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Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

Image copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Finally buying one of Roger Ebert’s books was simply something I had been meaning to do for ages. Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert just seemed like as good a place as any to start.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t already been reading Ebert’s reviews. It wasn’t like I had never watched Siskel and Ebert on TV when I was little, or had seen them parodied several times. I’ve never been particularly interested in what film critics had to say, but Siskel and Ebert were such an established part of the pop culture landscape that it was inevitable that I read their reviews whenever I did care to read movie reviews. And I came to realize that I actually really enjoyed their writing.

And Siskel was good, but I liked Ebert’s reviews even more. Even when I didn’t agree with his assessment (Blue Velvet is the one I always think of when it comes to that), I found in Ebert’s writing someone who wasn’t trying to create a sharp line between “good” movies and “bad” movies. I found in even the most straightforward review someone who loved film, couldn’t help but talk about it, and had become a film critic in order to do that (but not before contributing scripts to some pretty strange movies). I didn’t think he was a snob. It might have unintentionally come across as such in the way he spoke and wrote, but I eventually decided that he wasn’t an elitist. He loved film, loved the role it could play in a person’s life, and had very strong opinions about that.

I didn’t buy Awake in the Dark until a few years ago. Ebert had written what seemed like a few hundred books by then, and a best-of was an obvious enough place to start. It’s still my favorite. I have a couple others, and they’re worthwhile reads as well, but Awake in the Dark is the one I’ve found myself rereading repeatedly for the hell of it. I guess because it really does a lovely job of summing up what was the very best of Roger Ebert. Not only as someone who passionately believed in film, but as someone who wrote with humor, energy, sincerity and intelligence. I’ve listened to his audio commentary tracks for Dark City and Citizen Kane a couple of times each, and I’ve found myself wishing he could have written a few more screenplays. Or even made a film from top to bottom.

But I guess it’s best that he committed himself largely to reviewing movies, discussing racism in Hollywood, arguing against 3D (arguments I quote endlessly when bitching about how much I dislike 3D to others), pleading for film preservation, ranting against colorizing movies, opening the floor for conversation as to revamping the movie rating system, and whatever else compelled him to put some words down.

And his passion as a writer didn’t stop at film. He wrote with all those same qualities about so many things, including his battle with cancer, social and political topics that caught his interest, his marriage, his friendship to Gene Siskel, and dozens of other things I won’t go into listing here. I try to avoid writers who write about the writing process. There’s no reason for that. It’s just a quirk of mine. I did read something Roger Ebert wrote not too long about his own feelings on the craft, and it left me with a couple of things. It inspired me in the way that only profound words can, and it reminded me of all the things in my own life that defined me in terms of being a writer.

I most certainly never met the man. I don’t even think he ever responded to me on Twitter or Facebook, but I am going to miss him. I’ll miss Roger Ebert in the way that I miss people whose works on earth, whatever they may be, had some sort of intense, personal impact on my own life, my own passions, and my own way of looking at the world. I have to remain honest and as unique as possible when expressing these things, but it’s also important to find other people whose visions feel like someone jumpstarting your heart in the middle of a deep sleep.

Roger Ebert is on that very short list of people who did that for me more times than I care to remember. All I can do is keep working, and feel grateful that he left behind such an astounding collection of words. Those are thankfully not going anywhere anytime soon.

Hitchcock (2012): A-

Anthony Hopkins is almost always fantastic. Unfortunately the quality of the films he appears in, particularly over the past few years, is a wild hit-and-miss kind of thing. Hitchcock thankfully belongs in the category of films in which Anthony Hopkins is brilliant in a film that’s pretty close to perfect in every other aspect. Part of why the movie works so well is because it avoids trying to sweep through Alfred Hitchcock’s long life and career. Director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin use Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho to give us a portrait of Hitchcock that doesn’t try to cram the complex inner workings of the man into a 90-minute movie. The downside of that of course is that it does skim over Hitchcock’s darker elements, but it still finds time to at least suggest them. The best moments of all for this kind of suggestion are those with Hitchcock and his wife Alama Reville. Helen Mirren is perhaps even more commanding in this film than Hopkins, but the two of them together is the kind of thing that could sell even the worst idea. In this case it thankfully allows Hitchcock to give full life to its promising, well-told story, brisk pace, and excellent supporting cast.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960): B+

One of the classics of French New Wave, Shoot the Piano Player isn’t necessarily the best film for jumping into something like French New Wave. I wouldn’t even call it my favorite Francois Truffaut film (that would be The 400 Blows). It is still an enormously pleasing, exciting, brilliantly made, and well-acted tribute to American noir (and a host of other things) from a filmmaker who had an extraordinary talent for finding an original storytelling voice that breathlessly, excitedly demanded the use of so many influences. Shoot the Piano Player is the bleak-yet-charming story of a beaten man, a piano player (Charles Aznavour) being pulled back into the family he tried to leave behind, and then dealing with the consequences of that. It’s a story told with such an impressive dedication to substance and style that it’s easy to just enjoy the movie as the landmark film that it is. The kind of energy in a film like Shoot the Piano Player almost never dissipates over time.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 2) (2013): C

The second part of this animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic graphic novel doesn’t quite reach the same bar set by Part 1, but it does come close. The Cold War element is certainly a necessary part of the narrative, but it doesn’t quite connect to everything else in the story as well as it did in the 1986 comic. I don’t think that’s because of the passing of time. It just doesn’t seem like something that was high on the list of priorities when it came time to successfully translating this from comic to film. And it’s still a pretty good translation. Peter Weller is still an excellent Batman, and Mark Valley makes for a fine Superman, but Michael Emmerson as The Joker is surprisingly disappointing. Emmerson certainly makes the character his, but perhaps this wasn’t the best venue for him to be a truly effective Joker. It’s not bad enough to do any serious damage to this film as a worthwhile final chapter to the phenomenal Part 1, but it is one of the many small things in Part 2 that keeps from achieving the same level of quality. It seems at times as if those responsible for this wanted to make the whole thing about Superman and Batman, since their showdown is a complete triumph of animation and story. That’s pure speculation. It only comes from the fact that it supports The Dark Knight Returns as half of that story, but it doesn’t do nearly as well on its own.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965): B-

The Flight of the Phoenix is going to be dreadfully, painfully dull for some people. It moves at a fairly leisurely pace across it’s running time of nearly 2 ½ hours, and that’s not going to win over the people who already think most older films are too slow. What I got from one of Robert Aldrich’s best films was a rich character study with some incredible actors (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, Hardy Krueger, George Kennedy etc) that the unfortunate remake apparently decided to avoid bothering with. The music, editing, cinematography, slow-boil tension (as they work to escape from their plane crash prison in the desert), and visuals of The Flight of the Phoenix are all very good. Even better is how this film still stands today as some of the finest acting work from everyone involved.

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013): C

The bad news is that John McClane’s fifth adventure has a very wooden Jai Courtney (who I guess is there for the man candy portion of the film) as his estranged son. It also completely lacks the interesting villain that the best in the Die Hard franchise have always provided us with. The good news is that Bruce Willis is clearly not too old for this shit, and that the movie’s brutal action sequences are all fairly well done. A couple of them are as good as anything in the entire series. A Good Day to Die Hard can be more or less summed up as a pretty good throwback action movie, but perhaps an unfortunate minor note in the Die Hard saga. The movie is excellent in sporadic moments, passable throughout the rest, and that’s not going to be okay if Willis gets his wish for a 6th and final film. The last Die Hard better be a hell of a lot better than this.