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November 06, 2013

Kennedy Overload

It’s a common practice to commemorate certain historical events with a bevy of tie-ins, be they new movies or documentaries about the subject, or re-releases of older material on DVD or Blu-ray. But I can’t recall an event prompting such depth of material as the upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The latest entry into this pool of historical examination is National Geographic Channel’s TV movie Killing Kennedy, which airs this Sunday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m., and will likely make its way to DVD and Blu-ray in a few months. The telefilm stars Rob Lowe as Kennedy, Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy, Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald and Michelle Trachtenberg as Oswald’s wife, Marina.

I had the good fortune of attending the Los Angeles premiere of the Killing Kennedy, and found it to be a deft adaptation of the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The book, like Killing Lincoln before it, is structured as a parallel tale between a U.S. president and his assassin, leading to the fateful events that bring them together.

The performances are all quite good, with Lowe holding the line with a more-than-passable JFK impression. But the revelation is the grounded performance of Rothhaar, who doesn’t paint Oswald as anything more than a troubled young man with something to prove. Trachtenberg also is  quite good as his suffering wife, practically unrecognizable behind a wall of thick Russian dialogue.

If anything, I might have made the movie more about Oswald’s side. While it’s necessary to portray events such as the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis to give Oswald something to respond to, the Kennedy side of events has been dramatized countless times already in movies, TV shows and miniseries, as if filmmakers just can’t resist the lure of portraying the glamour of Kennedy’s Camelot.

The Kennedys miniseries from 2011 gave us most of these scenes with Greg Kinnear as JFK (though Goodwin is a step up from Katie Holmes as Jackie). And watching Lowe during the assassination scene, I couldn’t help but think back to his “West Wing” co-star Martin Sheen in the same role in the 1983 Kennedy miniseries.

It’s the Oswald side that tends to get short shrift, more often than not buried under concurrent examinations of the latest conspiracy theory to pop up (most of which are easily discredited). Killing Kennedy demonstrates in chilling detail how easy it was for Oswald to carry out the assassination on his own, with no need for a vast conspiracy.

Funny as it seems, the closest I could think of another dramatization that tried to get into Oswald’s head this much was a story arc on “Quantum Leap.”

What struck me many times watching Killing Kennedy, and having just a few weeks ago viewed the underrated Parkland, which re-creates the immediate aftermath of the shooting, was how many scenes coexist between the two (with different actors, of course). In fact, one of the things I enjoyed about Parkland was seeing so many events that had been described in the Killing Kennedy book.

Still, for those who might not have seen any of the other Kennedy projects out there, Killing Kennedy should provide a good capsule of events that while hopefully encourage further examination into this pivotal turning point of American history.
 

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April 05, 2013

The Enduring Influence of Roger Ebert

Anyone who considers themselves a film critic at any level would be lying if they said they weren’t in some way influenced by Roger Ebert, who passed away April 4 at age 70 after a long bout with cancer.

For many people, Ebert defined the art of film criticism and took it to a new level because of all the people he was able to reach. Beginning as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert’s columns were syndicated to hundreds of newspapers and formed the basis for dozens of books. One of my favorites was Ebert’s Movie Glossary, a handy guide to clichés, plot contrivances and other observations that were commonplace in movies. (He would even invite readers to submit their own entries, the best of which were published in subsequent editions).

An Ebert review was part criticism, part essay, and their true value was not just that he was offering an opinion, but the way he could succinctly lay out the reasons for why he came to the conclusions he did. Not that everyone, including myself, wouldn’t disagree with him on at least a semi-regular basis, but at least he would make an argument. He could be serious, he could be funny, but he was rarely uninteresting.

According to RottenTomatoes.com, Ebert agreed with the Tomatometer 77% of the time, a statistic based on 7,202 reviews of his posted on the site.

Ebert’s influence as a critic became so great that he became a pop culture institution unto himself.

In 1970, he collaborated with director Russ Meyer on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an ‘X’-rated spoof not only of the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, but of Hollywood in general. The film became a cult hit, eventually earning a DVD release in 2006 from Fox.

Ebert’s immense popularity as a critic was undoubtedly spurred by the revolutionary idea in 1975 to pair him with another Chicago critic, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to talk about the movies on television. By the 1980s, “Siskel & Ebert” was a weekly institution, and their style of giving films “two thumbs up” or “two thumbs down” had entered the lexicon. I was a regular viewer, curious about which new movies were worth my time, and keenly interested in seeing how my views on a film aligned with theirs.

Personally, I tended to prefer Siskel, who seemed to take a working-class approach to movies in contrast to Ebert’s more erudite nature. That wasn’t just a casual observation. While Siskel would spend his non-critic days covering Chicago Bulls championships for Chicago TV stations, Ebert would host film festivals and lecture students with frame-by-frame examinations of classic movies.

It wouldn’t be unfair to label Ebert a film historian, either, and those not fortunate enough to hear him speak in person could always pick up one of the movies for which he recorded a commentary for the DVD (most of which have carried over to the Blu-ray version of said films).

Naturally, he recorded a commentary for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but his commentaries are also available on Casablanca (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Citizen Kane (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Dark City (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Crumb (DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion), and 1959’s Floating Weeds (on DVD from Criterion).

It wasn’t unheard of for a bad Ebert review to earn the wrath of a filmmaker or two. The 1998 Godzilla remake from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich took delight in presenting the buffoonish New York mayor and his assistant as thinly veiled Ebert and Siskel parodies, after the duo had mocked Stargate and Independence Day on their show. (Similarly, famed critic Pauline Kael’s harsh reviews of the “Star Wars” movies inspired George Lucas to name a villain in 1988’s Willow after her.)

Ebert and Siskel (whose name came first on their show because he won a coin flip) weren’t above poking fun at themselves, either, as evidenced by their numerous appearances on late-night talk shows, or the episode of “The Critic” called “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice” (readily available on DVD from Sony Pictures) in which they play themselves in animated form, splitting up only to be drawn back together.

Siskel’s death due to complications from a brain tumor in 1999 was one of the first times I can remember being not just shocked by a celebrity death, but also disappointed for the loss. Ebert tried out a revolving door of replacements until settling on his Sun-Times colleague, Richard Roeper. And while Roeper grew into the role, and is one of the country’s top critics now, “Ebert & Roeper” seemed more a show about a master and an apprentice, rather than the clash of equals that “Siskel & Ebert” had been.

Soon after, Ebert would experience his own cancer diagnosis, spurring a decade-long decline that forced him out of the spotlight. Robbed of his ability to speak, but not to write, he kept on in earnest, turning more toward the Internet and Twitter (something of a twist, I suppose, given how much online ubiquity has dampened the impact of the individual critic). These last few years of Ebert’s career were marked by a variety of bizarre, nonsensical statements and reviews that would leave me scratching my head wondering if we had watched the same film. Whether this had something to do with his cancer I couldn’t say, but I was always a bit saddened that the Roger Ebert “of old” seemed to be gone.

Still, that should not diminish an enduring legacy fueled by a love of going to the movies, and a spirit that lives on in each of us who drew inspiration from his efforts to spread the gospel of film to the world.

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March 03, 2010

Top 5 Best-Picture Oscar Snubs

While an Oscar can be a valuable marketing tool for a winning film, sometimes movie fans are left scratching their heads over which films the Academy chooses to honor as best picture. Here are some examples of the Academy losing sight of its sensibilities.

1.    Citizen Kane

Warner
1941. Rumor has it media mogul William Randolph Hearst cost Kane best picture in favor of How Green Was My Valley. It is now widely considered the greatest film ever made

2.    Network

Warner
1976. This satirical look at media corruption gone wild took best actor, best actress, best supporting actress and best screenplay, but somehow lost to Rocky for best picture and best director.

3.    Apollo 13

Universal
1995. The Academy recognized Ron Howard’s achievement in winning the Directors Guild Award by not even nominating him for best director. Adding insult to injury, the film not only lost best picture to Braveheart, but best visual effects to the talking pig movie Babe!

4.    Star Wars

Fox
1977. George Lucas’ space opera fundamentally changed the film industry, but Woody Allen’s Annie Hall was more in league with the tastes of Academy voters. The debate rages on.

5.    The Dark Knight

Warner
2008. After earning accolades from critics and audiences alike, the Academy didn’t even bother to nominate it for best picture. The ensuing backlash prompted the academy to expand the nominee field to 10.
 

Other Great Films That Didn't Win Best Picture:

Apocalypse Now (Paramount) 1979
Boogie Nights (Warner) 1997
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Fox) 1969
Fargo (MGM) 1996
Goodfellas (Warner) 1990
The Insider (Disney) 1999
L.A. Confidential (Warner) 1997
Pulp Fiction (Miramax) 1994
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Paramount) 1981
The Right Stuff (Warner) 1983
Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks) 1998
Traffic (Universal) 2000

 

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January 20, 2008

Top 5 Star Wars Parodies

Fox's “Family Guy” and Warner's “Robot Chicken” both made waves in 2007 with popular “Star Wars” episodes (the Robot Chicken: Star Wars DVD hits May 20 from Warner Home Video at $14.97). Even “The Simpsons” and “South Park” have jumped on board from time to time. But here are a few of the all-time classic movies and short films that poke fun at the holy trilogy, all available on DVD.

  • 1. Hardware Wars (MWP) 1977. The original parody, filmed with household objects as ships, is the epitome of low budget, but still great.
  • 2. George Lucas in Love (MediaTrip) 1999. This hilarious short, based on Shakespeare in Love, imagines Lucas finding inspiration for “Star Wars” at USC.
  • 3. Spaceballs (MGM) 1987. Mel Brooks' space epic is probably the best-known parody. It's hammy and obvious at times but filled with great visual gags.
  • 4. R2-D2: Beneath the Dome (Fox) 2001. While making Episode II, Lucasfilm commissioned this “True Hollywood Story”-style special about cinema's favorite droid.
  • 5. Thumb Wars: The Phantom Cuticle (Image) 1999. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls director Steve Oedekerk proved he's all thumbs with the first in his “Thumbation” series of parodies.

 

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