First of all, I’m not sure why I care so much. I said this to my husband this morning after the Academy Award nominations came out and I was thoroughly worked up over how terrible they were. I’m not sure why any of us care so much, actually. Maybe it’s because we see movies to get lost in them and end up becoming emotionally invested in them. Maybe it’s just fun to make predictions and be right. In theory, it should be satisfying enough to see a film and be dazzled or touched or provoked or whatever. It should be about the art, not the congratulatory hardware.
Still, here we are on Hollywood’s Biggest Morning, waking up at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, analyzing and agonizing over what went wrong and what went right. I have a few thoughts but then must dash off to write a review of “The Wedding Ringer.” We still have January releases to contend with, after all.
SELMA: It scored a well-deserved best picture nomination and one for Common and John Legend’s original song, “Glory.” But that is not nearly enough for this powerful, beautifully acted and passionately made picture. Ava DuVernay belongs in that best-director category — and she would have made history as the first female filmmaker of color. And it’s unfathomable that David Oyelowo didn’t get a best-actor nomination for his searing and sensitive portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tore that role up but he also found the quiet humanity in this iconic figure. I’d like to think the paltry number of nominations had more to do with a late release date and a lack of screeners than an institutional racism and sexism within this extremely white, extremely male voting body. But it doesn’t look good. Maybe this will inspire more folks to go see it, though.
THE LEGO MOVIE: The biggest stunner of all and the one that made the Unikitty in me want to explode with rage. Heading into this morning, “The Lego Movie” looked like the favorite to WIN the Oscar for best animated feature. It didn’t even receive a nomination. Nothing about this makes sense. How is it possible that this gorgeous, detailed, lively, funny, crowd-pleasing and affirming film isn’t one of the five best animated features of the year? Was it just too different aesthetically — too edgy, too innovative? Did the brief mix of live action at the end throw people off? It did earn a nomination for best original song, though: the now-ironically titled “Everything Is Awesome.”
LIFE ITSELF: Steve James’ look at the life and last days of Roger Ebert, based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, seemed like a shoo-in for the documentary feature category. It’s resonated with audiences worldwide, earned rave reviews and drew strong ratings when it aired earlier this month on CNN. It’s a well-made and intimate look at a man who has influenced so many of us, one who remains a revered and adored figure among anyone who loves film. So not seeing “Life Itself” listed among the five nominees was indeed a shocker. But interestingly, “Finding Vivian Maier,” co-directed by Gene Siskel’s nephew, Charlie, did receive a best-documentary nomination. The rivalry remains strong in the afterlife.
BEST ACTOR: As I mentioned earlier, Oyelowo should be in this race.So should Jake Gyllenhaal, doing the best work of his life as a supremely creepy TV news videographer in “Nightcrawler.” Instead, we get Bradley Cooper, who is admittedly very good in “American Sniper” and earns his third consecutive nomination following “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” We also get Steve Carell, who was chilling in a rare dramatic turn as John DuPont in “Foxcatcher,” a movie that was too chilly as a whole. (Carell’s nose also got nominated in the hair and makeup category.) It was an extremely tight year. There are a good dozen actors who belonged in this race. The other three who did make it — Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” — have been major players all along.
SPEAKING OF “FOXCATCHER:” The film’s director, Bennett Miller, surprisingly received a nomination this morning. I’ve enjoyed his previous films — “Capote” and “Moneyball” — but this one just felt too emotionally detached, even though it’s based on a dramatic, real-life story. Miller takes the spot Clint Eastwood earned at the Directors Guild nominations for “American Sniper”; otherwise, the Oscars and the DGAs are aligned, as they so often are. And as usual, they are all men: Besides Miller, there’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman”), Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
AND SPEAKING OF MEN: They’re the subjects of all eight of this year’s best-picture nominees: “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.” And all but one of those, “Selma,” are about white men.
AND SPEAKING OF WHITE PEOPLE IN GENERAL: Every single acting nominee is white. All 20 of them across all four categories. There hasn’t been this complete lack of diversity since 1998. Way to shake things up, Academy.
I’M SORRY, WHAT WAS THAT?: “Interstellar” earned nominations for both its sound mixing and editing? I couldn’t hear what you were saying, the music was too loud. (The overpowering score earned Hans Zimmer yet another Oscar nomination, by the way.)
AND YET, “IDA”: The subtly powerful Polish drama “Ida” from director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski was a lock for the foreign-language category. I was pleased to see it make it in there, but it also received a surprising nomination for its exquisite black-and-white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal. Every single frame is a work of art. This is my favorite nomination of the day. But! They’ll probably lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for his daredevil work on “Birdman.” This means my hero, Roger Deakins, also will lose once again — for the 12th time — for his dramatic work on “Unbroken,” which is the best part of the whole film.
AND “FEAST”: The adorable little movie that plays before “Big Hero 6” got a much-deserved nomination for best animated short. “Feast” does so much in such a small amount of time — which is appropriate given that its subject, a Boston terrier, is the kind of dog who thinks he’s much bigger than he really is. Now, maybe I’m a tad biased because we are the proud human companions of a Boston terrier ourselves, but this movie was a complete charmer. It also left me with tears streaming down my face and my 5-year-old son in my lap wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Go find it.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS: And finally, after all this bitching, I’m going to end on a positive by noting that this was a great day for Texas filmmakers. Linklater and Anderson — both born in Houston, with Linklater remaining a major force in Austin — scored their first best-picture and best-director nominations. This is sort of mind-boggling given that they’ve established themselves as such important, singular voices over the past couple decades. So maybe there’s some reason to celebrate, after all — with a Shiner Bock, even.
One of the most powerful aspects of Jonathan Glazer’s gorgeous and daring “Under the Skin” is its score from British singer-songwriter and producer Mica Levi: a haunting mix of strings, percussion and flute that’s sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike and always original. It keeps you on edge from the very beginning, and it beautifully accompanies the transformation that Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes.
Last night at the newly reopened Regent Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, I had the great pleasure of rewatching the film with Levi conducting a 25-piece orchestra which performed the score before a sold-out audience. The century-old theater, which was home to grindhouse fare and porn in the 1970s, has been restored to its former glory, and it provided an intimate and appropriately dramatic setting for such a bold film.
In case you haven’t seen “Under the Skin” — and you really should, since it’s one of 2014’s best — Johansson stars as a sexy, otherworldly being who prowls the streets of Scotland in a minivan seeking lonely, single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes. It’s challenging and intentionally ambiguous but also just exquisite in its imagery, visual effects and sound design.
Watching it again with Levi at the helm, I noticed several different elements I didn’t catch completely upon initial viewing. When I first saw the movie, it blew me away from both a technical and a narrative perspective. And Johansson’s performance truly wowed me: It’s probably the best work of her long and eclectic career because it requires her to be both seductive and elusive, often within the blink of an eye.
This time, there was a heightened buzz in the room with such gifted musicians performing this awesome and avant-garde score right in front of us. The staccato of the violas sizzled even more, and the steady drum that’s the heartbeat of Johansson’s hunt provided an even more unbearable feeling of suspense. But I also felt more aware of her arc — possible spoilers ahead — as she goes from cold and driven predator to uncertain and emotional prey. Glazer establishes subtle parallels: the way she walks backward as she lures various men into her lair, and then later follows a man who’s walking backward as he leads her down a narrow, scary staircase. His camera tracks men walking down the street, lingering as it sizes them up, but regards the women who walk by with indifference.
I also noticed the first contacts with humanity that touched her even earlier — the blood on her hand from a street vendor’s rose precedes her encounter with the kindhearted, facially disfigured man who earns her reprieve. And the terror she experiences once she opens herself up to mortal sensations felt even more chilling this time around. It felt immediate and intense, and I’m certain that had everything to do with hearing the climactic section of the score played live.
It was also just extremely cool to see Levi do her thing so calmly, so commandingly, before a packed house. She’s only 28 years old and this is her first film score — she’s probably best known as Micachu of the experimental pop band The Shapes — which makes her the rare woman composing music for movies today. Think about it: When you consider the most prominent and acclaimed composers in film history, names like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman come to mind. All men.
Levi is blazing a trail both musically and just through her sheer presence. She also happens to be the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s winner of the best music score award, tying with Jonny Greenwood for his work on “Inherent Vice.” I’d say we chose pretty well — and I can’t wait to see (and hear) what she does next.
One of the many great parts about living in Los Angeles is the wealth of repertory theaters offering an array of eclectic fare for serious film lovers. The Cinefamily, at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, is prime among them. These people dig deeply and care passionately, and they enjoy a loyal following.
So when the British organization Secret Cinema was planning screenings around the world Sunday night to protest Sony’s decision not to release “The Interview” amid terrorist threats — and take a stand against censorship in general — The Cinefamily stepped in to be a part of it. But they did it with some tweaks. Rather than show “The Great Dictator,” the 1940 classic starring Charlie Chaplin as a Hitleresque figure which was playing in cities including London and San Francisco, The Cinefamily showed its sold-out Los Angeles audience a film that carried its own relevance: “The Red Chapel,” a 2010 documentary about Danish comedians who travel to Pyongyang to put on a show.
Only we didn’t know we were going to see “The Red Chapel.” We didn’t know what we were going to see — that was a big part of the event’s allure. Folks on Cinefamily’s e-mail list got an invitation to a “secret protest screening,” the title of which would be announced right as the film was beginning. We were instructed to wear dark suits and bring a small gift for a stranger. It was all very hush-hush — which added to the buzz.
They insisted they would not be showing “The Interview,” in which James Franco and Seth Rogen play entertainment journalists who travel to North Korea with the task of assassinating Kim Jong Un, but speculation was rampant nonetheless. “Team America: World Police,” the completely genius 2004 action satire of Kim Jong Il which “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone staged entirely with puppets, also seemed a likely contender. After all, Paramount said last week that it would let theaters screen the comedy in place of “The Interview” — only to get scared and quickly rescind the offer.
“The Red Chapel” made sense, though, and offered its own brand of absurd humor. I have to admit I hadn’t seen it — I hadn’t even heard of it — and neither had the vast majority of the people in the audience. But it feels sort of like “Borat” in reverse, with sharp characters visiting a closed-off country to shine a light on it, just to give you an idea of its surreal, deadpan tone. Director Mads Brugger gained access by promising that he was bringing a comedy troupe with him as part of a cultural exchange. His companions were the burly Simon Jul Jorgensen and the wisecracking Jacob Nossell, Danish comedians of Korean descent who’d never set foot in their ancestral homeland. (Nossell was adopted from his home country when he was just an infant.)
Their act — a vaudevillian mixture of slapstick, tap dancing and fart jokes which wraps up with an oddly earnest, acoustic version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” — is crap, of course. It’s just a guise to enter the country and expose the horrors of totalitarianism. They have to turn in their footage at the end of each day for approval, but they’re speaking Danish most of the time, and their conversations are often hard to understand because 18-year-old Jacob was born with spastic paralysis. But Jacob also serves as the voice of reason throughout this adventure, saying the exact thing we’re thinking in every weirdly oppressive situation.
Jacob also forges an uncomfortable connection with the group’s constant companion, the officious Mrs. Pak, the government-assigned escort whose mission is to show them only the eerily pristine perfection of Pyongyang. She’s unflappably sunny — except for when she bursts into tears at the very thought of the Dear Leader’s powerful work — and within hours of meeting Jacob, she insists she loves him like a son. This complex woman shows shades of vulnerability and inadvertently earns our sympathy.
But what’s even more disturbing is the way she and a top culture minister eviscerate the group’s act to make it a rah-rah celebration of “One Korea.” They strip it of the little humor it contained and turn it into a cheery, eerie piece of propaganda. Brugger and his pals have to go with the flow, with each new day and each new development bringing the possibility of fresh peril.
While Brugger himself never shows actual images of the well-documented atrocities he refers to throughout his narration, just the fact that he gathered any footage at all, got it out of North Korea and put together a completed film which has played at festivals and theaters globally — including Sundance, where it won a World Cinema prize — is a bit of a miracle. “The Red Chapel” is a darkly funny, deeply creepy peek into a world that most of us would never be able to visit ourselves, and probably would never want to, either.
Yesterday, I posted a list of my picks for the 10 best films of 2014. It’s always a privilege and a fun challenge to try and narrow it down to just 10. But when you see hundreds of movies a year, you’re also going to see some excruciatingly terrible ones. So in the name of balance and symmetry, here are my picks for the worst films of 2014. They’re listed alphabetically in an effort to be vaguely kind and egalitarian, but you’ll see a few themes emerge. You’ll also see more than 10 films, because I’m cheating a bit. Enjoy.
“Annie”/”The Other Woman”/”Sex Tape”
It wasn’t a great year to be Cameron Diaz. The usually bubbly actress, who’s frequently made fun of her statuesque, blonde good looks to pleasing effect, appeared in a trio of films in which she ranged from unlikable to downright obnoxious. She was in over her head playing a desperate Miss Hannigan in the shrill musical “Annie.” She was a cold and vengeful attorney in the sitcommy “The Other Woman.” And she was a frantic stay-at-home mom in the madcap “Sex Tape.” All three of these movies are terrible: unfunny, straining and insulting.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings”
The story of Moses rising up against the Pharaoh Ramses and leading hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to freedom is one with which we’re all extremely familiar. It’s the entire point of Passover. Ridley Scott retells this biblical tale by pummeling us with a barrage of glossy, soulless, computer-generated imagery. This movie is no fun.
“Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas”
If “Exodus” was too high-tech, “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” is a religious film that’s not high-tech enough. It is laughably chintzy from a production standpoint. As I said in my review, it is “The Room” of Christmas movies. But its ideology — its embrace of materialism as an expression of God’s love — is just as hilarious.
“Left Behind”/”Moms’ Night Out”/”Persecuted”
It wasn’t a great year for Christian movies, either. I’ve asked this question so many times but I still find it baffling: Why can’t the producers of these films find a director who knows what he or she is doing — who can be resourceful and even artful within a restrained budget? “Left Behind” actually had a larger budget than most of these types of films but it was just depressingly stiff; a movie about the Rapture starring Nicolas Cage should be wackier. “Moms’ Night Out,” a rare comedy, basically served as a cautionary tale to conservative mothers who dared to leave the house and have a little fun. And “Persecuted,” about a popular evangelist on the run, was a heavy-handed drama with a mushy message.
“Let’s Be Cops”
A high-concept buddy-cop comedy that wastes the appeal and the easy chemistry of “New Girl” co-stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. Basically, these are regular guys who put on uniforms and pretend to be police officers. It’s an idea that might have worked just fine as a sketch, but stretched out in a film that’s overlong at nearly two hours, the joke grows repetitive and wearying.
A mawkish drama about a wealthy patriarch (Richard Jenkins) who gathers his family around his Manhattan hospital bed to witness his decision to go off life support after fighting cancer for the past dozen years. A film about assisted suicide should be thought-provoking, but this just feels superficial. And a cast of strong actors including Garrett Hedlund, Amy Adams and Terrence Howard can only do so much with one-note parts.
Like “Exodus,” this is just massive, vapid CGI run amok. The volcano is the most interesting and expressive character in the film. Everyone and everything else on display in Paul W.S. Anderson’s romantic-action spectacle is just mind-numbingly dull.
“Walk of Shame”
A misogynistic, flat farce starring the usually adorable Elizabeth Banks as a TV news anchor who gets trapped overnight in downtown Los Angeles without a car or a cell phone. The horror! This film does not take place in any sort of recognizable, modern-day reality and all of the characters are idiots.
I’m sure this complicated story made much more sense on the page. I haven’t read the book it’s based on but I hear it’s great. In film form, this time-traveling tale of love is schmaltzy, silly and severely lacking in magic. A cast of A-listers including Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Will Smith and Eva Marie Saint can do nothing to save it.
There’s a fun challenge that’s been going around Facebook lately: Choose 15 films that have stayed with you throughout your life. One of the dads at school who’s become a friend of mine posed the challenge to me. Impossible, I thought at first. I write about movies for a living — how could I pick only 15? But then I picked the first 15 films that came to me. They didn’t have to be the greatest films ever, or even great, period. Just ones that mattered over the years for whatever reason.
So I wanted to share my choices with you here, as well, with a few thoughts on each. Some of them are obviously important. Others, I’ve just seen a million times. The rest fall somewhere in between. Enjoy — and I’d love to hear what you guys would pick, too.
“The Big Lebowski” (1998): Like most people, I don’t think I truly understood what Joel and Ethan Coen were getting at the first time I saw this. Now I am a part of the Cult of Lebowski.We quote this movie pretty much daily in some form. I can’t go bowling, drive past an In-n-Out Burger or hear Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio without thinking of it. I even went to Lebowski Fest at the Wiltern Theatre when I was pregnant with Nicolas. I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon — with nail polish.
“The Breakfast Club” (1985): Like all proud children of the ’80s, I love John Hughes movies. They are endlessly quotable. They represent our youth. But this one matters more than the others because it seemed to capture our teenage angst. And it’s such a great little time capsule of language, styles and careers.
“Casablanca” (1942): My parents loved Humphrey Bogart — my dad, especially. And when I was a kid, they had this movie recorded(on Beta, no less!) so that they could enjoy it over and over. “As Time Goes By” was their song. This was an early, memorable introduction to a truly enduring, influential film.
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982): Like John Hughes movies, “E.T.” is a huge part of any ’80s kid’s formative years. I had a huge crush on Henry Thomas. I bawled when I thought E.T. was dying — and I’m not ashamed to say I still get teary-eyed at the wistful farewell. The John Williams score is such a classic. I can’t wait to share this one with Nic when he’s a little older.
“Grease 2″ (1982): And not “Grease,” which everyone loves, of course. This sequel was a shameless example of trying to capitalize on a phenomenon and cash in a second time. It’s terrible — clunky, awkward, unfunny, not exactly a high point in Michelle Pfeiffer’s career– and I don’t care. It was on cable TV a lot one summer and I watched it incessantly. I know every word and every song. I’ll be your girl for all seasons.
“Magnolia” (1999): Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece (at that point, at least — I do love “The Master”). I’d loved “Boogie Nights,” but I was totally overwhelmed by the massive, operatic nature of this three-hour opus. The way he orchestrated the highs and lows, the histrionics and epiphanies of his massive (and massively talented) cast was just really impressive. Plus, this represented my first real blurb as a film critic — in The New York Times on Christmas Day, no less.
“Nights of Cabiria” (1957): My mom was a huge influence on me and my lifelong love of movies. Federico Fellini was one of her favorite directors, and this was her favorite among all his films. I have fond memories of us turning to each other after that famous, final shot — when Giulietta Masina looks into the camera and gives us a little smile to let us know she’s going to be all right — and realizing we both had tears streaming down our faces.
“No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen brothers’ masterpiece. Gripping, darkly funny, expertly cast, beautifully shot (by the great Roger Deakins, their usual cinematographer, who will win his long overdue Oscar some day). It really gets Texas right — the terrain, the rhythms, the peculiarities. And I love the vagueness of the conclusion, which so many found so frustrating.
“Pink Floyd The Wall” (1982): Another one where my mother’s influence was involved. She loved Pink Floyd (she was an exceedingly cool chick, in case you couldn’t tell) and she showed me this movie on VHS when I was in high school. Scared the shit out of me then, and it still does now. The animation is just so deeply disturbing — the walking hammers alone do it for me. Many years later, I’d have the privilege of taking part in an on-stage discussion of this movie after a screening of it in 70 mm at Ebertfest.
“Rushmore” (1998): Wes Anderson’s masterpiece (although it was only his second feature), and a great example of everything he does so well within his signature style: the framing, the pacing, the obsessive eye for detail, the soundtrack. Its oddball characters and absurd situations make it funny, especially within the interplay between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. But what struck me more was the loneliness that bound these characters, and the sense of melancholy that lingers throughout.
“The Shining” (1980): Now that I’m a mother myself, I sort of question my parents’ decision to let me watch this when I was a little kid (especially given the fact that my dad looked kinda like Jack Nicholson back then). This isn’t even my favorite Stanley Kubrick film — that would probably be “2001: A Space Odyssey,” speaking of movies that people didn’t get when they first came out. But it’s still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.
“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007): Another movie that we quote endlessly around here. The Jake Kasdan-directed, Judd Apatow-produced parody of the musical biopic is just dead-on. The songs are legitimately good (and some, like “Guilty As Charged,” are even great), John C. Reilly is a scream in all his variations, and Jenna Fischer is adorable as a wholesome sex kitten.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939): It’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Next …
“Xanadu” (1980): I refuse to be ashamed of my love for “Xanadu.” We had the soundtrack on vinyl AND 8-track, and we’d listen to it in the carpool on the way to school in the morning. I pretty much wanted to be Olivia Newton-John back then. She was so pretty and she had great hair and she could roller skate and sing at the same time. Decades later, I had the privilege of seeing the cheeky Broadway production of “Xanadu” with the late, great Mike Kuchwara, the AP’s veteran theater writer, who remembered that I loved the movie and arranged tickets for me when I was visiting New York. He was a mensch.
“Zentropa” (1992): An early, great Lars Von Trier film. And for me, an early example of being wowed by a truly out-there foreign film once I opened myself up to the possibility of it. I recall seeing this at the Nuart in Santa Monica when I came home from college the summer before my senior year and just being blown away. The imagery — especially the use of color — was so bold, it almost frightened me. And it made me fall in love.
So much of what I recall and appreciate about Joan Rivers exists in my review of the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” If you haven’t seen it, please seek it out. I’m sure it’s streamable in any number of formats at this point. It’s enlightening and entertaining and does what this sort of biography should do: surprise you about a famous person you thought you knew so well.
What struck me about Rivers was her complexity, “the jumble of contradictions” that made her who she was, as I put it. Here was a woman who had reinvented herself and endured as a bona fide brand, someone who had managed to remain classic yet totally modern after decades in a brutal industry, yet she was constantly scrapping for that next gig. Here was a woman who wouldn’t think twice about tearing apart any self-serious celebrity in spectacular fashion, yet she was needy herself and desperate for adoration.
Anyway, it’s all below. Her death today in New York after complications from surgery is a huge loss for show business in general and comedy in particular, but she leaves a tremendous legacy for us to enjoy, both through her own work as well as her pioneering influence on other great female comics. So funny. So fearless. She will survive.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”
Rated R for language and sexual humor.
Running time: 84 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
She would seem to be the most brutally straightforward woman in America, but Joan Rivers emerges as a jumble of contradictions in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” beginning most immediately — and superficially — with her appearance.
There’s the desire to be taken seriously as an actress, as evidenced by how deeply cut she feels when the London reviews of her one-woman play aren’t exactly raves, but also a willingness to endorse any product and a genuine enthusiasm for the opportunities that might arise from appearing on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
And then there’s the acerbic wit that spares no one and nothing, a trailblazing comic presence, juxtaposed with a traditional, almost quaint longing for loyalty, honesty and trust — one that brings her to tears — even after all these years in show business.
Rivers is never boring, that’s for sure, even when the film itself grows repetitive by hammering home a few key points. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed her around for a year, starting with her 75th birthday, and at various times Rivers herself or those around her state the obvious: She’s a performer. She’s hardworking. She’s a perfectionist.
Because she gave the filmmakers unlimited access to her home and her life, we get to see the meticulously labeled file cabinets in her office — a wall full of them — containing note cards with every joke she’s ever told for decades. We see her arrive at hotels in the middle of the night after performing a set, only to be awakened scant hours later to hop on a plane, fly somewhere else and do it all over again.
Rivers’ drive is awe-inspiring, while her desperate yearning to be back on top is more than a little sad. When looking at her calendar, she jokes that she has to wear sunglasses because the whiteness of the empty pages is blinding (apparently Kathy Griffin now commands all the big Las Vegas and comedy-club gigs). She sells jewelry on QVC to help support her lavish lifestyle, and her gaudy New York apartment is a sight to behold.
But after 40 years as a comedian, what is she waiting for? What will finally make her happy? Family alone doesn’t satisfy her; daughter Melissa, an only child, is only half kidding when she says that growing up she had a sibling: “the career.” Filling in for Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show” was, of course, a career-defining highlight. But having other female comics approach her with reverence, thanking her for having opened the door for them, inspires her to respond that they can go (expletive) themselves.
Yes, the biting sense of humor is undeniably still there, and aside from her unexpected flashes of vulnerability, that’s what sticks with you most after watching “A Piece of Work.” Watching her do stand-up is mesmerizing: the rhythm of it, the relentlessness. So maybe we’re lucky that Rivers doesn’t want to retire on a beach somewhere — that she still wants to talk.
So my birthday was yesterday. I’ll spare you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia or Facebook or wherever: I’m 42. All I wanted was a desperately needed mani-pedi and to take Nicolas to a matinee of “Ghostbusters,” which is back in theaters for a week in honor of its 30th anniversary.
I don’t think I’d watched the film in its entirety since it came out in the summer of 1984 and quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, staying atop the box office for seven consecutive weeks and grossing a whopping $293 million worldwide. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the catchy Ray Parker Jr. theme song, playfully asking you who you’re gonna call, or switch over to MTV without seeing the video. Man, it looks dated all these years later with its neon lighting, shoddy green-screen effects and baffling celebrity cameos. (Melissa Gilbert, Danny DeVito, Carly Simon?)
I was curious to see how Ivan Reitman’s horror comedy held up after all this time — whether it would still be as funny or inventive, or whether fond memories stemmed from the nostalgic pull from a formative time in my life. And once again, I wanted to share something from my own childhood with Nicolas, who’s almost 5 but already seems to love movies as much as I do. We’ve sat through all six “Star Wars” films multiple times as well as “The Wizard of Oz.” He’s seen some potentially disturbing stuff. I figured he was ready for the ghouls and goblins of “Ghostbusters,” which would probably look more silly than scary, given the technology that existed back then.
Chris and I took him to a matinee at the ArcLight in Hollywood. There were maybe a dozen other people there for the first showing, including a couple of dads with their sons who were about 7. Nic got lemonade and somehow tricked Chris into buying him Jelly Bellies, and by the time the old Columbia Pictures logo appeared, we were all settled in and ready for our retro adventure. I figured Nic would dig it, or at least get a giggle out of the green, gooey Slimer … but not so much. He kept saying he was bored and that he didn’t like this movie. He asked how much longer it would go on and whined about being tired. He climbed into my lap, then into Chris’ lap, then back into mine again.
Part of this probably has to do with the fact that the pacing in “Ghostbusters” is different from what he’s seen in other action-comedy mash-ups this summer, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” It’s more low-key, it takes its time. It’s not smothered with wall-to-wall music and sound effects. And while the monsters look extremely dated — as does a super-sexy Sigourney Weaver as the possessed Gatekeeper — I can see how they’d seem startling to a kid. Nic jumped a few times, especially during the climactic battle when the evil Gozer shows up in the form of a heavily eye-shadowed Sheena Easton look-alike who sends lightning bolts from her fingertips. (Although Darth Sidious does the exact same thing to Luke Skywalker at the end of “Return of the Jedi” and it’s way scarier.) In retrospect, the sight of the World Trade Center towers and New Yorkers scurrying in terror pre-9/11 seems almost quaint.
As for me, I laughed a lot — so hard I was crying at the mere anticipation of the marauding Stay Puft Marshmallow Man — and so much of that has to do with Bill Murray’s performance. Sure, he has a great chemistry with Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as his fellow paranormal investigators. They bounce off each other beautifully and share the spotlight nicely and make it all look effortless. But that early Murray persona from the late 1970s and early ’80s in movies like “Meatballs” and “Stripes” is just irresistible — the combination of deadpan humor and shameless swagger. And as I wrote in my appreciation of Ramis when he died in February, “Ghostbusters” was a great example of Ramis’ ability to function as the smartest person in the room without being smug or condescending. (He also co-wrote the script with Aykroyd.)
Later in the day, I asked Nic again what he thought about “Ghostbusters.” This time, he said he liked it. “What did you like about it?” I asked. “I liked the parts about the Ghostbusters,” he said — which is pretty much the entire movie. Not a bad way to get older — by revisiting my youth with my kid.
Christmas Day, 1997. Chris and I had just gotten married two months earlier and moved back to Dallas, where I’d gone to college at Southern Methodist University, because he had a great producing gig at the local Fox TV station, KDFW. Chris was stuck working on that holiday, as journalists so often must when they’re young and childless.
Ten days earlier, my mother had died of leukemia back home in Los Angeles, two years after my father’s death from a heart attack. I happen to be an only child. On this most heartwarming of family-friendly holidays, at age 25, I was alone — truly alone — for the first time ever. So I did what I always do on happy days and sad days and regular days in between: I went to the movies.
The film I chose was a matinee of “Good Will Hunting.” My mother had been a Gus Van Sant fan — I recall cackling with her at the dark absurdities of “My Own Private Idaho” — and I thought Matt Damon was cute. I still do. Maybe it was because of my state of solitude and melancholy, but “Good Will Hunting” touched me deeply that day. Maybe I would have been a mess if I’d gone to see “Scream 2” or “Tomorrow Never Dies” instead. But I know that a major part of the experience for me was Robin Williams’ performance as the psychologist who dares to delve within the tormented mind of Damon’s character, the brilliant Will Hunting. Although Williams was playing a man at sea following his own loss of a loved one, his calming, reassuring presence soothed me when I needed it.
I wasn’t a film critic yet — that wouldn’t happen until 1999 — but I recognized even then how disarming Williams’ performance was in its quiet honesty, albeit with some glimmers of his trademark mischief. It was so different from the wildly hyper-verbal persona he’d carved out for himself over the previous two decades, from Mork From Ork through Mrs. Doubtfire. And it was so full of hope for the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and even peace.
Peace eluded Williams off-screen, despite his turbulent efforts to achieve it. He was found dead on Monday, having hanged himself at his home in the picturesque Marin County town of Tiburon, Calif. He was 63.
For years, Williams had spoken candidly in interviews about his battles with cocaine addiction, alcoholism and depression. He’d been in and out of rehab, in and out of AA. So many comics derive their humor from a sadness that lurks within them, but the disparity between Williams’ light and dark sides seemed especially gaping, even though both elements of his personality could coexist simultaneously within his greatest roles. This is a man who was joy incarnate — a radiant ball of energy with a rapid-fire wit and unstoppable stamina. Consider the groundbreaking stand-up routines of his early years and his unparalleled ability to shift seamlessly between voices and personalities, historical references and pop-culture riffs. He didn’t miss a beat or catch a breath. It was a thrilling and exhausting spectacle to behold. His improvised voice work as Genie in the animated “Aladdin” (1992) is another excellent example of Williams firing on all cylinders.
But many of my favorite Williams roles are the heavier ones he chose over the past decade or so, and I wonder if those were closer to his heart and soul — the ones that were free of the lively patter that worked so well elsewhere in films like “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” He won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998 following three previous nominations, prompting everyone in the audience to leap to their feet in a showing of genuine love and esteem. (The YouTube clip of his acceptance speech will bring tears to your eyes.)
But then, over the years, he went on to play a deeply creepy stalker in Mark Romanek’s chilling “One Hour Photo” and an Alaskan killer in the early Christopher Nolan thriller “Insomnia,” both in 2002. In Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark and daring comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009), he played a father who fabricates his teenage son’s suicide to ride a wave of sympathy to a book deal and multimedia fame. This is the same man who played the feel-good doctor in the mawkish “Patch Adams”?
That’s what’s so astounding as we look back on Williams’ career — the range and depth he displayed and the longevity he enjoyed. Within a scene, a film, a lifetime, he could be do so many things at once, with great care and passion, and make it all look effortless. Despite his varied choices and off-camera troubles, he was a constant and reliable force.
Whenever a celebrity dies so suddenly, it’s a shock; we think we know these people. Look at the recent outpourings of love and respect for actors as disparate as James Gandolfini, Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But when the death is a suicide, the sense of loss comes from an even deeper and more helpless place.
If only Robin Williams knew how loved and appreciated he was — and if only it had been enough.
One year ago today, I received the sad and stunning phone call that my friend, colleague and one-time boss, Roger Ebert, had died. He’d been sick for a while and had undergone so many surgeries, endured so much rehabilitation, but he always came back through the strength of his wit and spirit.
Roger kept defying the odds. He made us feel as if he would live forever. And in many ways he still does live on — namely, through RogerEbert.com, a site for which I’m extremely proud to write. There’s a ton of heartfelt, thoughtful writing over there memorializing him — it’s very much worth a visit.
And so on this very somber anniversary, I wanted to share my own piece that I wrote upon hearing the news of his death. I still miss him as much now as I did that day.
By CHRISTY LEMIRE
There was the prodigious mind, of course: the voluminous knowledge of film and the incisive way he could cut to the heart of what made a movie work, or not.
But what I’ll remember most and love best about Roger Ebert was his playful side, and an infectious enthusiasm that was astonishingly alive after decades in a business in which it would have been easy — and safe — to be cynical.
That optimism extended to every element of “Ebert Presents At the Movies,” the film review show on public television I co-hosted with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for one awesome, challenging, thrilling year in 2011. We were honored to carry on the thumbs-up, thumbs-down legacy he’d created with his longtime on-screen partner, Gene Siskel, but Roger never hovered over us as if we owed him anything. Rather, he treated us as equals and made us feel as if we were all on the same team. He worked tirelessly with his devoted wife, Chaz, to get our show on the air and keep it on for as long as possible. My heart breaks for Chaz today; her love and strength were unflagging under the hardest of circumstances.
As our managing editor, Roger offered helpful pieces of advice without nitpicking or micromanaging. He’d get worked up while making a point he was passionate about during script meetings but was never insulting or derisive. We carried his name but he was a true collaborator.
As a friend, Roger would send quick and clever emails in conspiratorial tones and longer ones that were warm and encouraging. I’ve never had an actual conversation with Roger, because cancer sadly claimed his ability to speak before our paths crossed; instead, he knew how to convey a sense of connection with a genuine, direct look in his eyes.
And in his personal writings, as in his reviews and essays, he always achieved a feeling of immediacy and accessibility and signed off in missives in his trademark manner: “Cheers, R.”
But Roger made everything feel personal, didn’t he? That’s why we’re seeing such grief upon the news of his death. We all felt as if we knew him. He turned the discussion of films that might’ve seemed too artsy or intimidatingly intellectual into comfortable conversations. At the same time, he remained capable of walking into a movie — any movie, in any genre — with an open mind after decades as a towering force in this business. He always wanted to be dazzled, just as he did when he was a kid. And he’d find the time to scribble a kind word or two in his ever-present notepad before the lights went down.
Once he was no longer able to speak, he turned his blog into an outpouring of musings on every topic imaginable, from alcoholism to atheism. In some ways, I actually enjoyed his writings on subjects outside of film even more. They reflected a curiosity, a yearning to be a citizen of the world rather than just a big fish in a particular pond.
I’ll miss Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer prize-winning film critic. I’ll miss Roger, my friend, so much more.