The budgets have been getting larger and the star power heavier for the long-running "Fast & Furious" franchise. After adding Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson two years ago with the so-dumb-it's-fun "Fast Five," the movie was rewarded with a huge domestic gross of $209 million, surprising everyone in Hollywood.
For "Fast & Furious 6," director Justin Lin puts the same elements that made "Fast Five" successful (fast cars, macho posturing, thrilling fight scenes, larger-than-life action, and his main characters' "code of honor") in the juicer and mixes it all up. Like its immediate predecessor, the sixth installment has no nutritional value, but what comfort food does?
In case you missed the first five movies (and to show you how little the plot actually matters in these films), the opening credit scene summarizes them all in the span of one blaring pop song. This time around, ex-con Vin Diesel (who can barely be bothered to open his mouth when he speaks), former cop Paul Walker (who makes underplaying an understatement), and the rest of their band of merry street-racing thieves become the good guys when they team up with their rival from the last film, DSS agent Hobbs (Johnson, who delivers the most ordinary line of dialogue as if it were a catch phrase), to stop another heist gang — one that threatens national security, of course.
All efforts to ground the story in some kind of emotional realism are perfunctory and laughable at best. The actors alternate between heavy earnestness and jokey familiarity, but they exist mainly for the same reason as the tricked-out cars: as bodies to be put into motion. And oh how Lin puts them into motion.
Not only does "Fast & Furious 6" feature car chase after car chase that consistently top the one before it (and challenges what we currently know about physics and the resilience of the human body), but the fight scenes are also exciting, visceral, and more importantly — well-choreographed and shot.
Say what you will about the ridiculousness of the story, but the screenplay does a great job of matching up specific actors (and stuntmen) with complementary skills to maximize the "fun" factor. (It doesn't hurt that mixed-martial-arts competitor-turned-actress Gina Carano has joined the franchise as Hobbs' partner, and another "Fast & Furious" character has been somehow resurrected.)
There is a lot of hollow talk about "codes of honor" and some really corny dialogue and delivery (usually from Diesel and Johnson), but the light tone and breakneck pace of "Fast & Furious 6" make these things easy to forgive. Lin has become top-flight action director, capable of making an audience alternately hold its breath and cheer in the same scene. It's nice to know he's out there breathing new life into old action franchises especially when movies like "A Good Day to Die Hard" show just how tired they can become.
The “don’t” theme in horror movies is so well-known among fans of the genre that “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright hilariously spoofed it in his fake trailer for the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino exploitation double-feature “Grindhouse.” His trailer (for “Don’t,” a movie that doesn’t really exist) uses English actors and simultaneously pokes fun at haunted-house horror and Hammer Studios films as well.
Since the Horror Remix series specializes in taking the best parts of low-budget '70s and '80s horror flicks and editing them together to create one mondo-nutso feature, it’s no surprise that there are enough “don’t” movies from that era to fit the bill. In addition to movies that had “don’t” in the title (“Don’t Open the Door,” “Don’t Look in the Attic,” “Don’t Look in the Basement,” "Don’t Go in the House”) the word was also used as a marketing tactic; a warning posed as a challenge: “Don’t go see this movie!”
On Tuesday, May 28, at The Bottleneck, Horror Remix presents a compilation of horror flicks with “don’t” in the title appropriately called “Don’t.” The feature starts at 9 p.m. and, as always, is completely free. Did I mention that the entire thing is hosted by a pair of deranged puppets?
Let’s see if this kind of reverse psychology works: Don’t go see “Don’t”!
After seeing “The Hangover Part II,” which re-told “The Hangover” beat-for-beat in Thailand, only way more desperately, my expectations for “The Hangover Part III” were low. Real low.
Director/co-writer Todd Phillips knows enough not to remake the same situation a third time, but “The Hangover Part III” reveals even more of his limitations. Without a fantastic high concept (a mystery about three guys who wake up hungover and have to piece together the insane night before) to hold everything together, he is truly lost. Whole sequences in “The Hangover Part III” that seem to be building toward something revelatory (or funny) go absolutely nowhere and end with a dull thud.
What’s worse, with a script this nonsensical and lacking in actual jokes, he isn’t able to wring any improvisatory magic out of his talented players. Even John Goodman, who plays the dumbest drug lord in history, is completely wasted in a role that should have been way darker and funnier.
I’ve seen some descriptions of the movie that refer to it as a dark road-trip thriller, which suggests that Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis have achieved something edgy and intense. Don’t be fooled. Phillips has already proven that he can’t make road-trip movies funny (“Road Trip,” “Due Date”), and with “The Hangover Part III,” he’s shown that he can’t make them even halfway involving, even when we’re already pre-disposed to like the characters.
The threadbare plot exists to get the Wolfpack back together again, and after a giraffe and a supporting character are killed off in spectacularly unfunny ways, they do just that, supposedly to stage an intervention for Galifianakis’ stunted man-boy Alan, who needs to get back on his medication. Asked to carry the brunt of the movie, Galifianakis tries nobly, but Alan is better in small doses. Cooper and Helms are relegated to the background and to the one defining characteristic of Phil and Stu — suave and uptight, respectively — for the film’s entirety.
Ken Jeong, on the other hand, gets all kinds of screen time to vamp it up as the increasingly erratic crime boss Leslie Chow, now on the run and more over-the-top than ever. As hit and miss as Jeong’s screen time is, he adds some much-needed energy to the whole affair, which is unusually muted.
For people who care about “The Hangover” canon, there are callbacks to situations and characters from the first movie that are designed to satisfy and help fans get some closure, but all they really do is remind us of headier times for the Wolfpack when sending Phil, Stu and Alan on a mission to uncover a mystery was more fun. The real mystery is how the most successful R-rated comedy franchise in history could tarnish its legacy in just two short years.
In 2009, director J.J. Abrams breathed new life in to "Star Trek," a reboot of a film series which, after the disastrous Next Generation movie "Star Trek: Nemesis" seven years earlier, had become a stale and bloated parody of itself. It's always easier to try new things when you are re-inventing an origin story, so Abrams' "Star Trek" gave Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) a snotty modern makeover and added way more action than "Trek" movies usually get.
The voyages of the Starship Enterprise were successfully relaunched and a familiar crew (including Zachary Quinto's Spock) was installed on the ship. The question before Abrams and his loyal band of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof then became: Do we boldly go where no man has gone before?
From a plot standpoint, the answer is a resounding no, but that doesn't mean that "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a boring retread of past storylines. It's a tremendously energetic, thrilling mash-up of past storylines.
Yes, there are the same winks and nods to iconic "Star Trek" moments that Abrams' first outing at the helm of this ship had, and, yes, there are plenty of flashy lens flares and jokey one-liners from Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). But Abrams has grown into a confident cinematic storyteller, capable of setting high stakes, staging impossible situations, and having his characters get out of them, one after another, with a combination of exciting action and just enough of their intellect.
If anything, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is Abrams doing his version of an Indiana Jones movie. An acolyte of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (and who has recently landed the most thankless job in all of Hollywood: taking over Disney's first "Star Wars" movie), Abrams knows how to wrench pure entertainment from serial-like action, while keeping a healthy dash of humor front and center. He also has composer Michael Giacchino doing an effective job of making John Williams cry.
Impressive CGI art direction, a truly menacing villain (the great Benedict Cumberbatch), and a keen sense of pacing make "Star Trek Into Darkness" an easy movie to get swept up in. Abrams is counting on that, because he is treading familiar waters plot-wise. Because it still revolves around the fundamental difference in philosophy of Kirk and Spock, however, "Star Trek Into Darkness" feels like a "Star Trek" movie. It's almost as if Abrams and company knew this would probably be their last outing in the series, so they threw in everything they could think of. It makes for one hell of a ride, and I wouldn't want to be the guy that has to follow it up.
Since 1995, Darrell Brogdon has been hosting The Retro Cocktail Hour, a weekly two-hour (you read that right) radio show produced by Kansas Public Radio right here in Lawrence. Every Saturday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., listeners can delve into the strange world of space-age, '50s and '60s, swingin’ bachelor pad music on their old-fashioned radio sets or new-fangled streaming Internet computers.
With Brogdon's film series "Cinema A Go-Go," retro fans can travel further into the kitschy past with a double feature of epic low-budget proportions. Friday, May 17, at Liberty Hall, the schlock jumps out of the speakers and onto the screen with 1953's "Cat Women of the Moon" and "Teenagers from Outer Space" from 1959.
"Cat Women" is the ultimate male space-age fantasy, complete with cardboard meteor showers, giant spiders and "everlastingly beautiful women" who have been living without men for centuries. "Teenagers," on the other hand, preys on the generational gap, featuring a teenage terror "ten thousand times more terrifying than your maddest nightmares." No, it's not young people that their parents just don't understand anymore discovering the Beats and rock n' roll — it's teenagers who shoot adults with rayguns, turning them into instant skeletons through the magic of bottom-of-the-barrel jump-cut effects! Extra bonus: Giant lobsters called Gargons!
This coming Tuesday, May 21, the Replay Lounge celebrates what will hopefully continue to be "outdoor appropriate" weather with the Bike-In Theater. People are encouraged not to meet at the water tower, but instead to ride on up to the Replay's outdoor patio and see a retro movie of another kind — one that has become a bona fide cult classic.
Grab a cheap can of PBR and enjoy Richard Linklater's funny and wistful "Dazed and Confused," where Texas teenagers from the '70s grapple with life and stuff, showing at 9 p.m. out back. And if you didn't get enough of your required dose of Foghat and Kiss during the movie, DJ Modrey Hepburn will be spinning vintage vinyl afterward. I'm not sure whether her set will be '70s themed or not, though, because Hepburn usually specializes in '50s rock n' roll and the British Invasion ... and I'm pretty sure threatening her with Ben Affleck's freshman paddle is a not good idea.
Also this week, Liberty Hall is opening "Mud," a movie I'm very excited to see, given that it is director Jeff Nichols' follow-up to "Take Shelter," one of the best movies of 2011.
Following the hugely successful gamble Marvel took by turning over the reigns of "The Avengers" to geek-auteur Joss Whedon, the Disney-owned studio has turned the most popular hero of their multi-film franchise over to another genre master.
"Iron Man 3" was co-written and directed by Shane Black, the master of the action comedy, and true to form, there is a heaping dose of both throughout this wobbly but entertaining entry into the Marvel canon. Although Black (who also wrote "Lethal Weapon" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") and co-writer Drew Pearce subscribe to the typical general story beats of every Marvel film, they have a lot of fun playing within the sandbox.
At its core, "Iron Man 3" is a screwball comedy about Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), post-intergalactic invasion. Stark is haunted by the fact that the world as he knew it is way bigger and more dangerous than even his ego may be able to handle. Pepper has moved into Tony's house and strengthened her hold on Stark Industries, but Tony seems more distant than ever.
In the meantime, terrorist attacks cooked up by an evil warlord with an Osama Bin Laden look and a strange drawl called The Mandarin (a hammy, envigorated Ben Kingsley) have the world on edge, and the reappearance of two scientists from Tony's past (Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall) further complicate things.
What makes "Iron Man 3" so enjoyable as formulaic escapist entertainment are the little tweaks that Black has made to the template. "Iron Man 3" forces Downey outside of the suit and makes him rely on his scientific brilliance and cunning more than ever. A subplot with an impossibly cute fatherless little boy (Ty Simpkins) ends up being a clever parody rather than melodramatic fodder, and somehow ties up with an ending so earnest and effective that it might send grade-schoolers all over the world racing for their science play sets.
The movie also fundamentally changes what it means to be Iron Man. With the emergence of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) as War Machine — re-dubbed Iron Patriot in a funny parody of military branding — and a whole fleet of other Iron Men (don't cry, it's in the trailer; I'm not giving away anything), Black has given Stark a reprieve from his sole alter-identity and a terrific setup for a high-flying action scene with inventive choreography. The final action scene in "Iron Man 3" is revelatory, like seeing Spider-Man swing between New York skyscrapers for the first time.
In the midst of various plot threads with varying degrees of contemporary relevance, Black pulls off a crazy plot twist a little more than halfway through the film that's truly inspired and solidifies "Iron Man 3" as a comedy. Speaking of comedy, one downside to Black and Pearce's ear for dialogue is that everybody has a wry sense of humor, not just Stark. Granted, it's a good problem to have, but when henchmen and minor characters have as many witty comebacks as our hero, it tends to undermine his own wit.
Also, despite the fact that "Iron Man 3" is centered on Tony and Pepper's relationship, Paltrow just doesn't have enough to do onscreen. Her and Downey's chemistry may still be the series' greatest asset, so it's disappointing that other elements of the vague world-domination plot had to take precedence. That said, Black ties things up in a satisfying way.
The narration at the beginning hints at some major changes in Tony Stark's world and "Iron Man 3" delivers on that foreshadowing, taking Tony to some dark places and making him question his ego more than ever before. There are at least three spectacular action sequences, enough humor to make most straight-up comedies jealous, and the best end-credit sequence of all the Marvel films.
Sidenote: Like all the Marvel movies, the 3-D is completely superfluous. Don't waste your money on the extra charge.
Hopefully with the crappy weather subsiding, we'll be able to do this again, but there's one way to save energy when you're drying your clothes. Films For Action's first screening of this year is "Drying for Freedom," a documentary about the drain of electrical and gas-powered clothes dryers and the demand for dirty coal energy across the globe. This one-time screening is 7 p.m. Monday, May 6, at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., and is co-sponsored by art nonprofit Lawrence Percolator and air-drying, cold-water-washing resource Project Laundry List. Admission is only $4, or $2 with a current student ID.
When Kansas City filmmaker Bryce Young came up with the idea for a film about the end of the world, he had no idea what it would become. What started out as simple concept ended up spawning a Web series of short films from tons of talented collaborators and will eventually become an anthology feature film with a connective narrative thread.
Part one of the free original Web series "Withered World" (called "The Field" and directed by Turner Biaetto) premieres this week at witheredworld.tv, and it's just the opening salvo of a project that will expand its scope considerably with each mini-movie.
"I originally set out to make a short film centered around the idea of what different people might do on the last day on Earth," Young says. "It went from that to 'I wonder if other filmmakers in Kansas City would be interested in asking that same question?"
The answer was a resounding "yes," so "Withered World" evolved into a Web series from 12 different local filmmakers that are all roughly connected in the same storytelling universe. The short films differ wildly in tone, from a comedy about a theater troupe's last performance to a reflective character drama about an old man who is ready to join his beloved wife in the hereafter.
In between the 12 short film-sized episodes of "Withered World" (Young himself is contributing two films), a series of very short episodes-within-episodes directed by Chris Bylsma will be a documentary-like series about a filmmaker interviewing people to see what they will be doing on the last day on Earth.
A successful Kickstarter campaign gave "Withered World" its title (through a contest for those who donated), an initial budget, and each filmmaker was given $700 to start their project, with a couple of simple rules. First, the short has to take place on the last day of Earth's existence, when people have realized there is no hope for saving it. Second, the film cannot explain why the world is ending.
Because of the caliber of Kansas City talent involved (award-winning locals like Patrick Rea and Anthony Ladesich are contributing films) and the fact that these directors are used to stretching budgets, any other resources the filmmakers could muster were up to them. From the looks of "The Field," which features period-specific flashbacks and gorgeous cinematography, they were considerable.
As the series continues, each episode serves as a promotional film that entices the viewer to watch more. By the time the series finale is up on the Internet (a heavy drama about a euthanasia camp and directed by Young), he hopes considerable buzz will be developed. "Hopefully, if it's received well enough," he says, "it will leave people wanting to see more episodes, which is what a season finale does."
When all is said and done, each filmmaker will retain the rights to his or her film and be able to show it independently at film festivals across the world. They can even re-edit the film to break the continuity rules set out by the series. But Young will take the original edits, marry them with Bylsma's Webisodes, and eventually edit together a feature-length anthology as well.
The journey to the last day on Earth has just begun.
This weekend is the last one before summer officially starts. This means that Hollywood is trotting out its not-quite-ready-for-summer slate. Last week, it was the disappointing Tom Cruise sci-fi tale "Oblivion," and this week it is the passion project of "Transformers" director Michael Bay.
"Pain & Gain" is a broad crime comedy based on the true story of three knuckleheaded bodybuilders from Miami who kidnapped and extorted money from a shady businessman in the dumbest possible way and somehow got away with it — for a little while, at least. Unlike all of Bay's other big-budget blockbusters ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor"), this one requires the director to flex some different muscles.
Unfortunately, those muscles are atrophied from lack of use, so "Pain & Gain" comes off less like a black comedy and more like an extended "Saturday Night Live" sketch. This is not a good thing for a film that's two hours and 10 minutes long.
Sure, there are some genuinely funny moments that arise from this absurd tale, which features Mark Wahlberg as the wannabe criminal mastermind who won't let anything get in the way of his American dream. The trick is, he hasn't earned it and isn't smart enough to do it without breaking the law. Dwayne Johnson is always appealing and full of affable charm, even when he's stuck in mediocre or offensive movies like "G.I. Joe Retaliation," but when "Pain & Gain" requires him to stray too far from the one-dimensional religious nut, it doesn't work.
The only real actor who makes something more of his role is Anthony Mackie, whose desperation to "succeed" is palpable. He would fit right in if this were a Coen brothers movie with the same themes. (Comparisons to their stellar sad-sack black comedies like "Burn After Reading" and "Fargo" are inevitable. This one doesn't even come close.) Bay doesn't have the versatility to pull off a story that requires a delicate balancing act because his fetishes as a director/storyteller are the same as his juvenile lead characters.
Sure, his slow-motion prowess and action-film chops add a surreal element to "Pain & Gain," but Bay's camera leers at the world the same way his characters do. He wants to celebrate his "heroes" at the same time he's making fun of them, but his over-the-top delivery gives him away. On top of that, the constant narration (provided by multiple characters at any given moment) gives away too much of the mystery of their motives and "Pain & Gain" ends up trying way too hard.
What it ends up being is one very uneven and confused movie. By the time Ed Harris enters the picture, any hope for fluid pacing is abandoned and the film sputters to a halt. Because it plays like a series of sketches tied together loosely by a misguided, macho "don't quit" ethos (one Bay obviously took to heart), maybe "Pain & Gain" will play better once its been chopped up into 15-minute fragments on Comedy Central in a year or two, when cohesion doesn't matter.
Tom Cruise usually exerts a good amount of quality control over his projects and has for decades now. When he takes a starring role, he comes on as producer (often hiring the director) and is very involved from tip to tail in the entire creative process. In short, all you need to do is look at his track record to see that he works really hard to make sure his movies are, at the least, entertaining/thrilling to a wide audience.
That's part of the reason why "Oblivion," his newest big-budget, sci-fi adventure movie, is such a disappointment.
Writer/director Joseph Kosinski wrote what would become "Oblivion" eight years ago. In the meantime, he directed tons of TV commercials and became familiar with CGI special effects. This led to his feature-film debut "Tron Legacy" for Disney and now this.
Lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, "Oblivion" looks stunning, especially in IMAX. It has an epic scope, as Cruise and his teammate/girlfriend Andrea Riseborough watch over a fleet of drones and mining machines tasked with draining the Earth of its resources after an alien invasion devastated the planet. They work in a station mounted impossibly high above the clouds and are nearing the end of their mission and looking forward to joining the rest of the human survivors on one of Saturn's moons.
Starting with a "mandatory memory wipe" and the dream sequences Cruise's character is plagued with, we know something is horribly wrong about this premise, but "Oblivion" never amps up the dread factor. Instead, it leads the audience along with incredibly obvious clues so that by the time it starts revealing it's "twists," we are way ahead of it. (Blame the spoiler-heavy marketing, too.)
But plot holes and mismanagement of suspense aside, "Oblivion" fails because it establishes an interesting premise and then abandons its characters as soon as things get complicated in favor of a typical "save the world"-type action story. If Kosinski really wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the spirit of early classics like Chris Marker's "La Jetée" and Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" as he has mentioned, then he should have engaged more fully with his characters' personal crises and not added Morgan Freeman and "Game of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to muddle things up, brooding around in "Matrix"-like outfits with capes and making big, dumb speeches.
"Oblivion" isn't a total loss, but it is disappointing not only to see the film abandon the interesting sci-fi issues around its central love triangle (Olga Kurylenko plays a woman meant to be mysterious but, again, it's painfully obvious from the outset who she is) but also see it devolve into a series of hackneyed action-movie cliches, including some really insulting third-act dialogue. It would be interesting to find out if Tom Cruise's role as producer made him decide to alter the original script to appeal to a wider audience or whether Kosinski had these well-worn plot devices built in from the beginning.
On Thursday, April 25, The Granada is hosting the free premiere of "Dire Digest," a horror anthology featuring six different filmmakers and a combined cast and crew of over 80 people who nearly all have ties to KU.
Kansas University graduate Aubry Peters is the producer of "Dire Digest," and he's been making short films since 2005 after getting involved with KU Filmworks. His network grew from there, allowing him to make a feature film and eventually recruit the talent for this one.
"I went to five other friends of mine and told them all to write short horror stories that they thought we could actually produce," he says. "I always loved 'Tales from the Crypt' and the old 'Creepshow' movies and wanted to do a horror anthology like that. Once we had our script together, we started casting and finding crew."
After the free Granada screening, Peters hopes to travel the festival circuit and eventually find worldwide distribution for the film. Thursday night before "Dire Digest," two other local short films from filmmakers Kai Winikka ("Black Friday") and Tristan Noelle ("Mahi") will also have their premiere.
Liberty Hall continues its brunch Film Church series on Sunday, April 28, with Peter Bogdanovich's breakthrough 1971 film "The Last Picture Show." Based on the Larry McMurtry novel and adapted by he and Bogdanovich, this plaintive, character-driven ensemble classic features Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybill Shepherd in early roles as high school seniors from a Texas small town in 1951.
The crisp 35mm black-and-white cinematography (yes, Liberty Hall will be showing a 35mm print) lends a wistful, nostalgic vibe to "The Last Picture Show," and Oscar-winning performances from Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman only deepen the heartbreak. Liberty Hall's Maggie Allen will provide a brief introduction to the movie, and 715 Restaurant will provide brunch. The doors open at 11 a.m. and the film starts at noon.
It's been almost two weeks since film critic Roger Ebert died, and I rarely a day goes by that I don't think about him.
This isn't just because I grew up watching he and his rival critic Gene Siskel sparring passionately about the movies on PBS' "Sneak Previews," "At the Movies," and finally "Siskel & Ebert." Although certainly no other two people inspired me more to think critically about the films that I was seeing rather than just going along for the ride and accepting everything at face value.
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” Ebert once said, and that's perhaps the most important thing I learned from him. Outside of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, an energetic TV personality, and an obsessed movie fan, Ebert was above all a humanist. In a 1997 interview with Martin Scorsese, he illustrated his philosophy that films were important cultural artifacts; ways to identify with people and experiences you might never have come into contact with otherwise:
"What I feel so strongly in talking to people about movies, frequently people will — they know I'm a movie critic — they will discuss the subject matter as if that is what the film is about," he said. "A subject is neutral. People don't understand that. When people say, whenever anybody makes a statement, I don't like to go to movies about and then fill in the blank ... my response is, anyone who makes that statement is an idiot. I don't want to go to bad films about cowboys. I don't want to go to bad films about boxers."
No, the reason that I I've been thinking about Ebert pretty much every day since he died is because I miss his voice. Not his speaking voice, mind you (he lost that in 2006 after cancerous tissue in his jaw had to be removed), but his personality — so vital and alive. When the disease that would eventually kill him took his speech away, Ebert did just what he did when his TV show went off the air: He found another way to reach people.
More than anyone else from the days of "old media," Ebert opened up his heart, his life and his absolutely unfettered opinions and engaged directly with his fans and detractors on the Internet. His movie reviews became more reflective for sure, but the real revelations were what we learned about Roger were through his constant updates on Twitter (the account will live on, as Roger requested,) and his online journal. Sometimes these writings, which went straight from his computer to the world with the click of a tweet or a "publish" button on his blog, were movie-related, but that wasn't a requirement.
Mentions of the movies were almost always intertwined, however, because they informed so much of his life. I can relate.
Just recently, he had written a touching remembrance of his aunt, a piece on the tragedy in Newtown, and a brief yet hopeful couple of paragraphs about a recent hairline fracture that was keeping him bedridden once again. That journal was titled "Dirty Rotten Luck." The Internet became Roger's new outlet, and he found an appreciative and chatty audience. Between his journal entries, he also stepped up the amount of writing he published, breaking a personal yearly record by reviewing a whopping 306 movies in 2012.
The day before he died, Roger announced that the cancer had returned, but he was ready for new challenges and said he would have to slow down a bit. He was happy to be able to finally realize a lifelong goal of only reviewing the films he wanted to review, but still had big plans to continue writing and producing a new TV show, and called the upcoming slowdown in activity only a "leave of presence." I retweeted Roger’s update, saying that it was a mixture of sad and exciting news. From his site:
"At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness."
It's fitting, then, that the last movie Roger Ebert reviewed did just that. Two days after his death, Ebert's review of Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" was published. Not only does it show that he was still writing at the top of his game when he was so inspired, but the film's themes of spiritual longing and romantic loss are ripe for Ebert's personal reflection.
And as a champion of movies that challenge the art form and "reach beneath the surface," here he is at 70, defending Malick's right to make narratively obtuse work because he dares to "reach more deeply."
"Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision," Ebert writes. "'Well,' I asked myself, 'why not?' Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?"
He couldn't have planned to write a better essay on why the movies matter.
If you've seen the trailer for director Derek Cianfrance's new film "The Place Beyond the Pines," you are probably expecting an action-based crime thriller where a frustrated local cop (Bradley Cooper) chases down a mysterious motorcycle bandit (Ryan Gosling) who's been robbing banks. Luckily, there's a lot more to the movie than that.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" begins with a piece of dynamic myth-making, but with one key addition. From the opening unbroken over-the-shoulder take that follows Gosling's tattooed stunt cyclist Luke Glanton into a cheering crowd and beyond, Cianfrance's movie endears its characters to us and makes them easy to identify with. There's a reason baked into the story that Luke is presented as larger than life, and over two hours into the film when this scene is a distant memory, its resonance is amplified because of the time that's passed.
In its first couple of chapters, "The Place Beyond the Pines" appears to solely be about moral compromise. But Cianfrance, who also wrote the film with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is painting on a larger canvas. The economically depressed setting of Schenectady, N.Y., and its surrounding forest and rural area serves as a fitting backdrop as its characters make tough choices that will have rippling effects on the lives around them.
Like his previous film "Blue Valentine," Cianfrance shows a strong tendency toward naturalistic filmmaking, one that isn't muddled by the usual amount of quick editing and slam-bang pacing. When the story asks that you accept certain coincidences as part of its conceit, it's the authenticity of the performances and intimacy of the presentation that ground the film emotionally. Even the scenes of Gosling riding at top speed on his motorcycle are thrilling in their immediacy without using any of the big-budget techniques and multiple camera angles that action directors rely on these days.
More than anything else, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is electrifying because it overcomes its structural challenges. Two hours and 40 minutes is a long running time for a low-budget family drama, especially one that confounds expectations early on and then heads in a familiar direction. The late Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” and that applies 100 percent to "The Place Beyond the Pines," a haunting film that makes something new out of the tradition of sprawling epic tragedies told in linear fashion.
Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation novel "On the Road" has been high on the list of classic books that are virtually unadaptable for as long as such lists have been around. Francis Ford Coppola had been trying to make a movie of it for almost three decades before giving up.
Kerouac's semi-autobiographical literary quest for meaning — by shunning the practicalities of domestic life during a series of jazz and drug-fueled road trips — doesn't exactly lend itself to typical cinematic structure.
It's surprising then, that director Walter Salles' film works as often as it does. Garrett Hedlund is terrific as the charismatic Dean Moriarity, exuding the kind of natural confidence that might lead Kerouac's alter ego Sal (Sam Riley) on these seemingly aimless sets of adventures. Riley himself is a little wooden, but he narrates "On the Road" with passages straight from the book (the language is such an important element of its charm), and the spot-on art direction give the film the feel of postwar America in all its contradictory glory.
At just over two hours, it is challenging to stay invested in the movie and its choppy, rambling storyline. As a filmic experience, however, it is enough to be immersed in the time period, and serves as an interesting companion piece to Paul Thomas Anderson's similarly challenging "The Master."
The 12th annual national touring and fundraising film festival known as LunaFest arrives at Liberty Hall Sunday, April 14. A collection of nine short films from women filmmakers, LunaFest aims to highlight women as leaders in society and the movie in this year's crop "range from animation to fictional drama, and cover topics such as women’s health, motherhood, body image, aging, cultural diversity and breaking barriers," according to the festival's press release.
A reception for LunaFest, which raises money for Breast Cancer Fund and other women's nonprofits, begins at 6 p.m. and includes a 6:30 talk from State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, and a survivor's story. The films begin at 7 p.m., and the whole event is sponsored by Lawrence's GaDuGi SafeCenter, Willow Domestic Violence Center and the Kansas Coalition against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
KU alumnus and Kansas City filmmaker Kevin McKinney is back in Lawrence on April 16 for a free screening of his anti-corporate radio documentary "Corporate FM." KJHK and Student Union Activities are sponsoring the event this Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Woodruff Auditorium.
The movie chronicles the homogenization of radio across the country while profiling, among other stories, Lawrence's ill-fated but revered mid-'90s commercial modern-rock station KLZR. KJHK also plays a part in the film, and representatives from the station will be on hand to lead a discussion with McKinney and producer Jill McKeever after the screening.
Back in 1981, director Sam Raimi made a $90,000 horror film called "The Evil Dead" that sparked a cult phenomenon. It spawned two sequels with a campier tone, a legion of die-hard fans and followers, and it launched the career of B-movie king Bruce Campbell. More than 30 years later, Raimi and Campbell are revisiting and re-inventing the low-budget franchise as producers of "Evil Dead," a wildly entertaining movie that pays tribute to the original while charting its own course forward.
The man who plead his case for the new "Evil Dead" is Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez. He convinced Raimi and Campbell that his take was the way to go, and boy, was he ever right. Rarely do you find a modern reboot that has the power to satisfy fans of a revered franchise while simultaneously grabbing audiences unfamiliar with the original and kicking them in the teeth.
At this point in the horror genre, especially after last year's "Cabin in the Woods" poked fun at the very conventions "Evil Dead" are based on, you would think there's nowhere to go but down the same old, tired path. But Alvarez proves there's still a lot of room for thrills and unexpected fun in a movie that consists entirely of five young people holed up in a cabin.
The first notable difference is the premise. Mia (Jane Levy) is trying to kick a drug habit cold turkey, so when she says she wants to leave, her friends won't let her. It's a creative way to solve the problem that plagues so many horror movies: Why don't the kids just leave? The small but crucial amount of character development establishes the differing relationships so that when the each of them eventually becomes "possessed," these traits are carried forward.
"Evil Dead" is relentless. Once it starts, it never lets up. It becomes a constant barrage of gory fun, and in the spirit of the original, Alvarez and his team use make-up and real-world special effects rather than relying solely on CGI. Another distinctive and key part of the original series were the off-kilter and exaggerated camera angles. Alvarez adopts the film language of Raimi's films, adds more to the bag of tricks, and keeps the sardonic attitude without necessarily being slapstick.
Click here for my on-camera interviews with director Fede Alvarez and Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, and Jessica Lucas of the "Evil Dead" remake from KCTV5 It’s Your Morning.
Liberty Hall is now showing "Emperor," a dry historical drama from British director Peter Webber ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") set in the period directly following World War II. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Fox as Gen. Bonner Fellers, a Japanese cultural expert who has 10 days to decide whether Emperor Hirohito should be put on trial for war crimes.
For all of the important themes that "Emperor" bases its story around, it's surprisingly simplistic and ends up coming off impassive and procedural. A love story involving Fellers and a Japanese schoolteacher is told in flashback concurrently, and contains more passion than the war crimes plot, but that's not saying much. Even the performances fail to rise above the bland screenplay. Fox is as stolid as ever and Jones' MacArthur has his usual bluster (used to much greater effect in last year's "Lincoln"), so nothing in "Emperor" really surprises.
The Center for Global & International Studies at KU is having a free public screening and panel discussion of the Academy Award-winning Iranian movie "A Separation" Wednesday, April 10, at 5 p.m. at the Spencer Museum of Art. Asghar Farhadi's sublime and layered family drama was one of the best films of 2012 and shines a light on many cultural issues facing contemporary Iranians today.
"A Separation" is showing as part of the Persian Culture Fest, and the panel following the film will consist of KU Faculty and members of the Iranian community here in Lawrence. Don't miss this opportunity to see a truly enlightening film and be able to grapple with the subjects it brings up in a smart and thoughtful public forum.
On the opposite side of the coin, KU's Natural History Museum continues its Myths & Mayhem Film Series with a free screening of the hilariously bad Jan de Bont action/disaster thriller "Twister." Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt will chase tornadoes and flying cows Thursday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m. in the museum's Dyche Hall while attendees can munch on free popcorn.
I love that the Natural History Museum, which is known throughout the country for its impressive exhibits and collections, is using a cheesy, big-budget '90s flick to lure people into seeing what they have to offer. Bravo. After the movie, Channel 6 Chief Meteorologist Rick Katzfey will talk about the science of storms and probably clear up all kinds of misconceptions brought about by "Twister."
The new sequel to a completely forgettable 2009 franchise launch, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" had a troubled road to becoming the perfectly bland and fairly offensive formula action flick that premieres in multiplexes today.
The first bad omen for "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" was during filming in 2011, when a crew member died in an accident while changing out a set. Then, after a big, expensive 2012 Super Bowl commercial and being slated for release in June of last year, the movie was delayed until 2013, supposedly for a 3-D conversion. Behind the scenes, there were numerous reshoots because, in part, despite casting Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis (in a very minor role) to beef up its starpower, director Jon M. Chu needed more scenes with co-star Channing Tatum, who is hotter than Hansel right now. (He's still barely in it.)
The result is about as discombobulated as you might expect. It's obvious Chu has an affinity for the Hasbro toy line and cartoons, because he tries to cram as many "characters" into the movie as possible. Members of the elite G.I. Joe force and evil Cobra terrorist organization traverse the globe playing cat and mouse with each other, but it increasingly feels like they're just spinning their wheels in action scenes with very little actually at stake. Most of the fighting is pretty generic, with the exception of one high-flying set piece with ninjas on wires that takes place on the side of a cliff.
By the time Willis shows up as the grandfather of all G.I. Joes (and very possibly the progenitor of most modern dumb action flicks), it's a particularly desperate move — especially since all his one-liners land with a thud.
I was prepared for the expected amount of flag-waving nonsense in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," but one sequence with a Cobra member posing as the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) is so offensive, it seems like it was an outtake from Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "Team America: World Police." There are a lot of bad choices in this mish-mash of gun-toting, faux patriotic sentiment, and very little in the way of engaging fun.
By the way, if you still feel compelled to check this movie out for some reason (the studio is banking on the nostalgia factor), don't bother seeing it in 3-D. The upconvert wasn't worth the wait.
"Air Guitar Nation" changed my life. And it could change yours too. For a one-night-only event, Saturday, March 30, at 9:30 p.m., the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City will show the documentary The Hollywood Reporter called “as funny as 'This is Spinal Tap' and David Ansen from Newsweek gave an “11.” A new series called Films That Rock, presented by Scene-Stealers and hosted by yours truly, debuts Saturday night, and looks to combine great movies and the majesty of rock. After the movie, all hell breaks loose.
I'm hosting the event, and we will turn the Drafthouse into a full-throttle rock n' roll party, featuring an interactive combination of air guitar and video karaoke that we call AIREOKE. We'll have a playlist of hilarious and awesome rock videos that will be shown on the big screen, accompanied by you and all your new friends air guitaring your hearts out, while the Drafthouse bar staff helps us keep the party going into the wee hours of the night. Live pyro, smoke, and confetti don't hurt either. Spontaneous air bands will be formed. Lifelong friendships will be forged. Old videos you haven’t seen in years will be projected on the movie screen. It’s like karaoke on steroids. Scratch that: It’s like an Elmo crystal-meth sex party. But better.
Since Lawrence native Alonso Mayo graduated high school, he has embarked on a journey as a filmmaker, winning a Student Academy Award for his short "Wednesday Afternoon," and graduating from the Film Directing program at the American Film Institute. His feature-length debut, "The Story of Luke," starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green and Cary Elwes is showing in his hometown one time only, next Friday, April 5, at Liberty Hall. Check Lawrence.com and the Lawrence Journal-World next week for the full story on this comedy/drama about a man with autism and his struggle to find what most people take for granted: a girlfriend and a job.
Two free movie screenings of the George Lucas-produced "Red Tails" will take place at Kansas University on Tuesday, April 2, in advance of KU film professor Kevin Willmott's upcoming Dole Institute of Politics lecture "The Tuskegee Airmen: Red Tails Examined" April 9. Free snacks are provided for "Red Tails," showing at 2:30 p.m. at the Dole Institute's Simons Media Room, and at 7 p.m. at the Kansas Union's Centennial Room.
Willmott's talk is sponsored by KU Filmworks, the Langston Hughes Center, and the Arnold Air Society, and will "critically examine the historical and racial significance of the Tuskegee Airmen." Rather than reviewing the film, which was almost universally panned by critics, Willmott will instead explore how the movie portrays its main characters, a group of African-American World War II pilots, and how it qualifies their role in the war effort.
The remarkable movies that make up the U.K.-produced "Up" series have been following the same group of people since they were 7-year-old schoolchildren in 1964. Every seven years, the filmmakers have been checking in with their subjects and putting together a documentary of how their lives have turned out. The latest in the series, "56 Up," opens at Liberty Hall this weekend.
Watching an entire life unfold onscreen is breathtaking, and the interviews with these people can be very intimate and revealing, especially since they have grown up and become friends with director Michael Apted, who has manned all the films since "14 Up." A popular Jesuit maxim from Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier says: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." "56 Up" explores the truth in that idea like no other project in history.
Early Warning for Area Film Festivals
It's film festival season, and the Lawrence/Kansas City area is gearing up with three prominent festivals next month that feature all kinds of different, quality programming. I'll have more on these later in greater detail, but for now, mark your calendars for:
Kansas City Film Fest: April 10-14, Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, Kansas City Lawrence High Focus Film Festival: Saturday, April 13 at 1 p.m., Room 125, Lawrence High School, followed by the awards ceremony Sunday, April 14, at Liberty Hall Free State Film Festival: April 26-28, Lawrence Arts Center
South Korean director Park Chan-wook is best known in America for his "Vengeance trilogy," the middle film being 2003's "Oldboy," a painful, dazzling, violent film that still generates controversy today. (Spike Lee is remaking the film with Josh Brolin for release later this year.)
"Stoker," opening Friday at Liberty Hall, marks his English-language debut and finds the director working again with extremely stylized imagery and fractured storytelling, but with more implied violence than before. In fact, violence seems to be lurking just outside the frame of every shot of this neo-Southern Gothic thriller.
On her 18th birthday, high-school loner India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) learns that her father has died in a car crash. She then learns of an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew she had when he suddenly shows up at the house and begins to get very familiar with India's mother, the cold and remote Evie (Nicole Kidman).
With his widened eyes and fixed stare, Uncle Charlie (the namesake of Joseph Cotten's creepy killer in Hitchcock's underrated "Shadow of a Doubt") looks like an overgrown child who has never seen the world before, but he oozes confidence and menace. Wasikowska also radiates an otherworldly quality, from her introverted demeanor to her Puritan wardrobe. It's as if she were dropped into the present day from another time, which is even more jarring when she goes to school and everything is very contemporary. Kidman, for her part, is mysteriously distant and delivers some of the film's most memorable lines, verging on high camp.
From a plot standpoint, not much happens in the first half of "Stoker," but Park is in complete control, keeping the audience on edge at all times. He subverts standard framing rules when characters are speaking to one another, employs sweeping camera movement from weird angles, and stops key scenes just at their climax only to return to them later for a fuller picture.
The screenplay, by Wentworth Miller, is full of psychosexual overtones, but it doesn't have much in the way of deep emotional investment. "Stoker" wouldn't be the thrilling, atmospheric exercise that it is without Park flexing his cinematic muscle. This is very much a director's movie that, in the hands of a lesser personality, might have been a ho-hum suspense effort.
"Before Jackie was Number 42, he was Number 5 with the KC Monarchs."
This week it was announced that Harrison Ford will be coming to Kansas City next month to participate in a benefit for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. His upcoming movie "42" profiles Jackie Robinson, who first played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited him in 1947, breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier.
A special advance screening of "42," in which Ford plays Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, will take place at AMC Barrywoods 24 at 8 p.m. on April 11, preceded by a 6:30 red-carpet entrance and VIP reception with Ford and co-star Andre Holland. There are several levels of ticket packages and sponsorship levels for people that want to attend the reception and screening, which can be purchased online at 42kansascity.
Directly following the screening of "42", Joe Posnanski, former sportswriter for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated and author of "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America," will moderate a panel Q&A with Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and David Robinson, the son of Jackie Robinson.
Nothing less than the greatest movie ever made is showing at Liberty Hall on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Rob Reiner's directorial debut "This is Spinal Tap" will continue to be hilarious and completely relevant as long as brilliant improv comedians blur the lines of reality on TV and film and as long as there continue to be vapid, hollow musicians who rely on showmanship and gimmickry to sell their music.
What "This is Spinal Tap" does is more subversive than simply poking fun at heavy metal. It puts a human face on these loud and not-so-snotty fictional English rockers and makes you care about them. And despite the ridiculous parody-like situations that David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) get themselves into, any musician will tell you that many of those moments still absolutely ring true today.
Following "This is Spinal Tap," Liberty Hall will erupt into a full-out karaoke party and hopefully a guest appearance by Four Jacks and a Jill, a musical group that works out of Kansas City. They've been at a Ramada Inn there for about 18 months. If you're ever in Kansas City and want to hear some good music, you might want to drop by.