Tag Archives: Roger Ebert

R.I.P. Sidney Lumet

Lost a giant this weekend; Sidney Lumet passed away at 86.

One of my favorite directors ever. Lumet’s films were almost always as much about morality and social conscience as they were good storytelling. No wonder that some of the finest actors of all time – Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Paul Newman among them – gave perhaps their finest performance under his leadership. You always got the sense that everyone involved in the production shared his passion for authenticity and depth.

Lumet worked heavily in theatre and in television, directing over two hundred productions for Playhouse 90, Studio One and Kraft Television Theatre before moving on to film. His first movie, 12 Angry Men, remains an all time classic over fifty years later. His last, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, proved he hadn’t lost a step. Hopefully his overlooked series 100 Centre Street will be released on DVD someday soon.

Amazingly, despite such a stellar career, he never won an Oscar for directing, although he was presented with the Academy Honorary Award in 2005 for his career achievements. He was nominated four times, for 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

He did, however, directed seventeen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Katharine Hepburn, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Chris Sarandon, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Beatrice Straight, William Holden, Ned Beatty, Peter Firth, Richard Burton, Paul Newman, James Mason, Jane Fonda and River Phoenix.

When someone from the arts passes, I like to celebrate their life through that art by listening to some of their music, or watching one of their films. With Lumet, there is a wealth to choose from but I will probably pull this one off the shelf.

Roger Ebert wrote a nice remembrance.

A very informative New York Times obituary.

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One Week to Oscar; Thumbs Up to Gene Siskel

It only seems appropriate that Gene Siskel was born the month before the Oscar telecast, just in time to measure up the prior year and share his opinions on who would win and who deserved to. Today, twelve years after his death, Siskel remains an indelible mark on the film critic landscape, a trailblazer in the form. Given his absence and Roger Ebert’s health struggles, the Siskel and Ebert shows I treasured for so many years are now a bittersweet memory.

As one who makes top ten lists, I always looked forward to theirs. Click here for a list of Gene’s Top Ten, year by year, from 1969 through 1998. Of course, the Worst Movies of The Year lists were fun as well. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always enjoyed listening to him defend his choices.

I’ll make my Oscar guesses next weekend. Wonder what Gene would pick?

Happy Birthday, Mr. Siskel. It’s just not the same without you.

The official Gene Siskel website

Top 10s from both during the Siskel and Ebert years

The Gene Siskel Film Center

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At The Movies: First Take

And so it begins, again

The latest incarnation of the classic film review show is called Roger Ebert Presents: At The Movies, and the first episode hit the airwaves tonight, back on PBS stations where it belongs. The format is largely the same – two critics discussing films – although they have added some additional resources focusing on issues like classic cinema and film as social impact. And yes, those seats are once again in the balcony.

The critics are Christy Lemire (from the Associated Press) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Chicago Reader, blogger for Mubi.com). Skewing even younger than the roundly trounced Two Bens model, the rapport between the two seems comfortable, although time will always tell in that regard.

I immediately liked Lemire, who looks like a cross between Natalie Portman and Meredith Viera. She’s well-spoken, makes and defends her points well, and looks comfortable in the lead role. And I’ll play both sides of the gender coin by saying that it’s good to finally see a woman as a regular on this show, and she is as attractive as she is smart. I’m not yet sold on Iggy; he tends to tangent into a review of a different film in an effort to validate his points on the one he’s reviewing, and he sometimes doesn’t find his way back to close the loop.

They’re off to a funny start – he likes everything, she didn’t like anything.

The one side featurette was interesting, as Kim Morgan was shot in a hazy black-and-white motif discussing The Third Man. Her analysis touched on the famous score, the use of angles, lights and shadows, and (of course) Orson Welles and one of the most famous movie entrances in film history. Morgan’s review was probably the highlight of the show, and if the idea is having her discuss a classic film every episode, well…thumbs up from me.

Video: Kim Morgan on The Third Man

Lem made an odd comment afterwards (“she would not steer us wrong“) which made me wonder how an AP critic could have gone this long without having seen the film, but it was probably bad phrasing. And Welles made another appearance of sorts, as someone imitating his voice narrated a video that gave viewers a peek behind the scenes to meet “the new guys”, as it were.

Speaking of famous voices, much has been made about the part of the show where Roger will join in using a specific computer program that “speaks” hs voice as he types. In the course of his long career, Ebert has probably used every viable word in he English language, so inflection aside, this looked interesting. A few months ago a Youtube clip showed this process, but the heavily digitized voice sounded like Stephen Hawking; an electronic monotone just like you’ve heard from every talking computer in sci-fi history. I figured they were keeping the real thing under wraps for the show’s debut.

When the big moment arrived and Roger started to “speak”, I was horrified – “he sounds like Schwarzenegger!” I exclaimed. Thankfully the next words I heard were “this is Werner Herzog reading Roger’s words”. I don’t know if this idea is a placeholder while they continue to work on the Ebert voice application, or a creative decision to use guest narration, but I really hope it’s the latter. What better tribute for a great writer than to have a parade of actors, directors and other film giants bring them to life every week?

But idiosyncracies aside, I’m thrilled to have the program back on the air and look forward to watching it every Sunday. The closing credits included two nice touches – a clip of the original program’s intro featuring a very young Roger and Gene Siskel, and the production company’s title card with an animated Roger in an homage to Harry Lime’s famous entrance. And I will never tire of seeing this wonderful video that will open and/or close each episode.

Roger Ebert’s journal and website

At The Movies official website

Outguess Ebert – nail all 24 Oscar winners and win a share of $100.000!

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Roger Ebert, 2011

Santa arrived ten days early.

Wednesday, following up on past announcements, came the word that Roger Ebert Presents At The Movies is set to debut next month. While the balcony remains, its occupants will be different, as will the participation of the namesake. The new show, produced by Roger’s wife, looks to maintain the focus of the original show while updating the set and turning the reins (mostly) over to others, since Ebert has been unable to speak for close to three years.

From the announcement:

“The show will return to WTTW, Chicago Public Television, where Gene Siskel and I first taped “Sneak Previews” in 1975. The station still has our original seats, but we are constructing an all new set. Our critics of course will be back in the iconic balcony, and will be using the famous “thumbs up / thumbs down” rating system. Next week, executive producer Chaz Ebert will make an announcement regarding the co-hosts and contributing critics for the new show. She will also describe our website, with new and original content.

For me, this is the continuation of a journey that began 35 years ago with a local WTTW program at first titled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.” My wife Chaz and I have been working for two years with many others to bring the format back to television. I believe we will present critics in the show’s long tradition. Chaz is taking the leadership responsibilities as Executive Producer. I will be involved in all aspects, and will contribute regular segments of my own.”

VIDEO: A teaser with Christy Lemiere and Elvis Mitchell as the hosts.

Supposedly Mitchell is already off the program; not certain whether Lemiere will survive. But after viewing the clip I could see what they meant about the Mitchell/Lemiere dynamic – there was no apparent connection between the two. I’ve never found Mitchell to be a presence; even on his own interview program he seemed detached and out-of-place. Some people are better off behind the camera; Mitchell might be one of them. When the Ebert/Roeper show was initially cancelled, Ebert and Richard Roeper announced that they would move on to another project together. Why not Roeper in that other chair?  

My personal choice would be Ben Makiewicz, although both he and Ebert might be thinking once bitten twice shy. The colossal failure of the “Two Bens” version of the show had everything to do with the initial gimmick-laden format and the preening superficiality of Ben Lyons; Mankiewicz looked like the lone adult trying to take the high road. Lyons has since found a perfect role at the star-sucking E Entertainment network; Mank has settled back in to Turner Classic Movies where he and Robert Osborne are a constant gift to viewers.

The most disturbing part of that clip is the horrific digitized voice in Roger’s segment. We’ve all heard about the dynamic project to assemble a database of Roger’s own voice from his decades of sound clips; like many I assumed that meant Roger would type an essay and the computer would “read” it using those assigned clips of Roger’s voice like an audio ransom note. Lets hope this generic Stephen Hawking-like clipped speech is merely a placeholder until the real thing is ready. If not, I would rather they hire an impressionist to fake it. Or use five minutes of the show to revisit an older title using the actual voice and image of a younger Roger Ebert.

So Santa – there’s still work to do. But thank you for Ebert in 2011.

Here is the list of stations carrying the show.

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At The Movies No More

I knew this was coming down the pike ever since the announcement many months ago, but having just watched the very last episode of At The Movies, I’m still a little saddened.

Like many, I grew up watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert over the years, and thanks to their passion and savvy and wit I was exposed to far more films than I ever would have discovered on my own. Long before the Internet – hell, before cable television, the local PBS station would air the show at what usually was an ungodly hour. And since there were no VCRs yet either, only by living a lifestyle that found me awake at those ungodly hours allowed me to luck into their program.

They had a tremendous run and became celebrities themselves, their faux rivalry and fights always good for a joke with Johnny Carson or David Letterman, but it was obvious to anyone watching their interaction that Gene and Roger were brothers under it all. Brothers fight and brothers sometimes say hurtful things, but brothers share a bond that survives the worst of times. Brothers have each other’s back when the chips are down. Sadly, Gene was taken from us way too soon; Ebert’s eulogies and remembrances of Siskel are some of the most heartfelt words I’ve ever read.

Ebert soldiered on with a few guest partners before teaming with Richard Roeper for over six years before his own health forced him to take a back seat. Roeper in turn honored Ebert by engaging with a roundtable of guest critics until the program was disastrously revamped to attract a younger demographic with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz as hosts. I’ve already beat that dead horse.

When Buena Vista finally realized what everyone else had a year earlier, out went the Bens and in came two of the guests from the Roeper era, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. The show reverted to the tried-and-true format of simply showing clips and talking about the movies without all the whiz-bang fluff that was tried the year before. (In other words, the IQ level of the show broke triple digits again). But the damage had been done.

Although it’s not an expensive show to produce, technology now allows movie fans instant access to full trailers, films-on-demand, phenomenal promotional videos and hundreds of websites that distill critical analysis of the latest films and even collect them in a central location. Just like online news feeds are making the physical newspaper obsolete, a show with two talking heads is not as unique as it was in those dark and desperate pre-cable days, no matter how good the hosts are. There are entire networks devoted to clip shows, and ironically they’re aired on one in my town, just another block of time in a highlight world.

The last show went out with a classy look back at its origins and a hint that maybe Scott and Phillips have some future plans up their sleeve. Ebert and Roeper have also mentioned in the past that they were looking at other options. These guys are still around, and I’ll still read them however I can, even as I browse some of those websites that no doubt took their idea and expanded upon it. I won’t have to miss their thoughts and words.

But after thirty-five years, I will miss my weekly fix on television.

At The Movies history

At The Movies official website.

Roger Ebert’s blog.

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Award Weekend Redux

The Hurt Locker. And James Cameron was shoved into it.

Lame. Tame. And almost predictable

That’s the story of Award Weekend, where despite the stellar comedic talents of Eddie Izzard, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, jokes fell flatter than a pancake. Or in other words, as tired as that analogy. No, this isn’t sour grapes because I only went 6-for-10 on my predictions (more on that later) but it’s a little sad when the biggest event of the film year isn’t…well, big

First, the 82nd Annual Academy Awards 

I watched the show with my daughter; she Tweeted while I scribbled notes on the back of a nominee ballot. From her laughter, it seemed like the jokes on Twitter were funnier than the ones on the telecast. 

At the end of the show I used the power of my mind to read James Cameron‘s thoughts… “I wonder how drunk I can get for two billion dollars?” (Which at least will clear his mind of his prior thought – “Why did I dump Kathryn Bigelow to hook up with Skeletor?“) 

I start to wonder whether the Oscar crew does know who’s going to win when I see them do things like have Barbara Streisand present the Best Director Award; how ironic that she didn’t win for Yentl, yet gets to be part of the breakthrough moment. (How uncomfortable a comment would she have dared utter if Bigelow lost? And if Lee Daniels had won…would Spike Lee be pissed that he was snubbed for that sweet presenter slot?) When Streisand tried to milk the moment by stating “the time has come“, poor Daniels looked like Stephen Boyd during the climactic scene from The Oscar.

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Mo’Nique gave an awesome performance and deservedly took home the award (why are people still shocked that stand-up comics can be great dramatic actors?) and I appreciate that she wore a blue dress and flower in her hair to match Hattie McDaniel. But when the speeches started flowing about following in Hattie’s footsteps and how after so many years it was time, I so wanted to slip her a note to remind her that Halle Berry already cashed that chip several years ago

How ironic that Chris Pine had to introduce a groundbreaking science fiction film, when Star Trek wasn’t even nominated after the category was expanded to ten movies? 

After watching the music from Crazy Heart win so many awards, I realize just how much better it would if Steven Bruton was still around. 

Did Robert Downey Jr. actually pronounce the word specificity? Proof positive that his rehab problems are behind him. Finally a moment of humor as he and Tina Fey exchanged writer/actor barbs, but he won by calling writers “sickly little mole people” (a line, of course,  that has Tina Fey’s hand print all over it). 

Nice John Hughes tribute until Judd Nelson creeped me out visually with his almost-Downey look. Molly Ringwald would have scared me worse, but she was brought out previously, and slower. 

Not to kick a dog when it’s down, but how does a move that is about eighty percent animated win for Best Cinematography? Just sayin’. 

Ever want to run to see a movie two seconds into the trailer? Must, must, must go see Logorama ASAP. And how funny was Nicolas Schmerkin‘s acceptance speech thanking his “three thousand unofficial sponsors” and saying “no logos were harmed in the making of this film”? Then closes with a knockout punch: “It took, like, six years to make this sixteen minutes, so I hope to come back here with a long feature film, in about…thirty-six years.”  So a Frenchman with a thick accent not only has better comic timing than our hosts – but better writers, too? 

And why was Kanye West dressed up like a fat drunk woman in a bad Snuggie when he interrupted poor Roger Ross Wilson‘s acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short? (Yes, I know it wasn’t Kanye, but to mention the real name of that boorish cow would only extend her Warholian fifteen minutes. I’m hoping that the Japanese fishermen from The Cove watched the exchange, mistook her for a dolphin, and fileted the bitch backstage.) 

Better hosts would have jumped on that horribly rude moment and ridden it like a pony for the rest of the night. Billy Crystal would, and I know that Ricky Gervais would have had a field day. Are you telling me no one in that stable of writers could come up with a smack-down? Maybe they should have been tweeting for help

Ben Stiller needs to be involved in every awards show. And while James Cameron seemed to be grimacing like Stiller somehow didn’t have the Na’Vi language down perfectly, he should at least have appreciated Stiller’s close: “After I announce the winner I will stand as far away as possible so I don’t demean their moment of triumph“. (Seriously – how could Avatar not be nominated for Best Makeup? Hollywood really hates someone.) 

Star Trek won more Oscars than Avatar last night. Ouch

Was it me, or did the ceremony at the Governor’s Ball featuring Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman look like waaaay more fun that the main ceremony? The jokes were funnier and the tributes more sincere. 

Robin Williams, check. Testicle joke, check

Rude moment number two – The Costume Bitch starting off her acceptance speech by saying “I already have two of these” and then somehow getting more derogatory from there. Last. Nomination. Ever. 

My first thought upon seeing Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart come out to introduce the tribute to horror films: “Bite each other and die“. No montage is ever going to be perfect, but there were many startling omissions and a few (Edward Scissorhands??) that were head-shakingly out of place. Not to mention that the promo for Happy Town that aired during the commercial break looked scarier than anything in that clip reel. 

Sound Editing – any time we get to see more of The Dark Knight is OK by me. Tell me again how that movie did not even get nominated for Best Picture

In Memorium: I love James Taylor, but this is a tribute that deserves silence or a best a subtle orchestral score. Especially when you sing lyrics like “some are dead and some are living” as the montage of clips slides by. (What does James know that we don’t?) 

Late in the show I’m wondering whether Alec Baldwin is offstage yelling at his daughter’s voicemail, because it sure seemed like Steve Martin was soloing for almost an hour. 

Unfortunately for the producers, one of the highlights of the evening was shown during the commercial break. 

I finally aligned with the world of Twitter when I let out an audible “WTF?” when Dancing With No Stars came out to misinterpret the Best Score nominees. According to daughter Eli, that was the white-hot Tweet of the moment. (For the record, the biggest score in Oscar history was Adrien Brody bending Halle Berry over for a deep dive smooch at the 2003 ceremony.) 

More proof the writers don’t know a good joke, nor did audience: When El Secreto de sus Ojos won for Best Foreign Film, the producer opened with this gem: “”I want to thank the Academy for not considering Na’Vi a foreign language“. Dead silence. Come on, people! 

I get it, Sean Penn. You’re a rebel. Yawn

Best Actor and Best Actress gimmick: hate, hate, hate the one-on-one tributes to the nominees. Besides the fact that the show is already dreadfully long and the back story for each nominee has been rehashed a thousand times, what does the fact that this actor is a humanitarian or this actress is a good mother have to do with their performance? Or are you finally admitting, Hollywood, that it is about politics and favoritism rather than the best performance of the year? At least it produced a couple of good lines, thanks to Stanley Tucci and Tim Robbins (“It is Ted, isn’t it?“). 

No big shock on the four major acting awards. Jeff Bridges (has it really been almost forty years since his nomination for The Last Picture Show?) proved once again that The Dude abides. Sandra Bullock disappointed me by not getting all Sally Field on us and Christoph Waltz finally made an acceptance speech I could understand (his prior speeches sounded more like ideas for future Quentin Tarantino movies). 

I was surprised that Hollywood was able to ignore a movie that has already grossed two and a half billion dollars (and still selling) in favor of a movie that struggled to get financing, distribution and promotion and tackled a controversial subject. But I couldn’t be happier for director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal

Spirits? Many were served.

The less said about Friday’s 25th Annual Independent Spirit Awards, the better. Maybe it was the decision to move the event from a beach tent to…well, a tent in a parking lot. Maybe the booze started flowing earlier. But when Eddie Izzard bombs so badly that he has to start improvising with props and free-stlying in the audience to wake up the seated corpses, that’s a sad day for what used to be the most lively and raucous awards of them all. 

Then again, Izzard refused to let his “God is Dead” joke die, insisting on reviving it every time he came back on stage if for nothing else than to punish the audience. There were very few funny moments, but thankfully Will Arnett and Ed Helms saved the day when presenting the John Cassavetes Award, as did Ben Stiller’s speech and the clip reel of Roger Ebert viciously panning movies. (I was thrilled to see that Ebert was present for the event, as was the crowd that gave him an extended standing ovation.) 

Sorry, but Laura Dern being one of the original fourteen people present when the Independent Spirit Awards was founded makes me feel really old. If it was Bruce Dern, maybe I’d feel better. 

As for the winners, it was a big night for Precious. I’m sorry…I meant to say Precious Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire©®™ 

(Someone should tell the producers that every movie is based on something, which is why we have Original and Adapted screenplay nominations, but I guess that wasn’t good enough for the author. Or would that have screwed up the tie-in to Oprah’s Book Club?) 

Lynn Shelton wins for Humpday. Yes


And I was thrilled that Anvil won for Best Documentary, and anyone who has seen that movie – a real, live Spinal Tap – had to be moved when stunned band member Steve “Lips” Kudlow came back onstage and hugged the filmmaker, thanking him for changing his life. I still cannot believe that Anvil was not even nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. 

And now it starts all over again! 

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Dinner with Roger Ebert

The heart and mind are fine, thank you.

I’m no Esquire reader. 

I abhor the very concept of a “men’s magazine” almost as much as their subliminal reel-you-in tactic of branding articles with the plural possessive (“Women We Love“, boasts one sidebar ad at their site). Nor do I give a rat’s ass who the “Seventy-Five Best Dressed Men of All Time” are, whether I’m on there or not. I gave up on Playboy when I was old enough to try real women. I don’t want to frequent any magazine presumptuous to claim that they speak for me, as if I’m some vanilla bean in…well, a bag full of vanilla beans, I guess. 

Just write well and publish the damned thing, and either I’ll find it myself or someone will tip me off that I should check something out. It’s faster these days, a link in an email rather than a photocopy in a number ten envelope. 

So today I did read Esquire, and I want you to read this too, because the feature interview with Roger Ebert will both inspire you and break your heart. Part of that is due to the subject himself, who has lost the ability to speak, eat and drink because cancer has claimed his lower jaw. It’s also because of the skill of Chris Jones, the writer, to whom I tip my hat and raise my pint glass…and since I had to put a hat on just to do that, know that it’s high praise. 

Click here to read the interview. 

I’ve written before about the incredible blog that Roger Ebert writes and hosts, and for God’s sake, if you haven’t made it a regular stop on the Ether Highway, please do so now. Somehow he has managed to attract and corral an incredible global community that avoids name-calling, basement bravado and…well, general stupidity among its members and their posts. It’s been said that the comments section of his blog is better material than most websites’ primary content, and although that’s immeasurable, I’d bet on it if forced. 

A recent post of his centered upon the his loss – and the Esquire article – and Ebert discussed his feelings about the matter, including a poignant and humorous recall of old meals and flavors that he would no longer be able to enjoy except by sense memory. But more so than the food itself, his biggest loss was the conversation that accompanies a good dinner. 

And then he wrote this

“So that’s what’s sad about not eating. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, “Remember that time?” I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this blog. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.” 

Wow. 

Please join me for dinner with Roger whenever you can. 

And there's always a seat for Gene, too.

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