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Wednesday, Aug 29, 2007


It looks like 2008 will be the beginning of a new Crusade. Thankfully, it will only be a cinematic one, not a blood-soaked battle waged between fractious warring armies under differing dogmatic flags. Creed will still play a part in it, but not in the heathen/hero manner. You see, sometime in said year, two documentaries will be vying for the hearts and minds of the faithful and skeptic, the saved and the cynical. On one side are the atheists. Bill Maher has been working with Borat director Larry Charles on a yet to be titled film exposing the fallacy that is organized religion. Hoping to use humor and a glorified “gotcha” approach, the host of HBO’s Real Time aims to undercut all fundamentalists as deluded dimwits, using a fractured fairy tale as a means of undermining the civility and safety of the entire world. 


Taking up the mantle for the Messiah, among other Christian conceits, is actor/political aid/game show host Ben Stein. The artist formerly known for calling the name “Ferris Bueller” in the seminal coming of age flick and putting speechified words into the mouth of Richard Nixon is spearheading an anti-Evolution effort entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Focusing on the latest attempts by evangelicals and religious activists to get Darwin out of the classroom and supplement science with a newfangled principle entitled ‘Intelligent Design’, Stein has been quoted as saying, “Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way.” He goes on to argue that, as members of academia, any idea should be open to scrutiny and debate, no matter the outcome. Of course, his cause is hoping that the result is more school boards adding the cockeyed Creationists concept to their curriculum.


The Stein film is just the latest effort by Motive Entertainment, a small independent marketing company out of Westlake Village, California, to bring God and all his glory to mainstream moviegoers. Frequently cited as instrumental in the massive returns scored by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the company (which also worked on The Chronicles of Narnia and had a hand in United 93 and Rocky Balboa as well) specifically targets niche demographics – usually centering on local churches and faith outreach programs. As a result, it has been unusually successful. Even with titles not noted for their spiritual underpinnings, founder Paul Lauer has been praised for proving that movies with a strong, positive message (with or without a basic Biblical underpinning) can generate big profits, just as long as the right non-secular salesmanship is applied.


Now, Hollywood and the holy have never been productive playmates. Religion has always been viewed as a focus group limiting ideal, appealing only to those who specifically believe, or consider faith an integral part of their life. Besides, when preachers and conservative pundits want a scapegoat for all the sin and inequity in the world, the media usually ends up the Whore of Babylon – with Tinsel Town turning the most tricks. Even well meaning movies that offer only the slightest sense of spirituality are viewed as divisive and insensitive within our mandated multi-cultural community ideal. Unless the message can be made universal without upsetting or supporting any one sect or scripture, studio suits want nothing much to do with it. It’s the kind of outright rejection Gibson received when he pitched Passion. Luckily, he had his own money to funnel into the project. It’s also a good thing that his brand of arcane orthodox Catholicism doesn’t require a vow of poverty.


It was Roger Ebert who once said that no good movie is ever too long, and a parallel rationale can be applied to faith-based films. Spirituality is never the real reason a religious oriented movie succeeds or fails. It’s the quality of the cinema containing the concerns that is of utmost importance. For all its flaws, The Passion is an amazing artistic statement. Gibson may seem goofy in the way he treats the teachings of the Good Book, but he definitely gets the ephemeral depiction right. Looking like a series of canvases right out of the Vatican’s gilded gallery, the iconography offered by the visuals is what is most important. Christianity is heavy with significant symbols, and Gibson’s direction hit each and every one. Deny its power as a drama or as dogma, but The Passion has the kind of undeniable imagery that will easily live on long after any controversy about the violence – or the vileness of the man who made it – can or will. 


It’s the same for something as speculative and questioning as Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. When it arrived in theaters back in 1991, it was seen as a low budget stunt on the part of the man responsible for the bilious industry satire The Player. Many giggled at its mixing of scandalous sex and immovable religious fervor. For those unfamiliar with this minor masterpiece, Tolkin choose to focus his narrative on a bored and cynical telephone operator played by Mimi Rodgers. A swinger in her private life, she finds anonymous trysts and changing partners a kind of compensation for what’s missing in her life. Overhearing some coworkers discussing the return of Christ, Rogers’ Sharon tries to join in. But they make it very clear that, without a requisite Jesus-based epiphany, she will never know God. Even worse, when the title apocalypse occurs, she will be cast out and unable to enter the kingdom of Heaven.


Sharon eventually has a major spiritual awakening. She leaves her lover and ends up married to a man who agrees with her new found fundamentalism. Tragedy changes everything, however. Alone with a child to support, Sharon is convinced that the Rapture is indeed coming. She heads out into the wilderness to await the arrival of the Four Horsemen. What happens next stands as a definitive statement on the requirements of faith, and how strident and strict the concepts of Christianity and Armageddon can actually be. Posing tough questions like “how far would you go in defense of your beliefs”, it remains one of the best meditations on the nature of literal religion ever offered. While it failed to make an impression in theaters, it’s grown into a major artistic and cultural statement on video and DVD.


Where you will often find strong, supportive religious messages are in independent films. In 2002, Joshua offered up a wonderful “what if” narrative, asking the important question about how a community would react if Christ – in this case, in the form of the title town newcomer – actually did comeback. The results were evenhanded and far from preachy. Indeed, it stands as a solid entertainment. That same year, Hometown Legend used the notion of personal conviction and belief in a higher power as the means of moderating a standard sports drama. While the facets of football were fudged significantly in order to drive the plotpoints, the characters – especially Lacey Chabert’s God-fearing gal – were presented in a surprisingly subtle and skillful manner. Granted, both films are so non-confrontational in their stance on spirituality that if you blinked hard enough, you’d probably miss the evangelical message. While some may feel it follows the “Hollywood’s hidden secret” stance, the outsider arena frequently enjoys bringing The Word to those who want it in ways they least expect it. 


But once you move into the realm of the real, all bets are off. Fiction is fine as a maker of metaphors for religious meaning, but when you take on the actual tenets of faith, the converted tend to get their vestments in a bunch. And it’s not hard to see why. Recent documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp have painted participation in organized faith in fairly large brushstrokes. The common comical conceit that all priests are pedophiles was not helped by the former film’s focus on a disgusting, defrocked pervert named Fr. Oliver O’Grady. In the case of the lamentable latter work, it was the ballsy brainwashing of young converts by Becky Fischer at her Kids on Fire summer seminars that raised a ruckus. Since so few films focus on subjects such as these (and other related topics like suicide bombers and totalitarian theocracy), the audience is given a limited, non-enlightened exposure to the material. This results in the standard social stigmatizing and the notorious kneejerk reaction.


Both Maher’s movie and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed seem poised to significantly ratchet up this pissing match. Though he claims he will mock and marginalize everyone, the political comedian has a real Jones for the Christian conservative movement, and here’s betting they’ll be the butt of more jokes than some mainstreamed Muslim or brave faced Buddhist. Stein’s effort seems almost unforgivable. Like asking a mostly proven set of facts to share space with someone’s far flung notions of the truth, the notorious non-science of Intelligent Design is desperate to redefine the way children learn the origins of the species. As with any affront to faith, the believer has every right to be upset with science for raining on their procreation parade. But to substitute a new age amalgamation of old school Creationism is like asking for trouble.


Which, of course, leads to the real reason these movies get made. While it’s hard to see the agenda inside something like The Rapture (unless it’s to show the perils of blind faith), the rest of the films mentioned are driven by one simple desire – to convert. In the case of The Passion, Joshua, or Hometown Legend, it’s the promise that belief adds to and advances human existence. It’s the quaint “God supports those who believe in his might and majesty” ideal. In the case of Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp, it’s ‘Secularism Saves’. Rejecting at the very least the organized aspect of religion, they hope to show that they welcomed the power, and the protection, over individuals like Fr. O’Grady and Becky Fischer. Granted, it’s another of those arguments in the extreme, a dispute with no middle ground and very little room for consensus or clarity. The last thing either side wants is compromise. It would show weakness - or worse, wrongness.


Maybe Islam has the right idea. As part of an interpretation of the Qur’an and the accompanying hadiths, they restrict images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (apparently, from research, there is no outright ‘ban’). When the late Moustapha Akkad - producer of among other things, the Halloween series of films - wanted to make a movie about his religion and its international impact, he formally followed the rule. While other members of Muhammad’s inner circle and family were portrayed, the religious leader was not. It made his 1976 epic Muhammad: Messenger of God awkward, but as close to his core concept and beliefs as possible. He hoped to bridge the Eastern and Western worlds with the movie’s teachings, and educate the masses on the many misconceptions in his religion. Oddly enough, he would die in 2005 at the hands of terrorists. He was in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Amman when Al-Qaeda blew the building up. His daughter died instantly. He held on for several days before succumbing to his wounds.


Makes the oncoming clash in 2008 seem all the more meaningful…or perhaps, meaningless. 


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Monday, Aug 27, 2007


It was, literally, a Pandora’s Box. Better yet, make that ‘boxes’. Three cardboard crates sitting on the floor of the title address, thirty years of a mother’s private recollections locked deep inside the numerous wire bound notebooks. For still grieving filmmaker Doug Block, the dilemma was severe. Desperate to remain connected to his deceased parent, he was also troubled by a sickening sense that he was, somehow, disrespecting her memory and her marriage by prying into this vault of familial secrets. Block had always suspected there was a rift between his closest kin, an unspoken secret that, for all intents and purposes, manifested itself three months after the funeral. It was during a trip to Florida that Block’s father Mike picked up the phone and informed his adult children that he was marrying his secretary, a whispered about woman named Kitty, from 30 years before. 


Thus began the wave of rumors and innuendo, siblings who thought they had a handle on their father suddenly faced a lifetime of possible lies and imagined decent…except, reality doesn’t always play out like the movies. And as he proves in his brilliant deconstruction of the unusual unit known as a family, Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street bends the rules in order to tell the truth. As a fledgling filmmaker who shoots weddings to supplement his documentary dreams, this director has seen a lot of couples come and go. He can usually predict the partnerships that will last from those that won’t make it past the reception. But he never imagined that when he turned his camera on mother Minn and father Mike for their 54th wedding anniversary, it would be for the last time as husband and wife, parent and guardian, and happy and contented couple. 


As a movie, 51 Birch Street is the creative counterpoint to Capturing the Friedmans. It’s not out to unlock legal woes or cast doubt on an accused pedophile’s guilt or innocence. Instead, this is a smaller, more focused film, a most intimate of looks at how life can throw you crater-sized curveballs just when you think you’ve got everything in focus. The rapid changes that occur in the six months between an idolized parent’s passing and some record breaking rebound nuptials are seismic in their significance. They seem to tell us, the audience, quite a bit about the Block family undercurrent. Indeed, there is a substantial subtext of unease and angst among these relatives. An older sister is startled that dad would disrespect her mother’s legacy so. The other daughter is delighted – though tentative – about her father’s newfound happiness. Caught in the middle is Doug, detached from the only meaningful male presence in his world and wondering what he’s missed.


Turns out, the Block marriage was a myth, a coming together of two totally divergent personality types that started falling apart almost immediately. Kids kept them connected, as did the prevailing post-War conservatism and restricted suburban sprawl. But one member of the coupling was secretly dying inside. This person hated their new life, and found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Initially, it came from therapy, but eventually, it required a lover. All the time no one else knew – not the other spouse, not the increasingly cognizant children, not the neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Divorce was discussed, but tradition tripped up any planned separation. It just wasn’t done in those days, and partners frequently feigned happiness for the benefit of their social standing. In the end, it took actual death, and the discovery of some incredibly explicit journals, to shed light on a lifetime of pain and problems.


Who the actual sufferer was remains one of 51 Birch Street’s clandestine delights. Block obviously knew that the audience would draw one conclusion (the situation practically screams the answer), but perspective is not always perceptive, and the second act disclosures regarding adultery and fantasy frustration really throw us, and the narrative. In situations such as these, viewers enjoy playing heroes and villains, and switching sides in midstream stands as quite a trick. It speaks to Block’s ability behind the camera, his attention to detail in both his story and his overall tone. Besides, we are susceptible to the age old standards, and such suspicions are hard to shake, even in this enlightened age. As a result, this documentary does something that’s quite rare, even for the genre. It casts open our own ideas about love and fidelity, and causes us to reflect on the state of our own relationships, and the truth about those around us.


Even deeper, 51 Birch Street, asks us to take the unusual stance of looking at parents as actual people. Because of their part as our initial introduction to the world, we filter almost all our earliest experiences through the lessons and leanings of our Mom and Dad. In addition, society loves to stigmatize certain human facets, taking subjects like sex, drugs, and the suicidal loss of self directly off the table. No right minded adult would pretend to burden their offspring so. But Minn and Mike were different. They were an evolving couple that, one day, decided to simply stick with the status quo. We snicker as Doug’s sisters discuss their ‘hippie’ guardians, partaking of marijuana and contemplating wife swapping, and wonder how they managed to maintain a reasonable relationship while inside a stressful and aggressive set of individual therapies. The answer is obvious – they didn’t. But no one else in the Block family understood that fact. They continued on as if nothing was happening, oblivious to the estranged situation around them.


If there are flaws in this premise, it’s that Block as a narrator, is way too naïve for his 50-plus years. His mother, even in the minimal home video footage we see of her, is a completely measured woman, making sure her son understands that she loves her husband, but only on her terms. Watching Mike respond to his wife’s less than stellar sentiment is like seeing defeat illustrated. Similarly, the distance between father and son is an obvious outgrowth of the boy’s bond with his mother. No dad wants to be the wedge that comes between a loving parent/child connection, and so our forlorn guardian gave up. Now, some five decades into said denial, Block wants to vent, hug, and make up. He wants his dad to share in this emotional epiphany, but at 83, it’s hard to teach this tired old dog any necessitated new age tricks. A sequence with a noted PhD also goes nowhere, since Block’s befuddled questions seem more rhetorical than quizzical.


Yet thanks to the intrinsic intrigue in the slowly shifting storyline, our bond with the Blocks, and the last act denouements which clarify little but clearly bring closure – at least, for some – 51 Birch Street soars. We are touched by this remarkable saga, seeing ourselves and the people we came from in every painful recollection, remembering our own past right along with the filmmaker and his family. It won’t spoil much to say that both Minn and Mike are finally seen for who they really are, and were, by the closing moments of this movie. Similarly, the remaining Block brood size up the situations and resolve to let bygones be just that - gone. As the familiar fish out of water other woman, Kitty seems to sum things up best when she states that, until her golden years, marriage was a pressured rite of passage. She married her abusive first husband because he was blond. Now, she’s with someone who accepts her as she is – flaws and all. Had the first Block marriage began in such a fashion, this film would have never been made. Luckily for us, it didn’t


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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007


Roger Ebert is a legitimate American icon. He’s the undeniably great gold standard for old school film criticism. He’s a name so well known, so intriguingly intertwined with the medium he covers, that it’s almost impossible to consider cinema without him. His recent trials and health issues have galvanized a readership reliant on his weekly movie views, while simultaneously earning begrudging press from people who find his throwback style of journalism antithetical to the whole blog-nation dynamic. As the last acknowledged carrier of the torch transferred from previous bearers such as Pauline Kael and friend Gene Siskel, he remains a figure of prominence in a realm consistently marginalized by the current ‘anyone can do it’ market mentality. Oddly enough, he’s also the man who more or less destroyed his own revered reportage.


For those of us old enough to remember the original Sneak Previews (initially, a local Chicago PBS production done more out of respect for the two native names than any desire to change the legitimate critical landscape), said broadcast breath of fresh air provided by the onscreen pairing of the Sun-Times and Tribune beat poets was powerful. It was weekly must see TV in an era where access to films outside the local mainstream movie theater was practically non-existent. In these pre-VCR days when films were expertly managed in order to maximize their box office sustainability, the joy in hearing Siskel and Ebert dissect this competing aesthetic (art vs. artifice) was like an entertainment epiphany. Granted, it was just two guys, sitting around, talking, but their back and forth, as well as their notoriously knotty disagreements, made for brilliant small screen theater. All that was needed was a last act bit of commercial cake icing, and the deal was sealed.


Enter “the thumbs”, the benefactor – and bane – of the post modern film world. Originally conceived as a shorthanded guide (not a significant summary) for the general reaction to a work, it was a throwaway gesture, a Roman reminder of the days when the leaders of empires proclaimed their approval, or disgust, with a single, symbolic digit. Neither Siskel nor Ebert saw themselves as Nero, fiddling away on the latest Steven Spielberg opus as the rest of the motion picture domain burned. In fact, it was formulated for completely different reasons. Just as stars, popcorn kernels, film reels, and clapboards were employed (usually in a numerical grouping from zero to five), the thumbs gave those with limited time or attention spans a quick overview, relegating the rest of the review for another time, another preemptive place.


Two things changed all that. First was the arrival of recordable magnetic tape. The Beta/VHS phenomenon did something significant to the movie business – it provided an alternative means to get their product to the masses. At first, they really didn’t see it that way. Loud complaints of piracy and copyright infringement became the industry mantra, with an unreal emphasis on charging customers comparative value. Initially, blank video tapes were excessively pricey, with actual copies of first run films running into the hundreds of dollars. Yet the interest spurred in the medium by this tantalizing technological advance helped validate Siskel and Ebert’s ideals. Film could now be studied, torn apart and put back together via almost unlimited viewings. And as luck would have it, the duo already had a way of indicating to consumers what available titles were worth their time (thumbs up) and more or less invalid (thumbs down).


The second significant change to the cinematic landscape was the mounting implication of a big opening weekend at the box office. Stars saw their salaries attached to same, while mega-agencies like CAA built their entire business rep on producing titanic three day totals. Within the span of less than a decade, the blockbuster, in combination with the changing multinational face of the studios, created a new signature of success. Getting those ticket buyers to pony up during that first Friday-through-Sunday was seen as a validation of both creativity and commerciality. In fairness, it was really the prize pig purchased by enormous marketing dollars – and the recognizable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert were always placed prominently during blurb time. Even when their show moved from public television to first run syndication (and changed its name to At the Movies), the brand name take on current releases remained.


Then the duo did a decidedly smart thing. They trademarked the ‘up/down’ digits. This meant something significant. Not only were other shows prevented from pirating their simplistic signaling, but it guaranteed that, as long as the legal right remained, the increasingly popular critics could control their standing. Should a studio misquote or de-contextualize a comment from their review, the advertising albatross of “pulling the thumbs” became a well-heeded threat. For men as perceivably powerful as they, this meant a lot. No matter if it was true or not, Hollywood considered Siskel and Ebert to be very influential and widely listened to voices. In a tiger rock kind of way, the studios sought a clear commercial connection between the critics’ blessing and rentals/returns. Having convinced themselves such an uneasy alliance was necessary, the pair became opinionated superstars. Not only was their weekly show a date night directive, they traveled the talk show circuit like a classic comedy team, playing Abbot and Costello over Antonioni and Coppola.


The next phase in this discussion is a little more ambiguous. It’s clear that, at some point, the duo began to believe their own hype. They moved from mere reviewing to championing specific causes (anti-colorization, pro-new ‘adults only’ rating), and frequently used their televisual forum for lengthy discussions on such sour subjects as violence against women and the lagging support of world cinema. As they became more and more esoteric, and less and less combative (their well known antagonism was now mellowing into a calm, considered clash), the ratings began to suffer. Eventually, a little invention called the Internet would arrive, giving voice to a rising contingency of wise-ass wet blankets. For these long silenced savants, know-it-alls just waiting for an audience to appreciate their retarded rationalization, the enemy was anything mainstream. And though they long supported the obscure, the unusual, and the highly independent, Siskel and Ebert were now the Establishment.


During this slow, substantive switch, Disney had come along and purchased the show from Tribune Entertainment. It was 1986, and initially, the House of Mouse was happy to maintain the status quo. After all, they had a feather in their fleeting Buena Vista syndication cap, and a perceived inroad into the often contentious Hollywood vs. the Critical Community dynamic. Of course, the pair advocated loudly for their independence and ethics, but it seemed strange that a studio system addicted to the ‘yahs’ of various print/public prognosticators would actually underwrite individuals who were determining their product’s viability. As time became money became careers, Uncle Walt’s legacy began to, subtlety reconfigure the show. Gone was the demonstrative “Dog/Skunk of the Week”, in were VHS recommendations and, later, DVD picks. Clips began to take up more and more airtime, with partnership reduced to a couple of minutes of over generalization before rendering their ‘handy’ determinations.


The final blow came when Gene Siskel succumbed to cancer in 1999. He had been physically absent from the show for nearly a year, though he occasionally commented on films from the treatment center in the hospital. When he did die, many believed that the program was finally finished. It had been an amazing 24 year run, and with it, the coming and going of other potential partnerships (Jeffery Lyons and Neil Gabler/Michael Medved, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, etc.) and pretenders to their throne. Apparently, it was a tough decision for Ebert to continue on. He missed his longtime friend and fellow film lover, and recognized that he would never again find the chemistry that he had with his across town newspaper rival. But Disney was determined to keep the “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach intact. It didn’t want to see what was by now an accepted and expected part of the marketing machine to be lost – or even worse, usurped by some other company.


And this is the most important facet of Siskel and Ebert’s - eventually Ebert and Roeper’s - fate. Because of the continual marginalizing of the film critic’s role, thanks in large part to the “anyone can do it” availability of the web, nobody really cared what Roger and Richard had to say anymore. Instead, they wanted to cut to the decisive chase – what did the thumbs say? Two up – film must be good. Two down – a certifiable flop. One up and one down? Depends, who gave what? Oh, Ebert? He’s usually right. Roeper? God, what a shallow shill. Don’t believe what he says. As more and more showcase stunts and ancillary elements were tossed into the series, draining away the last vestiges of the considered film conversation concept, Buena Vista saw its opportunity. They fired several senior staff members, switched studios to save money, and in perhaps the most sickening ploy, used Ebert’s own battle with a terminal illness as the framework for downsizing and de-emphasizing the show’s syndication potential.


The final straw arrived last week, with Disney’s announcement that the newest season of Ebert and Roeper (with Roger still away recuperating, and Richard side saddled with a whole new crop of guest balcony warmers) would be presented sans thumbs. That’s right, after over 30 years of using the digit as a means of marking a film’s value and legitimacy, the show was going symbol-less. The reason was quite simple – remember that old trademark the original hosts secured back a couple of decades before. Contract negotiations for its use were ongoing between the studio and the series, with the House of Mouse lowballing everybody and everyone. They could see the weakening writing on the wall – Roeper, no matter who he’s paired with, was merely a placeholder. Without Ebert (who didn’t appear physically ready to return anytime soon) the premise was without purpose. Along with the continued fracturing of the fanbase, the dismissal of many print critics from the nation’s papers, and a growing wire presence throughout the media, it was obviously an end of some era.


So Ebert played his last trump card. He withheld authorization to use ‘the thumbs’. At least, that’s how Disney sees it, and what they intimated in their press release. The truth is a little more telling. The rights, still held by himself and the estate of Siskel, would no longer be part of the program - not without a new contract. Negotiations are ongoing. If - and it’s a big “if”, considering that most pundits are predicting the eventual cancellation of the series if a contract cannot be negotiated – the show returns, Roeper and his rash of interchangeable guests will be denied the right to provide an opposable ‘pass/fail’ to the movies they mention. It may seem petty, and so ingrained in the spirit of the show that it’s practically perfunctory, but Ebert is standing his ground. Frankly, at this point in his twilighting career, he has every damn right to. His Pulitzer Prize for criticism may be a tad tarnished from all the brash commercialization of his craft, and a legion of illegitimate naysayers trade on his talents every day while dismissing his importance to the profession, but as the creator of this filmic Frankenstein, he’s entitled to euthanize it any way he wants, if that’s what he wants.


It appears its now time to appreciate what we had, eulogize what we’re losing, and wonder where all this leaves the state of serious film analysis. Ebert still writes, and has turned www.atthemovies.com into a destination storehouse for every Siskel and Ebert episode ever created. Ever cognizant of his lingering legacy, he has tried to maintain a public façade while battling a crippling and energy draining disease. With or without television, with or without thumbs, as long as there are words, there will be a Roger Ebert. Few in the wildly overvalued podcast paradigm can claim as much. Sure, he may have started the downward spiral of his occupation into a slammed and sullied source of fanboy rejection, but without him, critics in general would still be seen as stuffed shirts sadly out of touch with a normal movie going crowd. Roger Ebert brought the arthouse to the Cineplex, introducing many to the luxuriant language of film. Though he rarely did it to a review in place, the inventor of ‘the thumbs’ has every right to remove them. In fact, he never really needed them in the first place.


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie STUDIOS manage in a lifetime. Lynch is a largely lamented figure in post-modern cinema, an individual noted as being purposefully obtuse and painfully non-commercial. In fact, his last few films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. , and now this – have been castigated as being indirect, indulgent, and purposefully arcane. In truth, such screeds are probably badges of honor for the 61 year old provocateur.


None of these contradictory conceits make INLAND EMPIRE any less fascinating. It’s a narrative built on feeling, a storyline set inside a wildly evolving world of sound and images. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who actually takes the language of this artform on its literal face value. For him, no movie can be too loud. In his world, no visual violates the mandate of plot continuity. Began as a series of scene sketches – experiments with his newfound camcorder – Lynch lucked into Laura Dern while in France. Soon, the two were collaborating, traveling around the world, working out sequences and suggestions, sometimes on the fly. Once the material began to speak to its inventor, an idea was born. As he points out as part of a mesmerizing 20 minute interview on the two disc DVD release of this title (new from Rhino), you can never tell when such inspiration strikes – and you can never tell where it’s going to take you. In either case, he was compelled to hop on.


To describe the storyline here would be like trying to explain color, or telling how one hears the yearnings of the human heart. This is by far the most bizarre narrative Lynch has ever come up with, and this is the guy who turned Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty as part of a psychogenic fugue. We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly, we’re in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace. Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be “murder” in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.


Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his history of womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions – of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay for love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she’s given. Even worse, there’s a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score – or is it all just part of Nikki’s new movie.


Since narrative is not the most important aspect of INLAND EMPIRE, deciphering what everything means seems pointless. For those requiring a more intellectualized approach, there are two ways to interpret what happens here. Either the callgirl we see at the start of the movie is fantasizing about a life outside her flesh peddling profession (including a career as an actress which morphs into a vigilante-like pimp killer) or Laura Dern’s actress loses herself so completely in her part that the material she is using as internalized motivation (brutalized trollop, unhappy mistress) starts manifesting itself in her waking life. Anyway you look at it, we are standing firmly in standard Lynch land. Long a filmmaker who favored the feminine point of view in his films, we get a terrific tour de force performance from Dern, who’s obviously in sync with what her director is doing. Taking a production credit and appearing in almost every scene, we witness the kind of layered, dense characterization that makes this heralded actress one of the best still working in the business.


In fact, the rest of the cast is almost ancillary. Theroux, who excelled in Mulholland Dr. , is so distant he’s almost indistinct here. He’s playing aloof and lost, and said psychological suggestions come across loud and clear. Jeremy Irons, as Kingsley, is lovely in what can best be described as ‘on a lark’ mode. His interactions with sidekick Harry Dean Stanton are fantastic. Other Lynch notables include Grace Zabriskie as the sinister soothsayer, and Diane Ladd as a dirt dishing tabloid TV reporter (her single scene is marvelous). More intriguing are blink and you’ll miss them moments with William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, and an amazing turn by Mary Steenburgen. As a cast completely capable of infusing their scenes with the many moods Lynch requires, the players involved are absolutely flawless – and that includes the many participants from Poland. Having to translate his dialogue into their native tongue before they could contribute, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Tinsel Town talent pool – sometimes, even stealing scenes from them.


This results in a kind of motion picture mesmerism. Even without completely understanding everything that’s going on, INLAND EMPIRE sucks you in and holds every fiber of your being. Lynch is such a complete filmmaker – focusing on every aspect of production, from design and lightning to editing and scoring – that he provides maximum enjoyment out of a minimum of cinematic standards. We get caught up in the mystery, though we readily recognize that there will be more confusion than clues. When individuals speak in the standard Lynchian riddles, we sit back and soak in every non-sequitor. There are moments of mean spirited menace here, as well as segments of sly social commentary and justifiable gender politics. A sequence where the white slaves dance to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” is as startling for how it arrives as for how abruptly it ends. Similarly, the big picture storyline suggests that all women are heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers and mistresses. While that may seem like a critical overreach, an in-depth dissection of INLAND EMPIRE’s many sequences surely backs up this appraisal.


Those hoping for insight via this new DVD will be rightly disappointed. Lynch is notoriously gun shy about clarifying his films, wanted them to be experienced, not explained. There is a wealth of deleted scenes – or as they are referred to here, “More Things That Happened”, and the aforementioned Q&A (entitled “Stories”) revolve around the production and his perspective on art. Heck, about the only solid thing we learn is that Lynch HATES most home video (watching any film on a phone or a computer is “sickening”, in his mind) and that he really enjoys a good batch of Quinoa. Other added features include a nine minute ballerina montage, a collection of trailers, a wealth of publicity and behind the scenes stills, and something referred to as “Lynch 2”. This humorous piece appears to be a backstage glimpse of the man in action, and let’s just say, he’s an ornery cuss at times.


Frankly, he has a right to be. All David Lynch really wants to do is make movies his way. He doesn’t want interference from bottom line loving studio suits, and doesn’t need to conform to the succinct scheduling a Tinsel Town supported effort would require. For him, the digital domain is the futuristic wave he’s been waiting to ride – and it has to be said, this is one amazing non-celluloid effort. Michael Mann may be the perceived reigning prince of this new motherboard medium, but INLAND EMPIRE puts the cinematography in Collateral/Miami Vice to shame. And since he can work at his own speed, spending less money while getting more “movie” in the process, this may mark a kind of renaissance for the mostly marginalized director. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how fascinating his oeuvre remains, even though he seems to take forever in between projects. Part of the problem is clearly financial. No one likes to throw dollars after indefinable art. They want sellable product, that’s all. David Lynch will always weigh the creative higher than the commercial. INLAND EMPIRE is a pristine example of these principles in action.



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