King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen


Who loves ya, baby?!?

(2017) Documentary (Dark Star) Larry Cohen, Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Yaphet Kotto, Leonard Maltin, J.J. Abrams, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Cynthia Costas-Cohen, Mick Garris, Barbara Carrera, F.X. Feeney, Laurene Landon, Daniel Pearl, Eric Bogosian, Janelle Webb, David J. Schow, Megan Gallagher. Directed by Steve Mitchell

Back in the 1970s, B movies in many ways reached their nadir. Guys like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and Melvin van Peebles were cranking out low-budget (or no-budget) horror flicks, exploitation movies of all manner and of course the Blaxploitation films that changed cinema as we know it. Among the icons of that era was Larry Cohen.

Cohen remains active today in films, a career spanning now six decades (he sold his first screenplay at 17 and will turn 77 this summer). He is credited with creating the Blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar (1973) and wrote and directed three of horror’s most revered films: Q (1982), It’s Alive (1974) and The Stuff (1985).

This clips-and-interview documentary has made the rounds of genre film festivals around the world (and other festivals, including our own Florida Film Festival this past April) and is shortly going to get a brief theatrical run before hitting VOD in August. The list of those giving testimony to Cohen’s lasting influence on moviemaking include such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Mick Garris and Dante; actors he worked with including Yaphet Kotto, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williams, Robert Forster, Barbara Carrera,  Eric Bogosian, Laurene Landon and his close friend Michael Moriarty (who appeared in several of Cohen’s films) also appear.

The best part of the movie is Cohen himself. He’s a natural storyteller and his writing process is often unique. Around his house he has bits and pieces of ideas that he is busy turning into screenplays. H is a prolific writer, starting his career in television as one and working for live TV back in the 50s. He also created such shows as Branded and The Invaders. However, despite being the creator of these shows, the producers and studios generally wielded creative control of his own creations. This frustrated him to the point where he determined to make his own films his own way. Without millions of dollars to back him, he made films guerrilla-style, often shooting without permits in the streets of New York, staging certain stunts and then whisking his cast and crew away before the cops could arrive.

He is generally regarded with much affection even among those who are part of the studio system these days; Scorsese praises him as “the last of the maverick generation.” Cohen wasn’t (and isn’t) afraid to step beyond cultural mores and look closely at the darker side of life. While his films often had female nudity and much gore, his female characters were often much more than the standard victim or damsel in distress that most women in genre films were at the time.

One gets some glimpses of the inner Larry. He talks reverently about the great composer Bernard Herrmann (of the iconic Psycho score) and how they became close until his passing. One can see that his death hit the director hard. Those are the moments that elevate a documentary.

If I have any faults with the documentary it’s that it feels a bit hagiographic. In other words, this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary but I suppose it doesn’t really have to be. If Cohen is presented without warts, who am I to complain? The man certainly seems nice enough. There may be those, like myself, who are not overly fond of talking head interviews and there are  a whole lot of them here. I grant you that this movie is really aimed primarily at those who are aware of his filmography and have seen many of these movies already. If you’re not that familiar with his work I’d recommend going to see some of his movies before watching this documentary. I think that would be much more edifying.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at grindhouse cinema and one of its greatest auteurs.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fawns over its subject a little bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity in the various film clips from Cohen’s career.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cohen grew up in the Bronx and majored in film at City College of New York, graduating in 1963.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Borg/McEnroe

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Hitchcock/Truffaut


The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

(2015) Documentary (Cohen) Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Matthieu Amalric (voice), Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Directed by Kent Jones

Greatness isn’t a title we’re allowed to proclaim for ourselves; it is rather bestowed upon us by those who follow in our footsteps. And, hopefully, an honor bestowed upon a favored few.

Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut are worthy of such accolades. Hitchcock, once lauded as the Master of Suspense, was mainly relegated to the standing of a competent director of popular entertainment. It wasn’t until Nouvelle Vague darling Truffaut interviewed him and wrote a book about their conversation that Hitchcock began to be taken more seriously by film cognoscenti.

Much of the documentary is about the conversation between the two legends, with audiotape from the actual interviews that are augmented by film clips and commentary by ten modern directors who are clearly influenced by Hitchcock in particular. I don’t know that the commentary augments the book with much insight other than as to how Hitchcock has influenced modern movies, particularly in how carefully he framed and set up his shots. You might not know it from looking at him, but Hitch was a driven artist who labored intensely to make his vision come to life.

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s disdain for actors and in many ways he used them as living props. He was a visual storyteller more than anything, which makes sense considering he got his start in silent cinema. He worked with some of the great names in Hollywood – Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Tony Perkins, Janet Leigh and so on – but for him, they meant little other than how they looked in the shot. He was a master storyteller however and he always got the best from his actors, no matter how much they personally disliked him.

The thing is though; I’m not sure why this documentary exists at all. The book that it is about is a landmark book that essentially provides readers with a Film Directing 101 course and continues to do so to this day. Anyone interested in going into movie production should make it required reading. But the question is what does this documentary give you that you couldn’t get from reading the book yourself?

The answer is not much. Sure some of the director commentary helps, and Jones – whose day job is as a film historian (he also has collaborated in the past with Scorsese, a well-known film buff) – provides some historical context to Hitchcock’s career. Some of the footage of his older films from the silent era and in England in the 30s was stuff I hadn’t seen. I wish there had been more of it.

Certainly there is plenty of interest here and if you haven’t read the book, this is a fine introduction to it. I read it back when I was in middle school and high school and my lifelong love of film was in part primed by it and other such tomes (The MGM Story, for example) for which I’m duly grateful. However, recommending this has to come with a codicil – read the book. If you have more than a passing interest in movies, you should read it anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights to some of his classics. Gives a great director his due.
REASONS TO STAY: Couldn’t ya just read the book? Glosses over most of his films other than Vertigo and Psycho.
FAMILY VALUES: Some images of violence as well as suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The conversations, recorded on audiotape and partially on film, took place over a week in a conference room on the Universal lot in 1962.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: In the Heart of the Sea

New Releases for the Week of December 18, 2015


Star Wars Episode VII The Force AwakensSTAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Max von Sydow, John Boyega, Simon Pegg, Lupita Nyong’o. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The wait is finally over as the most eagerly anticipated movie in maybe a decade finally debuts in theaters and everyone is going gaga over it. I’d give a plot summary here but does it really matter? The reviews have been strong, word of mouth is as usual critical from the fanboys and aging fans are reliving their youth all over the globe, and that can’t be a bad thing. Merry Christmas, Disney accountants!

See the trailer, promos, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip

(20th Century Fox) Jason Lee, Justin Long (voice), Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Matthew Gray Gubler (voice). The chipmunks and Dave take their act on the road. Just as long as it takes them away from wherever I am.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

The Assassin

(Well Go USA) Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Dahong Ni. A young woman, abducted as a child from her home by a general of the army, trained into adulthood to be an assassin, is ordered to kill the man she is betrothed to. She must discover why she was chosen for this job and in doing so confront her past before she makes the choice to leave the only life she’s ever known or murder the only man she’s ever loved.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Bajirao Mastani

(Eros International) Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Mahesh Manjrekar. In ancient India, a cunning general and his second wife are fated to be caught in events that are sweeping through the sub-continent. This true story has the production values of an epic and may be one of the most sumptuously filmed movies to ever come out of that country.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance Adventure
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Citiplex, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Dilwale

(Red Chillies) Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Kriri Sanon, Varun Dhawan. A little bit like Romeo and Juliet, two families that compete in business, in politics and in just about everything else are separated when one family moves away. Fifteen years afterwards, the children meet again and sparks fly – as well as romantic ones.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Hitchcock/Truffaut

(Cohen) Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Matthieu Amalric (voice), Martin Scorsese. One of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking is the interview between French New Wave director Truffaut and the Master of Suspense Hitchcock. Two of the all-time best in the business (many say Hitchcock was the best) talk about directing with a candidness that they might never have given during a mainstream interview. The book made from the interview has influenced many of the greatest directors of this generation; excerpts from the original interviews and commentary on what the book meant to their careers are included.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material and violent images)

Sisters

(Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John Cena, Maya Rudolph. Two very different sisters – one a divorced mouse, the other a single party animal, come home to discover their parents are putting their childhood home up for sale. Distraught, they decide to relive their glory years one last time with a blow-out party that will perhaps provide the catharsis they need and the laughs that we need.

See the trailer, clips, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use)

The Departed


You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

(2006) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Corrigan, James Badge Dale, David Patrick O’Hara, Mark Rolston, Robert Wahlberg, Kristen Dalton, Thomas B. Duffy, J.C. MacKenzie, Mary Klug, Peg Saurman Holzemer. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Our identity is often complicated. There’s the person we allow ourselves to be perceived to be, then there’s the person we really are. Often the two are entirely different people.

In Boston, Frank Costello (Nicholson) is king – the king of hoods. He is the most powerful mob boss in the city and he has his corrupting fingers in just about every civic institution. One of his most important pieces is the mole he has in the police department, Colin Sullivan (Damon). Recruited as a youngster, the squeaky-clean choirboy type Sullivan went through the police academy with flying colors and serves under Captain Ellerby (Baldwin) and using his intimate knowledge of ongoing investigations of Costello is able to move Costello’s assets around the city so that the crusty old mob boss doesn’t get caught with his pants down.

Captain Queenan (Sheen) of the BPD wants to catch Costello in the worst way and he knows he needs to send someone deep inside to do it. Billy Costigan (di Caprio) is the perfect undercover; a Southie with a history, and family ties to the Mob, Corrigan turns out to be a perfect fit. However, before long both Queenan and Costello begin to realize that their organizations have been infiltrated. Now begins a cat and mouse game to find the moles; the stakes are life and death for Costigan and Sulliva, as well as for those around them.

The Departed is a fairly faithful remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and will be remembered if for nothing else but as the movie that won Martin Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director. There are those that grouse that it is not his best movie (it isn’t) but it was deserving nonetheless; the movie is certainly one of Scorsese’s best works.

Part of what makes it work is that this movie is as tense as any I have ever seen. From the moment that the two opposing forces discover that they have a rat in their midst the race is on to discover who it is and the fact that we end up rooting for both Sullivan and Costigan makes the tension all the more intense.

Another factor in the movie’s success is that the film is chock full of memorable characters, cast with stellar actors who deliver incredible performances. Both Damon and di Caprio are at the top of their game, and Nicholson delivers his best performance since he snarled at Tom Cruise that he couldn’t handle the truth in A Few Good Men.

The supporting cast is just as amazing. I think Mark Wahlberg came into his own with his portrayal of the foul-mouthed Lt. Dignam, Queenan’s right hand man. Ray Winstone is menacing and unforgettable as Costello’s enforcer, Mr. French. Vera Farmiga showed her star power in her role as Madolyn, the police psychologist who enters into relationships with both Costello and Corrigan as well.

There is a ton of violence here (which is a Scorsese trademark), perhaps too much for some. There is also a whole lot of profanity – there are more F bombs (or variations thereof) for any Best Picture winner in Oscar history. Those who are sensitive to such matters, take heed.

Good as this is, the source movie from Hong Kong is just as good. While it can be seen with subtitles, an effective translation program can be helpful as well – if you choose to go that route, I’d recommend Smartling, which is primarily a business translation software. You can find out more about it at the link above.

What makes The Departed so compelling is that Costigan and .Sullivan are so obviously two sides of the same coin, and the cops and the mobs more alike than unalike which is an unsettling thought in and of itself. While the profanity and violence may put some off, they are utilized so beautifully that they become a kind of poetry within the confines of the movie. Given the top-notch performances throughout the movie, this is, like so many of Scorsese’s other films, a must-see for any film buff and it remains to this point my favorite American remake of a foreign film.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing cast. The tension in this movie is delightfully unbearable. One of Scorsese’s best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too violent for some.
FAMILY VALUES: As is par for the course with Scorsese films, the violence is strong and often brutal and the foul language pervasive. There’s also some sexual content and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scorsese wanted to shoot the film in Boston where it is set, but due to political concerns and cost concerns he was only able to shoot a few weeks in the city. For most of the film, New York City – where Scorsese was able to get tax benefits for filming – doubled for Beantown. After the success of the film, Massachusetts enacted a 25% tax break for movies filming in the state.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition and  2-Disc Special DVD edition have a featurette on real-life gangster Whitey Bulger (who Frank Costello was based on and who is getting a movie of his own this fall) as well as the TCM documentary Scorsese on Scorsese.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $289.9M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boondock Saints
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Catch .44

Casino (1995)


Bright lights, sin city.

Bright lights, sin city.

(1995) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, Pat Vincent, John Bloom, Pasquale Cajano, Melissa Prophet, Bill Allison, Vinny Vella, Phillip Suriano, Erika von Tagen, Joseph Rigano, Gene Ruffini, Dominick Grieco, Millicent Sheridan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

There’s no doubt that director Martin Scorsese is an American treasure. When all is said and done he will go down as one of the great directors of all time – up there with Truffault, Hitchcock, Sturges, Ford, Capra, Kurosawa and Ray. One of the elite.

Casino is one of his masterpieces. Some of his fans believe it is his best, although when you put it up next to Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed that’s a tough claim to make, but there is certainly some argument to be made for it. In my own case, I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for it, particularly since Da Queen and I visit Las Vegas so often, there’s a particular fascination not just for the setting but the era as well.

Based on the lives of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Geri McGee and Anthony Spilotro, the movie takes place in the waning days of the mob in Vegas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is an expert gambler who has made himself useful to the mob as a sports handicapper, one of the best in the business. He is sent to Vegas by the Teamsters-fronted Outfit to run the Tangiers, and soon doubles their earnings, which delights the bosses back in Chicago.

What is most important to the bosses is the skim, the amount of cash that is taken off the top of the casino’s earnings and sent directly to mob accountants to be hidden, while never appearing in the casino’s balance sheet and thus never getting taxed. As long as the skim is healthy, the bosses are happy and as long as the bosses are happy, Sam’s life expectancy stays reasonable.

His boyhood friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is sent to Vegas to be the enforcer, but his brutality and high-strung temperament eventually get him banned from every important casino in Vegas, so he has to resort to burglary to supplement his income. The mob bosses aren’t happy with Nicky but they more or less keep him around.

While this is going on, Sam falls in love with Ginger McKenna (Stone), an ex-prostitute whose boyfriend, Lester Diamond (Woods) was once her pimp and is now a cheap hustler. Sam convinces her to marry him although she is still plainly in love with Diamond, and she does, eventually giving birth to his daughter.

Things start to spiral downward for Sam and his friends as Ginger’s drug abuse, binge spending and affairs with Diamond – and with Nicky – threaten the lives of all three of them. Sam tries to distance himself but if the mob bosses go down, you know they’re going to make sure that no loose ends exist who can put them away.

Although many, including myself, consider the first two Godfather films to be the best movies on organized crime in history, I think it’s fair to say that Scorsese is the best director of movies on organized crime ever. He’s clearly fascinated by the psychology of the good fella, but also as shown here of that of the gambler.

This was the eighth and to date last collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese and they go out with a bang. De Niro is never better than he is here, playing the clever, street smart and somewhat mercurial casino manager. He knows he’s walking a dangerously fine line and knows just how to do it and keep everybody happy, but what he can’t do is control what the people around him are doing and that gets him into hot water. De Niro makes Sam kind of a tragic hero, one undone by the actions of his wife and best friend. It’s almost Shakespearean in many ways.

De Niro is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Stone in her signature role, one that would get her nominated for an Oscar. Her Ginger is high strung, weak, and plainly the kind of woman who can’t say no to anyone if it means she gets what she wants, but at the same time isn’t smart or patient enough to wait for what she wants to come to her. She’s not really a tragic figure – she’s weak, she’s addicted and she can’t escape who she is as much as she wants to. It is amazing Sam fell in love with her but then again, she’s a beautiful woman as Geri McGee was in real life.

Pesci is at his Pesci best here. While he’ll likely be remembered for his character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, this will also be part of his legacy, the ruthless and far more sadistic Nicky Santoro who puts an unfortunate’s head into a vise in order to get him to talk (the real life Spilotro actually did just that and in the end his victim talked). Santoro is like a bull in a china shop, a loose cannon likely to go off anywhere and at anytime. His affair with Ginger would be the beginning of the end of the mob in Vegas.

While we see the lights and the glamour of Vegas, we also see the seedier side, the darker side and the side they don’t talk much about in the Chamber of Commerce. The events in Casino are well-documented and were part of Vegas lore; Rosenthal’s fall would lead to the decline of the mob’s influence in Sin City. Vegas in fact changed dramatically in the 30 years since the events here took place, going from the smaller casinos to the multi-billion dollar megaresorts that dominate the Strip today. Even so, there are old-timers who look back to that era with some affection.

What makes Scorsese’s Casino so special isn’t so much that it is based on a true story, or even that the acting performances are so exemplary; it isn’t even the terrific look of the film that cinematographer Robert Richardson assembled (although he didn’t agree; he hated the look of the movie so much that he wouldn’t use the cameras that he used here again for more than 20 years) that captures both the neon glory of downtown Law Vegas and the nascent Strip, but also the back rooms, the gaudy mansions, the seedy and the sensational.

While the third act drags a little for me in watching the final, painful fall of Sam, I can’t help but admire the movie overall as a masterpiece, one of several to Scorsese’s credit. And while Raging Bull was a more intense experience, Taxi Driver the better film from a filmmaking aspect and Goodfellas probably more enjoyable overall, Casino remains more of a sentimental favorite for me. It depicts an era, a mentality and a tragedy that reminds me of Shakespeare and yet is distinctly American. This is a classic that should be on every movie buff’s must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Scorsese’s best (and that’s saying something). Awesome look at the dark side of Las Vegas. Great performances from De Niro, Pesci and Stone. Gorgeous cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending could have taken less time to gestate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, some of it brutal; there is also foul language pretty much throughout the film. There are also depictions of drug use and sexuality as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The casino scenes were shot at the Riviera (which recently closed and is scheduled to be imploded in the summer of 2015), while the exterior of the hotel was shot at the Landmark (which was imploded shortly after the movie was shot). However, the events of the film took place at the Stardust which closed in 2006 and was demolished in 2007, as well as at three other casinos which are also gone (but primarily at the Stardust).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a history of Las Vegas as well as a profile on writer Nicholas Pileggi.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $116.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Woman Power Returns!

Life Itself


Two big thumbs up,

Two big thumbs up,

(2014) Documentary (Magnolia) Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, William Nack, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton (voice), Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rick Kogan, Marlene Siskel, Thea Flaum, Bruce Elliot, Steve James. Directed by Steve James

It has to be said that for most film critics, it is difficult to be completely impartial when reviewing a documentary about Roger Ebert. His influence on modern film criticism is enormous both directly and indirectly and while he may not have the intellectual cachet of a Pauline Kael (a critic Ebert himself admired tremendously) he certainly was the most populist film critic of his day.

Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed early on by Ebert and his Sneak Previews/At the Movies partner Gene Siskel, originally was tasked with filming a documentary about the film critic’s battle against cancer as a means of telling his story as laid out in his memoirs Life Itself, a book given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012. As it turned out, we would see Ebert facing the final days of his life and we are given almost intimate access – the suctioning out of his throat, the painful physical therapy recovering from a broken hip, seeing how he managed to keep his sense of humor despite losing most of his lower jaw and his voice to thyroid cancer.

James, at Ebert’s insistence, leaves no wart unseen. We hear about Ebert’s womanizing as a younger man, his alcoholism and his occasional control freak-ness. Marlene Siskel, wife of his close friend and rival, recounts how he once stole a cab from her on a rainy night while she was very pregnant.

But we also get a glimpse at his love affair with his wife Chaz, her amazing strength and support even when he is petulant and mulish, and how he adored her family. I do have a bit of a quibble here – James identifies her granddaughter as Roger’s “step-granddaughter” and while the term may be essentially accurate, I get the sense that neither Roger nor any child of Chaz’s previous marriage thinks of their relationship as step-anything. My own son is not my biological child but a product of my wife’s first marriage which ended before he was born. He has never known another father and neither one of us thinks of each other as anything but father and son. I suppose these times may require a redefinition of the term, but I digress.

We get a sense of Ebert’s importance to the art of film criticism through testimony by Richard Corliss (who once wrote that the thumbs up/thumbs down criticism of Siskel and Ebert “dumbed down” film criticism overall), Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and New York Times critic A. O. Scott. We also get a sense of his importance within Chicago through the recollections of his friends writer William Nack, columnist Rick Kogan and tavern owner Bruce Elliot.

It can be said (as RogerEbert.com editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz did) that he had two main loves of his life – Chaz and Gene Siskel. His relationship with Gene was complex. At first, Gene was the enemy – the film critic of the Chicago Tribune whose hoity toity attitude contrasted with the blue collar vigor of the Sun-Times where Ebert worked. The two barely acknowledged each other at first. They grew competitive, each attempting to sway the other through the virtue of their well-thought out opinions. While Ebert was the populist who understood that entertainment value was at least as important as artistic quality, Siskel had more of a cosmopolitan attitude towards cinema. Together the two introduced America to movies they might never have seen otherwise and as home video became popular and movies that rarely played outside of art houses found their way into video stores and eventually, streaming services, people who might not have become movie buffs got the opportunity to explore independent, foreign and alternative films in addition to the studio films they had previously been limited to.

Overall the film is very moving. We see Ebert deal with his illness with a firm sense of humor and great courage. He was in great pain but rarely seemed disposed to complaining about it. Excerpts from Ebert’s books are read by actor Stephen Stanton whose warm timbre is similar to Roger’s and captures his Midwestern cadence nearly perfectly. I must admit that I do miss Ebert’s physical voice much more than I thought I did, hearing him in clips from talk shows, interviews and of course with Siskel and listening to the two bicker and one-up each other is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

There are plenty of talking head interviews and archival footage that make up what documentaries are these days, but the access we have to Roger’s rehabilitation gives us more of an emotional bond with the man.

I cannot say I wouldn’t have become a film critic without Roger Ebert – I had already started down that road before I knew who he was. However, it is accurate to say that he inspired me to be a better film critic. He set standards that while i have no illusions that I meet I can at least aspire to them. He could excoriate a filmmaker and rip a film a new one with the best of them but it was never with malice or viciousness. He didn’t do so with any joy. The joy in his writing came in finding movies that inspired him or provoked empathy. He lived for movies that he could relate to in some way, and his writing in spelling out that relation allowed us to see a bit of his soul. For all his faults he was also a compassionate man whose progressive politics rarely entered his film reviews but whose wisdom and kindness did. His criticisms were usually valid (although he did have difficulty with horror films that he felt denigrated women as well as videogames as an art form) and while I didn’t always agree with his assessments, I usually did. As Scott remarks, he “didn’t condescend, didn’t pander” while his friend Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the movie and who credits Siskel and Ebert with giving him the self-confidence to continue directing during a particularly low point in his career) accurately added “He didn’t get caught up in certain ideologies” that film critics are prone to getting caught up in. The landscape of film criticism is a far bleaker place without him.

This is a movie that leaves me wishing I had known the man personally (the closest I came was sharing a cruise ship with him during one of his Floating Film Festivals several years back). While this movie may resonate more fully with film critics and film buffs than with general audiences, even those who don’t particularly care much about movies may well be moved at the heartfelt admiration the filmmaker has for the man. The title of the movie may sound a bit arrogant at first; movies aren’t life itself, are they? There’s life and then the movies are fantasy. But in a real sense, movies are a reflection of life itself and a good movie and sometimes even a bad movie can give us the opportunity to reflect on life and that’s never a bad thing. Roger Ebert understood that, perhaps better than any critic before or since.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting and moving. Great to hear Ebert’s voice, even artificially. Illustrates his place in popular culture.

REASONS TO STAY: Glosses over some elements of the book.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild foul language, brief sexual images and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the autobiography of the same name that the film is based on, Ebert states that he met his wife Chaz at a restaurant introduced by Ann Landers. In the movie, Chaz reveals that it was at an AA meeting, a fact that she had preferred to keep private which her husband honored.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Obvious Child

The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer