Monday, April 27, 2015

Life Itself (2014)

A deeply enthralling documentary on Roger Ebert that's essential watching for every Ebert fan!

Having finally been able to watch this  universally acclaimed and documentary Life Itself created by master craftsman Steve James (Stevie/Hoop Dreams), I now seem to have developed a new renewed appreciation for the Pulitzer prize winning film critic & commentator Roger Ebert, one of the very best film critics the world has ever seen. 

Throughout most of his life (and his former colleague Gene Siskel's life, as well) Roger and his famous thumb scrutinized much more than the films they reviewed. There was a time where their simple 'Thumbs up or thumbs down' could be a blessing or a curse to any given film on any given week. Roger and Gene became international celebrities and became their own business first on PBS in the mid 70's, all the way into the 90's with Siskel and Ebert and The Movies. Tragedy befell them both but not before their contribution to film and film criticism became monumental. It is true everyone is a critic in their own way. These two perfected it. 

Life Itself is a poignant look at Roger's life as a child growing up in Chicago, writing his own paper as a child all the way to his tenure at the Chicago Sun Times. He battled alcohol, fast women and his own ego for most of his adult life, but James shows that Roger, although flawed like all of us, was at his heart passionate about what he loved and hated - Cinema and he let the whole world know it, too. His famous feuds with Gene are the stuff of legends, for me. 

Its evident Roger was very smart, educated not only in books but in life. To him there were no limitations on anything and Life Itself touches on just how larger than life Roger became. Love him or hate him he was his own man; take it or leave it. I also appreciated just how smitten he was with his wife Chaz, who reciprocated equally. They were in love and made a wonderfully cute couple. Married one time at age, 50 Roger had found his soul mate in Chaz. She was with him when he passed playing Dave Brubeck as he gently into the light. 

Life Itself is a fascinating look into Roger's life and it was one filled with happiness, sadness, loneliness and triumph. He created film festivals in his own name for the films he loved. He was the only film critic to have ever won the Pulitzer Prize. Roger was an artist, writer of books about film,and some just about travel which he loved to do. 

Life Itself was shot mostly as Roger battled Cancer in the latter part of his life and it had tried its best to beat him down. He refused to go quietly and continued to write up until the last week or so of his life, when he became too weak. 

Steve James has created a masterpiece of one man's life. Filled with insight about a man battling his own demons to rise up and become a legend. So influential were Roger and Gene, they gave Martin Scorsese a fresh start by giving him their own award which led to the director getting studio backing for some of his biggest films. I was awestruck at just how influential they both were and they both loved every minute of it. This is a film they both would have been proud of and loved, just like Life Itself. Life Itself-**** out of 4 ! JohnnyTwoToes

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Homesman (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes finds this western mildly comic but still quite entertaining! 

A Palme d'Or nominee in the main competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Tommy Lee Jones' newest film, The Homesman, is an interesting western themed mix (set in the 1850s) of a love story, action and dark comedy with a heartbreaking twist three quarters of the way into it. One I did not see coming and it threw me for a loop. 

The film stars Hillary Swank as Mary Lee Cudy, a single lady who is desperate for a husband and as the film opens she is conversing with a farmhand whom she wants to marry. He refuses, so depressed as she is, she agrees to drive three women who are accused of horrific crimes across the country to a mental institution. Cudy is fierce, tough and independent but still craving a man's touch. She is not ugly, but she is described as being 'plain as a bucket'. One can only imagine her personality is the reason she cannot find a suitor. 

En route to their destination, the group happen upon a drifter that has been strung up a tree with a hangman's noose while still sitting on an animal. He begs and pleads Cudy to save him and she does with one condition. The drifter, George Briggs (Jones), must help her navigate through hostile open country chock full of Indians, robbers, three crazy women and now a lazy boozer in the form of Briggs. "I'm afraid this is more than I have bargained for, Ms. Cudy" But she holds him to their agreement, in addition he will be paid $300.00. 

The prairie is still untamed, fraught with danger and provides the group with no shortage of perils, which could have been boring and filled with cliches, but Jones is as good behind the camera as he is in front. His direction is smoothly confident and the script by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, based on the novel Glendon Swarthout, is sweet, sentimental and lightly comic at times. Its also an added pleasure to see a great ensemble supporting  cast on screen including Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Miranda Otto and James Spader besides a mesmerizing score by Marco Beltrami.

I enjoyed the company of this group of misfits as they all seem to have fallen on hard times, seem destined to lead unhappy lives but, they become sympathetic towards one another as the film progresses. Jones never forces the emotional bonds they form so we genuinely care about these characters as people. 

There is a big intresting twist about three quarters of the way through The Homesman. Trust me, you will know only when you see it. I will not say anything further about the plot but The Homesman struck me as a quietly effective film about lonely souls who find kindred spirits with other lonely souls even in the harshest conditions. It is about dealing with pain and what we seek in others to ease that pain. On that personal level The Homesman works and it entertains us in the process. The Homesman-*** out 5

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Onegin (1999)

An opulent tragic romantic drama with splendid visuals and costumes!   

Onegin is a Fiennes family affair. It was the directorial debut of Martha Fiennes, stars her brother Ralph Fiennes, and is scored by her other brother Magnus Fiennes. The famous epic narrative poem "Evgeny Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin provides the basis for this British-American 19th century period piece. It may be considered a risky exercise for a non-Russian to adapt a famous Russian work; however, Martha Fiennes doesn’t seem to do a bad job in bringing the period to life. The artistic charm and visual splendor is most evident. The tale of a tragic love affair and the casting must have been the key ingredients as to whether this would work satisfactorily. 

Onegin tells the story of Evgeny Onegin (Ralph Fiennes), a well-mannered member of Russian society who squanders his wealth through gambling and careless spending habits. When his uncle becomes gravely ill, Evgeny makes his way to his uncle’s estate, only to arrive too late. Evgeny is the sole heir and inherits the magnificent estate. He is the epitome of fashionable cynicism and jaded sophistication. 

In getting to know his neighbors, Evgeny starts to take more interest in his surroundings. He befriends a young poet Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), but his heart really flutters when he sets eye on the gorgeous Tatyana (Liv Tyler), sister of Vladimir’s fiancĂ©e Loga (Lena Headey). The two begin an unspoken bond. She falls in love with the arrogant Onegin but his cynicism sets his thinking elsewhere. Flirtations and arguments among the group lead to tension and drama. Onegin makes himself scarce and we catch up six years later, back at St Petersburg, when an old friend of his (Martin Donovan) marries the mature Tatyana. Onegin having changed a great deal now finds Tatyana irresistible. It may be too late though. 

Martha Fiennes provides a lucid view of a difficult story, and allows the domination of sparkling glasses and chandeliers to etch their presence. There are luscious scenes and great costumes. Solid acting marks the film’s quality also. Ralph Fiennes’ tight, sour demeanor sends the right signals. Liv Tyler is notably breathtaking when transformed from innocence to bruised adolescence, and then into the final sophisticated woman of principle. 

With impeccable production values, this film is a rare costume drama that looks good and feels strong. Martha Fiennes keeps a brisk pace for the most part and has a clear command on how Onegin journeys while the stellar music from Magnus Fiennes is a plus on its own . So, if you are in mood for a brooding but lush authentic romantic drama set in the early 19th century Russia, this is the flick to see! 

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