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The Skeleton Twins

The big news about "The Skeleton Twins" is that director/co-writer Craig Johnson has guided two comic actors, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, into giving fine dramatic performances.  They play self-destructive siblings, and while the film will strike a deep, true chord in anyone who has a brother or sister, I think you've also got to be a certain age to really relate.  The theme is disappointment about where you ended up in life.  Actually the pronounced theme is even darker: suicide, to which their father succumbed.  (We never see his face: when they remember him, he is always wearing a Halloween mask, a skull.)  


The jaundiced view of family is well-trodden ground for a story, perhaps, but it must be retold for every generation, and this time it is from the point of view of, broadly speaking, my generation.  Wiig is my age, give or take a couple of years (well, take, to be fair to her).  Let's just say early 40s.  Hader is younger, but not so young that he, too, was not forged by that cataclysmic crucible: an 80s childhood. 

Hader plays Milo, a gay man who moved to LA with dreams of becoming an actor.  As the film begins he lies back in a bathtub, distraught.  Red plumes blossom in the water, swirling up from the bottom of the frame.  Wiig plays Milo's sister Maggie, who gets the call about Milo's suicide attempt just as she herself is about to swallow a lethal dose of pills.  Flying to LA to be by his bedside, she offers to put him up for a while.  As the siblings pull back into their hometown of Nyack, New York and the valley spreads out below them, Maggie watches Milo as he gazes out the car window, surprised to find himself alive, silently regarding the beauty of fall. 


Maggie is unhappily married to Lance (a perfectly cast Luke Wilson).  He is the wrong man for her.  He is sweet, kind, good-natured, other words, exactly the wrong man for her.  She's dishonest to him and, frankly, nasty, sleeping with her scuba instructor, allowing Lance to believe, excitedly, that they are trying to have kids when she is in fact secretly taking birth control. 

Milo and Maggie, co-conspirators as children, have become strangers, haven't spoken in 10 years.  I will not give away the reason for this, but I will say that the film is wise in its handling of the hushed-up baggage these adult siblings carry, the unhealed rift caused by a teenage crisis when one sibling perceived the other to be headed for disaster with a bad influence from whom they thought the other needed to be saved, but which the other did not understand to be a crisis, is in fact still bitter about having been "saved," about the intrusion into a matter which the other may have only dimly understood.  (I would only add that the film takes a risk by suggesting that a certain type of taboo relationship, while it may be inherently exploitative, is not always perceived as injurious by the victim.)  

Milo has an odd encounter with an older man, Rich (Ty Burrell in a nicely wistful performance), his former English teacher, whom we first see working at a bookstore.  Rich's face registers a mixture of horror and anger upon seeing Milo, whose own nervousness reads as some mixture of shame and crush.  Rich soon cautiously warms up.  They go out to dinner.  The subject turns to "Moby Dick," and we can see that Rich must have at one time been quite a good teacher.  In a non-pedantic way, he tries to excite his former student, who can't engage with the book, talking about how funny and just flat-out "weird" the writing is.  

The title of the movie refers to the matching skeleton tattoos on the siblings' shoulders, and the film has a motif of masks and Halloween, an undercurrent of Day of the Dead iconography, which feels right for a film about two people who are in a sense back from the dead, hovering between this world and the next, not sure which they prefer.  The movie has a lyrical treatment of memory, of playing in the dressing-up box as children, of a doll sinking to the bottom of a pool, rescued and brought back to the surface by Milo.

Johnson tells much of "The Skeleton Twins" in two-shots and closeups, which Ingmar Bergman felt constitute the special marvel of film.  "They give you the eyes, the skin, the mouth, and that's fascinating," he said.  "The human face is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera."  In the wrinkles in Kristen Wiig's face we see written the passage of time and life's disappointments.  To further illustrate Bergman's point, check out that already celebrated scene in which Milo and Maggie airband to Starship's hair-raising if emblematic 80s jam "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."  In just one brief scene, Maggie and Milo's faces tell us everything we need to know about their bond, as much as a novel.  

A movie likes this all comes down to glances and words.  And so the question becomes, do they ring true?  Hader gives a remarkably pitch-perfect, empathetic portrayal of a gay man.  Milo always comes off as a three-dimensional human being and not a cliche, even when he's acting out cliches.  As Maggie, Wiig performs with a lot of heart and gives us an angry, empty, flat, pinched woman.    

As this movie sees it, kids are a nightmare, and parents let you down.  (In the scene where their self-absorbed mother (Joanna Gleason) drops by, she is a portrait in denial, encumbered by New Age flummery.)   In fact, according to this movie, all interpersonal relationships are really just an exercise in dissembling.  Except for one: the one you have with your brother or sister.  With them, you get real.  This is conveyed in an extended scene that takes place after-hours in the dentist’s office where Maggie works as a hygienist, where they get silly on nitrous oxide and then confide in each other.  The scene finds the sweet spot for brother/sister movies: the way we laugh so as not to cry.  In such moments both my laughter and my tears were real.  You may put "The Skeleton Twins" on the shelf next to "The Savages" and "You Can Count On Me," films about how we siblings take turns pulling each other up from the bottom of the pool.          

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)



Get On Up

While "Get On Up" leaves no biopic cliche to rest in the stables, it is still exhilarating, a colorful, kinetic whirlwind.  It is by the team who gave us "The Help": Tate Taylor directs, Stephen Goldblatt wields the camera. Their imagery feels heightened, comic.  While the film has something of the feel of a Broadway show, where mythmaking cheerfully trumps fact, no stage show could leap around in time like this.  Barely orienting us, the year appears in the bottom left of the frame, keyed to one of Brown's many sobriquets: "Soul Brother No. 1," "the Godfather of Soul," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," etc., etc.  A framing device plays like a parody: Brown walks a lone, dark hall as voices from his life murmur.  

Flash to 1988 when Brown, high on PCP and wielding a shotgun, terrorizes a conference.  Flash to the backwoods of pre-war Jim Crow Georgia, to a dirt-poor boy in a clapboard cabin.  His mama (Viola Davis) and his daddy (Lennie Davis) fight like wildcats, then she leaps into his arms.  (Brown would repeat this perverse dynamic with the women in his life.)  Lynched black bodies dangle from the trees, and the boy can stand on tiptoes and wrest off a dead man's shoes.  Mama takes off, and daddy thrashes him, mercilessly, routinely.  The young boy's response to the brutality rained down on him is almost unimaginable: it is a megawatt smile, sometimes directed right at us, blooming across his face.  

When war breaks out he goes to live with his aunt (Octavia Spencer).  She's a madam at a whorehouse, tough, but she treats him tenderly.  He'd duck down to the Pentecostal church, quaking with gospel music, where people shake off the devil in flowing white robes.  Tate's camera shakes the devil off, too.  In the flamboyant preacher Brown must have glimpsed his future stage show.  The movie is good at showing how Brown's feverish music sprung from African-American life.  Flash to a plantation lawn party where young, blindfolded black boys box for the amusement of white guests.  Punch-drunk on the mat, Brown imagines the ringside Dixieland band jump to their feet and start funkin' it up.  

For "stealing a man's suit" he gets 5-13 years in prison, and he meets Bobby Byrd in a scuffle during a performance by Byrd's jailhouse gospel quartet, which Brown would transform into the Famous Flames.  As Byrd, Nelsan Ellas has kind eyes.  He emanates good-humored, gentle warmth, conveyed in those basso interjections of "Get on up!" he supplied on "Sex Machine."  Brown's great blind spot was to mistake this man for a second banana, when he was really his only true, loyal friend.  

The movie's script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, contains lines that are great in their utter preposterousness.  ("Don't tell me when, where, or for how long I can be funky," the unflappable Brown tells an authority in Vietnam, only moments after his plane, strafed by enemy fire, touches down in flames).  Their script has Brown spell things out, putatively for other characters' benefit but really more for ours, including his revolutionary musical strategy.  ("Every instrument is a drum.")  

He was headstrong, mercurial, the boss.  He called other men "Mr." and he expected to be addressed similarly.  A hustler, a Bible fundamentalist.  Control was everything to him.  A bully: the movie doesn't gloss over Brown's domestic violence.  We hear the crack, and his wife (Jill Scott) falls crashing into the frame.  He deferred only to record industry men, where a relationship of mutual exploitation was expected, like his manager, Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd).  The relationship with Bart became something deeper.  A white man and a black man, they helped each other negotiate the tumult of the 60s.  By the terminal days of that decade, Brown had enough respect from the community to quell rage from the stage, shown in an expertly handled scene where the air vibrates with the barely suppressed violence of the times.  

Canny, smart.  So proud is Brown of how he took every aspect of show-business by the horns that he'll break the fourth wall to tell us about it.  The movie dramatizes his uneasy mix of black power and capitalism.  Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.  

Of course he was a legendary showman, a template for everyone from Springsteen to Jagger (who co-produced the movie), and it is in the performances that the movie comes alive.  The groove fills your pants with ants and you need to dance, even if it's just right there in your seat.  This is a testament to Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.  Few actors, save perhaps Robert Downey as Charlie Chaplin, have been called upon to portray a more physical icon.  Boseman hits the slides, splits, the "no man alive can make me leave this stage" business with the cape.  (My attempt later to have a go at that split at home proved unwise.  It made me give it up to Boseman all the more.)  

We see bits from the dynamite "live at the Apollo" show in 1962 and the galvanic T.A.M.I show of 1964.  We're in Brown's head as he lip-synchs "I Got You (I Feel Good)" on the set of "Ski Party," a 1965 Avalon-Funicello picture, in comical red sweaters, when he looks around, realizes, I'm on a honky hoedown!, and we explode into the song as performed in the 70s: jumped-up, feverish, as raw and black as it wants to be.  

In the movie's most moving scene Viola Davis shows up at her son's dressing room in what must be her best clothes, but her eyes show her years on the streets, and she gulps the champagne a bit too greedily.  Davis conveys a mother's pride and love, twisted--but not entirely snuffed--by raw poverty, need, addiction.  Davis finds the dignity in a life intersecting with a history of shame.  Boseman conveys the heartbreak of the boy, stilll playing with his mother in the woods, under the grown man's cemented idea of life as an exercise in mutual exploitation.  Surrounded by cardboard cutouts, these people are flesh and blood.  

Brown's famous megawatt smile was a mask, perhaps, and a sword, yes, but it was something else as well: he really did feel good.  I must report that while it skates along the surface, this celebratory, frenzied movie does the main job: it makes you feel the funk.  Makes you feel good, in fact.  I can think of no recent movie that made me more aware that I have a body.

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)



"Boyhood," Richard Linklater's new film, takes just shy of three hours to watch, yet it took 12 years to make.  It unspools 12 years in the life of an American boy named Mason.  His life is very similar to the life of any American boy, myself included.  To portray Mason the filmmakers rolled the dice and picked young Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old when he was brought into the project in 2002; when filming concluded in 2013, he was 18.  With "Boyhood" we now have a time capsule of life as it was lived in the United States in the "aughts," the first decade of this century.  These were the tumultuous post-9/11 years, the Bush years into the Obama era.
Linklater is one of my main men.  I go way back with him.  I remember seeing "Slacker," his first feature, in a theater back in 1991, up in the balcony at the Athena in my hometown, Athens, Ohio.  I admire this movie tremendously, even if I can't say I love it the way I love his three "Before" films, which are in my personal pantheon.  "Boyhood" is a film of privileged moments, and even if fewer of those moments are magical than in the "Before" movies, enough of them are.  It complements them beautifully in its elegant elision of his central theme, the passage of time.  For Linklater, movies are a time machine.  His is a cinema of memory and beauty.
We flow on a rushing river of time as its eddies and currents form and sculpt Mason's features.  These changes would be imperceptible In the space of years; in the space of this movie they are striking.  Facial features form and grow before our eyes.  This has a certain effect: you can see the little boy or little girl in the young man or woman.  Thus, we get a sense, perhaps, of why parents always see their kids as kids on some level, no matter how big they get.  A parent always sees the palimpsest of the past in the present.  
The movie is a river of experiences, some male, some generational, some universal.  Riding bikes.  (And is there anything more emblematic of childhood than riding bikes?)  Pouring over girlie magazines excitedly with schoolyard chums.  Encountering bullies, and being surprised to learn how pointlessly, stupidly mean people can be.  Lining up in costume at midnight to get the new Harry Potter book.  Having a first taste of beer as an eighth grader.  With some movies we say we've seen this before: with "Boyhood," we say we've lived it before.
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are credited as "mom" and "dad."  (Their names are Olivia and Mason, Sr., but this story is from Mason's point of view.)  They were really young when they had kids.  Now they are separated, and she is a single mom.  When Mason asks mom during bedtime story if she still loves dad, she answers that yes, she still loves his father: they just weren't good for each other.  One of the ideas the film plays with is the question of whether boys ever really grow up.  Certainly dad is still kind of a kid when we first meet him, a searcher, self-involved, cocky.  When he's done wandering he finds himself quite capable of swooping into their lives in his black GTO and being "fun dad," taking them out for bowling night.  
Linklater's achievement with "Boyhood" is to synthesize the dramatic fictional film and the documentary.  I think of the scene where our fictional characters--dad, Mason, and Mason's sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter)--go to a real baseball game.  It's kind of fascinating to think about.  Here we have a fictional story merging with documentary footage of an exciting Houston Astros game.  
The "Up" series of documentaries, which I love, which in fact move me perhaps more than any other films, also returned to its people across many years.  The difference is that "Boyhood" is acted, scripted and, well, fiction. At the same time, the film can't help but record 12 years of changes to Ellar Coltrane, not just Mason.  Hair lengths and colors change.    
Technology changes.  Mason works on a huge monitor as a grade schooler; by the end of high school he lives in the iPhone era.  He's skeptical.  Are we really "in the moment" if we're always staring at a little iPhone screen, he wonders?  His high-school girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham), is optimistic.  It's just a tool to connect me with my friends, she says.
(While we are not privy, mercifully, to Mason's first sexual experience, we do wake him and Sheena up in bed one morning.  Samantha had let them use her dorm room, but her roommate comes home unexpectedly and discovers them under covers.  Embarrassment all around.)
What "Boyhood" does have in common with the "Up" series is the way it plays you as you play it, so that as you watch a scene recorded in a specific moment in time, you reflect on what you were doing in your own life at that moment.  For some reason this feeling was most acute for me when we see Mason and dad hiking through the woods on a  camping trip in summer 2008.  Likewise, each experience Mason undergoes causes you to think about what your turn with the same experience was like.  
This soundtrack is a time capsule as well.  We begin with a little Coldplay and "Yellow" as six-year-old Mason lies on the grass and gazes up at the sky.  Along the way we get the Flaming Lips' “Do You Realize??", Family of the Year's beautifully aching song "Hero," Arcade Fire's "Deep Blue" in the movie's final stretches.  We know from our own lives that these songs will always take Mason back to the specific time and place when he first heard them.
I will say, I sure must have been in a different place (like, not deep in the cut in the clubs) when "Good Girls Gone Bad" by Cobra Starship dropped.  I never heard that one in my life, yet it's meant to be emblematic of 2009.  Kinda catchy.  On the other hand, my baby Karolyn tells me that "Crank That" by Soulja Boy, meant to cue 2007, and which I somehow also missed, is her jam!  
Much more to my taste are dad's jams.  (That makes sense, since we're the same age, 40-somethings.)  In fact, the music he likes is the same music I was listening to during those years.  He plays his son Wilco's "Sky Blue Sky" in the car, passionately explaining why it's so great.  I was listening to that very album n 2007.  As we hear Jeff Tweedy sing "Hate it Here" ("I try to stay busy, I do the dishes, I mow the lawn"), dad's pedantic commentary bemuses his son.  See, it's just basic country, listen to that, he enthuses.  And the production!  It's like "Abbey Road" or something!  (Actually Tweedy wrote Linklater a lovely, modest new song for the movie, "Summer Noon," which we hear on the end credits.)  Dad is listening to Dylan's "Beyond the Horizon" from 2006's "Modern Times" as the minivan pulls away with his new wife (Jenni Tooley) and baby in back.  I had that album in heavy rotation that year myself.
For Mason's birthday one year dad makes the boy a mix CD.  He has titled it "The Black Album." It contains music by the solo Beatles, and dad proclaims he has edited the album conceptually so that it works as a dialogue/debate between the individual Fab Four philosophies.  You can tell he worked really hard on it.  It's a labor of love.  He doesn't say so, but we can see he feels it is his fatherly duty to pass on the secrets and truths of rock 'n' roll, that having this music in your life will make your life happier, that in fact all of life is in this music.  All things must pass, as George told.  Which could be the secret title of this movie.  
Essentially, what Linklater and his crew did was make a short film every year.  One could almost view "Boyhood" as a series of discrete short films, seamlessly interwoven.  The most memorable might be the one that tells the story of mom's marriage to her college professor.  He has kids, and the two families merge.  Gradually, not overnight, he becomes a monster.  We see that he is in the habit of hiding hard liquor around the house.  Marco Perella is excellent as this martinet: cruel, capricious, arbitrary.  Yet he's not always that way: sometimes he can be fun and funny, if always quick with a taunt.  The family has largely figured out ways to enable and appease and humor him.  Mom is a bit preoccupied, always studying, trying to become a professor herself.  After he takes his outbursts to a new level of violence the kids hide out together, bunkering down in a bedroom, and Mason is comforted by watching a Will Ferrell video over and over.
This is one childhood experience I am glad to say I do not share with Mason.  I can only imagine how terrifying it must be to be in an abusive home, with some all-powerful giant lumbering around, liable to snap at any moment.  I won't forget the scene where the kids roll up on their bikes and see their mother on the garage floor.  The garage door is half down, obscuring our view so all we see of the professor is his legs swaying above her on the steps as we hear him bellowing.  She shrieks at the kids to run away.  
I also can't forget the way Linklater framed the shot of the kids arrayed along the couch as dad interrogates them about whether or not they've been in contact with their mother, checking each kid's phone and then chucking it back at him or her, except for his own daughter.  "I trust you," he tells her, and there passes a look between them that makes us wonder what else is going on there, and how screwed up she's going to be.  Thankfully mom gets her kids away from that house before he ever really does more than emotional violence to them.  
Through it all, dad still swoops up in that black GTO, whisking them off for fun times.  Actually Mason and Samantha feel calm when the sleep over at the apartment dad shares with his musician pal, Jimmy (played by Charlie Sexton, whom we know as Bob Dylan's guitar man).  Funnily enough, the rock & roll crash pad is actually a welcome sanctuary for the kids, offering stability, even adult responsibility, they don't get at home. 
Some of my favorite privileged moments in the film are when dad plays his guitar for the kids.  Not because the songs are all that great: they're humble. But he wrote them for the kids and they're an expression of love.  One of these moments is in a tent in the woods, one is on grandma and grandpa's porch, with the teenage kids and new wife gamely singing along to the choruses.  Dad had hoped to be a musician we watch that dream recede over the years, as he goes deeper into the insurance industry.  Not that he ever seems sad or bitter about it, really.  We all know that's what life can do.  When his son says "I thought you were a musician," dad replies that he is, but "Life is expensive."  As annoyingly feckless as dad was, it's sad when he drops the bombshell that he sold that black GTO he used to swoop up in.  (Hurt, Mason sulks, you were going to give that to me when I turned 16.)  The feckless young dreamer "grows up."  
It's important to note that the people who made "Boyhood" are almost all Texans.  The movie was edited by the great Sandra Adair, who has cut all of Linklater's features since "Dazed and Confused" in 1993.  Down the years it was photographed by two of Linklater's longtime cinematographers, Shane Kelly ("A Scanner Darkly") and Lee Daniel, who lensed Linklater's films all the way back to "Dazed and Confused."  There is something special about the light they get.  It is soft, diffuse, warm.  A summer light.  Sunlight.  In close-up, the film glows.  The perfect light for privileged moments.  I think of the close-ups of Zoe Graham, her hair glowing.  
All the "Boyhood" filmmakers were born in Austin or Houston or Dallas (and New Mexico and Mexico too), the land in which the film is set.  This is true of Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane.  Even Charlie Sexton is from San Antonio.  (Patricia Arquette, hailing from the great city of Chicago, is an exception).  The film is refreshing in the sense that it broadcasts a very natural, multifaceted portrait of Texans, countering stereotypical images.  
The filmmakers also make great use of the monumental natural beauty of the American west.  When dad drives his GTO out into the great wide open, into the great blue sky and mesas, the feeling of freedom is physical.  I think of a hike out to a swimming hole in an arroyo.  Gorgeous.  
In 2004 scenes of carnage in Iraq play out on a TV in a pizza joint where dad takes Mason and Samantha.  He asks the kids who they like for the election.  "Anyone but Bush!," he proclaims,  is the correct answer.  (I remember those days well).  The talk morphs into a frank sex talk, with dad discussing birth control openly with adolescent Samantha, who is mortified.  She can't stop giggling.  Lorelei Linklater is very good here, naked in her embarrassment.  Again, we can see dad really does loves the kids.  
As 2008 approaches, dad, full of missionary zeal, takes his kids out to knock on doors for Obama.  Karolyn and I chuckled as dad urged Mason to yank a McCain sign out of a yard and chuck it in the trunk.  (We wouldn't advocate that in real life.)  Knocking on a door, Mason meets a crotchety old white fellow who declares, pointedly, do I look like a supporter of Barack Hussein Obama?  Mason shrugs.  The man foams.  You're on private property and I could shoot you!  I remember people like that.  Samantha knocks on a door and meets an effusive "Obama Mama."  I remember them as well.  (Frankly, I'm much more comfortable around the latter.)
However, the movie does not let us Blue Staters get too smug about the superiority of our own  values.  The family goes out target-shooting when they visit grandma and grandpa at Mason's birthday.  We observe that dad agrees it's not a bad idea for the kids to learn to handle a firearm.  He's still a Texan, even if he rebels against it.  For his birthday Mason's grandparents give him not only his first suit, but a bible embossed with his name and a shotgun.  While Linklater plays the scene for laughs, the scene is not without affection for the grandparents.  He's bemused by these people, but he's still a Texan too, even if one of an avowedly Blue state of mind.
Mason grows into a young man who is introverted, shy, gentle, thoughtful.  He becomes a photographer, with real talent.  We can see he's got a great eye for texture.  One day his high school photography teacher (Tom McTigue) closes himself off in the darkroom with Mason and lectures him about getting serious.  I related to this scene, except with me it was my high school band teacher who closed the practice-room door behind himself to have a little heart-to-heart with me, interrupting my pleasant time bashing away on a drum set.  
Mom becomes a professor.  When she throws a Thanksgiving dinner for students and faculty, she meets a Marine (nicely played by Brad Hawkins), a thoughtful vet who becomes her second husband.  Gradually, the man's values of duty and loyalty, which once attracted her, mutate into drunken authoritarianism (again) directed at the the quiet Mason, whom he seems to want to "make a man" out of.  Finally this man seems another casualty of the Iraq war, perhaps, pounding beers on the porch in his security guard uniform.   
There is a graduation party for Mason.  We glimpse the family friend who helped extricate mom from the alcoholic's house years ago.  Her little girl is there as well, big now.  (She'd taken the family in, for how long we never really know).  
Mom and dad run into each other in the kitchen.  As far as I can recall, this is the only scene in the 2:45 movie that Ellar Coltrane is not in.  They talk.  You did a great job raising the kids, he says.  He knows he didn't have to do the hard work of raising them.  We fought a lot, but if we'd met at different points in our lives, who knows?  He offers her money for the party.  Perhaps unexpectedly, she accepts.  Turns out he doesn't have any cash on him, but he'll hit an ATM.  It's a bit embarrassing for both.  
While there are no big actorly moments for anyone in this movie, no one is less than natural throughout.  It's an achievement, sustaining a  continuity of a performance over 12 years.  Hats off to Hawke, Arquette and young Mr. Coltrane.
As the day draws near when Mason is to leave for college draws near, mom has a small breakdown.  As the movie ends she seems like the character least headed for a happy life.  This movie has mainly been about the male experience, with only tangential looks at the female experience. 
In their final scene together, Mason and his dad have a heart-to-heart at a bar.  He's broken up with Sheena.  He thought he'd made a real connection, and he needs some advice.  At first I found the scene unsatisfying.  Dad's advice about the breakup is not all that great, or even wise.  As a bonding moment it left something to be desired.  Then I realized the talk must have been unsatisfying for Mason as well.  And then I realized that the scene is really about that moment when kids see a truth about older generations: they're actually still figuring it all out, too.  Adults are not all-knowing.  They have much more experience, true, but to a certain extent they're still winging it.  You will never really get to a point where you're not.  Dad is honest about that here.  All it means, really, is that you realize you have to figure it out for yourself, on your own terms.  That's growing up.
We leave Mason hiking in the canyons with his new college friends.  He falls into conversation with a nice girl.  The kids have ingested something allegedly psychedelic as the sun sets, but it doesn't really seem to do all that much, but that's okay, really, because the world itself is glorious.  And as his new crazy roommate howls with joy at the beauty of this moment out in the desert, Mason is a young man on the doorstep of life.  He is 18 years old.  He has a strong foundation.  He is as ready as he will ever be for the whole life that is in front of him.  As ready as any of us ever are.  


Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

no stars (utter shite)


Life Itself

Life is, in large part, accidental.  As recounted in this superb documentary based in part upon his memoir, Roger Ebert, perhaps America's most famous film critic, didn't set out to become a movie reviewer.  He fell into it in 1967 when the critic at the Sun-Times left and the boss appointed him to the job.  Now he is the subject of a movie himself, a film by Steve James, the Chicago documentary filmmaker who has given us unforgettable pictures like "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters."  James makes films about Chicago lives, and in that sense "Life Itself" is very much a Steve James picture.  

He has organized the film on the principle of youth to maturity to death, the trajectory we are all lucky enough to get to take.  It is a tough-minded and loving film.  It is framed by unflinching, heartbreaking footage of Roger in the shape he was in when James started shooting, after radical surgery had transformed his face,  robbing him of his jaw after bouts with cancer of the salivary gland, when he was our "wounded soldier of the cinema," as his friend Werner Herzog puts it, working so hard in rehab, unable to speak or eat.  He only had a few more months to live.
These scenes are truly hard to watch and yet also truly poignant.  Sometimes they are even funny.  Roger's voice was provided by his computer voice simulator, and unbelievably he is still joking, even in the hospital.  There is a lot of pain in "Life Itself."  We can see right through the hole in the flap of his hanging jaw.  Roger had the courage to show James's camera everything, including the drainage of his throat with a suction tube, something he seems to have had to endure regularly.  We see he could sometimes be irritable and impatient and fussy and stubborn.  But can't we all, and with immeasurably less cause?  Sometimes it was all more than he could bear.  Yet he bore his final ordeal with stunning courage and good humor, with his lovely wife Chaz as his rock of unshakeable courage and dignity and bearing and wit.
This is a film of deep joy, and deep pain.  Karolyn and I were sobbing messes throughout much of it, but I doubt that from moment to moment we could have separated out whether we were weeping from the joy or the pain.  I suppose it was all of it, all mixed together.
You certainly couldn't describe "Life Itself" as hagiography.  In fact much of James's selection of sound and image from Roger's life (and there is a lot to choose from) seems to have been based on the criteria: does it show him as flawed, lusty, sometimes shabby?  In short, does it show him as a man, as human?  If so, let's put it in there.  I think Roger would have appreciated that.  By being honest, "Life Itself" is more of a salute to Ebert than it would have been had it tried to pop a halo on him.
(There's an amusing moment: Ebert famously loved attending the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder.  In fact he went every year until he became too frail.  But lest we begin to think him too high-minded, we see him tell a panel audience at the conference that in the beginning he just went to get laid.)   
And so we have a story of a boy who grew up in the small town of Urbana, Illinois, whose working-class parents had a "by Roger Ebert" ink stamp made for him, with which he proceeded to stamp his byline on everything in the house.  He was editor of the college newspaper at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the early 60s, where he wrote a fiery editorial in support of civil rights, displaying the lifelong liberalism that would always inform his work, his advocacy for civil rights and labor, indeed an engagement with the wider world outside of movies.  That said, though he was a liberal, one of his lifelong best friends was a conservative, a colorful Irishman called John McHugh whom readers of the memoir will not forget.  (Roger liked critical thought, debate.)
In fact one regret I have about this film is that it couldn't fit in the great stories Roger tells in his memoir about knocking around with McHugh in the days when you could fly around the world on the studios' dime and hang with old-school movie stars like Robert Mitchum.  We also don't see much on his time as a student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, though we know from his memoir that this was a very important time for him in his life.
We see that he could be abrasive, even obnoxious, when he was young.  But then, I suppose you don't become a critic unless you have a pretty massive ego in the first place, and a taste for fiery, passionate polemic.  These scenes are actually comforting for those of us who sometimes regret that maybe we behaved like abrasive, obnoxious jerks in our youths.  Maybe because when you had critics for role models growing up, you thought "abrasive" was what you were meant to be.  The film never misses a chance to remind us that Ebert was possessed of a truly  stinging and hilarious critical voice, which he could wield with withering effect.  We note that it is then possible to grow up to be a human of generosity and kindness and grace.   
Roger moved to Chicago and became a classic Chicago newspaperman, getting in on the last days of an old-school lifestyle that might be as endangered as those great clattering printing presses.  James gives us a good sense of the romance of being an ink-stained newspaperman in the big city.  Year in and year out he wrote reviews on deadline for a daily, general audience. He was a natural writer: by all accounts he could sit down and bang out a readable review in a few minutes that would take others days to craft.  And his reviews are so rarely flat on the page.  That is, they somehow managed to get the life that's in the movie onto the page.  I think this is because Roger himself lived.  
And yet we learn in this film that there were times when this man who was so full of life wanted to die.  ("Life Itself" the movie can be startlingly honest, going to dark places the book itself didn't even go.)  Some of those times were when, deep in the throes of alcoholism, he was trying to make it home after stumbling out of the bars, the Old Town watering holes on seedy North Avenue, where Roger and his friends--legendary newspapermen and other colorful characters--would hold court, places like O'Rourke's and The Old Town Ale House.  We hear from some of those characters who are still around, and it sounds like it was a wild, surreal scene, fun until it wasn't.  Roger was caught up in the romance of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," one of his favorite films, and now he was living it.  Those were the days when stars like Clint Eastwood would drop by O'Rourke's and just hang out and have a drink.
We see a clip from "Bonnie and Clyde," which came out the same year Roger became a critic, 1967, and must have seemed like it had an antenna up to the tumultuous, sexy times, the violence in the air, and we hear Ebert's review: his tone is excited, exhilarated by this terrible and beautiful experience.  It was a great time to become a film critic, someone says.  Those of us who might like to practice film criticism professionally today may find ourselves asking, well, what about now?  Well, Ebert was always an optimist.  Not for him any talk of a culture in decline, despite what many might feel is undeniable evidence to the contrary.  
James uses a voiceover actor (Stephen Stanton) to read passages from Ebert's memoir and reviews, and the effect is remarkable: Stanton's voice is so much like Roger's that I often thought it was Roger, though I knew it could not be.  We see clips from films like "Bonnie and Clyde," Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," and Bresson's "L'Argent" while we hear Stanton read Roger's review.  So vivid, so intense, this imagery.  I remember being almost feverish after seeing "Cries and Whispers"; Ebert's review of that one was very important for me.   
"Life Itself" touches on the feud between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael that dominated the critical landscape when Ebert was beginning his career in the 60s and 70s.  Everyone was squaring off, choosing sides, but Ebert was too much his own man to be anybody's follower.  Rather, he was smart enough to learn from both of these titans.  "In my own first days as a film critic," he once wrote, "Kael was my muse but Sarris was my mapmaker."  

Ebert adored female breasts.  We get a generous amount of footage from "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), the notorious picture he wrote for noted breast-man Russ Meyer.  It was for this move that Ebert penned the immortal line, "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"   Musing on "Dolls," A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, says with a smile (and I paraphrase): when we discuss film as an art, we mustn't forget that there are earthy pleasures for which film is uniquely suited.  Watching clips from "Dolls," with its guns and gals, it is no wonder Ebert would later become a champion of Quentin Tarantino.  (We do not, however, get much of a mention of Meyer and Ebert's ill-fated Sex Pistols movie project.)


We come to the Siskel and Ebert years (never Ebert and Siskel, much to Roger's chagrin), from the days when he was first stuck with this man he wasn't even sure he liked, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to the days when this unlikely pair (they looked like clowns, someone sums up bluntly) became, in a very real way, America's film critics, appearing over and over on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  

"Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies" reached down into my house in southeastern Ohio in the early-mid 80s.  As kids, we called them "the fat one" and "the skinny one."  I remember we were scandalized by their championing of something called "My Dinner With Andre."  This was hilarious evidence of the baffling, perverse taste of film critics, that they would care to sit and watch a movie about having dinner with some fellow called Andre.  We favored fare like "Friday the 13th," which Siskel and Ebert had the matchless effrontery to slam.  (I grew up to love "Andre": it is one of my all time favorites.)  


Still, while my friends may have found the duo impossible, I was always intrigued, and I always looked forward to the show.  Even now, those iconic, droll opening credits, which James shows, where the two men leave their offices, then they're on the Chicago streets waving the Sun-Times and Tribune trucks respectively to back up so they can pose like peacocks in front of themselves emblazoned on the side, and then their meeting up in front of the theater, arguing even on the way in, takes me right back to gathering myself expectantly on the living room floor crosslegged in front of the TV.   

Siskel & Ebert would champion adventurous films, advocating for foreign, independent, documentaries, films that otherwise might have passed through without ever being seen, little pictures that didn't really have any advertising budgets.  Without Siskel and Ebert talking about them, people might never have gone to see them.  If there is still any justification, any need, for critics (and there is, maybe more than ever), I believe it is just that.

"Life Itself" touches on the one Ebert review that most scandalized my teenage self back in 1986: his slam of "Blue Velvet."  I love the picture to this day.  How could my hero not get it?  (I was with Pauline Kael, my other big influence growing up, on that one.)  I learned that sometimes our favorite critics frustrate us.  They have blind spots.  And you had to engage with his argument: he objected to the way the film treated Isabella Rossellini's character.  If you didn't agree, you had to think about why, and hone your own position.  (Ebert would go on to write wonderful appreciations of later Lynch pictures like "Mulholland Drive," my favorite, and he wrote more beautifully about "Inland Empire," one of Lynch's strangest and most exhilarating and most Lynchian pictures, than any other film writer I know of.)  
That "Blue Velvet" review was one reason why some people I knew regarded Ebert as an out-of-it, "mainstream" reviewer, where "mainstream" was a bad thing.  I never really paid much attention to people who thought that, figuring that they couldn't really be paying much attention to Roger's work, particularly his books, where he did go into much more depth than "thumbs up/thumbs down," in elegant sentences and vivid language that was quite free of pretentious diction or meaningless academic jive.  Still, there is a legitimate critique to be made that you lose some nuance when you reduce film evaluation to a thumbs "up or down" proposition, and In "Life Itself" we hear from critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, who worried about that.  Rosenbaum was a friend and respected colleague; I don't think he ever meant it as a pejorative when he called Roger a "mainstream critic," just a fact.  (Well, maybe a little, in the context of Rosenbaum's overall critique of the mainstream system.)  The differences between them were more a matter for affectionate amusement than contempt.  But again, Ebert thrived on critical thought.  He even reprinted Corliss's critique of his show (and the resulting debate in the pages of "Film Comment") in one of his own books.  In the movie, Corliss ends up speaking with some awe about the scope of Roger's body of work.     
That was the crucial thing about Ebert: he had a knowledge of film that was second to none, but he communicated it to a general audience.  He encouraged ordinary, regular people to take the adventure.  He understood that movies were a pop art form, too.  A people's art.  "I know why people go to the movies," he once said.  And he did.  This was a man who was capable of enthusiastically getting behind some big-budget entertainment product with the best of 'em, if he thought it was good, and also of conducting a weeklong symposium on Fassbinder.   
Gene Siskel made the decision to tell almost no one about the brain cancer that felled him far before his time.  Roger decided that if something like that ever happened to him, he would not keep it a secret.  After Gene died, Roger would write "no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love."  
"Life Itself" is a story of redemption, a story of the journey from callow, selfish youth to a man of transcendent love who literally had time for everyone.  I assure you I use that "literally" quite purposefully, from personal experience.  (Roger liked precise language.)  He met his beautiful wife Chaz in AA.  He went from a life alone to a life with Chaz. (She saved me from a life lived out alone, is how he puts it).  He became an adoptive grandfather.    
Speaking of saving people, the film discusses Roger's habit of befriending creative people in the movie industry.  But it went beyond that.  In a remarkably candid moment, Martin Scorsese, one of the producers of "Life Itself" itself, talks about how he came to a point in his life when he had become addicted to drugs, he'd run into creative obstacles, he didn't even know if he wanted to live any more.  It was Roger's championing of his work, of "Raging Bull," that actually kept him alive.  Imagine that.  In fact Ebert had spotted Scorsese's greatness, his energy and verve, right out of the gate.  We see electrifying clips from “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” his very first feature, which Ebert championed in print.  Ebert wrote a book on Scorsese.  And yet, when Scorsese's "The Color of Money" came out, Ebert didn't like it, and didn't hesitate to slam it on the show.  He never hesitated to call 'em like he saw 'em.  Scorsese can talk about it now with a smile, but you can still tell it still stings.   
Roger loved Errol Morris's debut film "Gate of Heaven," eventually seeing it at least 30 times, traveling with it to festivals, talking about it over and over.  Morris says he wouldn't even have a career without Ebert's support.  Ava DuVernay, whose film "I Will Follow" Ebert praised, says that it meant everything to her career to have a powerful white man blow trumpets about a film made by an African-American woman.  You don't always feel that they will "get" where you're coming from, these cultural gatekeepers, but with Roger, she says, you always felt like you were getting a fair hearing, an understanding ear.  In the movie, Chaz says Ebert saw film as a "machine for empathy."  For at least a couple hours, you can walk in someone else's shoes.  
Werner Herzog, another friend, dedicated his gorgeous, numinous, starkly beautiful film "Encounters At the End of the World" to Roger Ebert.  If you have seen this film, about the kind of characters who end up living at the South Pole, you will understand why: the picture encompasses almost all of Ebert's concerns, everything he championed and loved.  He was endlessly fascinated by the mysteries we are, we human beings.  
He was still helping artists at the end, when he gave just such a boost to Ramin Bahrani, the great young director of deeply humane films like "Man Push Cart" and "Goodbye, Solo."  Bahrani visits Ebert in the hospital.  He tells us that Roger's support came at a time when he was thinking of giving up filmmaking.  He shows us a gift Ebert gave him: a jigsaw puzzle that had belonged to Marilyn Monroe.  It was given to her on her wedding day by Alfred Hitchcock.  Laura Dern had given it to Roger, and he passed it down to Bahrani.  He is humbled.  
We hear Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" on the soundtrack while Chaz tells the story about how this song literally saved Roger's life.  They were lingering to listen to it at the hospital while packing up after a surgery, and thus were still at the hospital, and not in a cab, when a blood vessel burst under Roger's chin.  Doctors were thus able to surround him and save his life, frantically grabbing towels to stanch the blood.  (Leonard Cohen's music means a lot to Karolyn and me, as well.)    
After the surgeries, when he could no longer speak, he moved into the digital world and we readers were privileged to perambulate with him through his consciousness itself.  When he could no longer speak, his voice became sublime.  When he could no longer walk, he wandered through the world in his mind.  (He had loved to walk, exploring cities around the world.)      Wandering through his memories.  I remember him writing about how relieved he was, how  happy, to find that it was all still there, all of his memories.  Things he'd long forgotten were given to him now, and he could call up parts of his life he hadn't thought about in ages. 
It's funny: random bits from Roger's journal flit through my consciousness from time to time.  Perhaps they always will.  Just now, I thought of how much Roger loved to look at Turner's watercolors at the Tate in London, and I thought of my own time there, looking at the watercolors, guided to them by Roger's journal.  And I send out a thank you, Roger, even now, and a salute.  Thank you.  Thank you for pointing me that way.
The segment of "Life Itself" about the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond in Chicago touched a nerve with me.  Up until only a few years ago I'd never been, despite having lived in Chicago for over a couple of decades now.  It was reading in Roger's journal about what walking in the lily pond meant to him that prompted me finally to get over and visit.  I wrote about the experience on my site, and Ebert was kind enough to share my piece on his social media outlets.  (It's still the most-read piece I ever wrote.)    
In those days his writing about life itself came to mean more to me than even his film reviews.  By the end, his iconic "thumbs up" was more than just an evaluation of a film.  It was an affirmation of life itself.
Roger knew that the great movies take us to the wonder.  At the beginning of his career he loved films films like "2001: A Space Odyssey."  At the end of his career he loved "The Tree of Life," its unspooling ribbon of life, and we see a clip from that great film of boys running down the street of their hometown with sparklers.  He tells us that no other film is as evocative for him of his childhood.  He knew that when encountering films like this, the job of a good critic ceases to be to provide snark.  It is to be humble in the face of the numinous, the wonder.  Film as cathedral.  The beginning of the world, and the farthest reaches of the universe.   
Like all the great critics, I believe Roger realized that in the end people remember you for what you love, not for what you hate.  "Life Itself" gives us a sense of what Roger loved.  It stands alongside the book, which weaves much of his wonderful online journals through its narrative, and the Internet archive, where you can go and visit him, where he lives now in his work, where he will always live.
Maybe, in the end, the great subject of the movies is: how are we are to live?  What is our potential, our beauty, as a species?  If so, Roger Ebert's life is an exemplary subject for the movies.  
Chaz Ebert has been very, very brave to share her story (because this is her story, too).  Karolyn and I are getting married in October.  There were many aspects of Chaz and Roger's story that reminded us of our own, among them a mid-life marriage.  In our discussions after "Life Itself," the words we used to express this were the words we were both thinking during the film: "You're my Chaz" and "You're my Roger."     


Rating: *****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

no stars (utter shite)


22 Jump Street


It's no small thing, a modern comedy that is actually funny.  Before "22 Jump Street" began, Karolyn and I sat through some coming attractions for pictures that were, putatively at least, comedies ("Dumb and Dumber To" by the once-great Farrelly brothers, a new one from the once-funny Melissa McCarthy).  Now, I'm not in the habit of a priori reviewing, and maybe these pictures will turn out to be fonts of hilarity, but the previews sure didn't do them any favors.  I could feel my brain, my heart, my soul dying a little bit.  By the time we got to a trailer involving Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. impersonating cops, we felt as though we might never laugh again.  

Yet sitting here musing on "22 Jump Street," I find myself chuckling even now.  From line to line, from situation to situation, it's sweet and smart and, yes, honestly funny.  I think fondly of all sorts of gags, but to list them would be to deflate them for you, so I won't do that.  Instead I'll just note that the movie is a parody of action movies that works as action in its own silly way, and it's a bromance, and it's meta as all get-out, a sequel about sequels.  Everything you could say about it could be prefaced with "once again." And so: once again, we have a story about a hapless Odd Couple of undercover cops, the "jock" and the "brain" from high school, who go back to school (college, this time) to try to bust a drug ring.  Like its predecessor, it's based only in the loosest way on the TV show from the 80s, which, if I recall, played this scenario pretty straight.  The movie, in contrast, gets comic traction from the conceit of these aging men "passing" as students.  
The movie has fun spoofing action's ponderous self-seriousness, its badass stars.  Jonah Hill is still perhaps our least badass, least likely movie star, yet he's the kind of actor that whenever he is on screen, you can't help but have fun.  His willingness to poke fun at himself extends from the "Jump Street" franchise all the way to his performance as a twisted version of himself in last year's "This Is The End," and he's just off a fine comic performance in Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," where he was well cast as a profoundly unwholesome trader of gruesome appetites.  Here he is the none-too-swift "brain," Schmidt, a remarkably ineffective undercover agent, in that his cover wouldn't fool a three-year-old.  Hill drolly portrays Schmidt's insecurity, his awkward attempts to dissemble, his white-boy-trying-to-be-cool act, and offers up his portly body as comedic contrast to Tatum's cut one, his clumsiness in contrast to Tatum's Spiderman-like feats of physical prowess. 


You have to be smart to play dumb, and Channing Tatum is a very smart actor.  As the "jock," Jenko, he's a big, sweet galoot, good humored, oblivious.  Slow, maybe, but earnest and loyal.  He's kind of innocent and naive.  In one of the ways the movie is very aware it's 2014, Jenko sits in on a human sexuality course and becomes an unlikely advocate for GLBT rights.  When he meets a jock/frat boy called Zook (Wyatt Russell), they strike up a bromance that derives much of its humor from how comfortable these two straight guys are with each other's bodies.  It's a sweet obverse of gay-panic humor.  

While Jenko infiltrates the frat in the partners' search for the bearer of a mysterious bazooka tattoo, their only clue, Schmidt manages to get close to a pretty art student (Amber Stevens) and her bohemian, poetry-slammin' crowd.  Have Schmidt and Jenko found their true soul mates?  Could this break them up as a couple? 

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on a roll this year, with this picture and the inventive "The Lego Movie."  (In that one, Hill and Tatum were the voices of Green Lantern and Superman, respectively.)  They have established their signature and mode: slyly satirizing what they're up to even as they're getting away with it.  It's probably too much to call their sensibility subversive, yet "22 Jump Street's" self-awareness of the utter pointlessness of most sequel is refreshing, and probably not an attitude that Lord and Miller's movie executive bosses want spread around too much among the movie-going public.  (Though, in another layer of irony, as long as this picture brings in the bucks they're probably quite happy to take the ribbing.)  

Lord and Miller's pictures are spiked with an awareness of the world outside the movie.  At one point in "22" Jonah Hill winks at Ice Cube, perfectly cast as the Odd Couple's glowering boss, after tossing off a disparaging remark about a "cracker" in a feeble attempt to ingratiate himself.  It's a wink that says "Hey, I know your records, Ice Cube," that says, there's a world outside of this movie where this guy used to be the controversial embodiment of African-American anger.  It's good to see even Cube having a laugh at himself.  


In fact everyone on the set seems to be having a good time.  Jillian Bell is very funny as the art student's disapproving roommate who regards Schmidt with a withering eye and cutting tongue that zeroes in with hilarious accuracy on all of his inadequacies.  (Schmidt, of course, thinks she's nice.)  A mention should also be made of the Lucas Brothers, who have a recurring role as stoned roommates from across the hall whom Schmidt and Jenko meet when they move into the dorm.  Smiling twins in matching horn-rimmed glasses, beards, and caps, whose sentences intertwine, they're a visual joke in and of themselves.  Looking at them, you can't help wondering if you haven't ingested something yourself.  They're a bit like live-action cartoon characters. 

One more plus: since the final set-piece is set at Spring Break, you get to see a lot of bodies in bikinis, one of whom is deployed (to her great pleasure) by Jenko as a weapon for taking out the baddies. 

And so I'd actually just like to thank this movie.  It gave me a fun Saturday night out with my baby, where we could sit and laugh together, and I got to hear her great, pealing laughter filling the theater.  Sometimes the movies are a shared emotional experience for us, sometimes (if it's a scary one), they're an excuse for us to huddle up close.  Here, her laughter was infectious, enhancing everyone's experience with its energy, the sparks catching fire in the audience and making other people break out in laughter as well, filling the theater with cheer and warming me as it reverberated and resounded around the theater.  

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

no stars (utter shite)