Post Date Dec 19

10 Worst Films of 2014

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”

The Other Woman Movie Review

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.

Read “The Other Woman” review here

Read the “Sex Tape” review here

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Exodus: Gods and Kings Movie Review

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.

Read the review here

“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.

Read the full review here

“Left Behind”/”Moms’ Night Out”/”Persecuted”

Left Behind Movie Review

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.

Read the “Left Behind” review here

Read the “Moms’ Night Out” review here

Read the “Persecuted” review here

“Let’s Be Cops”

Let's Be Cops Movie Review

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.

Read the review here


Lullaby Movie Review

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.

Read the review here


Pompeii Movie Review

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.

Read the review here

“Walk of Shame”

Walk of Shame Movie Review

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.

Read the full review here

“Winter’s Tale”

Winter's Tale Movie Review

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.

Watch the What the Flick?! review here


Post Date Dec 18

10 Best Films of 2014

Every year, I say how hard it is to narrow down my best-of list to just 10 titles. But this year, it was especially true. Looking back on my favorite movies of 2014, I definitely see a theme emerging: otherworldly beings on the prowl in the middle of the night. I wonder what that says about me …. But there’s also great joy to be found here. Everything is awesome, after all. So enjoy. And I’d love to know what you’d pick for your top-10 list.

1. “Birdman”

Birdman Movie Review

The central gimmick is daring and thrilling, of course: the sensation that director Alejandro G. Inarritu shot this movie in one long, single take, through narrow corridors and up and down stairways and onto the streets and rooftops of Times Square. But sharp writing and powerful performances (namely from star Michael Keaton) give “Birdman” real substance and a deeper emotional resonance. There’s nothing else like it. I left this film exhilarated.

Read the full review here

2. “Boyhood”

But “Boyhood” is pretty astonishing, too, and very easily could have been my No. 1. It’s also predicated on what could be called a gimmick: writer-director Richard Linklater shot it over the course of 12 years, following the same actors as they grew and changed and forged the course of a life. But it’s so subtle and beautifully observant, it sneaks up on you with a cumulative emotional wallop. There’s nothing else like this film, either: It’s a major achievement.

Read the full review here

3. “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin Movie Review

Beautiful, strange, dazzling and daring, this is a minimalist sci-fi masterpiece. Visionary director Jonathan Glazer draws the greatest performance from Scarlett Johansson of her eclectic career as an alien prowling the streets of Glasgow in a minivan with nefarious intent. If you like your movies tidy — if you treasure closure and need to have all your questions answered — this is not the film for you. Otherwise, embrace the mesmerizing vagueness of it all.

Read the full review here

4. “The Lego Movie”

The Lego Movie Movie Review

The most fun I had at the movies all year. I remember walking out of the theater with Nic after a Saturday morning screening and thinking to myself: “Holy crap. I have to give ‘The Lego Movie’ four stars.” It is so clever and so vividly detailed and moves with such an infectious energy, it achieves its goals brilliantly. But it also has a profound, third-act twist that actually made me cry. Yeah, I’ll admit it.

Read the full review here

5. “Locke”

Locke Movie Review

More nighttime prowling, this time with Tom Hardy giving a tour-de-force performance entirely from behind the wheel of a car. Writer-director Steven Knight’s meticulously controlled film also features a premise which might sound like a gimmick: It takes place in a single space in real time during a drive to London. But as Hardy’s purpose becomes clearer, the story reveals great surprises and grows unbearably tense.

Read the full review here

6. “Ida”

Ida Movie Review

Every single shot in this understated black-and-white drama is an exquisite work of art. Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his Polish homeland with a film that’s austere aesthetically but intense emotionally. The fresh-faced Agata Trzebokowska stars as a shy young woman on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, but first she must explore her true heritage. As the aunt who aides in her investigation, Agata Kulesza gives a powerhouse performance that’s both darkly funny and devastating.

7. “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Even more nighttime prowling, this time with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the hippest vampires on the planet. Their centuries-long love affair is achingly romantic and impossibly cool. This is an extremely Jim Jarmuschy Jim Jarmusch film, and if that’s right up your alley, then you’ll dig this. It’s funny and melancholy with impeccable production design and a precise mood. Who would have thought there was any new life to breathe into the vampire genre?

8. “Gone Girl”

Gone Girl Movie Review

Not exactly the feel-good date movie of the year, but a film you should at least see with someone you enjoy debating. This is David Fincher’s Alfred Hitchcock picture; sleek and sexy, it’s a twisty mystery that’s both dark and darkly funny — surprisingly so, given the lurid subject matter. The equally matched Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike constantly keep us guessing and force us to reevaluate whose side we’re on, who we believe, who we even like.

Read the full review here

9. “A Most Violent Year”

This movie isn’t even out yet — it hits theaters Dec. 31 in limited release — but please trust me when I tell you that it’s great. It’s only the third film from writer-director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost”) but it shows the maturity and control of a master; comparisons to Sidney Lumet are not unwarranted. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain both give pitch-perfect performances as a married couple whose lives are intertwined in love and business in 1981 New York. Try as they might to tell themselves they’re doing the right thing, they just can’t help but slip into their criminal tendencies. This is a serious drama for grown-ups.

10. “Snowpiercer”

Snowpiercer Movie Review

This movie is just a batshit-crazy blast, but it also fits within this list in a couple of ways. It features prowling in the darkness and it takes place within a confined space: an enormous train that makes a loop around the globe annually in an icy, dystopian future. The latest from Korean director Bong Joon-ho is nothing short of wondrous to look at in varied, detailed ways. It’s marvelously detailed in terms of production design, vividly shot and full of surprises. All aboard …

Read the full review here

Post Date Sep 6

15 Films That Have Stayed With Me

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.

Post Date Sep 4

On Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

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”
IFC Films.
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 voice, which still has that recognizable raspy edge to it, that amped-up indignation, even in her mid-70s. But then there’s the face, which doesn’t move regardless of the intensity of her stand-up comedy rants — the result of too much plastic surgery, which she’s all too happy to discuss. Nothing is off limits when she’s talking about herself, which is simultaneously part of her appeal and part of her narcissism.

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.

Post Date Aug 31

Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary

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.

Post Date Aug 12

On Robin Williams, 1951-2014

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.

Post Date Apr 4

Remembering Roger

Primary_roger_ebert_54396One 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, 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.

AP critic remembers colleague, friend Roger Ebert


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.

Post Date Mar 11

Watching Star Wars With Nicolas

The force has been strong with young Nicolas Lemire for a while now.

He’s not quite 4 1/2 years old, but he’s mastered “Angry Birds Star Wars,” understanding and manipulating the game in ways neither of his parents ever could. Now, we try to limit his screen time — we really do — but if we’re on a long flight, as we were recently when we took Nic to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the iPad definitely helps keep him content. And one of his favorite bedtime books is Jeffrey Brown’s “Darth Vader and Son,” which imagines what life would have been like if Darth Vader actually had to raise Luke Skywalker from the time he was a little boy. (It’s very cute.)

Nicolas knew all the characters already — knew their names and what they looked like, knew who was a good guy and who was a bad guy — so we thought, why not? Let’s show him the actual “Star Wars” so he knows what it’s all about. He’s old enough. He’s watched enough movies by now. If it gets scary, we can always fast-forward or turn it off entirely.

Chris went out and bought the whole collection of six films, and last night we began at the natural starting point: the original “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.” When I mentioned this on Twitter, some folks wondered whether I’d begin in chronological order with Episode I. I felt like he should experience the movies in the same order we did when we were kids. There’s plenty of time for the terrible prequels.

We popped it into the DVD player and Nic was transfixed from the very beginning. And I have to admit, even though I’ve seen “Star Wars” a million times, the first blasts of that John Williams fanfare and the crawl into the horizon always give me chills. But I realized it’d been a while — decades, maybe — since I’d sat down and watched the whole movie at one time.

Being an inquisitive lad, Nic naturally had lots of questions, such as:

_ “Where’s Darth Maul?” He doesn’t come in for a few more movies, I told him.

_ “Why are they not birds?” This cracked me up. It’s not a game, I explained, but rather the movie that inspired the game.

_ “Where’s the slingshot?” See above.

_ “When is Darth Vader going to start talking?” Very soon, I promise. And he has a lot to say.

_ “Look, Mommy, the Death Star!” Yay!

_ “Mommy, I’m not scared!” Yay again!

He did get a little bit scared when the Sand People show up and zap Luke — he wanted to know why they “made him dead.” I said he’s not dead, he just got knocked out for a bit. But for the most part, Nic was totally into it. And as he was drifting off to sleep last night, he kept talking and talking about his favorite parts.

“Mommy, why do Luke and his friends destroy the Death Star, but the Death Star can destroy other planets?”

“Mommy, when the Stormtroopers chase Han Solo and Luke and Leia down the hall into the trash, the walls come in on them closer and closer and then they stop them with their foot!”

“I liked when they were in space!” he said, and then he started singing the theme song.

All the cliches are true, you know. Reliving what you loved growing up through the eyes of your own child is a powerful source of nostalgia and even pride. Seeing how excited he got just from hearing the opening music alone made “Star Wars” exciting for us all over again. Not the most novel observation on my part, I realize, but it’s one that I assume is universally relatable.

The first thing Nic said when he woke up this morning: He wants to watch the next one. “Who’s in it?” he asked. So I told him: Lando Calrissian, and Han Solo and Chewbacca, and Luke and Leia, and C-3PO and R2-D2. “And Yoda?” Yes, Yoda’s a very important part of the second film.

But then as I was writing this, Nic asked me: “Can I be `Star Wars’ for Halloween? I want to be Darth Vader!” So we’ll see which side of the force he lands on after all.

Post Date Feb 26

Oscar Picks

Usually by this point in awards season (if not sooner), it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen on Oscar night. Clear favorites emerge, especially in the best-picture category: “Argo” last year, “The Artist” in 2012. But things could go a few different ways Sunday night at the Academy Awards. So! Here are a few thoughts on who will win, who should win and who might serve as a possible wild card.


Nominees: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

12 Years a Slave Movie Review

Will win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “Gravity”
Wild card: “American Hustle”

“Gravity” was my pick for the year’s best film. It’s both an incredible technical achievement as well as a profound emotional experience. But “12 Years a Slave” is just too important, too powerful. Director Steve McQueen makes you squirm, think, confront uncomfortable emotions and feel deeply. It’s beautifully shot and acted. It matters. I’m not sure I ever want to spend another night watching it, but “12 Years a Slave” will take the top prize Sunday.


Nominees: Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”; David O. Russell, “American Hustle”; Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”; Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”; Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”


Will win: Cuaron
Should win: Cuaron
Wild card: McQueen

Here’s one of those weird years where different films will win best picture and best director. What Cuaron has done with “Gravity” is just too groundbreaking, too magnificent. It took several years and an army of geeks pounding away at computers, but Cuaron has changed the way movies will be made moving forward. His film is so awesomely beautiful and technically dazzling, it had me on the edge of my seat and the verge of tears for 90 tight minutes. He deserves this prize.


Nominees: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Dallas Buyers Club Movie Review

Will win: McConaughey
Should win: Ejiofor
Wild card: DiCaprio

“The McConaissaince” will be complete when the winner of the best-actor category is announced Sunday night. Over the past few years, McConaughey has transformed himself from a smug, rom-com bimbo to a serious actor capable of versatility and depth. The line he walks in “Dallas Buyers Club” is impressive because his character, the real-life Ron Woodruff, undergoes a change of mind and heart once he’s diagnosed with AIDS, but he remains kind of an asshole. Yet, we can’t help but root for him to find an answer to his disease and survive. Ejiofor is quietly dignified and powerful as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave,” and undergoes a great transformation of his own, but I suspect it’s McConaughey’s year.


Nominees: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”; Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County.”


Will win: Blanchett
Should win: Blanchett
Wild card: None

Blanchett is the juggernaut. No one can stop her. As a damaged Blanche DuBois figure in “Blue Jasmine,” she’s selfish and condescending, fragile and desperate. She’s kind of an awful human being, and yet you still find yourself hoping that she’ll turn it around, build a new life for herself and find some happiness. But man, it would be nice to Adams finally win an Oscar. She is just too damn sexy in “American Hustle” — formidable in two distinct personalities. Some other year, it will be hers. This year, it’s Blanchett’s.


Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”


Will win: Leto
Should win: Fassbender
Wild card: Abdi

Leto has won every single award imaginable leading up the Oscars, and is the front-runner in the supporting-actor category Sunday night. I’m not in love with his performance as an AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club” the way most people are. I think it’s a little superficially showy and stereotypically drag queeny. Fassbender is truly frightening and disturbingly unpredictable as a plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” but, for whatever reason, he isn’t even part of the convesrsation. Maybe his character is just too evil. I also have these wild fantasies of seeing former limo driver and first-time actor Abdi win for “Captain Phillips.” Weird things happen in the supporting-acting categories, so who knows?


Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska.”


Will win: Nyong’o
Should win: Nyong’o
Wild card: Lawrence

Nyong’o is such a discovery and such a force as Patsy, Fassbender’s character’s favorite slave. She brings such raw fear and humanity to the part. She is going to be a superstar, and deservedly so, but first she’ll win Sunday night. Lawrence is a hilarious scene-stealer as a trashy trophy wife in “American Hustle” — and she does rock the cleavage and big hair in those flashy, ’70s get-ups — so it wouldn’t be a total shock to hear her name called. We know from her win last year for “Silver Linings Playbook” the she gives one doozy of an acceptance speech.

Post Date Feb 24

On Harold Ramis, 1944-2014

Harold Ramis

There’s no way any of us realized in the moment how great Harold Ramis was.

The comedies he directed, wrote and/or co-starred in have seeped into our systems through our pores and entered our DNA by this point — especially for those of us who grew up in the 1980s. We’ve all seen “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” so many times, we can quote them instantly, if not recite entire scenes by heart.

But I suspect that wasn’t necessarily the case the first time around. That kind of appreciation takes time — that kind of enduring legacy requires repeated viewings. We probably laughed our asses off when we first saw John Belushi silently smash a guitar against a staircase at a toga party or heard Bill Murray tell Sgt. Hulka that chicks dig him because he rarely wears underwear, and when he does it’s usually something unusual. But in retrospect and taken as a whole, Ramis’ output is staggering. It represents a collective act of intelligent rebellion — of slyly smart subversion. Back when I was in college, even the so-called “top tier” fraternities longed for the scrappy, underdog cool of the fictional Delta Tau Chi.

Ramis died early Monday after years of suffering from an autoimmune disease that caused inflammation and damage to his blood vessels. He was 69 years old. His work, in all its forms, surely will leave its mark for many more years to come. It’s not hyperbole to say that he defined film comedy for an entire generation.

On screen, opposite Murray in “Stripes” or “Ghostbusters” (both of which he co-wrote), Ramis often served as the bemused straight man — our conduit, if you will. We could only dream of being as twisted and quick-witted as Murray’s characters. Ramis’ steady presence made us feel as if we still could be part of the team, part of the action. Subdued and sardonic, nebbishy and bespectacled, he was usually the smartest person in the room in these films, but he never made us feel like idiots for wanting to join in the adventures.

“Groundhog Day” certainly seems more profound as time has passed. By 1993, a more quietly pensive Ramis had emerged, directing and co-writing a film that allowed Murray to be his ferociously verbal self, but with some room for introspection. The notion of what you would do with your time and your actions if given the opportunity to relive the same day over and over is both deeply existential and sweetly rueful. It’s high-concept but also highly thoughtful. (The fact that Ramis and Murray had a falling out during the filming of “Groundhog Day,” and didn’t speak for years afterward, adds a retroactive twinge of melancholy to their work together.)

As the years and decades passed and Ramis’ filmmaking tapered off, it was always a joy to see him appear in comedies in small supporting roles — as Seth Rogen’s no-nonsense father in “Knocked Up,” or John C. Reilly’s Orthodox Jewish manager, the hilariously named L’Chaim, in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Both were Judd Apatow productions, and Apatow spoke for so many of us when he said that Ramis was the kind of dad we all wish we could have had.

Looking at my Twitter and Facebook feeds today, I see such an outpouring of sadness and love for this man and his movies. When he died, it’s as if a part of our childhoods died with him — the crazy side, the raunchy side, the side that fearlessly bucked authority and wrested control back for the freaks and the little guys. It’s as exciting an idea now as it was in the ’80s.

It just doesn’t matter. Be the ball. That’s the fact, Jack.