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Ebertfest, Day 1: The Fugitive (1993)

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Time has a funny effect on great movies.  Watching The Fugitive last night as the opening film for Champaign, Illinois’ 20th Annual Ebertfest was chance not only to catch up on a movie I hadn’t seen in at least a decade, but also to recapture the magic in a theater with an excited audience.

The effect, to be honest, is bittersweet.  While my wife and I were thrilled to see this film again, I came to realize that such a movie was made for a theater and that the small screen just doesn’t do it justice.  Andy Davis took what could have been just a simple-minded action throw-away and made it into something bigger, something smarter, something special and dare I say, something timeless.

The movie’s tension level is to be studied.  Some directors get 10 minutes, 20 minutes tops.  Davis winds up the tension in the first three minutes and it doesn’t let up for the next two hours, when the movie decompresses by Tommy Lee Jones: “Richard, I know you’re innocent!”  How many directors can claim to have maintain tension that long?

The opening is a rapid-fire editing job that makes JFK look subtle by comparison.  But it’s not a jumble of disconnected images, it is a master craft of cinematic shorthand that establishes a problem quickly – a murder, an arrest and a piece of misinformation that leads to a man falsely convicted of murdering his wife.  Perhaps if that man were played by anyone else, it might have seemed easy to dismiss, but it’s Harrison Ford, a national treasure and the close-ups during the interrogation set us on an emotional trek that we will follow for the rest of the film.

And then . . . that train wreck.

Rare is it that one scene has the power to thrill an audience who has seen the film over and over again.  Rare is it that a movie builds tension based on characters, motivations and not simply a collusion of edited images.  It’s exciting, and one of the great action scenes in film history.  The Fugitive turns 25 this year and rare has there been an action film that is this exciting.  Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bullet, Die Hard, Enter the Dragon, Jurassic Park or The Wild Bunch, this is a movie of pure filmmaking skill but also an eye on character, motivation and pure thrill.


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Posted by on 04/30/2018 in Uncategorized


The Trouble with the Bechdel Test

Image result for Room Brie Larson Image result for Gravity 2013 Image result for three billboards outside ebbing missouri
The Bechdel Test.  Sounds like a measuring tool for a geologist, right?

If you haven’t heard of it, chances are that now, in the age of #metoo and #timesup, you’re going to hear a LOT about it in the near-future.  Let me stress, a LOT!!  The Bechdel Test was inspired by a 1985 edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” which factors three things in a movie to note with regards to women in a movie:
1.) There must be two women in the scene.
2.) They must be engaged in conversation.
3.) They have to discuss something other than men.

The point, apparently is to measure the effectiveness of female characters in movies away from the need to pursue or think about their role with regards to the men in their lives.  In practice, this admittedly problematic scale

is generally a facilitation of the idea that a woman cannot function without a man on the brain, that women are written into movies outside of being an individual.  And, it might seem easy to wave off, but if you really dig into some of the greatest movies and/or most popular movies of all time – Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Lord of the Rings, and nearly every Disney movie – you find that The Bechdel Test either doesn’t equal or, in many cases, simply doesn’t matter.  While it could be used as an effective eye-opener – a scale on which to illustrate how women have been sidelined and misrepresented throughout the 123 year lifespan of the cinema – its use as a logical measuring tool is faulty, at best.

First of all, movies are not an absolute because you cannot cull them into a collective.  It is hard to measure any one thing.  There are around 250 major releases in a given year and then factor in the mass of smaller independent films, documentaries and foreign films.  The figures for the number of releases every year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, fluctuate but they estimate around 600 movies created each year.  And, just to be fair, we must factor in the mass of movies dropping on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc.  You’re looking at about 700 to 800 movies created within a calendar year.

So where are the statistics coming from?  If you engage the Bechdel Test, what are your criteria?  Are you sticking by the 250 major releases every year or are you taking into account the full mass of movies created for the entire year?  It would seem a fallacy not to, but who sees all 700+ movies in a given year?  Even the most dedicated of critics admit that their schedule forces them to miss certain movies.  And even if you do, how could anyone be exected to keep up with that many movies in a 12-month cycle.  That would be exhausting.

Plus, there is a problem in that The Bechdel Test generally ignores the individual performance.  Consider this: of the five nominees for Best Actress this year – Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep – none of them pass the Bechdel test, but it isn’t because of an oversight, it is because the nature of their roles doesn’t fit into the test’s parameters.  How is the test administered with films like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri wherein strong, individual women are surrounded by male co-stars given a situation of women dealing with difficult circumstances while wading in toxic masculinity?  Frances McDormand plays a woman dealing with a male-dominated township that has ignored and dragged its feet over her daughter’s murder.  There are no scenes of sitting down to coffee, she’s a mother eagle fighting for the justice of her child against a male-dominated populace.  This performance stands apart from the Bechdel Test because she rarely, if ever, has a female character to converse with.  That’s not a flaw in the screenwriting, it is just a reasonable outcome of the progression of the story.

Here is another individual performance – Sandra Bullock in Gravity.  She plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer marooned in space who spends 95% of the movie alone, floating around and trying to figure out how to get back to Earth.  She has no love interest and no co-star to converse with other than George Clooney who disappears early in the film.  Given that, Gravity fails the Bechdel Test right out of the gate.

Let’s look at another example, the Best Actress winner from two years ago, Brie Larson.  Larson won the Oscar for Room, a movie about a woman held captive for seven years in a small toolshed who eventually escapes with her son.  The only people that she really communicates with are her captor, her son and eventually her mother.  The nature of the role, and the circumstances of the character render the qualifications of the Bechdel test irrelevant.

These are only a couple of examples, but the basic point is that while women have been side-lined and misrepresented, whittling equality down to a scale or test is faulty and irresponsible.  A scale like this brings to light to misrepresentation but putting it to the test against much of what is being made right now is faulty and short-sighted.  It dismisses context and meaning and representation.  If two women are talking about a man, then why are they talking about men?  Does the test adhere to women talking about their fathers or brothers or cousins or their platonic friends?  Are they discussing marriage?  Divorce?  Couples counseling?  Having children?

Given this, The Bechdel Test would seem to assume that in order to validate any female character, then they would have to relieve themselves of all male-centric conversation.  That’s silly, its short-sighted and it’s irrelevant; as is any scale that tries to measure movies.  As I said, movies are not a collective, they are wide-spread in their intention and their goals.  Something like The Bechdel test is, ultimately, irrelevant.

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Posted by on 04/24/2018 in Uncategorized


The Pod Bay Doors, Episode #39: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018) and The Case for Christ (2017)

In this very special episode, Jerry and Doug cross the dimensional rift and re-enter PureFlix Land with a discussion on the most recent offerings from the studio: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness and The Case for Christ. Don’t kid yourself, these are just as awful as God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2, covered on Episode 16.

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Posted by on 04/06/2018 in Uncategorized


The Best Picture Winners: The Shape of Water (2017)

It would have been irresponsible for me to end this Best Picture journey with Moonlight.  So, here is a bonus – the newest entry in Oscar’s top-prize scrapbook . . .

The Best Picture winners, in many cases, have a way of signaling the times in which they were made.  That’s no less applicable for The Shape of Water which joins the list of Oscar’s big winners at a moment in history when the beacon call for diversity was sounded with furious anger over those who attempted to shut them out.  Here was a movie that gave sanction to those who felt themselves shut out of the world.  And signalling to those who had been made to feel like outcasts, it is oddly fitting that the movie comes wrapped in the guise of a monster movie.

Yes, The Shape of Water is technically a monster movie, albeit closer to Beauty and the Beast than Godzilla.  It has an aquatic creature who has human dimensions but the at the same time the anatomical characteristics of something that crawled from the sea (basically, its The Creature from the Black Lagoon).  And yet, here is a strange movie that upends the trope of the creature trying to kidnap or kill the heroine and has the two entering into a strange and kind-of touching love affair.  If it came from any other director, you might find this concept puzzling, but since this is a fairy tale that comes from Guillermo del Toro, the oddity of this story isn’t all that surprising.

You also know that del Toro is a director who is not going to rest his film on only one level.  The subtext is what gives the film its juice.  The movie is set in 1962 and the fishman isn’t the only unwanted creature in the room.  For one, there is a woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who is mute.  Her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman.  And Elisa next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged gay man.  In a dozen or more ways, this is a movie about oddities and outcasts pressed into a time in which social restrictions and Cold War paranoia were helping to keep them “in their place.”  Does the treatment of the aquatic gill man represent the treatment of the blacks, gays and the handicapped at the time?  Perhaps.

The Shape of Water is a movie about loneliness, no matter what your shape or affliction or orientation, pushed upon those who, at the time, society would rather not deal with.  This is 1962, when the space race, the Cold War and the rising tide of racial revolution are in the air.  Elisa and Zelda are cogs in the government machine, functionary custodians at a Baltimore government installation called OCCAM (get it?)  Their job is to keep their head down, and their eyes on their mop, but something strange is banging around in one of the labs.  It is – SPOILER ALERT – the fishman, which has been caught and is being treated like a rabid animal.  Elisa bonds with the creature, falls in love with it and eventually . . . yeah.  That happens.  The message, I suppose, is the exposition of love unhooked from bonded commonalities.  Elisa and the fishman bond in their mutual silence – a touch, a look, a feeling.  There is something genuine between the two.

That, at least, the film’s lovely fairy tale first half.  The second half is not as pliable and, for me, becomes an extended retread of E.T.  That doesn’t make the film bad, but it does kind of take the full-blooded spirit of the film’s first half and falls into a standard rescue while the bad guys attempt to recapture the creature and return him to his chains.  While I appreciate the love story that develops, I am left to wonder in what wild directions the film might have gone in its third act.  For that, I’m left with a very good film, not a great one.


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Posted by on 03/06/2018 in Uncategorized


Luis Rainer: Oscar’s (estranged) Little Darling


Luise Rainer spent the better part of her long life dismissing the film career that will forever be her legacy. When she passed away on December 30th, 2014 at the age of 104, one of the last remaining vestiges of old Hollywood’s Golden Age went with her. Yet it is not a legacy that she was particularly proud of, her film career blossomed in the 1930s, peaked, and then fizzled out by the mid-1940s. To any other actress, this might have seemed a detriment, but Rainer’s outlook on the glamour of Hollywood was so dismissive that she left it – according to her – with little to no regrets.

During the 1930s, Rainer was highly promoted by MGM with the kind of fanfare and mystique that the studio had gotten from Garbo. Rainer was German, a product of middle-class parents who always dreamed of becoming an actress. Yet, her time in Hollywood was brief due to her own refusal to play the studio game at a time when the major Hollywood studios put actors under a strict contract that seemed to have mafia-like overtones.

Rainer was more interested in the work than the image. “There were a lot of things I was unprepared for,” she said, “I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo.” In that time, she found herself frustrated by the male-dominated constraints on her time, on her image, and on her freedom as an artist. Aggravated over being an artist in a business that favored glamour over substance, she made her last film in 1945.

Even as brief as her Hollywood career was, Luise Rainer remains part of its glittering tapestry. In her later years, she lived quiet retirement in London, but returned occasionally to Hollywood to be honored. In 1998, at the age of 88, she attended the academy awards on the occasion of Oscar’s 70th birthday to be part of “Oscar’s Family Album” – a collection of actors and actresses who had received acting awards. She would come back in 2003 for Oscar’s 75th.

Yet, in practical terms, you have to wonder if Rainer’s career would have been remembered so fondly if she hadn’t been such an oddity in Oscar’s scrapbook. To date, she remains the only actress in history to win two back to back Best Actress awards and she was the oldest living Oscar recipient. At a time when Oscar was still in its infancy, she won her first Best Actress Oscar for what is obviously a supporting role as Anna Held in Robert Z. Leonard’s montobulous musical biopic of Florenz Ziefeld called The Great Zielfeld. It wasn’t the bulk of her performance that won her the Oscar so much as a celebrated telephone scene in which she breaks down in tears while attempting to fake happiness at the news that her ex-husband has just gotten engaged. Today, the scene is looked at with more curiosity than admiration. Personally, I hate every inch of the film.

Much better was the performance that got Rainer a second Oscar – that of O-Lan in Sidney Franklin and Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Though it is a struggle to convince yourself that a German actress playing a Chinese peasant isn’t a head-scratcher, her performance isn’t bad. In fact it’s quite good if you can get past the German accent that slips through her attempts to sound Asian.  I admire the film but I admit that I have to jump through a great deal of politically correct hoops to get there.  It is a testament to her acting talents that, despite this, she manages to make the part her own.

It’s crude to say that it was all downhill from there, but Rainer didn’t mind. She fought with MGM’s tyrannical studio head Louis B. Mayer who threatened: “We made you, we’re gonna break you,” to which Ms. Rainer proudly proclaimed “Mr. Mayer, God made me, and long after you’re dead I will still be alive.” Leaving Hollywood, and a disastrous marriage to playwright Clifford Odetts, Rainer retired from film work in 1945 and only emerged in later years for a bit part on “Love Boat” in 1984 and The Gambler in 1997. Not long after her split with Odetts, she married publisher Robert Knittell and stayed with him until his death in 1989.

One question that dogged Rainer in her whole life is where she kept her twin Oscars. Though humble about any kind of award or honor, she smiled sheepishly when asked this question by Joe Franklin in 1981. “I don’t like showing off Oscar. I like living in the present and the future.”

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Posted by on 02/27/2018 in Uncategorized


The Best Picture Winners: Crash (2005)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

For the rest of recorded cinematic history, it may be debated and questioned as to why Paul Haggis’ cartoonish and overblown diatribe on the current state racial hated in America might have been bestowed the Oscar for Best Picture.  There are a thousand theories, but many have pointed to a measure of discomfort among the Academy voters with the favored frontrunner, Brokeback Mountain.  Were voters much more comfortable with an overcooked melodrama about racism than with a love affair between two men?  That’s a question for history.

I’ve seen Crash twice in my life and I can say that I admire what it is trying to do.  It is trying to focus on the multi-faceted portrait of racial paranoia that is still persistent in our culture – much of which is certainly very valid.  But geez!  This movie mangles and mishandles the layers in a way that ends up being retroactive to its purpose.  It’s handling of the white characters is overblown; it’s handle of minorities is degrading (particularly African-Americans) and by the end you don’t feel enlightened, you feel unclean.  Again, while I greatly admire that film’s purpose, I question its execution.  There are better ways to handle this material, and ultimately, this just isn’t it.

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Posted by on 02/10/2018 in Uncategorized


The Best Picture Winners: Titanic (1997)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 36 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Much like Forrest Gump, James Cameron’s Titanic was a movie that, upon release, was greeted by enthusiastic audiences and raving critical reviews, but over time has been chided for being overcooked, overly-melodramatic and even cornball.  To that I say . . . yes, it IS cornball, but is cornball always a negative?

Titanic is a big, old-fashioned epic love story set against one of the most infamous human tragedies of the 20th century.  It does what all epic historical dramas do; it creates a sense of time and place, of purpose and history in a way that no other medium is able to do.  Stories and songs can be written but the movies encompass the best parts of all artistic mediums and give us a front row seat.  Cameron takes an event that we’ve all heard about and puts his filmmaking craft to work, utilizing the latest in computer effects, editing, sound, music and sets, he puts his hands around the event and brings it close enough for us to understand with unblinking clarity. As a storyteller he is a master.  He understands that our minds are likely to get lost in the chaos of the sinking of the ship, so his remedy is to stage a computer simulation at the beginning of the film (in the present day) that explains exactly how the ship was damaged, how the bulkheads took on water, and how the ship broke apart.  By the time we get to the scenes of the actual sinking, our minds are already oriented to what is happening.  In that way, we can then focus on the human element.

This human element is the most surprising aspect of Titanic.  It would have been simple enough to manufacture the story on the technical level without a human connection, or simply to have a multi-character Grand Hotel with the various passengers and their problems, but Cameron is mindful that in order to grasp our emotional investment, there needs to be a central story that leads us through the disaster.  That’s vitally important.  The emotional toll of this event was, for people of the early 20th century, what September 11th is for us today.  Without remembering the human toll, it simply becomes a historical curiosity and the event loses its importance.

The forward story is an old-fashioned tale about the poor lower-class kid who falls for the bird in the gilded cage, an upper-class woman who is facing a vacuous life of marriage to a man who sees her as a possession.  I don’t care what the critics say, I believe that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet create one of the great movie love stories of modern times.  It’s garish, corny and over-the-top and I love them both.

The youth of these two actors marks the film as kind of a time capsule.  Here were DiCaprio and Winslet, both in their 20s, young and beautiful, both at the start of brilliant careers.  Titanic featured only a small sampling of what they could do as actors. Winslet’s list of credits since Titanic are impressive; never seated in the comfortable spot of playing victims, her list of credits includes a long roster of strong women – some good, some bad, culminating with an Oscar for playing (against type) a former Nazi in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. DiCaprio would avoid the traps of using his good looks to cash an easy paycheck. By the time of Titanic, he was already known for his Oscar nominated work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and now has a roster that includes playing everything from J. Edgar Hoover to Howard Hughes and working under the direction of great directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and would win an Oscar for The Revenant in 2016. He and Winslet would work again, playing husband and wife in Sam Medes brilliant 2009 marital melodrama Revolutionary Road.

But even with all that, what of the backlash?  Why has Titanic earned detractors?  What element is pushing some critics and moviegoers away?  I really don’t know.  I can suppose that the movie isn’t hip or cool enough.  Maybe the overplay of the melodrama is too outsized.  I don’t really know what has pushed people away, all I know is that it hasn’t pushed this critic away.  It’s big, it’s overcooked, it’s hokey and I love every minute of it.  It has great drama, a great love story.  Is it faulty, sure, but what would the ship of dreams be without a leak or two?

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Posted by on 01/25/2018 in Uncategorized