Sanders’ enemy, Colin Fox, who has thrived as the owner of the port while Sanders has only seen his role in Salem diminish. It’s then that Sanders demands that Czerny use his power of the pulpit to pay him back for hiring him.

Part Two opens on the prison, with Tituba and three other women who have been arrested. Tituba, on pain of a personal death threat by Parris, confessed in open court--still the church sanctuary at that point. The problem is, the church has no legal authority to arrest the women. It’s not until a new royal governor is appointed that judge Peter Ustinov is mandated with overseeing the prosecution and hangings of the accused. In addition to the girls, who were either deluded by their religious training or in the thrall of a toxin, according to scientist Lindda Caporael in a PBS documentary The Witches Curse, Kirstie Alley as Anne Putnam, as well as Kristin Booth, both exhibit psychotic behavior, and men in the village have erotic hallucinations that convinced them they are being bewitched. It’s not until Shirley MacLaine as Rebecca Nurse, one of the stalwarts of the village, is condemned that those in jail realize they have no chance at all of being saved other than their own false confessions . . . a lie that Puritans have been trained not to give. One of the best moments of the film is when the Kristin Booth confronts Henry Czerny with the truth: that as minister of Salem and the head of the witch-hunts, he is the most evil man in Salem Village.

There is no way for the series to avoid comparisons with The Crucible, and in most respects it comes up short. The most obvious of the differences is in the production design. Where the earlier film had very believable sets and costume design, specifically in the unavoidable dirtiness they lived in, the TV movie comes off as too clean and modern, especially Gloria Reuben who looks as if she’s in a photo shoot most of the time. The acting also lags behind the feature, though the principals are certainly watchable. The girls in this one are actually the best part of the film, especially Katie Boland and Cara Pifko, though the latter gets precious little screen time. The technical aspects of the film, however, are one of the bright spots. The opening sequence uses special effects to turn the women accused of witchcraft into real witches. And the sound design is also quite good, focusing the audience on the heightened sense of hearing that Katie Boland has when going into her delusions. Finally, cinematographer Pierre Gill brings some interesting camerawork to the production. The major flaw of the film is the lack of a dramatic narrative from Maria Nation. She wanted to stick to the historical facts and where she could have made genuine villains out of Parris and Putnam, she refused, making Arthur Miller’s handling of the material all the more impressive. Salem Witch Trials is a bit overlong, but interesting primarily for those who are familiar with the story. For those still looking for an introduction, stick to The Crucible.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Racing Extinction (2015)

Director: Louie Psihoyos                                   Writer: Mark Monroe
Music Score: J. Ralph                                       Cinematography: John Behrens
Starring: Louie Psihoyos, Shawn Heinrichs, Paul Hilton and Ady Gil

Racing Extinction is a remarkable piece of work, not only for its ability to convey the immanent destruction of our planet in an objective, non-sensationalized way, but in the way that it calls upon humanity to do something about it before it’s too late while still being able to celebrate what remains. Director Louie Psihoyos is an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. He won his Academy Award six years ago for his film, The Cove, which documented the abuse and slaughter of dolphins in one particular Japanese cove. His new film brings together a host of important scientists and researchers, including Jane Goodall, and edits their contributions together in a way that shows a common thread running through all of them: that human life on Earth is actually dependent upon the rest of life on the planet. The main stories in the film are also woven together in a way that moves each of them forward chronologically but uses the ideas in each to reinforce each other as well. The photography is brilliant, especially the underwater sequences, and there are some cutting edge graphics that illuminate the statistics without dominating the narrative. Psihoyos should earn another Oscar nomination, and hopefully a victory, for his dire warning of the consequences of our poor stewardship of the Earth.

The film opens with a photographer taking shots of a bird, an orange Dusky Sparrow, dead in a jar, the last of its kind, extinct as a species from the planet in the summer of 1987. Director Louie Psihoyos then relates the story of reading in the newspaper and seeing in a small article somewhere in the middle, that mankind may be causing a new mass extinction event. That’s the way humans are dealing with their own culpability in destroying other species, he says, by burying the information so that they don’t have to think about it. The beginning of the story starts with Psihoyos and his colleagues doing undercover work to expose the sale of endangered whale meat at a sushi restaurant. Ultimately it was activist Ady Gil, who camped out in front of the restaurant showing images of whales and telling customers that they were contributing to their deaths that finally closed the place down. From there Psihoyos moves backward to his work as a photojournalist for National Geographic, having done a total of four stories on extinction, primarily dinosaurs. Natural extinction occurs at the rate of about one in a million species ever year, but predictions for the next hundred years are as high as fifty percent of all species on earth lost by the next century. Then Psihoyos presents the thesis of his film, that we are living in a new age of extinction and yet we have the power to do something about it.

In discussing the precarious state of the blue whale, the director visits with Chris Clark, head of the bio-acoustic lab at Cornell University. Clark’s lab is the largest repository of animal sounds in the world, and in addition to listening to whale sounds he plays a tape of an extinct bird, the Hawaiian Oʻo. The lab contains many such examples of the only living sounds of such species. From there, Dr. Kirk Johnson calls this new age the Anthropocene, an epoch in which the human imprint upon the planet is so large that is able to actually alter the planet itself. The participation of Ady Gil to shut down the restaurant serving whale meat leads to a discussion of the dedication of thousands of people who have dedicated their lives to saving species--and some who have lost their lives doing this work. Shawn Heinrichs, of Boulder, Colorado, is one of those. Heinrichs helped turn a Mexican island that had hunted whale sharks to elimination in the area into a tourist destination, making the people there far more money than they were making fishing, and saving the sharks. Photojournalist Paul Hilton, from Australia, assists Heinrichs on his mission, and helps him get into black market wholesalers--primarily located in Asia--who are illegally selling endangered creatures in an attempt to shut them down. Sharks, for example, have been fished down to ten percent of their original numbers primarily to satisfy the Chinese desire for shark fin soup.

Dr. Charlie Vernon explains that all of the extinction events on Earth prior to this one, have involved an increase in carbon dioxide but none of them as extreme as what is going on today. Another gas that doesn’t get as much attention is methane, a major waste product of livestock used for food production, as well as its release from melting polar ice, and yet it is twenty-two times more harmful than CO2. The emphasis on the destruction of sea life is actually part of a larger issue of the destruction of the ocean in general, not only in terms of species extinction but the heat of the water due to climate change, and the raising of acidity in the water that is wiping out shellfish and coral reefs. But the most damaging effect of ocean destruction is the way in which it is killing plankton. Dr. Boris Worm has done extensive studies on the effects of absorption of carbon dioxide into the oceans. Plankton account for half of all the oxygen produced on the planet, and yet plankton numbers have been reduced by forty percent in just the last fifty years. The end of oxygen production on Earth would certainly wipe out a majority of land-dwelling species, including most human life. Racing Extinction is a brilliant film. It is not just well filmed, but the message that it sends to us is that life matters, all life, not just human life. And without those other lives on Earth, it may just mean the end of our own.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Her Life as a Man (1984)

Director: Robert Ellis Miller                                Writer: Joanna Crawford & Diane English
Music Score: John Cacavas                              Cinematography: Kees Van Oostrum
Starring: Robyn Douglass, Marc Singer, Robert Culp and Laraine Newman

With the huge success of Dustin Hoffman’s gender-switching film Tootsie, producers began casting about for a suitable project that could copy the same formula and ride on the financial coattails of that film. They found it in writer Carol Lynn Mithers’ story of becoming a man after dark in Greenwich Village in order to experience what it would be like. Screenwriters Joanna Crawford and Diane English moved the story to Los Angeles, in order to facilitate the production, and had their protagonist donning the disguise in order to get a job at a magazine that didn’t want to hire women. The subsequent TV movie was called Her Life as a Man, and is a criminally neglected entry in a genre that, because it has so few films, should be celebrating this well-acted and well-produced story. At a press conference prior to the film’s telecast Robyn Douglass attended wearing her male costume and fooled most of the reporters in attendance. The film was given decidedly mixed reviews when it was broadcast, with some reviewers feeling that it trivialized the feminist movement, especially after Douglass had appeared in Hustler and Playboy. But there were a few positive reviews that understood the intent of the picture and focused on the things that make it so charming.

The film opens on a cover version of the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” and shows Robyn Douglass besting her boyfriend, Marc Singer, on the racquetball court. When her car won’t start he fixes it, then she goes to work at a small Los Angeles newspaper, The Southland Weekly, and discovers that she has been laid off because of declining circulation. The friends at her farewell get-together at a bar include David Paymer, Liz Torres, Carol Potter, and Douglass’s best friend, Miriam Flynn. She doesn’t tell Singer until they get home from dinner with one of his clients, and to end her miserable day she also gets a rejection letter from The Village Voice. Her job search during the next few weeks is as fruitless as it is disappointing. Then she applies for an opening at Sports Life, and is interviewed by the editor, Robert Culp. But when she’s turned down this time she knows that it’s because she’s a woman and he’s simply not giving her a chance. So Douglass decides to get a fake beard and wig and tries it out on Flynn by meeting her at a bar, similar to the scene in Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman meets Sidney Pollack in the Russian Tea Room. But it’s Singer’s help she really needs, to get the mannerisms and the attitude right to be a convincing man. After his initial shock, he agrees, and the montage, again set to the Four Seasons’ music, makes for a terrific segue to the second act.

Armed with a new identity, Douglass goes in to see Culp with a newfound confidence and this time lands the job. She’s so excited, though, that she meets Singer and his parents, Patricia Barry and Paul Napier, at the country club without changing first. Of course Singer thinks that’s the end of it, and he’s quite taken aback when he finds out Douglass plans to work at her new job as a man. She doesn’t think it’s enough just to get the job, now she wants to prove she can do the job. At the magazine she meets another writer, Laraine Newman, the token female who is forced into writing about gymnastics and women’s tennis. The two of them form a friendship and help each other with their writing. But the job has long hours and before long it’s interfering with Singer’s life, when Douglass goes away for the weekend for an interview--a very clever segment with Joan Collins pretending to seduce him/her--missing dinner engagements with clients, and in another parallel with Tootsie, missing a dinner he’s prepared. After Singer storms out in anger, he comes back a few days later to make up only to discover Douglass with Newman and again, like Tootsie, Newman thinks Douglass is gay. The ending, while pure Hollywood, is still incredibly uplifting and despite the negative criticism bespeaks a positive change for nearly all of the characters, not just the protagonist.

There’s no doubt that this is a TV movie, but while the weakest aspect of the film is the screenplay it’s not all bad. The humor misses at times, but when it hits it’s very good. The parallels with Tootsie are unavoidable, mostly because they were by design. But it works. The story is light and fun, a commentary on society without being preachy. What really lifts the production to another level is the acting by all involved. Robyn Douglass is perfect for the role, though she was a relative newcomer at the time, appearing in a half a dozen films after her debut in Breaking Away with Dennis Christopher. Marc Singer, is a great foil for her, surprised and disappointed in her at times, but never completely unsupportive in the way that a lot of similar characters are written. And though Laraine Newman isn’t quite believable as a writer, Robert Culp is given some incredibly bad stage directions, one of which is loading a shotgun during his interview with Douglass to show how macho his is. Finally, composer John Cacavas, who began his career at Hammer Studios in the early seventies, provides a catchy theme, which winds up becoming an integral part of the film. Her Life as a Man, while not quite up to the standards of Tootsie, is nevertheless a charming comedy that deserves a lot wider recognition.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James                                         Producer: Martin Scorsese
Music Score: Joshua Abrams                             Cinematography: Dana Kupper
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel and Marlene Siskel

While I’ve said before that Roger Ebert was not my favorite film reviewer, there is no arguing with his profound influence, not only within the profession but on the public consciousness of film reviewing as a profession. Who really knew about film criticism as a popular art form in and of itself before Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert came on the scene? And as corny as the format seems today, it really was revolutionary to bring these two critics to television. But beyond that, Roger Ebert had a long-lasting impact on the film community simply in terms of his personality, going up against video games as art and his embracing of atheism that not only sparked a lot of controversy, but expanded even more his sphere of influence. But it was his final battle with cancer, a long and hard fought battle, that really showed the kind of heart that makes a film like Life Itself possible. The film begins with a quote by Ebert to the effect that for all of his life he was the star of his own movie. And that’s even how some of his friends describe him, not only as the star but as the director.

The actual director of the film, Steve James, takes that as his conceit and uses footage from the last six months of Ebert’s life in the hospital and combines it with readings from his autobiography of the same name, Life Itself, to quickly move from his childhood to his job working for the Chicago Sun Times. But what really stands out is that, even at that point in his career, he was a really good writer. Six months after getting the job, the film critic retired and the job was Ebert’s. At the time he slipped easily into life of a reporter, including the drinking, and as he describes it he was lucky that the drinking played so much hell on him in the form of hangovers or it would have killed him. From there the film naturally moves on to the teaming of Ebert with Gene Siskel, but still keeping bits and pieces of his earlier life to interject onto the narrative. The two could not have been more different and yet, that’s what made the show so great. Roger, the fun-loving English major and one of the guys, while Gene was the serious philosophy major and a loner. Roger, who could pound out a fully-formed review in twenty minutes, and Gene, who agonized over every word.

Then James moves on to talk to other film critics, who had both positive and negative things to say about the way that the show so severely limited real discourse about film, but at the same time popularized the notion of personal analysis as a way into the individualized understanding of a film. He also interviews filmmakers of small films that both Roger and Gene felt deserved the publicity that their unique platform in entertainment gave them to promote works that would otherwise have been ignored. But through it all, the love-hate relationship that made the show so successful was also a part of their personal relationship as well, one that they could never really overcome. They were such very different people that they were never going to be friends in the conventional sense, and yet as time went on they needed each other all the more. In many ways, Gene’s death in 1999 was a wake up call for Roger and much of what happened in the rest of his life was informed by the death of his friend.

The last part of his story is meeting his wife, Chaz, and getting married, spending time with his new extended family and continuing his work without Gene. It was a transformative experience and, ironically, much like Gene’s death, his marriage to Chaz also made his ultimate death much more peaceful for him. By far the most hear-rending part of the story is Roger’s final stay in the rehabilitation center before his death. Watching him force himself through physical therapy or having his throat suctioned out is tough to watch, but it’s real, and it is one of the defining features of Ebert’s life, that he wanted to be real, one of the guys, one of the everyday people and contribute what he could to their lives. There’s nothing exceptionally artistic about Steve James film, but that’s really a tribute to his subject. Life Itself is simply the story of a remarkable man, Roger Ebert, someone who shared his love of art with all of us and made all of us the better for it.