Monday, July 14, 2014

Life Itself ****

Like many who came of age in the 80s and 90s, I watched Siskel and Ebert at the Movies every week as they discussed, joked, and sometimes sparred over the newest movies.  Life Itself, directed by Steve James, explores all facets of Ebert's life from his beginnings as a Chicago journalist to becoming a world famous critic.  

A star student at the University of Illinois and editor of the student newspaper, Ebert began writing about movies for the Chicago Sun Times in the mid 1960s.  His passion for literature and political justice always found its way into his criticism.  In 1967, the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate brought a new youthful vitality to American film. Ebert championed the new American cinema with unabashed enthusiasm.    

In 1976, he began work on a TV show with rival critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune.  Their rivalry and friendship serves as a guiding light throughout the documentary. Apparently, the city of Chicago barely had enough room to contain their egos (for five years they refused to speak to each other).  In time, a friendship evolved as each realized they made a great team.  By the 1980s, they were pop culture icons making frequent rounds on the talk show circuit.  They were parodied on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.  When Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999, Ebert continued the TV show with a series of guest hosts and eventually settled on Chicago critic Richard Roper as a permanent replacement.

Life Itself does allude to controversies surrounding the show; namely, the accusation they dumbed down film criticism with their breezy TV segments.  But any old guard critic will concede they popularized film for a mass audience.  Some shows were devoted to current trends in cinema; others championed directors like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Errol Morris.  The VHS revolution of the 1980s allowed consumers access to more movies than ever before so Siskel and Ebert arrived at just the right time.

Footage of Ebert's health struggles are difficult to watch at times.  We see him feeling frustrated and depressed.  He lost the ability speak and use his mouth during his final years, but stayed busy by writing and communicating through blogging and social media. His wife Chaz stuck by him every minute.  He kept his sense of humor and enthusiasm for movies until the very end.

We also hear reminisces from Chicago friends and famous filmmakers.  Martin Scorsese movingly recalls a moment when Ebert's friendship helped him through a difficult time.  

The portrait we get is of a true humanist who lived by the values and ideas espoused in his writings.  Nevertheless the film's hardly a work of hagiography, as we learn of Ebert's arrogance and desperate need for attention.

German director Werner Herzog rightly called Ebert a "soldier of cinema"; one who believed in the magic of film to enrich our lives.  Mr. Ebert's reviews shaped the way I watch movies and provided an invaluable educational resource for a kid crazy about movies.  Life Itself is a poignant and fitting tribute to its subject.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune *** 1/2 (2013)

Film history is full of potentially great films that never got off the ground.  Stanley Kubrick fans can only imagine the bleak majesty of his historical epic on Napoleon.  Orson Welles had to abandon several ambitious projects, most famously an adaptation of Don Quixote. Jodorowsky's Dune, an imaginative documentary directed by Frank Pavitch, details Alejandro Jodorowsky's valiant attempt to bring Frank Herbert's novel Dune to the big screen.

I read Dune a few years ago on the recommendation of a friend.  While it's not for everyone, the novel ingeniously incorporated spiritual, historical, ecological ideas into an exciting science fiction story.  Ever since it's publication in 1965, many directors have expressed interest in an adaptation.

By the mid 1970s, Jodorowsky, a Mexican director known for making surrealistic films like El Topo, obtained the rights to adapt Dune.  The pre-production process spanned months as he assembled a group of "warriors" to bring his vision to life.  Imagine a movie with a cast featuring Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Jodorowsky, deeply enamored with the religious themes in Dune, wanted no less than to change the consciousness of young people.  In his words, "an LSD trip, without the LSD."

The documentary consists mostly of interviews with Jodorowsky and those associated with Dune.  Now 84, Jodorowsky enthusiastically recalls every detail of the project. He's a magnetic screen presence. In preparation for the shoot, he and his artists composed a 1000 page sketchbook to guide them during filming. Only two copies exist. Like a lost play from Shakespeare, it sits waiting to be discovered.  

Unfortunately, the studio cut funding at the last minute.  Why? Money! What else? Unlike a writer or a painter, the filmmaker must take great risks and convince others to join them in their quest.  And you need to persuade rich people to invest large sums of money into your dream!  In a way, I cannot blame the execs.  The special effects alone presented challenges no one had ever attempted.  Jodorowsky's ego had inflated to the point of madness: he agreed to pay Dali $100,000 for every minute he worked on the set, then promised the gargantuan Welles he would hire the best chef in France to cook his meals, forced his son to spend hours learning martial arts to prepare for his role, while insisting the film run over three hours.  

In the ensuing years, Jodorowsky fell into obscurity.  In 1977, Star Wars revolutionized science fiction and struck a chord with young people in a way Jodorowsky envisioned for his Dune.  Many of the visual concepts developed for Dune appeared in Alien, Blade Runner, and The Terminator. Now in 2014, he believes his long dormant project will work as animated film. Hopefully, the documentary will allow the project to finally get the green light.

Jodorowsky's an inspiring figure.  He displays no bitterness about what many would consider a catastrophic failure.  Like Leonardo Da Vinci, his ideas were way ahead of his time. Jodorowsky's Dune is much more than a footnote to Sci-Fi movie history; it has an inspiring message about the importance of having grand ambitions. Failure means nothing if you put your heart and soul into something.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 40 Years Ago

Recently I had the chance to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen for the first time. Conceived by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a sort of American James Bond "without the hardware", Raiders ruled the box office in 1981.  Around the time he wrote Star Wars, Lucas imagined tales about a heroic archaeologist on the trail of religious artifacts in the tradition of the old Saturday afternoon cliffhangers.  Film critics often see Raiders as a sign of the changing zeitgeist as Reagan's conservative ethos swept the country, but there's also an undercurrent of cynicism.

There's a narrative drive to Raiders we rarely see in 21st century cinema.  Each sequence moves seamlessly into the other with an almost mystical pacing. Staying within the James Bond tradition, the movie opens with a spellbinding action sequence. In the Amazon jungle our hero contends with untrustworthy natives, booby traps, eerie music, giant spiders, and a monstrous boulder. Despite all the obstacles, Indy manages to escape with the idol only to be foiled by the smug French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman). Although our hero fails in his quest, we admire his quiet determination.  

The exposition scenes generate a creepy foreboding of mystery and danger.  A Professor of Archaeology , Indy appears bored and distracted in the classroom.  Federal agents inform Indy the Nazis may have found the lost Ark of the Covenant in Egypt, an object believed to have supernatural power.  The scene's dialogue heavy, but has the right amount of suspense and foreshadowing to prepare us for the adventure ahead.

Before heading to Egypt Indy lands at a dive in the Himalayas to track down Marion Ravenwood; an old girlfriend and daughter of his former mentor to retrieve a "medallion" with important clues about the ark's resting place. Marion's (Karen Allen) a strong heroine who can hold her own in a fight. 

Indy and Marion arrive in Cairo and enlists his friend Sallah (John Rhys Davies) to help him find the ark.  Soon enough, Indy and Marion find trouble awaiting them.  At one point Indy coldly guns down an Arab swordsman.  Although the script called for an extended sword duel, Ford, down with the flu, suggested he just shoot the guy. The moment always gets a laugh.  Funny when you're 10, but  . . .

So we have an American in a foreign country trying to steal a religious artifact?  Granted he's there to stop the Nazis,but he has no qualms about killing those who help the Nazis. After a decade in which America has waged conflicts in two Muslim countries, the scene displays an alarming disdain for another culture.  But it's also further proof Indy was a much darker character in his original incarnation.

Spielberg's greatest strength lies in creating a sense of awe. John Williams composed another brilliant score to accompany the CGI free action sequences.  The special effects laden conclusion ends the movie on a soaring note - walking the line between absurdity and terror. As the evil phantoms melt faces and pour fire on the Nazis we get a sense of the Old Testament justice Hitler and followers deserved (pre Inglorious Bastards).

In the epilogue, Indy and Brody are debriefed by the Federal agents, as the fate of the ark remains uncertain.  It will not go in a museum and Indy will not get the glory.  In the end, it appears Indy put his life on the line for nothing, except making sure the Nazis never got it.  In the last scene, we see the ark being stored into a large warehouse with all its secrets intact.  Our hero gets the girl, but fails to beat the system.  I like the ending's uneasy beat.

While I enjoy the two sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (excluding the awful Crystal Skull), Raiders captures Lucas and Spielberg at the peak of their creative powers.  As I watched the credits roll down the screen, I thought this is how it's done!

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”