Sunday, October 30, 2011

CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN WITH MY 10 FAVORITE HORROR MOVIES


Happy Halloween! ‘Tis the season to reflect on all things ghastly and ghoulish. Amazingly, no horror movies opened this weekend. And if you think last weekend’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 can hold a dripping, Gothic candle to the best in the genre, then you need to see more horror movies. Here then are ten superior genre picks for you to enjoy this Halloween. They are my all-time favorites. In descending order:


10.) THE OMEN (1976)
Hard to beat the devil when it comes to juicy scares, even if he’s slumming in the form of a little 5-year-old boy. But he’s still nasty as hell even though he’s barely out of diapers. How so? Well, his nanny hangs herself on his birthday. He causes mom Lee Remick to plunge backwards off a balcony. And photographer David Warner loses his head for that devil child. It’s a thrill ride that skirts close to ridiculous at times. (Really, Mrs. Baylock, that’s the dog you deem appropriate for a child’s pet?) But it all remains truly frightening nonetheless due to Richard Donner’s clever direction as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning satanic choir. That chanting made even the opening titles terrifying! 


9.) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
I hate the vampires in that god-awful TWILIGHT series. This is a truly special vampire tale and, for my money, the greatest horror movie in the last two decades. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's eerie tone makes this a masterpiece of dread and suspense. And the fact that both protagonist and antagonist here are children is both moving and tragic. 

8.) ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
What’s scarier than the devil? Not much, unless perhaps it’s combining the devil with the vulnerability of a woman’s pregnancy. Director Roman Polanski creates subtle scares throughout his adaption of Ira Levin’s bestseller about a lonely housewife with growing suspicions about the baby she's carrying. Polanski fills his frame with surprising sources of fright: a sprawling apartment, tiles of Scrabble, comedic neighbors who are so much more than they seem. As Rosemary, Mia Farrow gives one of horror’s greatest performances as the waif who realizes that everyone around here is in bed with the devil. (Just like she was!)


7.) CARRIE (1976)
Brian DePalma’s best film brings Stephen King’s teen shocker to vivid life. Sissy Spacek plays Carrie, a shy and odd girl who is ridiculed by her vile classmates and infantilized by her religious zealot mother at home. The story is about how Carrie grows up and learns to accept who she is. That’s why the movie starts off with Carrie having her first period. She’s becoming a woman, her own woman. And when her enemies play the most vicious of practical jokes on her at the prom, she exacts her revenge in one of cinema’s greatest freak-outs. 

6.) ALIEN (1979)
Setting is so important to horror and the claustrophobic space ship here is one of the genre’s best. The corridors are dark and cramped and scary, like a superior haunted house where the architecture is frightening even without any ghosts. The fact that H.R. Giger’s alien blends in perfectly with the Nostromo’s skeletal design enabled director Ridley Scott to steep every shot in tension. And God love the heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who saves the cat, defeats the drooling monster, and does so in a cheeky underwear ensemble that made fanboys in the audience drool too!

5.) KING KONG (1933)
This great horror film rips my heart out. But in a good way! This beauty and the beast story is as moving as it is scary. Kong may be bad but really he’s just a big lug looking for love. And what a good boyfriend he is protecting Fay Wray from those awful creatures on Skull Island. When he falls from grace, both literally and figuratively, I tear up every time.


4.) THE EXORCIST (1973)
The first time I saw "The Exorcist" it scared the crap out of me. The possessed little girl's horrific voice, vile speech, her taunting of the priests attempting to cast the demons out – it still gives me the willies. And I've seen it a half dozen times. But what I love even more is how careful the film is in setting up the believability of the story. The first hour plays like a straight drama with her beleaguered mom Ellen Burstyn trying to find out why she's behaving so strangely. That’s what gives the second hour such power. When all hell breaks loose, what with the crabwalk down the stairs, the spinning heads, and the projectile vomiting, we’re all true believers. In my opinion, director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty created the scariest film of all-time.


3.) THE THING (1982)
John Carpenter took THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and remade it as a grotesquely imaginative thriller about monsters hiding in humans. The alien hides in a human host to survive, true, but the real monster hiding in man is lethal paranoia. It rears its ugly head as all the men battling the thing turn on each other, fearing that one of them is not as he seems. Aided by Kurt Russell and a supporting cadre of superb character actors, they are the greatest effect in this film with many startling FX.  

2.) JAWS (1975)
Being scared and being amused are both visceral reactions. And this film often bounces back and forth between big scares and huge laughs. Take the scene where Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is shoveling chum into the water when, all of a sudden, the Great White emerges from the brine. Right after that shot, director Steven Spielberg cuts to Brody’s stunned reaction, his cigarette dangling precariously, his mind reeling at the size of the damn thing. Then he says that famous line to Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I screamed. I howled. What a movie!

And my favorite horror movie of all time… 

PSYCHO (1960)
The first time I saw, it scared the bejeezus out of me. The second time I saw it, I found it quite amusing. I laughed. A lot. Oh, it still was scary, but during that second viewing, I was aware of how the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was playing the audience. So much of the movie is quite cheeky. The great melodramatic score by Bernard Hermann really sails over the top. There are so many clues pointing to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as the real culprit, from his taxidermy hobby to the non-existent close-ups of his mother to lines like “Mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today.” It’s an amazing film that works on so many levels. It is simultaneously sublime and a bit ridiculous. I love it and watch it every year around Halloween.

So what’s your favorite horror movie? Share your choice and be sure to tell us why you love it so. And happy haunts everyone!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

MY FAVORITE FILM CRITIC

There are many film critics I’ve admired throughout the years. When I first read the reviews of Pauline Kael in junior high I marveled at her scathing takedowns of films that most people loved. (She dismissed STAR WARS as “exhausting.”) The New Republic’s Stanley Kaufmann liked to play contrarian to popular entertainments too. (Amazingly, he totally hated Brando’s strained voice affectation in THE GODFATHER role.) These two really opened my mind about what movies could be, or should be, even if I didn’t always agree with their savaging. Today I enjoy reading online critics Emanuel Levy (www.emanuellevy.com), Sasha Stone (www.awardsdaily.com) and Kris Tapley (www.hitfix.com). They’re perceptive and witty bloggers and I get a daily fix from them. But to this day, no critic has had a larger impact on me than Roger Ebert. Nor have I found any critic who writes as passionately, intelligently or persuasively as he does. In my opinion, he’s not only the best film critic, he’s the most important one. 
Original caricature of Roger Ebert by Jeff York (copyright 2011)

There are many reasons I love Roger. For starters, he has always approached films with equal parts head and heart. He has great affection for movies, yet doesn’t hesitate to criticize their shortcomings. And rarely is he ever destructive, even when a film is a total dud or a botch. He tries to find what’s right in a movie and focus on that. And if a movie is pumping on all cylinders, so is Roger. His enthusiasm is palpable. And it’s contagious too. He inspires me to want to see what’s he’s talking about.

I also like Roger because he so often shines the light on films that otherwise most of us would never have heard of. He’s championed little films that became big films because of his endorsement, like the heartbreaking documentary HOOP DREAMS (1994) or EVE’S BAYOU, that wonderful small period picture by Kasi Lemons in 1997 that he picked as the best of the year. A positive review from Roger means a lot. And he’s used it to defend the controversial like DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and laud the forgotten like DARK CITY (the sci-fi noir he picked as best film of 1998). He also is fair to all genres and doesn't dismiss noir or horror because it's pulp.

One of his most admirable characteristics as a critic is that he’s kept his integrity and his great reputation all these decades. He has never lost credibility by fawning all over a favorite the way Kael used to for Brian DePalma even when he was slumming, or Dave Kehr did lauding every one of Clint Eastwood movies that came out, even the hick comedies. Roger will pan a film if it's bad, no matter who made it. He’s all about the movie, not hero worship. And he’s never become a caricature of himself like some critics have when they’ve stayed too long at the dance. (Rex Reed comes to mind. Reading him in the New York Observer is unfortunate these days as he has become such a bitter old man.)
Roger with Gene Siskel, the most popular film critics in history.

I first discovered Roger in high school when SNEAK PREVIEWS ran on PBS’s Channel 10 in Milwaukee. He and Gene Siskel were Chicago newspaper critics who became huge nationwide TV celebrities because of their show. Everyone knows that they gave us the Roman coliseum way of reviewing movies with “Thumbs up” and “Thumbs down” and my personal favorite – “Thumbs way up!”  But more importantly, they dug into their TV reviews the way critics did in film journals or classes. They’d really examine the details of a movie: its cinematography or musical score or editing or sound design. They weren’t about clever sound bites. They wanted to get deeper into film. They'd very often devote entire programs to certain movies. I remember in 1978 they almost spent the entire show talking about SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. It was a blockbuster, true, but they evaluated its craft and why it was an important big film too.

Both had a Midwestern sensibility too and that made them very accessible. They talked like two guys in college discussing a movie over a couple of beers. And boy, could they get into fights! They liked each other the way brothers do, which meant sometimes they’d squabble like they despised each other. I’ll never forget how Roger scolded Gene vehemently for dismissing Francis Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). If memory serves, Gene eventually came around to seeing it Roger’s way years later. Heck, Gene even picked HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE, the documentary about making APOCALYPSE NOW, as his best film of 1991. Roger had that effect on people. He'd win you over with his brain and heart. And you didn’t really want to get into a fight with him. He was the one who was always more prepared, and defter in his arguments. Much more than Gene. And Roger usually won because of it. (I also think Gene had a big chip on his shoulder when it came to Roger as Rog was so much better in print too, and to this day, is still the only film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.)

Despite being such a heralded critic and hugely successful celebrity, Roger’s life has not always been easy. Far from it. He battled alcoholism decades ago. He and Gene’s show moved through three versions and as many syndicates enduring some controversies with their parent companies because of it. And when Gene Siskel died of complications from a brain tumor in 1999, it hit Roger hard. Sure, he eventually found a new foil in  Richard Roeper, but it was never really the same. Then Roger’s health took a turn for the worse in the new millennium as he battled thyroid cancer and salivary gland complications, resulting in the removal of his jawbone. Some thought Roger, like his 'frenemy' Gene Siskel, might leave this world too prematurely. But while his ailments caused him to lose his ability to speak, Roger persevered and has not lost 'his voice' as he's  become even more prolific, reviewing most major movies that come out online (www.rogerebert.com) and in print each week.  He writes tons of essays about great movies, trends, and does Q & A’s regularly in the Sunday Sun-Times. He continues to make public appearances and go to film festivals. (He even has his own called Ebertfest.) And he comments on Twitter like it’s going out of style! He even chimed in on the 2008 election with some brilliantly pithy editorials in the Sun-Times about Sarah Palin.

Roger talks about all the ups and downs in his life in the wonderful new memoir LIFE ITSELF. He candidly discusses everything from his relationship with Gene to his great marriage to attorney Chaz Hamell-Smith to the state of the film industry to the ravages of his diseases. He’s proven that tragedy doesn’t have to take everything one has. That kind of pluck and courage, considering all he's been through, is simply amazing.

I’ll never forget the time that I sat behind him at 20th Century Fox's advance screening of THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY back in 1998. (I was working on their advertising at the time.) He laughed as hard as any audience member there. His passion was again, contagious. He inspired me that night. He inspired me all through high school and college. And he is one of the reasons I now put down my own thoughts here about movies and the film business. 

Roger Ebert. He's one of a kind. And my favorite film critic. He's also one of my favorite people on this planet. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

HOW TO BUILD A BETTER FILM FESTIVAL


This year’s Chicago International Film Festival will end tomorrow and from what I saw it was quite a success. Per usual, there was an excellent array of films, from all sorts of genres, from all sorts of countries. And the attendance was strong considering this economy, and enthusiastic too, considering it’s a rather tepid year at the movies so far. The CIFF may not be as big or as attention-getting as some other festivals out there, but for 47 years now it has flourished, all the while maintaining its sterling reputation.

That being said, I think there is some room for improvement. Some of the policies and practices don’t benefit the general public as much as they could. And even for critics like myself there were a number of closed doors that caused frustration. (This was the first festival I attended as one of the movie critics for the Chicago Examiner.) The good news is that they’re easily correctable. And the problems of the CIFF are the same problems that many film festivals have. So, here then are 10 suggestions I’ll offer to the CIFF, and any other festival, that I believe would make them all that much better:
The poster for A DANGEROUS METHOD, one of the more popular films at festivals this year.
Show more screenings of the movies that people want to see.
Too many movies, like A DANGEROUS METHOD, did not have enough tickets available to the general public at the CIFF. (Heck, I couldn’t get in and I was considered press!) Thus, have more screenings of such popular fare. Surely the CIFF knew that this was going to be one that hordes wanted to see after the buzz it got at the Venice and Toronto festivals. So why not show multiple screenings, in the biggest theaters possible?

Add showings of films that prove popular during the festival.
The CIFF is excellent about adding screenings of such fare. Not all are. And this kind of policy should be the rule, frankly, not the exception.

Guarantee tickets for pre-paying members.
The Toronto Film Festival tries to guarantee tix to those who sign up early and buy a package. Tries. But that doesn’t mean they’ll deliver 100% of the time. That’s not a very good way to treat those who plunk down their cash months before anyone else, is it?
THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS, one of the horror movies making the festival rounds this year.
Stop showing horror movies at ungodly hours.
As a horror fan, I love the appropriateness of a ‘midnight madness’ screening as much as the next fan boy, but show times that start past 11 PM on a school night are discouraging to most boys and ghouls. 

Stop coddling Hollywood PR flacks and studio wonks.
Sure, the studio folks want to see how their babies play in front of an audience, but does that mean that so many tickets should be set aside for the suits? This is one of the most frustrating things about festivals today. Toronto, like the San Diego Comic Con, has gotten a lot of flack for catering too much to Tinseltown executives, and not enough to the average patrons. And it's a growing problem at all fests too.

Put the movies all in the same area as much as you can.
The CIFF had almost all of their movies this year in one venue - at the large, stadium seating AMC River East 21. That made getting to the fest and even seeing multiple screenings in one day very easy. I realize that it’s not always possible in places like Toronto where there is so much to screen. But it is ideal. 

Eleni's in New York puts Best Actor and Actress nominees on cookies each Oscar season.
What about some special snacks?
Cineplexes make a lot of money off of their concessions. Why not add a slew of special items during a festival? I’d pay extra for cupcakes with Keira Knightley’s or George Clooney's face on it. And they'd make excellent collectors' items too? How about a partnership with the wonderfully pop culture savvy bakers at Eleni's in New York? (http://www.elenis.com)

Sell tickets online that are priced fairly.
Gouging isn’t even a good enough word to describe the egregious doubling of ticket prices if you go through an online broker. That practice shows a tin ear for these recessionary times. And it reflects badly on festivals as well.

Why aren't there more summer festivals?
I know everyone gets serious about films in the fall, but everyone is back to school then too. It’s also the busiest season for many businesses. And the new fall TV season is in full swing. That’s an awful lot of competition for a festival to face. Plus, it’s harder to get to an autumnal festival if the weather is windy and cold. (That’s always a problem in Chicago this time of year!)
A bit of a tease of two of Skrebneski's brilliant photography posters for the Chicago International Film Festival.

New Victor Skrebneski posters for the CIFF, please!
Call me old school, but one of the iconic parts of the Chicago Film Festival has always been its brilliantly cheeky posters (literally, and figuratively) done by the legendary photographer Victor Skrebneski. You can still see and buy his older stuff at the fest, but I wish he’d do a new poster every year. 

All in all, film festivals bring hundreds of movies to the public that they’d never otherwise get a chance to see. And they’re strongly thriving, even in these trying times. All they need are a few improvements and they’ll be even better.




Monday, October 10, 2011

SHIRLEY MACLAINE TO RECEIVE THE AFI LIFE ACHEIVEMENT AWARD

Well, sometimes they get 'em right. 

You've read my feelings about the AFI Life Achievement Award here many times. Too often in the past they have chosen recipients whose time was too early. Especially when you consider who hasn't been honored yet. The likes of Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep, despite stellar careers, did not deserve the merit before those who were acting a decade or two before them. And while I am still waiting for the AFI to do the right thing and herald Robert Redford, John Williams, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Woody Allen and Peter O'Toole, I am absolutely thrilled that they chose to honor Shirley MacLaine as this year's choice. It is well-deserved and long overdue. 

I've written about why she is so deserving before in my 'Open Letter To the AFI, Part 2' posted on July 1st of this year. In it I chronicled Shirley's amazing accomplishments and six decades of brilliant work. And she's still going strong starring in films on the big screen and small. She is still fit and beautiful too. She's 77 now and still out there performing. And she's always a great talk show guest too. I can't wait to hear what her speech will be when she gets up to accept the award.

The AFI has many months now to get her ceremony together but I can't help think that it would be entirely appropriate if her younger brother Warren Beatty was the master of ceremonies. She sat right next to him when he received the award a few years back as I'm sure he will do this coming year when she receives it. And having the witty and droll Beatty run the emcee chores would be all the more fitting as well as entertaining.

So here's to you, Shirley MacLaine! Long may you reign. And thank you for all you've given the world. And thank you, American Film Institute, for getting this year's selection so spectacularly right.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

TIME FOR AN ACTOR INTERVENTION


As I sat watching the horror dud DREAM HOUSE this past weekend, it occurred to me that the role of the beleaguered father was not an ideal one for Daniel Craig. He’s not suited to play a family man. Craig looks like he doesn’t need a family. He’s too cool and hard, like Steve McQueen’s meaner brother. He needs to choose more appropriate roles for his talents. In fact, there are a whole slew of actors who could use some career intervention. So let me get my “Dr. Drew” on and speak directly to the following actors who need some career rehab:
DANIEL CRAIG
You’re not great at playing vulnerable. You’re too fit, too feral, too seething. That’s why that cowboy abducted by aliens didn’t really work. Those foreign creatures didn’t have a chance against you. You’re a panther. (That’s why your Bond is so good.) Mikael Blomqvist should be a good role for you though. That intrepid reporter character may be down on his luck, but he’s like a shark in pursuit of truth and justice. Those are the kinds of roles you should stick with –panthers and sharks.

RACHEL WEISZ
Ah, the lovely Mrs. Craig. Why are you making so many movies these days without your sassy British accent? You’ve used the same bloodless, colorless Midwestern twang in THE BROTHERS BLOOM, THE LOVELY BONES, THE WHISTLEBLOWER and DREAM HOUSE. Where’s that lovely Cambridge lilt that told Hugh Grant he was shallow in ABOUT A BOY? The veddy, veddy, barbed tongue from THE MUMMY? You’re British. Be yourself.


NICHOLAS CAGE
You’re not Jason Statham. You’re not Bruce Willis. Enough with the action roles. Try acting roles instead. You were brilliant in ADAPTATION. But that was the last time you were and it was almost a decade ago.

SARAH JESSICA PARKER
Six seasons of SEX & THE CITY on HBO, two movies based on that show, so haven’t you played fashionable career women in New York enough? I don’t know why you’d do something like I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT.


RYAN REYNOLDS
You were doing well there for a while but then you tried bigger and bolder (THE GREEN LANTERN) when you’re much better at smaller and quieter (BURIED). And you’re not very good at farce. Jason Bateman cleaned your comedic clock in THE CHANGE-UP and was even funnier playing you in it! Play it straight, sir. And no sequels in green tights.

CAMERON DIAZ
You’re getting very close to the same problem Meg Ryan had a few years ago – playing girlish ditzes when you’re pushing forty. You don’t have to give up comedy, but at least play your age. 

ROBERT PATTINSON
I know you can do the whole smoldering James Dean thing, but what else ya’ got? Take a page from fellow young Brit Daniel Radcliffe and swing 180 from your teen heartthrob base. Try the stage. It worked wonders for Danny as he excelled in the psychodrama EQUUS and the musical HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. Or do you think you’re going to succeed as an actor without really trying?

LINDSAY LOHAN
Go to Broadway too. Do a play that requires the discipline and commitment of eight shows a week. Stay out of the bars after the show and go home and get in bed. Alone. Get your full eight hours and start being an actress again and not a tabloid embarrassment.
ADRIEN BRODY
God, you were funny as Salvador Dali in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. More comedy, please!

TOM CRUISE
Stop playing spies. After four MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movies, VALKYRIE, and KNIGHT AND DAY, I think you’ve probably played enough espionage to last a lifetime.

For everyone who needs career intervention, we can at least be buoyed by those big stars who really take chances and stretch their talents like Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Vigo Mortenson, Keira Knightley, Ryan Gosling, Kate Winslet and George Clooney, just to name a few. Now if we could just get Ben Stiller to stop making so many comedies and show us more of his dark side. A Bond villain, perhaps? Anything but another outing with the ever-mugging Mr. DeNiro. Fock that. (And Bobby, you could use a career intervention too, actually.)

Who do you think needs a career intervention? Share your thoughts and let’s keep the conversation going.