Peter Jackson, Miklós Jancsó, Derek Jarman, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jia Zhang-ke, Spike Jonze, Neil Jordan, Miranda July



Jabor, Arnaldo
ALL’S WELL (Tudo Bem)

aka:  Everything’s Alright

Brazil  (111 mi)  1978


User reviews from imdb Author: debblyst from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Juarez Barata (Paulo Gracindo) and his wife Elvira (Fernanda Montenegro), a middle-class, middle-aged couple from Rio de Janeiro, decide to renovate their Copacabana apartment and chaos is installed. Through a series of vignettes, director/co-writer Arnaldo Jabor exposes -- with explosive humor and sharp criticism -- the social, political and cultural differences that separate (but not quite) Brazilian social classes in this operatic, frantic, Carnival-like film that is a rarity among Brazilian comedies: it's not slapstick, it's not vulgar (though it has its share of scatological jokes), it's witty and it's hilarious -- you laugh while keeping your brain working. Who can ask for anything more?

Jabor aims his machine-gun at various issues: fascism, capitalism, imperialism, mysticism, chauvinism, racism, the bourgeoisie, the military regime, the mixed-up relations among social classes in Brazil, etc -- and it's sad to realize they haven't dated at all. There's really no proper plot: the renovation is just a pretext to get the characters together, tease them and start the cockfight. Jabor -- who abandoned his successful film career altogether in 1990 and has since used his bombastic, independent, incisively ironic style to become one of the top Brazilian political/cultural press/TV columnists -- -- manages to combine in "Tudo Bem" a piercing analysis of Brazilian politics and society with his flair for good dialog and interesting musical choices on the soundtrack (including Juarez's fixation on Brazilian birdsong records - "Ah, o uirapuru!!!").

The film benefits immensely from a great cast: veteran Gracindo gives a tour-de-force performance (probably his best on film), alternating a respectable façade when he's sober with nostalgic bravura when he's drunk, at once funny and pathetic; Montenegro (Oscar-nominee for "Central do Brasil") shines as the hysterical Elvira with her inimitable vocal delivery and on-target comic tempo; Luiz Linhares, Fernando Torres and especially Jorge Loredo make a terrific trio of ghosts; Stenio Garcia, José Dumont and Anselmo Vasconcellos have a ball as the workers; Zezé Motta gets to show her callipygian nudity, fascinating energy and fine singing voice. Then-beginners Regina Casé (in her film debut) and Luiz Fernando Guimarães (his 2nd film) sometimes fall back to stage tricks, but they already knew how to strut their stuff and it's nice to see them so young and thin!

Allegoric, loud, intelligent, funny, fast and furious, "Tudo Bem" got a DVD release with so-so quality (they could have remixed the sound: some dialogs get lost under loud music or the workmen's whamming and pounding), but it's one of the best Brazilian comedies of the 1970s and one of Jabor's best -- only the ending is rather flat and disappointing (and Paulo César Pereio hamming it up doesn't help). My vote: 8 out of 10.

Brazil Film Update   Robert Stam from Jump Cut

TUDO BEM crowds all of Brazil's social contradictions into the middle-class apartment of a Carioca family. The naively reactionary father, Juarez Ramos Barata, lives at home in his pajamas, surrounded by a private museum of nationalist relics. Counseled by the phantoms of his former friends — a drunken fascist, a failed spaghetti manufacturer, and a tubercular romantic poet — he daily sends off irate letters to newspapers, lamenting the decadence of mores and proposing absurd solutions to the country's problems. He favors capitalism, for example, but deplores profit. His wife Elvira, meanwhile, has her own phantoms. Rather than recognize her husband's impotence, she fantasizes a lover for him, ultimately persuading him to fall in love with her own chimerical creation. Two children  — a bland public relations consultant and a daughter defined largely in terms of her search for a husband — complete the portrait. Of two maids, one moonlights as a prostitute, while the other is a virgin and a mystic.

A decision to have workers redo the apartment becomes a pretext for Jabor to expose the explosive class contradictions of Brazil. Profoundly materialist and wildly comic at the same time, a radicalized NIGHT AT THE OPERA, TUDO BEM shows more and more people invading a confined space. "How many social contradictions," we are led to ask, "can fit into one room — the room being Brazil — without the room exploding?" The inherent injustice of class society becomes strange, intolerable, in the confines of one apartment. At the same time, much of Brazilian culture, relocated in this bourgeois setting, conies to seem subversive, incendiary. Jabor's tactic of radical juxtaposition explodes bourgeois complacencies. The utopian energy of carnival threatens the good order of such an apartment. The slave quarters occupy the Big House of the Masters. The guttural songs of Northeastern peasants, in forced cohabitation with the bourgeoisie, become painful, embarrassing, and unbearable.

A cinematic tour de force, TUDO BEM is never visually boring, despite its spatial constrictions, thanks to its virtuoso variation of cinematic styles and to the visual interest of the decor itself. The film ends with a hilarious allegorical sequence in which a U.S. communications executive, lauding the global village, leads a festive chorus of "Around the World in 80 Days." Thanks to satellites, he says, in a transparent allusion both to Kuleshov and Pele, someone kicks a soccer ball in New York and the goal is scored in Copacabana. First World mass media no longer need 80 days to circle the globe; their transmissions are virtually instantaneous. But lest media executives become overly complacent, TUDO BEN reminds them that Brazil, like the Juarez apartment, is still "under construction." 

Jacir, Annemarie
SALT OF THIS SEA (Milh Hadha Al-Bahr)

France  Palestine  Switzerland  Belgium  USA  Great Britain  Netherlands  Spain  (89 mi)  2008

Salt Of This Sea (Milh Hadha Al-Bahr)  Lee Marshall at Cannes from Screendaily

A Palestinian woman agonises over her roots and national identity in Annemarie Jacir's much-anticipated but disappointingly minor Salt Of This Sea. The director's feature debut is clearly made with passion and fuelled by a keen resentment at the plight of the Palestinian people. And the film has an authentic, colour-saturated sense of place. But this is not enough to turn an overlong travelogue-cum-manifesto with a flat romantic subplot into a convincing drama.

With no less than seventeen sources of finance, Salt Of This Sea was always going to be a commercially fragile prospect. In the end, it will play best to indulgent liberal audiences and the Palestinian diaspora in Europe, but seems headed more for filmclubs and themed seasons than for significant arthouse exposure. The fact that Danny Glover is one of ten co-producers may help the film to a little more stateside attention that it might otherwise have received.

The film starts where its heart lies – in documentary mode, with black and white archive footage of Israeli tanks and bulldozers knocking down Arab homes. But we're soon back in colour and the present day, as feisty politicised Soraya (Hammad) arrives at an Israeli airport on her first visit to what she considers her homeland – only to be interrogated and strip-searched at customs, despite her US passport, when she reveals her Palestinian origins. Arriving eventually in Ramallah, she tries and fails to recover money left in a bank by her grandfather in 1948. Adrift in the city, Soraya meets an intense, bitter young Palestinian, Emad (Bakri), who is working as a waiter while he waits for his Canadian study visa to come through.

The idea is that Soraya is looking for a Palestine that no longer exists while Emad has had enough of the exhausting present-day reality of the place. But surprisingly little is made of this, perhaps because Jacir finds it difficult to distance herself from Soraya enough to view her idealism in a critical light. In fact, the only real conflict in the film comes from relentlessly unsympathetic Israeli officials and a stereotyped British regional bank manager. Such cliches impoverish the film, whose best moments consist of what look like stolen footage: especially a brief glimpse of a small baby being passed over a barbed wire border fence from father to mother.

The tension is suddenly upped when Soraya, Emad and their film-maker friend Marwan (Ideis) rob the bank to get back what she feels is hers. But the pace soon drops again as the threesome escape into Israel.

Benoit Chamaillard's carefully-framed photography gives the film's handheld aesthetic a tonal richness and depth, and the use of popular Palestinian music is nicely judged. But there's still a sense that Annemarie Jacir would have done better to make the serious full-length documentary that her fine early shorts seemed to herald.

Jackson, Mark


WITHOUT                                                                 C+                   78

USA  (87 mi)  2011                    Without Official Site


This is for the most part a surprisingly uninvolving film, shot entirely on Whidbey Island located at the northern end of Puget Sound and about 30 miles north of Seattle, attainable by ferryboat, where the location alone may be of some interest to viewers, yet nearly the entire film is shot indoors, with just a handful of views of the area.  While shot on video, which dulls the natural colors, part of the problem appears to be the lead actress, Joslyn Jensen, who turns out to be something of a despicable character, seen all along as something of a ditz, a shallow 19-year old girl with few redeeming values, one of which seems to be her willingness to display herself naked on the Internet without any thought of the consequences.  She arrives on the island to look after Frank (Ron Carrier), an elderly man confined to a wheelchair living in a vegetative state, allowing the family to take a week’s vacation together.  Initially, Joslyn receives audience sympathy, as it’s exceedingly difficult to care for such a severely disabled individual, though there are early signs she’s in over her head as she finds it especially difficult to move him in and out of his chair.  Eventually, however, the director simply omits these shots, showing Joslyn instead casually running on an Exerciser, performing other fitness routines, while also making a daily run for coffee in the owner’s car.  There’s very little interaction between Joslyn and Frank, where he may as well be left to fend for himself parked in front of the cable Fishing Network while she spends nearly all of her idyll time by herself, with Frank completely out of the picture. 


It should be stated that Frank’s family left explicit instructions on how to care for Frank, listing pages of details, including how to set the remote to the proper channel and sound level, how to reprogram the TV if something goes wrong, what he likes to eat, how to use the dishwasher, washer, dryer, and other appliances, all contained in what they like to call The Bible.  Initially, Joslyn stares at The Bible religiously, not really knowing what she’s expected to do, but over time she’s simply on her own, ignoring Frank as much as possible.  Due to the remote location, there is no cell phone service and the family never plugged in the Internet, something she’s able to hook up with little problem, so she spends most of her time bored, staring at photos on her cell phone, where one in particular is seen over and over, including YouTube videos of the two of them together kissing.  There is an amusing routine of Joslyn waking up to her loud and overly aggravating cell phone alarm every morning, where day after day, her phone is never where she left it, except the one day she tapes it down to the desk overnight.  What evolves is next to nothing about Frank, the reason why she’s there, and almost everything about her, where the movie starts to feel like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), where things tend to move in the night, where the story fits the horror profile of a girl left alone in a secluded wood, where bad things are expected to happen.


The director belatedly pulls things together by the end, where there is a strange side story concerning the girl in the picture, as her mom owns an art gallery on the island, revealing yet another side of this girl who’s blend of the real and the imagined are all a blur to her at times, where Joslyn actually starts suspecting Frank is locking the doors behind her or getting up in the middle of the night and moving her phone, getting aggravated that he’s really faking his disability, yelling and accusing him, though Frank’s given no reason to suspect him.  The whole mood shifts into a bizarre interior world, where Joslyn gets naked on the Internet and talks filthy dirty, looks at herself repeatedly in the mirror, begins to see scars or rashes that are gone by the next day, grows overly paranoid about Frank playing games with her, obsesses about the girl on her cell phone, goes out with a guy on the island that she knows is a creep, starts sneaking sips out of the liquor cabinet, and in just a few short days of utter monotony she’s already exhibiting signs of cabin fever.  One starts to wonder where they ever found this girl, as she seems utterly irresponsible and uniquely unqualified. The viewer fully expects Joslyn to lose Frank by the end of the week, where he’d be found mangled among some dead logs in a nearby creek, his face half eaten by wolves, or perhaps even murder him herself out of spite for having to put up with him all week.  After all, he was no help to her.  Whatever the expectations are, this first time writer, director, editor, and producer does not disappoint with the way matters resolve themselves, where there’s always a tinge of underlying ambiguity, but also a loathsome and unsympathetic feel throughout most of this film for a girl so out of her depth. 


San Francisco Bay Guardian [Jesse Hawthorne Ficks] 

That's right, yet another low-budget indie film made in the Northwest. But boy, is it memorable. Winning a Special Jury Mention at this year's Slamdance Film Festival for Joslyn Jensen's "creative, nuanced and moving performance", you can't help but feel isolated and even trapped in this character study's life. The almost-silent film follows a young girl as she tends to every detail for an invalid over a three-day period; it captures that alone time that for many is the ultimate fear. Warning: this film is not what it seems. A truly chilling and meditative experience all at the same time! [Yaara Sumeruk]

The Locarno Film Festival—known as the smallest of the big and the biggest of the small festivals—has, for the last 64 years, lived by the ethos of seeking out and promoting emerging talent. They’re a festival more interested in art than celebrity, and the fact that the festival is so elegant and organized makes one endeared to it even more; they do it well for the sake of art.

This year was no exception—their line up of features by first-time directors was impressive. One of these feature films was Without, the debut of US director Mark Jackson. The film is set on a remote island, where 19 year-old Joslyn becomes the caretaker to an elderly, wheelchair-bound man who is in a vegetative state. She has no cellphone or internet connection, and it is in this isolation that she has chosen to grieve a deep loss, a grieving process that sometimes has her taking comfort in the man’s limited company, and fearing him in others.

The beauty of this film lies in how emotionally connected we become to Jocelyn in such a seemingly simplistic and small filmic world, and how Jackson manages to create tension and develop a relationship between two people, one of whom doesn’t speak or move.

The Hollywood Reporter [Neil Young]  longer article


LOCARNO — A chilling exercise in precisely measured ambiguity, Without offers an intense, troubling cinematic experience that may leave some frustrated at its enigmatic evasiveness. But there's no mistaking the confident skill with which writer/director/editor Mark Jackson takes us deep into the troubled world of his female protagonist, nor the bravura performance from Joslyn Jensen — like Jackson, a notably promising feature film debut — at its core.


Part psychological thriller and part minimalist art movie, Without isn't an easy sell (that forgettable title doesn't exactly help) but overall is sufficiently distinctive to perhaps gain limited domestic theatrical exposure. Overseas festivals receptive to genuinely independent American cinema should certainly check it out.

The set-up is familiar from the horror/suspense genres: A young woman arrives in a remote location to look after a house for its holidaying owners, and is unnerved by a series of eerie experiences. Here Joslyn (Jensen shares her character's name) is simultaneously housesitter and caretaker, tending to the needs of the family's wheelchair-bound, near-catatonic grandfather Frank (Ron Carrier) while they're away.

A fitness-conscious, quietly spoken 19-year-old, Joslyn struggles to cope with the very limited Internet access on this scenic, leafy island in Washington state. Among the things she is without is that indispensable aspect of modern life, Facebook. She must also deal with the advances of the underpopulated island's over-friendly cab-driver/handyman Darren (genial, imposingly bearish Darren Lenz). As the days slowly pass, Joslyn's mental equilibrium becomes a little unbalanced. We gradually piece together a traumatic back-story that has brought her to this particular place in this particular frame of mind.

While Jackson's script provides certain key pieces of information, it's never easy to know just how much to trust what we're seeing and hearing. There are gaps in our understanding, which mirror Joslyn's own unreliable relationship with reality. There's evidently something badly amiss in this situation, but we're never quite able to put our finger on it. One blink-and-you'll-miss-it special effect even fleetingly hints at a supernatural element at play. This involves the white noise of a television set, one of several untrustworthy manifestations of electronic technology. (Joslyn's near-symbiotic attachment to her Smartphone is a particular source of mystery and even anguish.)

The film's achievement is, as with Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion, one obvious influence, to leave us wondering to what extent Joslyn might be in actual physical danger, and to what extent she's the principle source of that danger — both to herself and to others. She's certainly far from the model caretaker. Her increasingly insensitive and cavalier treatment of helpless Frank crosses various lines of inappropriateness in a film which is frank in its presentation of nudity and feminine sexuality.

Biting fearlessly into a role that offers a terrific showcase for a younger performer, Jensen manages to retain our interest and sympathy even when her character's eccentricities shade towards madness. She's especially strong during the monologues - some delivered solo, some in Frank's vegetative presence. These punctuate the sparsely-written screenplay and are notable for their quicksilver unpredictability. The generally downbeat tone is leavened by moments of uneasy humor, as when Joslyn's employers pedantically delineate their exceedingly precise instructions about what she can and can't do in their absence.

Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia's high-definition digital cameras get up close and very personal to Jensen on many occasions. Their crisply lustrous imagery is a consistently hypnotic element as Without — nothing if not a mood-piece — establishes and develops its various sinister, chilly atmospheres. Eric Strausser's sound design is a marvel of near-subliminal effects (a wolf-howl here, a twig-crack there) and growling susurrations. Jackson's editing, meanwhile, chops up his claustrophobic little narrative into brisk fragments that keep us constantly on-edge, intrigued and tantalized by a bigger picture that's always just slightly out of reach.

The Stranger [Charles Mudede]

Without opens with a young and beautiful woman sitting on a ferry that's heading to Whidbey Island. She seems lost in her thoughts. The water is gray. The clouds are low.

A ferry employee cleans the tables behind her. She arrives on the island, enters town, and hires a ride to her destination. Her driver is clearly attracted to her beauty. She plays it cool, directs him to a driveway for a home on the left side of the road. She settles her business, gathers her things, shuts the door, walks up the driveway with a noisy roller suitcase, and, from the driver's perspective, disappears behind trees and bushes. After a moment of silence, the driver reverses, turns, and heads back to town. After a moment of silence, the young woman reappears from behind the greenery, makes sure the driver is gone, and noisily crosses the street to a home on the opposite side—her actual destination. It's at this moment that I fell in love with this movie. The timing of the editing and performances, the sound design, the photography—all made it clear that I was in very good hands and that the rest of the work would only deepen this initial love.

There is another scene, early in the movie—there are so many great scenes and sequences in this masterpiece of regional cinema—in which the young woman (Joslyn Jensen), wearing a black floral dress, is helping a catatonic elderly man (Ron Carrier) into bed. This is the job she came to the island to do. The job involves caring for the old man while his family is away on vacation. The house is ordinary, the rules of the house are a little odd but not eccentric, and this is the young woman's first night with the wheelchair-bound man. The difficult task of lifting him from the wheelchair to the bed is shown in such a way that makes her ass very prominent. Each pull of the man's limp waist or legs causes, from our perspective, her ass to rise, round, and expand invitingly. Though the old man can't see her ass (it's on the other side of him), we can't help wondering if he is secreting pleasure from her exertions.

Later in the film, yet another scene. This time it's with an animal, a deer. It walks out of the forest and begins to eat the grass in the home's backyard. The young woman sees the animal through a window. The light, the fur, the black hooves, the chewing, the eyes, the stares. It's a moment filled with something that can only be described as cosmic sensuality, a transanimal field of desire. Without is the region's first erotic tour de force—the cleaning of the old body, the surprise erection, the computer orgasm, the horny visitor, her longing for a lover who is seemingly trapped in the hard drive of her signal-less iPhone. (Humpday was certainly a fine film, but it was not erotic.)

Without is a regional film. Its director, Mark Jackson, though currently living in New York City, was raised in Seattle, and the same goes for the film's star, Jensen. One of the film's producers, Jaime Keeling, who also lives in NYC, once lived in Seattle and was the program director of Northwest Film Forum. Carrier, an actor in my film Zoo and Megan Griffiths's new Sundance-bound film The Off Hours, lives in Seattle.

The movie was shot entirely on Whidbey Island with the camera of the future, a Canon 5D Mark II, and a micro crew. The project had two primary cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia—the former, who has worked with Jackson on other projects (one of which is a video for Moby's "Wait for Me") and has a background in photography, essentially did the fixed shots. Garcia did moving shots. This collaboration was successful, as was the film's art direction by Alisarine Ducolomb—she worked on Che: Part One, Babel, and Amores Perros.

Without, which premieres this week at Slamdance (it really is scandalous that it's not in competition in Sundance), reinforces the natural cinematic beauty of our part of the world. The quality of light, the sharpness of colors, the lowness of clouds, the closeness of mountains, and the meshing of rural and urban codes. It is now clearer than ever that a film made in this region must exploit its natural wonders and beauty.

Twitch Film [Ben Umstead]


Movie City News [Kim Voynar]


Ferdy on Films [Marilyn Ferdinand]


indieWIRE / The Playlist [Erik McClanahan]


Tribune (Locarno Film Festival report)  Neil Young from Jigsaw Lounge (capsule)


Filmmaker Magazine [Brandon Harris]


Variety [Rob Nelson]


Orlando Weekly [Justin Strout]


Jackson, Peter


Film Reference  Philip Kemp


After his first three features, most critics thought they had Peter Jackson neatly pegged: an antipodean maverick whose films made up for their zero-budget limitations with comic gusto and creative ingenuity; films whose gross-out excesses of spurting bodily fluids and splattered guts made George Romero and Sam Raimi look like models of genteel restraint. Jackson's work, in short, seemed to be comprehensively summed up by the blithely upfront title of his debut film, Bad Taste. And then came his fourth film, the award-winning Heavenly Creatures, and suddenly all the assumptions had to be revised. Jackson himself, noting a hint of surprise behind the acclaim, pointed out that like all his work the film stemmed from his "unhealthy interest in the grotesque." But if there was continuity in terms of themes and preoccupations, Heavenly Creatures showed Jackson was also capable of emotional complexity, subtlety, and sophistication—qualities no one would have suspected from his previous films.
Far from striving to disguise the ramshackle, garden-shed genesis of his early work, Jackson gloried in it, making an amateurish, peculiarly New Zealander domesticity central to his humour. The Astral Investigation and Defence Service team ("I wish they'd do something about those initials") who foil predatory aliens in Bad Taste are as far from their jut-jawed Hollywood counterparts as could be imagined; inept, nerdish, and post-adolescent, they shamble around bickering over trivialities or moaning about filling in time-sheets. In Braindead, whose showdown erupts in a bland suburban home, the hero demolishes a horde of flesh-eating zombies, not with flamethrower or pump-action shotgun, but with a rotary lawnmower—"a Kiwi icon," according to the director. It comes as no surprise to read, in the end-titles for Bad Taste, a credit to "Special Assistants to the Producer (Mum and Dad)."
Both Bad Taste and Braindead (whose farcical brand of ultra-physical violence Jackson dubs "splatstick") spoof well-established and much-parodied formulas within the horror genre, respectively the space-invaders movie and the zombie movie. Meet the Feebles is more audacious in its choice of target: the hitherto sacrosanct world of Jim Henson's Muppets. Hijacking the standard Muppet narrative framework of backstage shenanigans, Jackson gleefully subverts the perky ethos of the puppet troupe with lavish helpings of booze, filth, sex, and drugs, culminating in one of his trademark bloodbaths. He also pushes the unstated logic of Muppetry to ends that Henson would shudder to confront; if Miss Piggy can get the hots for Kermit, why shouldn't an elephant have sex with a chicken? (The resultant outlandish hybrid is wheeled on—literally—for our delectation.) Jackson further outrages Muppet conventions by making the frog character in his film a Vietnam vet with a heroin habit, while Kermit's counterpart as stage director is an effete, English-accented fox who mounts a big production number in praise of sodomy.
This fascination with outrage, with the consequences of pushing beyond the bounds of convention, carries through into Heavenly Creatures, Jackson's finest film to date. Based on an actual New Zealand cause celèbre of the 1950s, the Parker-Hulme case, the film traces the progress of two fifteen-year-old schoolgirls into an increasingly unhinged world of ritual and fantasy. Instinctive loners, Pauline and Juliet bond together to turn their outsider status into an exclusive, hermetic society tinged with lesbianism and peopled by personal icons—Mario Lanza, James Mason—along with figures from their medieval fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Drawing on real case documents (Pauline's diaries and the girls' own Borovnian "novels"), Jackson creates a mood of intense pubescent obsession sliding steadily out of control until—as the borders between the two worlds elide—it culminates in brutal murder.
Determined not to present his heroines as the "evil lesbian killers" they were branded by contemporary press accounts, Jackson not only portrays them with sympathy and insight, but captures the richly creative energy of their shared fantasies. Their behaviour is seen as a reaction to the imagination-starved society around them, since 1950s Christchurch, all garish pastels and agonised gentility, appears no less bizarre and unbalanced a world (and a whole lot less fun) than the one the girls create for themselves. Yet the killing—of Pauline's uncomprehending, well-meaning mother—shares none of the sick-joke relish of Jackson's previous films; it is shown as clumsy, painful, and distressing.
Jackson firmly denies that Heavenly Creatures represents a bid to be seen as a "serious filmmaker" who wants to do "arty mainstream films." "People immediately assume that filmmakers do things because of a grand plan. . . . I do intend to do other splatter films," he told Cinema Papers. "I have intentions of doing all sorts of films. I have no interest in a 'career' as such." As if to prove it, he reverted to splatstick mode with The Frighteners, an Evil-Dead-style horror-comedy made (thanks to backing from Universal) on a less shoestring basis than his earlier films.
Jackson's achievement in staying put at home and persuading the Hollywood money to come to him bodes well for his country's film industry. Most successful New Zealand directors (Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori) have used their first major hit as a springboard for Hollywood. Jackson, remaining true to his roots, has set up his own production base (Wingnut Films) in his home town of Wellington. "I choose to stay in New Zealand earning a fraction of what I could make in Los Angeles because I want to do whatever I feel like doing. . . . The freedom that I have in New Zealand is worth millions of dollars to me." So far, the tactic has worked. By 2000 Jackson was working on his huge, three-part adaptation of Lord of the Rings, with a possible remake of King Kong next in line—all in his native country. The $260 million budget for the Tolkien trilogy is a far cry from the small change it cost to make Bad Taste. But the spirit isn't perhaps so different: armor for the 15,000 extras is being knitted out of string—by the septuagenarian ladies of the Wellington Knitting Club.


Your Mother Ate My Dog!  a Peter Jackson website


All-Movie Guide  Rebecca Flint Marx


The Peter Jackson Guide  Bob Bankard


Jackson, Peter  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


The Bastards Have Landed: Official Peter Jackson Fan Club


DGA Interview  by Jerry Roberts, January 2002 from DGA magazine


Hollywood Reporter Interview (2004)  by Philip Wakefield


Dark Horizons Interview (2005)  by Paul Fischer, December 5, 2005


Time Out Interview (2005)  by Dave Calhoun, December 9, 2005



New Zealand  (91 mi)  1987


Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

Young filmmakers, take heart; instead of feeling washed up because you haven’t made your Citizen Kane by the time you hit 25, consider this: Peter Jackson may be the lord of Lord of the Rings now, but when he was 25, he was making this scattershot, borderline-unwatchable (and yet still somehow strangely amusing) psychotronic splatter flick. Set in an unspecified and not particularly explained future, Bad Taste is mainly a collection of gross-out gags laid end to end. Defending the earth from an invasion of alien drones who aim to package human beings as intergalactic fast food — they particularly like the "chunky bits" — our human heroes find every possible way to dismember their human-looking foes, and Jackson lays on the fake blood (and brains, and guts) as thick as can be. Though it obviously prefigures the obsession with special effects and other worlds that piqued Jackson’s interest in LOTR, it’s hard to get through more than several minutes of this earliest feature without your attention wandering — and when a ravenous alien scooping brains out of a dead human’s half-exploded head can’t hold your interest, there’s something really wrong. Skip to the end and savor the truly bizarre climax, which features a colonial house blasting off into outer space, or savor the occasional deadpan zinger and Jackson’s borderline-insane performances — as both a ravenous E.T. and an alien hunter whose brain keeps falling out of his head. Disc two of the pricier two-disc limited edition features a half-hour making-of featurette that will no doubt please fans (and Bad Taste certainly has them — check out, but is hardly worth the twofold increase in price. (Rob Gonsalves)

The fact that Peter Jackson, the director of this cheerfully repulsive alien-cannibal comedy, went on to win multiple Oscars fifteen years later is one of the finer ironies of Academy history.

It certainly makes good on its title. Ravenous extra-terrestrials (“No glowing fingers on these bastards,” growls Jackson as Derek, member of the Astral Investigation and Defense Service) land in New Zealand, assume human form, and commence converting the locals into fast food. It’s up to our boys in the A.I.D.S. to put a stop to it.

Twenty-two when he first began shooting this on weekends in 1983, Jackson scraped together $400,000, gathered friends from his newspaper job, and shot in 16mm, doing half of everything himself. Here, Jackson inaugurated the style of “splatstick” (partly inspired by such sanguinary Monty Python sketches as “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days”) that would serve him well later. At the time, Jackson said he didn’t want to presume to the thrones of Sam Raimi, George Romero, or Stuart Gordon; but in Bad Taste he outsplats all three, crafting the ultimate “Bunch of Guys Set Out to Make the Grossest, Coolest Movie Ever” project.

Like Raimi, Jackson was never a horror director so much as a comedy director — even the most disgusting passages (“Aren’t I lucky,” beams an alien as he sucks down a bowl of steaming vomit, “I got a chunky bit”) and scenes of ultra-violence are timed for laughs, not shock.

I want this Peter Jackson back. The Peter Jackson who could make a fun, short movie for peanuts. Don't you?

Edinburgh U Film Society [Keith H. Brown/Andrew Hesketh]

Imagine Mars Attacks as a zero budget production made without regard for the certificate. Alternative titles could have included `Man-eating space aliens invade New Zealand and lots of bad imitation gunk and chainsaw accidents ensue', or even ,`The film that will have you laughing to death and wanting to be violently ill at the same time' On reflection however, `Bad Taste' sums it up far better.
Aliens have landed on earth and they aren't friendly:
"There's no glowing fingers on these bastards. We've got a bunch of extra-terrestrial psychopaths on our hands."
Representatives of an intergalactic fast food company, they're here to turn humanity into the galaxy's new taste sensation. The only thing that stands in their way is the unfortunately acronymic Astro Investigations and Defence Service (the indefatigable Derek and three others, armed with uzis, magnum, rocket launcher and chainsaw).
The characters of the film are classic comic figures falling somewhere between the three stooges and Harry Enfield's scousers; witness their sheer determination and imaginative efforts as to the best way to kill the alien invaders and splatter serious amounts of intestine over the screen. In its 90 minute running time Bad Taste gives us an alien who accidentally slits his own throat; vomit eating; multiple mutilations; an exploding sheep and an incredible finale where Derek chainsaws the head off an alien only to exit out of its bum, "reborn".
It's very sick. It's also very, very funny. The gore effects are so unrealistic and taken to such parodic excesses that you can't but help laugh. Jackson clearly understands the difference between good and bad taste; and it's a point of interest that his supposedly bad taste film, with its all male cast, pointedly avoids that bete noire of the horror genre: misogyny.
Its easy to see Bad Taste's flaws/charms: Post synchronised sound which isn't in synch; acting (from Jackson's schoolfriends and workmates) that doesn't merit the term; an atrocious score played by some of these same friends (memorably described in a previous EUFS magazine as "James Last plays The Professionals"). But the real question is whether anyone else could have done any better with the extremely limited resources available and the answer has to be "no". Jackson (more recently directing Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners) took a hand in the production, writing, camera operation, editing, effects and acting, for reasons of budget more than rampant egotism.
Anyone who manages to last to the end will be able to do nothing but agree that Jackson has created a masterpiece (of bad taste). Bad Taste is guaranteed to make you laugh more than many films costing 100 or even 1000 times as much. The challenge for Jackson, now a respected mainstream director, is to continue making great entertainment within a system that doesn't like to take risks.


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Epinions [Mike Bracken]  a fanboy


Classic-Horror  another fanboy review by Dellamorte


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DVD Verdict  Patrick Naugle - DVD Review  Doc Ezra



New Zealand  (94 mi)  1989


The Horror Review [Egregious Gurnow]

There are a handful of films that when they are over you are just forced to contend with the fact that you will never be the same again, such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, and Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The typical reaction to these works is “What the fuck?” before one begins seriously considering therapy in order to be able to return to society.  Such is the case with Peter Jackson’s acid-laced, hyper real musical satire of Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, as he issues his version of what happens between the time the curtain falls and the time it rises once more as only Marquis De Sade would have it.  All this with the addendum that the Muppets are real, self-sustaining creatures.  Creativity be damned, just get ready because I’m not making this up.

Here’s the roster:  A self-conscious hungry hippo named Heidi who, natch, has a weight problem as well as perpetual THO; Wynyard, a mad Kermit parody in the form of  a drug addled ’Nam vet who was forced to play Russian Roulette in a POW camp; a rat referred to as Trevor who is everyone’s boss and, to add insult to injury, has the voice of Peter Lorre; Harry, a hare whom, consistent with the reputation of his species, winds up with AIDS as a result; a paparazzi fly that figuratively stays on the wall while collecting all of his journalistic slime when not buzzing amid the actors trying to pry juicy bits for his next article; the production’s director, a fox named Sebastian, who sings an ode to sodomy on live television; a Hindu contortionist who gets his head lodged in his ass; and Daisy, an S & M porn queen who just happens to be a cow (all nipples pierced) with a hemorrhoid problem.

What you can expect to see during the film:  excessive amounts of gratuitous Muppet nudity, coprophilia, fellatio, two botched suicide attempts, fornication (would this be considered bestiality?), a menage a trios, masturbation, urination, a drug overdose after an anteater mistakes cocaine for Borax, a homicidal killing spree, and a drug war involving crabs, a bulldog, a rat, and a razorback--is a plot really necessary at this point? 

More importantly, does the film work as a satire?  Some would say Jackson didn’t know where or when to stop but in the same motion I believe that is part of his deconstruction of the American entertainment industry and the media’s glossy eye, using our most innocent caricatures as a springboard.

I don’t really have any more comments because I can’t seem to find where exactly my jaw fell . . . probably around the appearance of the eleken or chiphant (the bastard child of an elephant and a chicken).

Absolute Horror  The 30-Something Senior

I’m sure I’m not alone when I ask this question.  Have you ever wondered what the Care Bears Movie would have been like directed by David Lynch?  What would have happened if Wes Craven had written for Disney or if John Carpenter had shot The Barney Christmas Special? What if The Devil’s Rejects had hosted an episode of Sesame Street or if Jim Henson had taken that infamous acid trip to Las Vegas instead of Hunter S. Thompson?

Oh wait, Peter Jackson already answered that last one.

That’s right, before the prodigal-celluloid-son of New Zealand went on to enthrall the masses with his homo-erotic trilogy about munchkins with hairy feet,  he whiled away his younger years working at a photo shop, listening to LP’s of The Beatles and self-producing a hardcore BDSM puppet exploitation film.

MEET THE FEEBLES, Jackson’s 2nd film, a more than blatant “parody” of America’s own beloved Muppets, was marketed originally with the tagline “Hell Hath No Fury like a Hippo with a Machine Gun”. Though, in my opinion “Who Knew Fur-vert Pornography Could be this Much Fun?” would have been just as effective. Quite simply stated, in the plainest, most laymen analogy I can muster, MEET THE FEEBLES is the Muppets on crack and it’s an f-ing riot!

The story opens backstage, on the set of The Feebles Variety Hour, where Robert our shy, bumbling, hero of a hedgehog is starting his first day in the Feeble’s chorus, immediately falling head over heels for a dancing poodle named Lucile. Sparks fly and the film’s romance ignites.  Not to worry though, while the underlying love story is the same as the Muppet’s in the most gut-wrenching sense, the world of MEET THE FEEBLES at least offers its visitors more shit, blood and spunk than a federal penitentiary.

As we “Meet” the Feebles, we find life behind the scenes of a hit television show to be endearingly similar to our own, and are instantly drawn into the drama of such  characters as:  Heidi the Hippo who fights to win back her big-shot producer, coke-dealing-drug-lord of a husband Belch the Walrus from the arms of a prostitute pussy; Harry the Hare who discovers that his years of humping like a rabbit have left him more diseased than a leper colony; and Trevor the Rat who desperately searches for the right leading lady to star in his next bovine-bondage fetish flick.

All that, plus it’s a musical to boot! Complete with such unforgettable numbers like “I’ve Got One Leg Missing” and the tear jerking “Sodomy”, which serves as the perfect backdrop for Jackson’s signature B-Movie splatterfest finale. Flat out, if you haven’t seen MEET THE FEEBLES, rent it, buy it or sell your first born to get your hands on it.   It truly is one movie that I can say is unforgettable. Who knew two tons of polystyrene and some faux-fur could be this life changing?  Hey, leave Joan Rivers out of this.

Oggs' Movie Thoughts

This is Sesame Street directed by the more perverted twin brother of Larry Clark. The puppets are all psychopaths and maniacs: including an overeating diva hippo with a depressive personality. a philandering, drug-dealing, porn-producing walrus; a shell-shocked crack-addicted gecko; an emphysemic chain-smoking worm; an obnoxious good-for-nothing rat; and a sodomy-loving fox. It doesn't stop there. There's also an innocent hedgehog who will fall under the love spell of a dreamy poodle; an elephant who is threatened with a paternity suit by a loose hen; a panty-sniffing anteater; and a rabbit who is suffering from the muppet-version of AIDS.

It's all done in bad taste. Peter Jackson, way before being tamed by the voluminous epic of J. R. R. Tolkien, is a genius in low-budget filmmaking. With funds saved from the grant he got for Bad Taste (1987), he developed this idea (with collaborators Fran Walsh, Danny Mulheron, and Stephen Sinclair) of repulsive characters in repulsive situations. The idea of turning the characters into puppets and mascots is golden; it allows Jackson and his crew to up the depravity without being absolutely obnoxious to the middlebrow viewer. No matter how gross and amoral things become, it'll always be perceived as satirical and not pornographic or gratuitous.

I think that Meet the Feebles is a product mainly created for fun and laughs (yes, weird sex and pointless violence is funny). However, it's not completely depleted of sense --- in fact, the film makes more sense than most pretentious issue films. The subtext of the horrors of show business hinges on legends and stories of drug-inducing, sex-starved, and suicidal stars that have graced the entertainment business. The sleaze, treachery, sex, drugs, and all that jazz that surround the business are exaggerated for laughs and giggles; the disturbing bit here is that it's not necessarily far from the truth. That showbiz people are portrayed as worms, flies, rats, lizards and hogs ups the statement a few notches higher.

The miracle of the movie is that despite its overt trashiness, Jackson inadvertently creates some nuggets of solid magic. That black-and-white flashback to the hippo and the walrus' first meeting evokes the timeless appeal of a newly discovered dreamgirl, where romance and fame mix in unhealthy quantities. That short bit in a puppet version of the Vietnam War has actual grit. Of course everything ends with a gargantuan punchline (the walrus cheating on the hippo with a seductive feline; and the lizard using the Vietnam bit as bate for donations for his drug fund).

Jackson would inevitably lose some of the zaniness of these films (although he somewhat tops the insanity of Meet the Feebles with Braindead (1992), an all-out romp of flying blood, meat and guts). His best work remains to be Forgotten Silver (1995), which is also his most effective joke (that despite being known as the biggest practical joke in cinematic history, remains to be still very funny and quite touching). Heavenly Creatures (1994) would pave his way to Hollywood wherein he will forever be known as the Academy Award-winning director of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, a grand epic with a less than desirous lack of Jackson's humor) and King Kong (2005). With his feet upon a high pedestal, I wonder if he still has the guts to return to his roots and give as a lovely yet salty-sour-sweet confection like this one. I hope he does.

Movie Vault [Friday and Saturday Night Critic]

Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles” has probably the highest “Oh, God” count of any movie I’ve ever seen. This means that he repeatedly wheels his camera into rooms and we the audience witness some ghastly, horrifying nastiness and we mutter “Oh, God” in disgust. This response, or something like it, is pretty much universal from the audience. The great divide, however, is whether you cackle helplessly after being repulsed, or you leave the theater and pray for the souls of those responsible. Lord help me, I cackled. Pray for my soul.

“Meet the Feebles” is unashamedly a gross-out movie, but, like Jackson’s own “Dead Alive,” it wants to be the “Citizen Kane” of gross-out movies. The freshest (or maybe stalest?) element of his approach is that there are no human actors at all in “Meet the Feebles,” only animal puppets. They may not be Jim Henson quality, but they are good enough, and many of them are even cute and cuddly until someone vomits on them or squishes their heads open. Among the stomach-churning predicaments we must witness: a doomed romance between a hippo and a walrus, oral sex from a feline prostitute, a rabbit fearing he has AIDS, a car driving down the throat of a sea monster, a knife-throwing frog addicted to heroin, a panty-sniffing anteater, a gay fox singing about the joys of sodomy, a cow with six pierced teats, and a hedgehog with a lisp.

What’s surprising about “Meet the Feebles” is its actual quality as a film. Ghastly episodes are not simply paraded across the screen and then forgotten by Jackson, but connected in an interlocking story with a large cast of memorable characters. Robert Altman would be proud. The film begins twelve hours before the first performance of “Meet the Feebles,” a television song-and-dance variety show vying for syndication. Not surprisingly, this is a hard twelve hours, involving infidelity in the long-time relationship between Hippo Heidi the star and Walrus Bletch the producer. There are tangents—such as Trevor the Rat enlisting the panty-sniffing anteater to help him make a porno movie, a drug deal gone bad between Bletch and Mr. Big, and the frog’s flashbacks to Vietnam—but there are no dead-ends. Each episode either has a comic pay-off, character development, or both, and most tie back to the main storyline.

Many tasteful filmmakers lack Jackson’s ability to develop such a large cast so quickly. By the end of the movie, which only ran ninety minutes, I had come to know the faces, if not the names and motivations, of more than a dozen of his creatures. I think I might have even cared about some of them. Dare I say I was touched when the big blue elephant risked his life during the closing massacre to save his illegitimate infant daughter, whom he had denied throughout the course of the film? Anyone willing to risk the wrath of a hippo with a machine gun to rescue his child can drink from my canteen.

The overall experience is wild, raunchy fun. Most of this probably wouldn’t be as funny if there people instead of puppets. Certainly the Vietnam flashback which reenacts scenes from “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Deer Hunter” are only funny because we’ve never seen frogs playing Russian roulette. “Meet the Feebles” is, not surprisingly, done on a low-budget. Big-budget gore—like “Aliens” or “Saving Private Ryan”—must be in service of some higher goal to be appropriate, but low-budget gore can be for its own sake, because it’s so silly. The score for “The Feebles” works the same—the single MIDI setup running everything for under a thousand dollars is much more appropriate than an orchestral score or a rock band. What is top-notch is Jackson’s direction, which is quick and energetic in the way all great low-budget directors direct, and his willingness to not just give us splat after splat, but likable characters in-between to root for and, yes, laugh at when a hippo with an M60 blows their heads off. (Jeremiah Kipp) review  Andrew Borntreger


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Read the New York Times Review »   Janet Maslin



aka:  Dead-Alive

New Zealand  (104 mi)  1992


Nashville Scene [Jim Ridley]

If it's over-the-top comic horror you're wanting, forget the stupid, sadistic Scream; Peter Jackson's slapstick holocaust remains the all-time champion splatter flick. The bite of a "Sumatran rat monkey" triggers a contagion of walking death in a New Zealand town; it's up to the hero (Timothy Balme) to confront hundreds of bloodthirsty ghouls with the only weapon at hand--the whirring blades of a lawn mower. Avoid the R-rated version, which, oddly, is more distasteful for being less gruesome; the NC-17 edition is a Tex Avery cartoon of hyperbolic gore, which gets funnier with each disgusting new sight gag. Best of all, you won't feel, as in Scream, that the director made the movie in order to see women tortured. Wes Craven hates his characters; Peter Jackson just liquefies his.

Deep Focus (Bryant Frazer)

New Zealand’s multi-talented Peter Jackson takes zombie comedy to its obvious (?) apex, with this, unquestionably the single goriest film ever made. With wicked wit, split-second timing, and a sense of the grotesque that crosses Heironymous Bosch with Monty Python, Jackson lays out an unimaginably grisly, nightmarish zombie fantasy and plays it for laughs. After Lionel’s mum is bitten at the zoo by a Sumatran rat-monkey, family life becomes Night of the Living Dead. And there goes the neighborhood: Jackson works out about a jillion ways to pulverise the human body during an extended siege on the family spread, and the whole thing finally climaxes on the roof, as the dysfunctional mother-son relationship grows to outrageous proportions. If you’ve the stomach for it, this is the most satisfying comedy of the decade.

Austin Chronicle [Marc Savlov]

The Citizen Kane of Oedipal zombie-cannibal-right to death-comedy-love stories. Kiwi auteur Peter Jackson -- best known stateside as the maniac behind the Muppet-perversion Meet the Feebles -- takes the shopworn flesh-eating zombie genre by its rotting horns, adds a dash of Monty Python, and comes up with a film so gleefully over-the-top that it's decidedly hard not to gag while you're laughing yourself incontinent. Rivers of gore, entrails, and ambulating body parts surround poor nebbish Lionel (Balme), a mama's boy whose mama (Moody) just happens to have been bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey and consequently degenerates into a flesh-hungry omnivore with a keen knack for oozing pus in front of the houseguests. Before you can say George Romero, she's snacking on the neighbors, and Lionel's up to his neck in overly-mobile cadavers. Though he tries valiantly to keep them sedated (with a big jar of “Sedative,” natch), it's not long before all hell breaks loose in a 30-minute climax that makes Re-Animator look like Captain Kangaroo on a bad hair day. Add to this Lionel's newfound love interest, Paquita (Penalver), his scheming uncle Les (Watkin), and a zombie infant that makes abortion seem like a really, really good idea, and you have quite literally the most disgusting comedy ever. Jackson, obviously aware of the cliché-ridden dangers of “horror comedies,” chucks convention and good taste out the window and goes for the gusto (or is that “gutso”?) with uncanny results. The film moves from gag to gore to gag again like a rocket from the crypt and never lets up -- just when you think you've seen the worst, Jackson tops himself and there you are squirming in your seat again (and loving every minute of it). Sick. Perverse. Brilliant.

Movie Vault [Goatdog]

The hilarious prologue to this New Zealand import sets the stage for the rest of the film. On an island near Sumatra, a zoologist and his assistant are carrying a basket containing a snarling creature. This is the Sumatran Rat-Monkey, a creature so horrible that the natives surround the pair and warn them of the fate which will befall them. The assistant wants to leave it, but the zoologist whips out his permit and thrusts it in the natives' faces. They tear it up and eat it. A chase ensues, ending with the terrified pair taking off with the rest of their crew in a jeep. Unfortunately, the zoologist has been bitten in the hand, so the mostly native crew apologetically chop his hand off. Then they find another bite on his arm, and off it goes. Then, they notice the scratch on his head...

The DVD case advertises "Dead Alive" (originally titled "Brain Dead") as the goriest movie ever made. I would have to agree that it is in contention, at least the 97 minute unrated version I saw. There is an 82 minute R-rated version available, but if you're going to watch a movie like this, you might as well watch it.

The story follows a hapless young man who lives with his domineering mother. He meets an ethnic girl who has been told by a fortune teller that he is the man for her. The two go on a date away from the prying eyes of the disapproving mother. However, she follows them to the zoo, and while spying on them, she is bitten by the Rat-Monkey, which she squishes with her foot in anger. The bite slowly turns her into a zombie-like mess of running sores and healthy appetite. A hilarious scene involves her attempting to serve lunch to members of her ladies' group while she slowly loses control of her facilities, including the loss of her ear, which she eats with her pudding. The terrified but loyal son tries to hide her from the public and his new girlfriend, which is hard after she escapes from the basement and is hit by a train. Even that won't kill her, and the disease spreads quickly as her son attempts to contain the epidemic.

Those familiar with Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy will appreciate this film, since it blends the same horrific gore and slapstick comedy. This film will make most people sick to their stomachs. It was hysterically funny at times, but the urge to laugh had to compete with the urge to vomit. Oh, and the director, Peter Jackson, also directed "Heavenly Creatures", and is directing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. That's range, my friends.

Inside Pulse  Brad Torreano

DVDTown [John J. Puccio]

Movie Reviews UK  Damian Cannon

The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review  Richard Scheib

Not Coming to a Theater Near You [Rumsey Taylor] review  Andrew Borntreger  Lee Roberts

Movie Cynics (Potentially Offensive)  The Vocabulariast


Mike  still a fanboy


Mutant Reviewers from Hell   Justin (Ryan Arthur)


Best DVD   SBG


Ted Prigge   DarkHorse


Livejournal [I Hate Movies]  Steve Clark


Mondo Digital   also reviewing FORGOTTEN SILVER and THE FRIGHTENERS


Read the New York Times Review »   Stephen Holden



New Zealand  Great Britain  Germany  (108 mi)  1994  ‘Scope


Heavenly Creatures   Mark Deming from All Movie Guide

After winning a cult following for several offbeat and darkly witty gore films, New Zealand director Peter Jackson abruptly shifted gears with this stylish, compelling, and ultimately disturbing tale of two teenage girls whose friendship begins to fuel an ultimately fatal obsession. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a student in New Zealand who doesn't much care for her family or her classmates; she's a bit overweight and not especially gracious, but she quickly makes friends with Juliet (Kate Winslet), a pretty girl whose wealthy parents have relocated from England. Pauline and Juliet find they share the same tastes in art, literature, and music (especially the vocal stylings of Mario Lanza), and together they begin to construct an elaborate fantasy world named Borovnia, which exists first in stories and then in models made of clay. The more Pauline and Juliet dream of Borovnia, the more the two find themselves retreating into this fantastical world of art, adventure, and Gothic romance as they slowly drift away from reality. The girls' parents decide that perhaps they're spending too much time together, and try to bring them back into the real world, but this only feeds their continued obsession with Borovnia (and each other) and leads to a desperate and violent bid for freedom. Featuring excellent performances (especially by Kate Winslet) and imaginative production design and special effects, Heavenly Creatures skillfully allows the audience to see Pauline and Juliet both from their own fantastic perspective and how they seem to the rest of the world. Remarkably enough, Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story; in real life, Juliet grew up to become mystery novelist Anne Perry.

User reviews from imdb Author: ManhattanBeatnik from Waynesville, OH

While watching Heavenly Creatures, we bring ourselves to sympathize with two unlikely heroines, and then they betray our trust by committing an unthinkable crime; by the time the film has ended, we feel as if our emotions have been chewed up and spat back out to the degree where we don't know WHAT to feel anymore. Heavenly Creatures is either the greatest act of manipulation ever put on film or a brilliant masterpiece about the dark side of life: personally, I think it's a little bit of both. Either way, I'm still trying to get my pulse to return to its normal rate. Director Peter Jackson (who before this had only made a number of cheap nasty horror movies -- Bad Taste and Braindead being the most popular --, but later became one of the most talked-about film-makers as a result of his film interpretation of The Lord of the Rings) does some remarkable things with bringing this horrendous true story to the screen: not only is this one of the most amazing motion pictures I've ever viewed, but it is one of the most important films to date. Period. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) have developed an inseparable friendship whose intimacy is questioned by their strict parents -- Pauline's being the most stern. As their lives (and our sentiments) are suddenly torn apart, they decide to run off together -- but this could mean having to murder someone. I will not go any further in describing the plot (and I fear that I may already have said too much), not because I want it to surprise you, but because this film is so powerful that I would be doing a disservice to it if I tried to describe it in mere words. Written by Jackson and his real-life spouse, Frances Walsh, the screenplay for Heavenly Creatures is nothing short of remarkable (it even garnered the Academy's attention, earning the film's singular nomination). We both hate and love the two main characters, but most of all we just want them to be happy, to which Jackson and Walsh ask us the question, "at what cost?" Their scenes together -- ESPECIALLY the joyous ones -- are drenched with an unbearable amount of foreboding hopelessness that makes the inevitable conclusion even more tense. In her debut film role, Kate Winslet displays much of the potential she fulfilled later on in her career, but Melanie Lynskey (who has only achieved modest success since) deserves an equal amount of praise -- if not more. By the time we're sucked into the story (which doesn't take long), we forget that they're even acting, and our eyes are peeled to the screen with a voyeuristic intensity that is utterly discomforting. Jackson's direction is simply stunning: his visual depiction of the girls' surreal alternate universe is altogether mesmerizing. Heavenly Creatures is both fascinating and repelling in a way reminiscent of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. But after having written all this, I am still brought to the ultimate conclusion that words cannot contain the experience of viewing this film. There are only a few films that were genuinely painful for me to watch (Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men and Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry among them), but this is certainly such a film, and I would not recommend it to the faint of heart. This is not a movie you enjoy (and if you do, you should seek psychiatric help), but it is one you will never forget; I know I certainly won't. (Rob Gonsalves)

After a few gory items well-loved by the relative few who saw them, Peter Jackson decided to tackle more mature material. Except he didn't. 'Heavenly Creatures' is a quantum leap in substance from gleefully sick flicks like 'Meet the Feebles' and 'Dead Alive,' but it retains Jackson's restless devotion to the delirium of fantasy.

After a diabolically goofy prologue — a heartily square travelogue of 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand — we're thrown rudely into bloody chaos: Two girls, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), running and shrieking, smeared and spattered with gore. We don't know them yet, and we don't know where the blood came from (though Pauline says "Mummy's terribly hurt"), but we sure are intrigued. The rest of Heavenly Creatures explains how the girls got to that state.

Pauline, a defiantly frumpy girl (played by Lynskey with uncompromising unpleasantness that still manages to be likable), lives with her parents in a clean but cramped house, where boarders sometimes rent a room. The glamorous Juliet arrives from England, instantly antagonizing her new French teacher by correcting the old lady's grammar. Pauline, who's in the same class, is impressed. Soon the girls, sitting out gym class, bond over their illnesses — "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic," gushes Juliet with the sort of passion only Kate Winslet seems able to access. These two were goth and emo before there were goth and emo, and in due time they construct an elaborate fantasy world drawing on standard mythic templates as well as pop culture of the day (Mario Lanza, Orson Welles, etc.). They're escaping their families — Pauline's forbidding drudge of a mother, Juliet's intellectual but cold mother and father — and hurtling toward a place that gives them the status and sense of belonging they crave.

Jackson is always chasing after the girls with his camera as they sprint along the landscape of New Zealand, morphing in and out of the land they call Borovnia. Heavenly Creatures has been called a lesbian film, but even though the girls do kiss and snuggle while acting out the fantasy narrative, they go way beyond sexuality into pathology. Of course, back in the '50s, homosexuality was pathology (the massive close-up of a doctor sibilantly enunciating the word homo-ssseck-shuality is good for a laugh), and the girls' parents — Pauline's working-class family and Juliet's far more cosmopolitan parents — decide the girls have been spending far too much time together. Which, undeniably, they have. Jackson acknowledges that the girls' feverish fantasy life, while rich and satisfying to them, is also leading them down a path from which there is no sane return.

Heavenly Creatures acquires emotional heft partly because of Sarah Peirse's honest performance as Pauline's unsophisticated but hardworking mother. Pauline despises her and is mortified by her very existence, but Jackson paints the mother as a frightened woman who made a lot of mistakes as a girl and possibly sees Pauline unconsciously following in her footsteps. The final reel, in which Pauline encourages her mom to have another piece of cake before their fateful walk in the woods, is exquisitely sad. The girls have been driven to the point where their actions, meant to unite them forever, will do quite the opposite. As the moment of truth approaches, Lynskey and Winslet perform a duet of regret — the awful weight of what the girls are about to do settles rock-like in their stomachs.

On one level, Heavenly Creatures is a stellar true-crime story, which Jackson probably grew up hearing about. The movie also outed Juliet, who'd changed her name to Anne Perry and written a series of popular mystery novels; Pauline now goes by Hilary Nathan. As per court order, they haven't seen each other since 1954. The movie, upon repeat viewings, only becomes more poignant with that knowledge.

I truly don't think Jackson's filmmaking has gotten better since 'Heavenly Creatures' — just bigger. Here, at age 32, he nailed a difficult tonal mix of exultation and anguish he hasn't approached since, though his forthcoming adaptation of 'The Lovely Bones' may restore the old magic. The inner tension of the film emerges from Jackson's enjoyment of the girls' bustling insanity and then his gradual withdrawal from it — turning out the lights, one by one, in the kingdom of delusion.

Washington Post [Hal Hinson]

You have to adore a movie in which one of the characters refers to Orson Welles as "It."
Based on the infamous 1954 matricide in New Zealand involving two ninth-grade schoolgirls, Peter Jackson's stunning "Heavenly Creatures" tells the story of an uncommonly powerful love. When Pauline and Juliet are together, the wind is filled with butterflies and the trumpet call of Mario Lanza, "the greatest tenor in the whole world!!" Their universe is an exclusive realm of two, existing half in reality where they are ostracized as peculiar, half in fantasy, where they escape to a highly evolved system of dream lovers and romantic alter egos.
The film begins with Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), a miserable child whose mother runs a boardinghouse. In the photo for her class at her proper girls' school in Christchurch, New Zealand, she sticks out amid all the blond hair and proud smiles like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake (with apologies to Raymond Chandler). She's the fat one in the back, the disaster, the smudge with the ugly scowl and unruly black curls.
Because of a bone disease that left her with brittle legs, Pauline is unable to share in the sunny, athletic life of her classmates. Then one day her life is changed forever, when a new student named Juliet (Kate Winslet) joins her in her private war against the bores and commoners of Christchurch.
Like Pauline, Juliet thumbs her nose with proud disdain at parochial Christchurch society. But, unlike her new friend, Juliet is not an ugly duckling, but a kind of fairy princess who plucks Pauline from her lily pad, kisses her, and transforms her.
Because she suffers from tuberculosis, Juliet has had to spend almost as much time in the hospital as Pauline, and the girls' common status as invalids sparks a friendship that grows into a murderous passion.
Jackson, who directed and wrote the screenplay, moves through each of these phases with daring and imagination. His camera follows his lovers as they run breathless through the woods before collapsing into each other's arms at the end of the day, spent from the exertions of their special bond.
To his credit, Jackson doesn't patronize this romance as a girlish crush gone ballistic, or pigeonhole it merely as "lesbian." These girls are in love and, clearly, he envies them their abandon and their complete, unguarded commitment to each other. In Jackson's view, theirs is a great romance that, unfortunately, others were not equipped to deal with.
Perhaps, if the world were more enlightened, more flexible, things might not turn out as gruesomely as they do. The problems begin when Juliet's parents begin to see the girls' relationship as "unwholesome." Because of marital problems, her parents are returning to England and plan to send Juliet to South Africa. Rather than be separated, the girls devise an elaborate plan to, as Pauline says it, "moider mother" and escape to Hollywood.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of movies have been made about girlfriends and their unique bond, but I can't think of another one where the topic is addressed more frankly or openly. Though the film's subject is sensationalistic in the extreme, Jackson's style is poetic. He presents Pauline and Juliet, who eventually returns to England, where she becomes an author of mystery novels, as singularly blessed. And he raises the question of whether there is any love purer or more gratifying than this same-sex soul-mating. Because their love ends in murder, it's at least implied that the romance is tainted somehow. Does the fault lie with the girls, or with the cramped morality of the time? Thankfully, this powerful, evocative movie leaves the question wide open.


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Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Read the New York Times Review »   Janet Maslin


FORGOTTEN SILVER – made for TV               B                     88

New Zealand  (52 mi)  1995  co-director:  Costa Botes


A dazzling chronicle of the extraordinary life of fictitious New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, and how his forgotten works have amazingly been recently rediscovered, complete with interviews with film historian Leonard Maltin.  The director and his crew forage into unexplored wilderness to discover giant constructed sets of ancient Jerusalem for the 4-hour epic SALOME, also discovering lost film reels which reveal, among other discoveries, that Colin McKenzie attached his own movie camera right onto his bicycle in 1903, creating the first ever tracking shots, actually capturing footage of New Zealand aviator Richard Pearse’s first flight in an airplane some 6 months before the Wright brothers.  Also discovered was the first sound film in 1908, unfortunately they were all speaking Chinese, causing the audience to leave the theater in droves, but also the first use of color film, apparently realized by using special berries from Tahiti in 1911.  He also invented the close-up, as well as riveting on-the-scenes documentary footage, eventually filming his own death in the Spanish Civil war, putting down his camera to come to the aid of another wounded soldier only to be shot himself.  All of these legendary discoveries have been captured on film using fascinating, never before seen archival footage, placing this amazing man in the upper echelon, into the highest pantheon of film pioneers.


All Movie Guide [Mark Deming]

When Forgotten Silver was first shown on New Zealand television, it sparked a minor scandal when some viewers discovered that the film's protagonist, pioneering Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie, didn't really exist, leading some wags to denounce director Peter Jackson as the perpetrator of a fraud, which speaks volumes about just how well executed a satire Forgotten Silver is -- it's one of the most accomplished mock documentaries ever made, flawlessly re-creating "long lost" bits of silent cinema as well as offering a superbly deadpan spoof of television documentaries. While Peter Jackson's oddball humor provided a welcome subtext in horror films like Brain Dead and The Frighteners, here his sly wit is brought to the forefront, and if Forgotten Silver never clearly presents itself as a joke, in many ways that just makes it more potent as it bears the ring of possible truth. Jackson and co-director Costa Botes are also ably assisted by their crew (especially cameraman Alun Bollinger, who is asked to emulate nearly 80 years of cinematography technique and never misses a trick) and the cast (the actors in the silent segments capture the broad histrionics of D.W. Griffith-era filmmaking with commendable accuracy, and the contemporary interview subjects hit their marks just right). Forgotten Silver is crafted with so much attention to detail that it takes a fairly committed film buff to see through the surface and catch all the jokes, but anyone who loves movies will delight in it -- and if you take it at face value, it's still a fascinating story about a truly remarkable man. [Rob Gonsalves]

Together with Costa Botes, Peter Jackson pulled the wool over New Zealand's eyes with this pitch-perfect mockumentary, which clocks in at just under an hour and fooled a lot of viewers when it got aired on NZ television.

It's of course vastly more funny if you know it's all fake, though it'd be interesting to watch it with someone who's not in on the joke. The conceit is that Jackson, playing himself and narrating, has discovered some old reels of film in a shed — the lost works of New Zealand film pioneer Colin McKenzie, who according to Jackson did everything in movies before anyone else. We see copious examples of McKenzie's ouevre (personal favorite: the world's first tracking shot), all immaculately staged, shot, and probably personally trampled upon by Jackson himself to look like actual period footage. As if that weren't enough, Jackson brings in expert testimony from the likes of Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Weinstein, all of whom attest to McKenzie's visionary genius.

Quite aside from being perhaps the most elaborate prank in Jackson's career to date (or since), Forgotten Silver is a brilliant piece of moviemaking in and of itself; Jackson obviously relishes the opportunity to "re-enact" McKenzie's "work," dabbling in the language of silent film and paying tribute to the birth of cinema. This is easily the least-known must-see film in Jackson's filmography. Along with Heavenly Creatures (and, to a lesser extent, Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles), it proved Jackson's skill at creating an older or alien world so believable in every detail that you never question it (which may explain why so many New Zealanders fell for the hoax).

This, of course, would come in handy when it came time for Jackson to get to work on Middle-Earth.

DVD Savant [Glenn Erickson]


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Mondo Digital   also reviewing BRAIN DEAD and THE FRIGHTENERS


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Austin Chronicle [Marc Savlov]

New York Times (registration req'd)  Lawrence Van Gelder   



USA  New Zealand  (122 mi)  1996


Tucson Weekly [Stacey Richter]

Peter Jackson's follow-up after the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures is a surprisingly unambitious, B-style horror movie. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a "psychic investigator" who uses his genuine ability to commune with the dead to swindle the bereaved into using his services. Then a real, totally malevolent ghost shows up and begins knocking off townspeople left and right, and Bannister must finally use his powers for good. Part horror movie, part comedy, The Frighteners tries to play both ends against the middle and ends up not being consistently funny or consistently scary. The special effects are great though, and you can't beat that campy, seventies, B-movie feeling.

Mike D'Angelo

At last, a big-budget summer movie that actually delivers on its promise of entertaining escapist entertainment, without insulting the audience's intelligence in the process. While it's inevitably a bit of a disappointment, coming as it does on the heels of Jackson's staggeringly brilliant Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners is nonetheless first-rate goofy fun, marred only by a rather weak first act and a truly lame denouement (the final five minutes or so seem to have been imported from some other, considerably dumber summer movie...maybe that one with the tornadoes and Helen Hunt running around in a flimsy white tank top...can't remember what it was called...). And get this: the movie actually has a plot. You remember plots, don't you -- those sequences of events that keep you wondering what might happen next? (If you've forgotten, I can't say as I blame you, as it's been quite some time since a film with a budget this big featured one worth paying attention to.) Granted, it's a fairly derivative plot, incorporating elements from Ghostbusters, Ghost, The Shining, and various other supernatural flicks, but Jackson and his co-writer, Fran Walsh, manage to combine these influences into a surprisingly satisfying blend of over-the-top comedy and ghoulish horror. Ultimately, though, it's Jackson's inventive, kinetic, madcap direction that truly impresses; his visual panache, as always, is consistently exhilirating without ever becoming gratingly excessive. The film's climax, set in an abandoned hospital, is a tour-de-force of rhythm and motion, fluidly moving back and forth between past and present in breathtaking fashion. Best of all, Jackson knows how to use exciting special-effects technology without letting it run roughshod over the narrative; the effects are impressive, but they're also an integral part of a story that would still be of interest even with dime-store, cut-rate work in this department. (Would anyone have cared about Jurassic Park if the dinosaurs had been so-so?) Performances range from slightly-more-than-adequate (Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado) to dementedly inspired (Jeffrey Combs, whose fine low-key work in Re-Animator failed to prepare me for his hilarious histrionics as Milton, a very deranged FBI agent). Water in the desert, this one.

Philadelphia City Paper (Cindy Fuchs)

Peter Jackson's The Frighteners is a rare thing, an intelligent, funny, dynamic movie. It even has ideas. It also has Michael J. Fox, but really, that's okay here. As "psychic investigator" Frank Bannister, Fox gives a deft and understated performance, no small feat in a film where he's interacting with bluescreens more often than he is with people or even machines (just think of all the dopey drop-jawed reaction shots you've seen in recent special effects-heavy films, and you'll get a sense of what I mean).

Frank's con is a trendy one (post-Ghostbusters and post-X Files): after a near-death trauma some years ago (one which involved the death of his wife, for which he feels extremely guilty), he can see and communicate with ghosts. So he and three of them (played by Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe and John Astin) scam neighbors and newcomers alike: the ghosts make ooky noises and shake up household appliances, the afflicted homeowner calls Frank, and he — after a lively, thingamajiggy-jazzed performance — declares the place "clean," for a fee of course. (The team also has a side business in allowing grieving relatives to speak to the recently departed: Frank shamelessly passes out his cards at funerals.)

While all this might provide the entire plot of someone else's movie, for Jackson (whose previous films include Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures), it's only the beginning. Working from a story he wrote with his partner and wife, Frances Walsh, the filmmaker weaves unconventional characters, circumstances and pop cultural references — not to mention a completely delightful assortment of CGI-model bluescreen effects and beautifully conceived sets — into a kind of expedition across a weirdo mindscape. It's subjective but it's also drawing from a variety of obvious and non-obvious sources — ranging from Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger and Tales from the Crypt to Charles Manson, The Haunting, and Natural Born Killers, among others. The movie never stays still long enough to get predictable (except in its general romance frame, but what can you do?).

It's hard to distill the plot to a few lines, it twists and turns so continually. Suffice to say that it involves a haunted house (really haunted, not by Frank's crew), a social worker (Trini Alvarado) who is trying to help the woman (Dee Wallace Stone, who is perfect, and it's good to see her again) trapped in that house, a serial killer (Jake Busey), and a terrifically goony FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs, playing what might be called the anti-Mulder) hot on the trail of Frank, whom he believes to be a ruthless murderer. In other words, there's too much going on here to lay out in a straight line. The slides between past and present, between bodies (the ghosts here are constantly renegotiating their relationship to the material world), between life and death, all make the movie pretty much nonstop, culminating in an especially trippy final action sequence.

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Ted Prigge (Rich Rosell) DVD review [Jerry Renshaw]


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Read the New York Times Review »   Janet Maslin


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THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING               C+                   76

USA  New Zealand  (178 mi)  extended version  (208 mi)  2001  ‘Scope

My favorite moment of the entire epic saga, which was rewritten from the book, and occurs early in this first film when Gandalf notices Sam Gamgee lurking outside Frodo's window while he was explaining the dangerous history of the ring.  Asked what he heard, Sam blurts out:  "Nothing important.  That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, a Dark Lord, and something about the end of the world."


Michael Wilmington looks at the DVD from the Chicago Tribune (link lost):


J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" is one great literary achievement that reached the screen without being much altered, diminished or betrayed. Instead, Peter Jackson's faithful and elaborate three-film adaptation (comprising "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King") preserves and translates much of the original's fantasy and thrill, along with its huge Middle Earth canvas. The excitement is there and the supernatural beauty, but the complexity is there as well: the sense of a whole magical world opening up before us. Jackson's "Ring" (2001-2003) easily takes a place among the all-time best film adventure epics and, as far as I'm concerned, among the all-time best movies.

You might wonder, with this embarrassment of riches, which DVD issue of "Lord of the Rings" you should own. I'm fond of the old extended edition, with the director's cuts and numerous documentaries. But the new "The Lord of the Rings" Limited Edition set, featuring DVDs of all three films, deserves the nod. These editions contain both the original theatrical releases and the extended director's cut versions, as well as three newly released behind-the-scenes documentaries by Costa Botes ((star)(star)(star))--all shot cinema verite-style. Even if you've got one of the "Rings" DVD sets, these issues are pure magic.


HERE  Neil Young from Jigsaw Lounge

The Lord of the Rings : The Fellowship of the Ring is three hours of persuasive, exciting, heart-pounding, eye-popping, spectacular nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with epic entertainment, of course, but you have to wonder whether it’s worth lavishing so much time (theirs and ours), money, talent and effort on the fatuous 50-year-old mental doodlings of an Oxford don. Despite the moviemakers’ delusions of grandeur this is a project swollen with its own self-importance, taking its cue from old John – sorry, J R R – Tolkien himself, right from that impossible mouthful of a ten-word title.

Tolkien, of course, made no bones about his borrowing from Beowulf, Arthurian legend, Wagner’s Ring of the Valkyrie, Homer’s Odyssey and other sources to create his own legend as an excuse for a series of concocted languages and cultures. The book has been described as ‘an exercise in philology’ (the study of language), with the story pretty much secondary and arbitrary: Frodo Baggins (Wood) inherits an all-powerful ring from his cousin Bilbo (Holm). His wizard friend Gandalf (McKellen) realises that the ring must be destroyed before it can be reclaimed by its maker, the satanic Lord Sauron. But the ring can only be destroyed where it was made in Mordor, Sauron’s kingdom. Frodo and Gandalf set off on the perilous trek to Mordor, accompanied by hobbits Sam (Astin), Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davies), human warriors Boromir (Bean) and Aragorn (Mortensen) and elf archer Legolas (Bloom): the nine-strong Fellowship of the Ring…

‘Rings’ caused little stir on its first appearance back in the 1950s – Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ attracted much more interest and serious consideration. It was only when ‘Rings’ was re-issued in American paperback that it clicked with the same late-60s altered-states crowd that turned 2001 into a blockbuster, and its influence on impressionable prog-rock musicians was immediate and profound. For years it lingered quietly on in the shadowy world of Dungeons&Dragons fantasy-game playing - until now. But no matter how dramatically Jackson shifts his characters between The Shire, Rivendell, Moria and Mordor, these are all suburbs of the same grim territory: Squaresville.

Watching Fellowship is like being teleported into a series of Roger Dean mid-70s prog-rock album covers, with the occasional foray into the sulphuric world of their bastard cousins, the sleeves of heavy metal LPs. In movie terms, it’s like alternating between Ridley Scott’s Legend and Michael Mann’s The Keep, except with worse music. Tolkien – whose fantasy is strictly Anglo-Saxon – would have hated the movie’s relentless Celtic pan-pipes soundtrack, but they’re perfect for the soft-rock mood Jackson wants to create: the end-credits song is written and performed by Enya, who’s about as far from the cutting edge of music as it’s possible to get.

Jackson pulls off some impressive visual feats in Rings – in conjunction with the amazing sets crafted by his collaborators, and the equally amazing New Zealand countryside, crafted by God, but that doesn’t make him a visual stylist, much less any kind of cinematic visionary. He’s more of a crazed enthusiast, closer to the rough edges of Kevin Smith’s Dogma than, say, the loopy surrealism of David Lynch’s Dune. There’s no shortage of amateurish moments when his excitement gets the better of him, including a hilarious Jackson-on-mushrooms sequence where he humiliates Cate Blanchett (as Elf queen Galadriel) by having her float in the air while electric-blue lights zip and pop like something out of a bad Toyah Willcox video.

While the other actors avoid such embarrassment, it’s painful to watch classically-trained performers like McKellen, Holm and Bean dignifying Tolkien’s dialogue by treating it like Shakespearean battle poetry. No such problems with Christopher Lee – he’s been mouthing this kind of portentous nonsense for six decades, and actually thinks it’s good, important, psychologically intricate material. In fact, Rings has no more depth than Harry Potter, which, for all its faults, never took itself this seriously. As a movie, Rings is a more exciting experience – the opening battle against Sauron and the climactic confrontation with the demon Balrog in the ruins of Moria, are genuinely stunning moments. But to be the truly great film some viewers and critics have hailed, shouldn’t Rings do as much for the mind as it does for the eyes and the nerves?

If anything, the movie is anti-thought: the more you think about it, the worse it gets. Leaving aside the very dodgy racial angle, Tolkien’s fable is an anxiety dream about the industrialisation of the British countryside – specifically, the growth of Birmingham, which Tolkien feared was about to engulf his idyllic home village of Sarehole. Rural = good, urban = bad is Rings’ fundamental message, with the hobbits as caricatures of English peasantry, their twee countryside threatened by the brutal, tree-destroying Orcs. But neither Tolkien nor Jackson seem to have thought any of this through.

And if Fellowship of the Ring actually is about anything, shouldn’t it at least be about fellowship? If so, who does Sam, who’s supposedly Frodo’s best friend and no kind of social inferior, keeps calling him ‘Mister Frodo’ all the time like he’s some kind of servant flunkey. At the end, after the pair have been through all manner of tribulations, Sam says it again - Frodo turns round with an understanding smile on his face and we think: at last, he’s going to say ‘Sam, just call me Frodo’. But no: “I’m glad you’re with me, Sam,” is all he can manage. As the credits roll and Enya’s warblings fill the cinema, you find yourself hating Frodo, Elijah Wood, Peter Jackson, John Tolkien, and everyone else involved in the whole damn palaver. Even as you impatiently start wondering what’s going to happen next.

The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]

"Much that once was is lost" is the poignant opening phrase in Peter Jackson's long-awaited, mega-million-dollar production of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Absent fidelity may be less the issue than temps perdu—there's an elegiac tone to this lavish first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's cult trilogy.

Robustly ranging from the cozy nook of a hobbit's parlor to the blasted pitch-pots of darkest Mordor, visualizing Nordic elves and subhuman, blue-faced orcs, staging wizard wars with the panache of a Hong Kong master and building slowly to a boffo ending, Peter Jackson's adaptation is certainly successful on its own terms. Like the animated skeletons in a Ray Harryhausen adventure flick, the relics have come to life. With the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, American critics of a particular age (and possibly gender) have their own Harry Potter.

Indeed, watching the smoky, twisted images of the computer-generated masses in hand-to-hand combat with decomposing goblins or listening to the wit and wisdom of Gandalf the Grey (an unrecognizable Ian McKellen), I was forced to acknowledge the degree to which Tolkien's imaginary universe had impressed itself on my 12-year-old brain—and, despite the timeless struggle between good and evil, how little that mattered to me now. For me, the trilogy's appeal was exemplified by its maps, the invented languages, and the hundred pages of appendices at the back of the final volume. Unlike C.S. Lewis's Narnia, Tolkien's Middle Earth has no discernible religion. The book itself is a sacred text—which is to say, it proposes the world as a text, a literary analogue to the abstract pleasures found in the purely statistical universe of baseball.

Back in the day, the whole idea of a Lord of the Rings movie would have seemed a desecration. Where Ralph Bakshi's ill-fated and largely forgotten animated version lacked gravitas, Jackson has marshaled all manner of digital wizardry in the service of Tolkien's pre-technological fantasy of doughty little creatures defeating the forces of absolute evil. The effects are more literal than literary and less archaic than newfangled. Utopia exists: Not only have Ian Holm, who plays Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood, as his nephew Frodo, been reduced to an imaginary hobbit height of three feet, but Liv Tyler's Elvish princess seems to have enjoyed some sort of virtual liposuction. Indeed, impossible crane shots notwithstanding, everything feels visually enhanced. Even the unnaturally green and rolling New Zealand landscape has seemingly been improved with impossible gorges and canyons.

Although the Elvish settlement of Rivendell resembles an Alpine ski lodge for garden gnomes, and the more rustic Elves of Mirkwood would appear to dwell in a kind of tree house expansion of the Enchanted Tiki Room, the movie only rarely achieves a sense of kitsch grandeur—as in the image of colossal statues in the river mist. More often, it's a cluttered attic of cloying pre-Raphaelite visual notions. The equivalent of Tolkien's often turgid descriptions, a single Jackson image is likely to include falling leaves, cascading water, and streaming sunlight (not to mention the sound of panpipes in the gloaming). The strongest sequence is virtually monochromatic, for being set amid the ruined columns of a vast underground city.

The phantom zone where Frodo finds himself whenever he slips on the sinister ring he is charged to destroy is similarly restrained—a blurry, blustery realm of negative images. I was amused to see that these include noisily suggestive cutaways to the fiery slit of doom that is the object of the quest, but then I'm no longer a believer. (My faith was shaken back in high school when I flippantly referred to The Lord of the Rings as the greatest novel of the 20th century and a friend's older brother asked if I was talking about The Magic Mountain.) Still, it's a religion I remember, particularly as a spell cast over the more fanciful wing of the '60s counterculture. What happened to those "Frodo Lives" pins, the anti-war graffiti written in Elvish, the underground newspapers with names like Gandalf's Garden, the fey psychedelic troubadours singing songs of Middle Earth?

The metaphors were surely relevant. I doubt I'm the only one to survive a lysergic experience in which the world was unpleasantly divided between hobbits and orcs or who recognized Richard Nixon as some sort of miserable Gollum. How much fun it would have been to see a real desecration of Tolkien that periodized the trilogy's cosmic adventures by having them played out inside the brain of some acid-ripped hippie—the Fellowship leaving the snug communes of northern Vermont on a perilous mission to cast the "ring of power" into the boiler of some fetid East Village basement. But that would defeat the entire concept of timeless fantasy.

In the essay "On Fairy-stories," written in the late '30s at the time that the idea for The Lord of the Rings was taking shape, Tolkien argued that "the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds was the heart of the desire of Faërie." Some will surely find a parallel between Tolkien's cosmic struggle and our own current crusade, but reference to this world is the last thing that The Fellowship of the Ring wishes to make.

Fellowship of the Ring  Phil Cooper from Bright Lights Film Journal


World Socialist Web Site  Margaret Rees


Slant Magazine  Ed Gonzalez


DVD Verdict  Bill Gibron [Tor Thorsen]


PopMatters  Todd R. Ramlow


Deep Focus (Bryant Frazer)


Bright Lights Film Journal (Phil Cooper)


AboutFilm [Carlo Cavagna]


DVD Times  Eamonn McCusker [Stephanie Zacharek]


James Berardinelli's ReelViews


The Q Network Film Desk [James Kendrick]


The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review  Richard Scheib


Combustible Celluloid [Jeffrey M. Anderson]


feature  Sam Adams from Philadelphia City Paper


Looking Closer (Jeffrey Overstreet)


Nick's Flick Picks (Nick Davis)


Flipside Movie Emporium (Gauti Fridriksson)


Flipside Movie Emporium (Rob Vaux)


The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias] (John Nesbit)


Dark Horizons (Garth Franklin)


Film as Art - Capsule reviews for all three films  Danél Griffin


Behind the making of The Lord of the Rings  John Braddock from the World Socialist Website


Washington Post [Rita Kempley]


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Read the New York Times Review »   Elvis Mitchell


DVD Times [Extended Edition]  Chris Kaye review - Extended Edition [Holly E. Ordway] DVD review [Mary Kalin-Casey]  Extended Edition


THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  THE TWO TOWERS                C-                    67

USA  New Zealand  Germany  (179 mi)  extended version (223 mi)  2002  ‘Scope


more rampant carnage


The Nation (Stuart Klawans)

Can't prestige be coupled with something invigorating, like box-office clout? It can be, and it is in The Two Towers, the new installment of the immensely popular, award-winning The Lord of the Rings. I confess I was less than thrilled by the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, which amounted to a long series of fights and battles, interrupted by episodes of sexless mooning. The Two Towers is better, if only because it's got a single big battle, which it saves till the end. It's also brightened by the introduction of Gollum (voice of Andy Serkis), a pathetic, wasted creature who once possessed the evil Ring. Whenever Gollum struggles with his conscience, the movie twitches into life. For the most part, though, The Two Towers is preoccupied only with inanimate forces: the flood of water that engulfs a wizard's tower, or the flood of pixels that pour across the screen as computer-generated armies. I began to wonder, as the waves crashed about: Is it still possible for a movie to get excited about people?

Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

The Empire Strikes Back notwithstanding, the middle parts of trilogies don't have the best of reputations, composed as they are mainly of connective tissue, the bits that fall inbetween the introduction and the conclusion. It's no surprise that the characters in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers spend an awful lot of time walking. Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) spend at least an hour of screen-time being carried through the forest by an ambulatory tree (known to Tolkien fans and crossword buffs as an Ent), while more intrepid Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) make it all the way to the gates of the dread forest Mordor before backing off and circling around to try an alternate route.

Even if you're not familiar with the scope of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, this can't come as much of a surprise. Having decided in The Fellowship of the Ring that all their hopes rest on the success of Frodo's quest to drop the ring of power into the molten heart of Mount Doom, destroying it and the dark lord Sauron with it, the characters have but one objective -- which is to say if they actually made it all the way to Mount Doom in part two, all that would be left for part three would be three hours of people standing around going, "Whew, that was a close one." But the reduced burden of plot actually allows The Two Towers to be a better realized and more satisfying experience than its predecessor (even in the superior, more leisurely version released on DVD). For all the sorcery and swordplay -- and, it should be noted, The Two Towers has plenty of both -- what the film really offers us is a chance to inhabit Tolkien's world, which this time we get to do without worrying about how we got there or where we're going next.

If you look back at the movie's end, you may realize that very little has happened to the major characters, but it's hardly likely to occur to you while you're watching the movie. It begins with a great bang, a dream flashback to Gandalf's demise, this time expanded to show the frail-looking wizard plummeting through space, grabbing a sword out of the air and hacking at the flaming Balrog as they both descend. And it ends with one, too: the battle to protect the human stronghold of Helms Deep, which in the book occupies only a few dozen pages, but is here expanded to occupy most of the movie's last hour, in one of the most elaborate and complex battle sequences ever committed to film. Since all three films were shot concurrently, there's no noticeable difference in style, but the digital effects, which progress one film at a time, are noticeably improved, particularly when it comes to Gollum, the shrivelled creature who once held the ring, and has been reduced to a reptilian hulk by its loss. Entirely digital (though based on the movements of actor Andy Serkis), Gollum seems nearly as real as the furry-footed hobbits he shares scenes with -- which is to say, real enough, but not too much so. And in essence, that's the secret to Jackson's approach, emphasizing the physical combat and military maneuvering without losing the historical and ecological underpinnings of Tolkien's tale. None of the great films are epics, but this is about as good as they get. [Tor Thorsen]

When it comes to making trilogies, the second film is always the hardest. While they often contain plenty of conflict and complications, they can't offer any final resolutions. Repetition is also a problem — while some background info is needed to bring newcomers up to speed, filmmakers can't waste too much of well-informed series fans' time for fear of boring them.

The best solution is to hit the ground running. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers literally does, joining three of the Fellowship of the Ring's protagonists — the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) — as they sprint into the rolling hills of Rohan, a kingdom of noble cavalrymen. They're hot on the heels of a group of fearsome Uruk-hai orcs who kidnapped two hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), in Fellowship's finale.

However, instead of catching up to the wee abductees, the trio runs into the middle of a full-fledged war. The malevolent wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), creator of the Uruk-hai, is now openly allied with the dark lord Sauron, the once-omnipotent forger of the ring of power. While the latter is still massing his armies in the wasteland of Mordor, the former is on the move, dispatching a group of wild barbarians to burn Rohan's outlying villages. A 10,000-strong phalanx of Uruk-hai is also marching on the realm's capital, Edoras, the not-so-restful locale where Aragorn and his companions find themselves.

Meanwhile, hobbits Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are trudging toward Mordor and the completion of their mission, the destruction of the ring in the volcano of Mount Doom. However, their journey is slow-going and treacherous, even though the feared Ringwraiths are gone (at first, anyway) and there isn't an orc in sight. That's because the ring is beginning to take hold over Frodo, draining energy from the short-statured hero's stout heart. He's also beginning to obsess over the accursed bauble, stroking it with his fingers and staring at it throughout the night.

Frodo's fascination with the ring pales in comparison to that of Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis and based on his on-set movements), the twisted creature from whom Bilbo Baggins originally stole it. Seen only momentarily in Fellowship, the computer-generated character emerges from the shadows here. Unlike The Phantom Menace's poo-poo-joke-spouting abomination Jar-Jar Binks, Gollum delivers a full-fledged dramatic performance. On one hand, he's a poor wretch, his body withered and mind poisoned by centuries of contact with the ring. On the other, he's a devious psychopath, laying murderous plots to separate Frodo from his malevolent cargo. These two sides clash in brilliantly edited, schizophrenic internal dialogues during which Gollum's good and bad personalities argue, Raising Cain-style, as though they were different people. Although the CG creature isn't always 100% convincing in medium shots, in these close-ups, he's totally mesmerizing.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Two Towers, Frodo's and Aragorn's tales are told separately in its first and second halves. In the film, co-writer/director Peter Jackson alternates between the plots, but ultimately gives the latter primacy. Hobbit-spotters may be disappointed by the ring-bearer's decreased role. However, this decision allows for spectacular amounts of action, particularly during the battle of Helm's Deep. Although it only took up a few pages in the book, the clash is the film's climax, a full 45 minutes of orc-hewing, elf-skewering action which make Gladiator's opening skirmish look like a Pee-wee soccer game. The battle is even more suspenseful because Jackson shows exactly what's at stake — hundreds of cowering refugees — and how long the odds are: a few hundred men against a snarling horde of bloodthirsty monsters.

There are plenty of other examples of effects wizardry besides Gollum and Helm's Deep. The film opens with a jaw-dropping continuation of the fight between the Balrog and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) which knocked the wizard down, but didn't necessarily take him out. Viewers get to see the impregnable gates of Mordor, the nattily dressed new villains the Easterlings, the seven-story-tall war pachyderms called Oliphaunts, and a group of old nemeses who return astride even more terrifying mounts. The film also introduces the Ents, a group of mighty tree-creatures straight out of a lumberjack's nightmare. Although their slow-moving gait looks odd (and elicited some chuckles from the crowd), these woodland guardians are depicted exactly as described in Tolkien's book — a testament to Jackson and his design team's dedication to the author's vision.

However, while Two Towers' imagery is true to Tolkien's Middle-earth, there are several story changes which have purists grumbling. The most jarring for this reviewer was the portrayal of Faramir (David Wenham), the brother of fallen Fellowship member Boromir (the sorely missed Sean Bean). When he encounters Frodo in the book, he's downright nice to the poor fellow; in the film, Faramir is as power-mad as his brother, tying up the hobbits and threatening to take the ring for himself. This might make for better character development, but Faramir fans will find the change jarring, to say the least.

The film's other main shortcoming is its pace. Although the build-up to Helm's Deep is methodical, the rest of Two Towers feels rushed, as though New Line Cinema's bean-counters wouldn't let Jackson out of the editing suite until he had a running time under three hours. Even though the final cut is only one minute shy of that goal, some important scenes feel truncated. This is especially true at the end of the Helm's Deep scene, where a pivotal event — one that would have showcased some dazzling combat — is missing. A stunning battle at the foot of Isengard, Saurman's lair, is also cut short, apparently saving the very end for the next installment. While the extended DVD version of Fellowship felt a bit bloated at times, the longer cut of Two Towers will probably feel just right.

However, these faults are dwarfed by Two Towers' achievements. Visually breathtaking, viscerally exciting, and dramatically moving, it's the very definition of epic adventure. Jackson has always said that The Lord of the Rings isn't so much a trilogy as it is a nine-hour film, and Rings-lovers who take the time to watch Fellowship before seeing Towers will find the transition seamless. Helping to no end are the cast's performances, which deliver vital dramatic continuity, and no star shines brighter than Mortensen as Aragorn. Delivering his lines with Shakespearean passion and Wagnerian grandeur, the actor transforms from brooding beefcake to mythic figure. Watching him shout a defiant battle cry into the snarling faces of thousands of orcs, there's little doubt about about the identity of the titular monarch in Return of the King.

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THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  THE RETURN OF THE KING                        B                     83

USA  New Zealand  Germany  (201 mi)  extended version (251 mi)  2003  ‘Scope


Despite the obvious attention to detail, the natural settings, the set design, especially the look of immortality expressed by the world of the elves, always shot in a glowing, shimmering light, like a world of angels at play under the moonlight contrasted against the warlike swords and novel uses of armor, my biggest surprise in Lord of the Rings, other than the discovery in the opening of Pt III that Gollum was once a man, was that so much of it was about Sam, and not one of the more athletic "star" figures.  Despite the epic battles, the legendary myth and lore, the endless battle sequences of human slaughter wrapped in superhuman strengths and spectacular imagery, this is really Sam's journey, a simple man who is called upon to endure one disaster after the next, yet is expected to maintain his bearings and all sense of reason. In the end, he's a good man surrounded in mythological subtext designed to take our eyes off him, but he is one of us.  Like Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio, Sam is Frodo's conscience, a constant reminder of why they've left everything behind and must go on their perilous journey, against all odds, and why they have no choice – they must succeed.  It's significant that this is not the voice of a wizard or a warrior, or a person possessing amazing traits, but simply an ordinary man (or Hobbit) that is willing to sacrifice all to protect a friend. 


Another surprise was that so few of the original Fellowship died, only 2, and one, Gandalf, came back to life.  Throughout all the incessant battle sequences of the 2nd and 3rd films, none of the others lost their lives.  Had they, as they did in SEVEN SAMURAI or THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which certainly came to mind in comparison, it might have put into perspective the arduous journey at the end for Frodo and Sam, where they were so exhausted they could only crawl ("like insects"), and even then only in short bursts.  If those around them in the original Fellowship had paid a price with their lives, their final efforts may have felt more desperate, like a last breath of hope before life was extinguished altogether.  But it never felt that way.  Instead, they were like super heroes who were immune to death.  Even the elf that got shot in battle protecting the White City had little to worry about, as elves are immortal.


Peter Jackson utilized the same stereotypical imagery of John Ford's vision of battle personified by his Westerns, begun in 1939 with STAGECOACH, where whites are surrounded by "savage" Indians, and every shot by whites knocks an Indian off their horse, and sometimes knocks the horse down as well – all with a single shot, while the hordes of savages, who greatly outnumber the whites, rarely hit their target.  Throughout decades of westerns, this exact same pattern reoccurs again and again.  Likewise in Lord of the Rings, the blond elf (Legolas) never runs out of arrows, never misses his target, always kills a foe, and never receives so much as a scratch in return.  More laughable in my eyes were scenes after scenes where soldiers on horses rode into throngs of the enemy on foot, on battlefields as well as narrow bridges, and the enemy just dropped like flies, falling in all directions, while none of these riders was ever pulled off a horse, or had their horses brought down.  I don't believe the book would be guilty of this same over-exaggeration which typifies an unintended depiction of racist superiority of one race over another.  The grotesque and disfigured look of the enemy all too much resembled H.G. Wells's depiction of the Island of Lost Souls.


In this film, the horrors of war, where all is lost and certain death appears imminent is immediately replaced with wish fulfillment, like the arrival of the wizard who resembles the cavalry ("Look for me at dawn – look to the East!") and instant victory occurs.  This sudden turnaround was so amazing that the rotating battle sequences, especially in Part II, become inconsequential.  For my part, having never read the book, I couldn't tell who was fighting who, who captured the 2 Hobbits or who captured Frodo.  And while I understood the obvious metaphor of the talking trees as earth, the wearying back and forth editing from intense scenes of certain death in battle on the one hand to a leisurely paced conversation of a couple of Hobbits talking to trees felt all too ludicrous after awhile.  (In battle, the trees resembled the Apple Bonkers in YELLOW SUBMARINE).  Similarly, the importance placed on destroying the ring, where evil will be wiped off the face of the earth, is so overly simplistic that it discounts all the other human factors that contribute to disagreements, dissatisfaction, and war.  Yes, this is a fantasy adventure story, perhaps spawned by how quickly humans surrendered their free will to the advancing age of industrialization (what, are we expected to return to the era of the Amish?), but if we think of the ring as an inevitable force that threatens to take away our freedom, I can think of a few living forces placed in leadership positions in our own country that are guilty of the same.  Not all leaders are the personification of evil, nor are their destructive influences so easily wiped off the face of the earth.  Some are just petty and make poor decisions, usually based on narrow interests and greed, yet we have to learn to live with these collective forces of poor judgment and wisdom all wrapped into one earth, a highly volatile and constantly changing equation, as things are not so rosy even in times of no war. 


Some interesting similarities between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings:


Harry and Ron resemble Frodo and Sam

Dobby resembles Gollum

Dumbledore and Gandalf  

Voldemort and his evil minions are like Sauron and the Dark Lord, with his legion of spies

The Flying Dementors and the Dark Riders, especially the Black Captain on the Winged Nazgul

Aragos in the Forest of Spiders and Shelob in his Cave

Buckbeak the Hippogrif and the Flying Eagles

Harry's invisibility cloak and the ringbearers invisibility

Sirius Black fights to save Harry as Aragorn fights to save Frodo

The Order of the Phoenix and the Fellowship of the Ring  

The healing power of the Phoenix tears and the healing power of the world of the elves, which keeps out evil

The back and forth struggle between good & evil taking place inside the scarred souls of Professor Snape and Gollum, both eventually succumbing to evil

The Sorcerer's Stone and the Ring, which make Nicholas Flimel and Bilbo Baggins ageless, yet both must eventually be destroyed

The invented language, the parsel tongue language of snakes and the subtitled language of the elves

Harry carries the scar of Voldemort on his forehead while Frodo feels the effects of his Spider wound for the rest of his life

Both feature themes of the old vs. the young, the ageless wisdom of wizards vs. the journeys and adventures of the young

Both feature recurring themes of rescues at the moment of peril, while at stake is the doom of the entire world


DVD Times - Extended Edition   Mike Sutton in #5 Posted Comment from DVD Times

I personally think the LOTR trilogy is vastly overrated and well made without being particularly interesting. They're impressive adaptations in the sense of being close to the books but there's no real cinematic imagination put into them, certainly not in the sense that Fritz Lang reimagines Norse myth in his Siegfried films. The secret of great adaptation lies in how well the filmmaker can escape the confines of the book rather than simply recreating it on screen - and the incredibly badly edited "Return" demonstrates how Jackson can't do that.

I can think of several cinematic trilogies which are infinitely better in every respect - John Ford's majestic "Cavalry Trilogy', the Bergman "Trilogy of Faith", the Leone 'Dollars' trilogy immediately spring to mind. There's not a single moment in Jackson's films to match any of them.

Would you care to explain what makes any of the LOTR films better than, say, "Winter Light" or "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?"

Lessons of Darkness [Nick Schager]

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I don't have adequate time to give Peter Jackson's mesmerizing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King its due. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to extol, however briefly, the virtues of this series' awe-inspiring finale. Jackson culminates his trilogy in grand style, elevating the film's central clash between good and evil to majestic heights not reached in the story's first two installments. While the film gorgeously intertwines grand spectacle (the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields) with intimate human drama (Sam, Frodo, and Gollum's ascent up Mount Doom to dispatch the One Ring of Power), what's truly spectacular is the way in which the film seems bestowed with near-biblical import. The war between man and Orc is nothing less than a holy crusade for the fate of civilization, and it's hard not to see echoes of the United States' current predicament in Middle Earth's cataclysmic crisis. Not to say that The Return of the King succeeds because of its topicality. Whether it's the haggard desperation of Elijah Wood's Frodo, the courageous determination of Sean Astin's Sam, the cunning malevolence of Gollum, the regal serenity of Ian McKellen's Gandalf, or the stubborn pluckiness of Miranda Otto's Eowyn, the film imbues its central conflicts with mythic timelessness. With the surprising exception of Viggo Mortensen -- who, as the titular ruler, is given little to do but react to those around him with dull resolve -- the cast's performances are all charming. Still, the film belongs to Jackson, whose swift and dexterous direction recalls, in its enormous size and scope, the work of Lean and Griffith. Using a combination of on-the-ground hand-held photography and swooping crane and airborne shots (the best of which zoom around and under the titanic, Mastodon-like beasts used by Sauron's armies), Jackson thrillingly immerses us within the frenetic combat. I'm not wholly convinced that The Return of the King is the year's best film, but there's no doubt that Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is one of the modern cinema's crowning achievements.

The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]

The most hallucinatory of war films, The Return of the King concludes the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a burst of smoky grandeur. As our suffering Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful Sam (Sean Astin), and the grotesque Gollum (Andy Serkis) continue on their mission behind enemy lines, Gondor is besieged. Will the United Nations of Middle Earth be too late? As a wizard tells an elf—or is it vice versa?—it's "the great battle of our time."

Be that as it may, Peter Jackson's hobbit epic is certainly the greatest feat of pop movie magic since Titanic—albeit more boy's tale than romance. Speaking as a deprogrammed, once-upon-a-time Tolkien cultist, I imagine that fans will be ecstatic. The multifarious characters all come to fruition; even if the movie hadn't had the mystical good fortune to coincide with the wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, its complex mythology would still have the inevitability (and superior CGI) of a perfect storm. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it's fruitless to point out that Jackson's magnum opus is hermetic and overdetermined, lacking the visionary chutzpah and demented social energy that characterized the great pulp fantasies created by Fritz Lang in the 1920s, Die Nibelungen and Metropolis.

What else is there to compare this to? The Matrix trilogy imploded; the Star Wars series seems but a pale Tinkertoy Tolkien imitation. For three and a half hours, Jackson deploys multitudes of digital and digitally enhanced creatures—not just orcs and ents, but dive-bombing pterodactyls, Humvee mega mastodons, dragonic battering rams, lava ogres, and the scariest spider that ever spun a web. Conflict is eternal. The extravagant battle scenes are spiced with flash-forward telepathies and enlivened by stray shards of character psychology: Gollum's divided consciousness, Frodo's anxious paranoia, the filial conflict between the grand grouch of Gondor (John Noble) and his son Faramir (David Wenham), the fiery torch carried for Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) by the amazon Rohan babe (Miranda Otto).

Look, don't listen. (Aragorn's Agincourt speech is not exactly Shakespeare.) And, as Pippin learns from the peep stone, don't look at anything too long ere it begins to look back. The natural wonders of New Zealand notwithstanding, Jackson's visuals have a fusty, storybook quality. The besieged citadel Minas Tirith is a splendid Dubrovnik-like stone city, but in more contemplative moments, the production design tends toward the chintzy. The elf forest has the feel of an emptied-out tropical resort; the interiors have the cloying quality of a Victorian faerie painting. Yet, with four or five narratives to follow, there probably hasn't been so much parallel action in any movie since the Birth of a Nation or even Intolerance. It's so addictive that The Return of the King suffers when it returns to ordinary two-story suspense—not that the climactic cataclysm isn't suitably colossal, as the Black Tower crumbles, the Black Land collapses, Mount Doom erupts, and the Great Eye explodes.

In short, this Krakatoa is at once exhausting and riveting. It's a technological marvel, and for those not with the program, a bit of a bore. And that's before the interminable farewells, Celtic airs, longing looks, Shire celebrations, and expeditions into a New Age sea of light that make up the lugubrious closer. The Ring trilogy may be fiercely chaste, but its hobbituary denouement is gayer than anything in Angels in America. Now, there's a scenario worthy of Lang. Watching Angels on TV, I couldn't help but wonder how many people might be prepared to graduate from Tolkien's millennial fantasy to Kushner's.

Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

To say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a singular accomplishment in movie history is almost too timid praise; there are many things that have only been done once, and in many cases, it was one time too many. Likewise to say that it’s the great commercial trilogy of our day: There are decongestant commercials I’d sooner re-watch than all the Star Wars or Matrix movies. It may be exaggerating to say that Peter Jackson and his cast and crew of thousands have redefined the rules of moviemaking, but it’s probably closer to the truth, and if a three-film, nine-hour saga doesn’t inspire a bit of exaggeration, something has gone horribly wrong.

It's possible to single out sequences, like The Two Towers' breathtaking battle of Helm's Deep, or The Return of the King's equally stunning assault on the last human stronghold of Minas Tirith, or performances, like Sean Astin's surprisingly moving turn as the faithful hobbit Samwise, or the mind-blowing blend of computer animation and Andy Serkis' performance that brings tactile life to the malicious but tormented Gollum. But above all, the Rings cycle is a triumph of careful construction, an elaborate jigsaw puzzle whose pieces fall magically into place. (Compare the blithering incoherence of the simultaneously shot Matrix sequels.) And yet, like a jigsaw puzzle, completion becomes almost redundant after a certain point, and you know just how things will look in the end.

Having hit its stride with The Two Towers, the series continues apace with The Return of the King, whose three-hour, 20-minute running time shows the extent to which the DVD "extended editions" have colored Peter Jackson's approach to editing -- and even then, the film arrives with reports that a nine-minute prologue featuring Christopher Lee and Brad Dourif was cut at the last minute. (It will, of course, be on the DVD.) With the twists already twisted, the exposition exposed, there's not much left to do except suit up and dive in, and The Return of the King wastes no time (well, not much) before the first swords are crossed. As in the Helm's Deep sequence, the defense of Minas Tirith flawlessly balances hand-to-hand combat and battlefield tactics, never losing sight of the characters or the overall struggle. In the midst of a massive onslaught by Orcs and mercenary humans, there's still time for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to climb a lumbering beast, dispatch the enemies from its back, slay the creature, then slide down its trunk as it crashes to the ground. It's the sheer audacity of such stunts that makes you cry out in joy, but it's the sense of the overall battle that makes you feel like you're not just being taken for a ride.

Still, The Return of the King seems to retreat somewhat from the moral complexity of The Two Towers. While that movie saw Frodo (Elijah Wood) being ever more tempted by the power of the ring he is charged to destroy, and Gollum and his schizophrenic better half, Smeagol, battle for control, The Return of the King draws the battle lines more clearly. Even the traitorous spirits Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) calls on for aid opt to join humanity for one last battle, while the humans who fight for the evil eye, Sauron, remain distant, masked figures. Jackson and his many collaborators have given us the battle to end all battles, but the battle between good and evil which the movie ultimately depicts has no real ending.

Any fantasy series that externalizes our internal demons ultimately dead-ends in the same cul-de-sac: How do you proclaim victory over something that we know will never be vanquished? (I mean, without lying.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer approached the subject in its final season, then turned away. Harry Potter may owe some of his power to Voldemort's sting, but it remains to be seen how close J.K. Rowling will bring the young wizard and his malignant counterpart in the final two installments. The Return of the King opens with a recapitulation of Gollum's story, how the once-lighthearted creature named named Smeagol was seduced and deformed by the ring's chance discover. But by the final scene's he's reduced to pure antagonism, a grasping caricature. The movie's lengthy postscript ends in a surprising place, with the simplest of characters, suggesting that all the great struggles we've seen were fought in defense not of some overarching good, but the ability to live a simple, undisturbed life. It's the perfect grace note, undercutting the story's mythic dimensions and replacing them with domestic needs. It isn't evil that's been defeated, it's instability.

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KING KONG                                                             C                     75

USA  Germany  New Zealand  (187 mi)  2005  ‘Scope


The film that inspired Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker, where the story has it after watching the movie on television when he was 9, he woke up the next day and began making models, turning his own updated version into something along the lines of an Indiana Jones adventure story, where much of the look of the landscape feels as if you are at Disneyland wandering around one of the artificially designed set pieces, a special effects bonanza, where the director obviously got carried away with the buckets of money he was given to make this film, so much of it is overdone to the point of excess, some of it downright ridiculous, as so much is over the top, but in the quiet moments, which were few, it works wonderfully.  The Fay Wray part was extended and reconceptualized with Naomi Watts, where she plays a down on her luck burlesque performer during the Depression, her face seen through a reflection on a sidewalk window glass by safari adventure photographer Jack Black, who dreams of making a film on the never discovered Skull Island, an unchartered island that remains perpetually “out of time,” a place where compasses and navigational equipment don’t work.  Black obtained a kind of treasure map which led him to this journey, where he brings Naomi Watts along for the ride.
The opening sequence on the island is creepy and scary, beginning with a ridiculous move by Black to offer a piece of chocolate candy to a horrid looking native child, believing everything will be under control.  So of course, all hell breaks loose as they are attacked by almost zombie-like decrepit-looking humans that could be hundreds of years old.  These are the black-skinned, nose and face pierced, face painted native inhabitants, who could just as easily eat you as look at you.  But the boat crew arrives with guns to clear the way.  But Naomi has escaped in the night to the thunderous sound of drums with Kong.  The journey to find her leads to a stampede of dinosaurs, where men are running underneath them in a scene resembling INDIANA JONES (1984), but also the stampede sequence of LION KING (1994).  Instead of stepping to the side, they continue to run underneath where they can easily get squashed.  Surprisingly, all but a few survived.  Meanwhile, Watts inexplicably decides to perform her burlesque act in front of Kong as a means of pleasure and amusement, which leads to a huge temper tantrum when she stops.  But that’s the last of his bad moods, as Kong fights off a series of dinosaurs, perhaps a half-dozen or more, including three at once, all with Watts in his hand, switching her back and forth as he crushes skulls, breaks jaws, swings them around like a wrestler, throwing them against the rocks, even socking them square in the jaw.  Only at the end of this prolonged sequence does Watts realize she’s safer with him than without him.  Kong looks at her like, what do I have to do for you to pay attention to me, and walks off in a huff.  She yells after him, “Hey, wait for me,” and runs after him where he scoops her up and throws her on his shoulder as he thunders through the jungle. 
Meanwhile, the boys from the ship, with all their weapons, have their hands full with the dinosaurs and bugs, including a swamp sequence where giant sucking creatures swoop down atop a man’s head and suck him in, something right out of Alien (1979), or another giant roach eating sequence that is really gross, where machine gun bullets wipe them off of human bodies, without so much as a scratch to the humans.  What aim!  And this from a kid who has never fired a gun before, who throws it away afterwards like it’s tainted goods.  Again, the crew from the boat save the day with still more weapons, most all of whom survive, but oddly, all are on one side of a canyon while Adrien Brody, the supposed script writer and romantic interest (showing zero chemistry), the only man who actually cares about saving Watts, is on the other.  So he sets off alone into the jungle to find her.  Within a few film seconds, he amazes us by finding the exact spot where they have laid down for the night to snooze, a spot perched high over the entire valley with the river below and the sun setting far away.  ”It’s beautiful,” Watts repeats to Kong, attempting to humanize his feelings.  Brody finds her, and as Kong awakes pissed off, catching him stealing his girl, giant flying bats decide at that moment to descend upon Kong in droves, distracting him sufficiently while Brody and Watts can escape, grabbing hold of giant bat wings and descending to the bottom of the canyon falling safely into the water — another one of the ridiculous moments.  The beauty of the original King Kong (1933) is in its simplicity, where the cutting edge special effects were a marvel of invention at the time and continue to elicit awe and amazement well into the next century.  If Jackson’s film causes audiences to revisit the original, it can be viewed as a success.         


Needless to say, Kong is on them within seconds, and purely by accident they are able to subdue to beast with a bottle of chloroform to the nose.  Black sees dollar signs in his eyes and the scene shifts to New York for the extravaganza opening for the Eighth Wonder of the World.  When all hell breaks loose, Brody has mysteriously anticipated it all, and only he senses that Kong’s wild rage will only be subdued by the presence of Watts, and he tries to lure him to where he thinks she is.  After a scene that could just as easily be car crashes and city mayhem from SPIDER MAN (2002), there is a momentary calm.  Out of the steam rising from the street walks Watts, almost in slow motion, like Clint Eastwood entering the scene in a Sergio Leone movie.  When they reunite, it’s the closest thing to happiness in the entire movie, reflected in a magical sequence where he takes her into Central Park in the snow, where he slips on the frozen ice, and the two slide around on his giant butt, as if ice-skating, laughing with glee, as if they are the only two beings on earth.  This is the money shot in Jackson’s remake, a beautiful expression of extreme tenderness, where nothing in the rest of the movie is as memorable.  Enter the military, who make their idiotic presence felt late at the end of the film, stupidly shooting without thinking.  Kong’s climb to the top of the city’s highest building is a delight, carrying Watts most of the way, stopping to enjoy another sunset where Watts can again utter “It’s beautiful,” but as the airplanes appear, he carefully places her out of harm’s way and climbs alone the last few stories. 
In perhaps the film’s most ridiculous moment, the darkness following a sunset suddenly turns light and the rest of the film plays out in the daylight.  Amazingly, she climbs an outside staircase up to the top to join him, where the airplanes are sending a barrage of bullets at him and the accumulated damage is slowing him down, but the two have moments together at the top of the world, where Kong looks sad and somehow aware of his mortality.  Both are infatuated by what they can’t understand, but there’s a peculiar peace between them, where love is certainly in the air.  Brody breaks through the police barricade and rushes up the 100 floors or so on the elevator to greet Watts after Kong tumbles down to the ground, which is captured with a sky cam.  Down below, the wretched humans are gleefully praising the Air Force, but Black, or course, has the last line, “It wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast.”  There are simply too many references from other films on display here, where imitation is a form of flattery, but very little is original, and the victimization of Kong in the hands of his enemies is over-accentuated to the point of wretched excess, attempting to dramatize all the lurid melodramatic aspects of the story, but it brings nothing new, where the romantic notions eventually lose weight and are overcome by an overlong, overindulgent and often annoying CGI special effects/action/adventure movie. 


The Nation (Stuart Klawans)

The holiday movie season that began with the Narnia lion has reached its climax with the giant ape--and you can guess which beast I'm rooting for.

Writer-director Peter Jackson, relaxing after The Lord of the Rings, has slacked off by making a King Kong that runs a mere three hours, involves only a dozen or so major characters (plus uncounted extras) and deploys just enough special effects to rebuild 1930s Manhattan, with an entire prehistoric world thrown in. Jackson knows he cannot re-create the meaning of the original but only reflect upon it. (If he keeps the Empire State Building, he uses something that is now an icon of nostalgia, not modernity. If he decides instead to go contemporary and have Kong scale the Petronas Towers, he makes too telling a comment on our distance from the era of Merian Cooper.) So, not trying too hard, Jackson has retold King Kong as a Depression-era story, but with improvements. If Cooper had Kong wrestle a dinosaur, Jackson must have him fight three--while caught midair in a tangle of vines, juggling Naomi Watts.

She's so splendid, by the way, that she upstages the special effects, as Jackson would have wanted. Her talent, and the soulfulness of Kong (animated on the model of Andy Serkis), make this a movie fit for adult audiences.

Well, that and the mammoth carnivorous worms.

Crazy for Cinema  Lisa Skrzyniarz

Being a fan of both Jackson and the original, I really wanted to like this movie...and sometimes I did. What kills the enjoyment of this version is not only the film's length, but the utter lack of character depth (except for Kong) and the endless, mindnumbing action sequences that add little value to the story and just elongate the torture. Visual effects are a wonderful thing, especially when they can create a living, breathing creature like Kong. Andy Serkis does it again as the man behind the giant ape's soul. If only Jackson pumped as much life into his human creations, he might have had a real winner here. Ann Darrow may be beautiful, charming and sweet, but frankly that wouldn't be enough to get my ass onto that island to save her. Her beauty is all we're given to work with and that just ain't enough. There are even fewer reasons to care about the crew, so their various deaths at the hands of giant bugs, vicious dinosaurs and an angry ape just become an endless parade of bloody, meaningless carnage, which takes away from the film's core story – beauty taming the beast.

Given that she had nothing to act against, Watts turns in a brilliant performance as the terrified, yet fascinated leading lady. It could not have been easy and she truly makes you believe Kong is alive and well. Their scenes together are the only entertaining aspect of this venture. Why Brody would accept such a worthless and empty part, considering his resume, is a mystery. He has no chemistry with Watts and little to do but look befuddled, scared and horrified. Black has wonderful moments as the ruthless filmmaker out for fame at any cost, but even his character turns out to be a fairly one trick pony. KONG is gorgeously crafted, but it brings nothing new to the mystique of the tale. I normally love long movies, but there's not enough plot or chracter development to justify the length. By the time they reach New York I just didn't care anymore about anyone...even Kong. Clearly Jackson was blinded by his love of the original film and after his worldwide success there wasn't anyone who was going to go against his vision, which is a real shame. A firmer hand and better script could have really turned this into something special.

Edward Copeland on Film  Josh R. from Review Comment #1

I agree with you that the fawning critical response to Peter Jackson's King Kong has been, for the most part, disproportionate to the film's actual merits. You've outlined in good detail exactly why the first third of the film is pretty rough going - the limitations of Team Jackson's screenwriting skills are painfully apparent in scenes that feature more talking than running (or, in the case of the LOTR trilogy, decapitating Orks).

That said, I found more to enjoy in Kong than you did. It's obviously no match for the 1933 original, which retains a kind of beauty in its simplicity - the cutting-edge effects from the Meriam C. Cooper version look fairly primitive by modern standards, but they're executed with a kind of gonzo ingenuity that still elicits gasps. Peter Jackson has that same kind of breathtaking, barnstorming ability when it comes to the crafting of action sequences. In terms of the way they've been conceived and choreographed, Jackson's action is as compelling in its own right as Spielberg and Cameron's. When the film is on the move, it's a rocking good time - it's only when it's standing still that things fall flat.

If there's one thing I would point to as...well, I won't call it an improvement, since that would be tantamount to sacrilege...but if there's one respect in which Jackson's film distinguishes itself from its predecessor in a positive way, it's in its consideration of the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow.

The decision to humanize Kong to the point where he actually functions on the level of a human character yields a very unexpected and satisfying result. The bond between Kong and Darrow is rendered in such a way that it does manage to achieve the kind of mythic-romance proportions that Jackson is striving for. Admittedly, this is due in no small part to the invaluable contributions of Noami Watts and Andy Serkis; but credit is also due to Jackson and his collaborators, who find a fascinating new wrinkle in a classic piece of American iconography. For the first time, this is a real relationship, with complicated emotions on both sides. For all its bells and whistles and high-octane action, the film's best scene is probably its quietest - the tender, funny yet sad moment between Kong and Darrow on the ice in Central Park. Of course, we know that such a delicate moment can't last; what makes it so moving is the manner in which Noami Watts and her computer-generated partner communicate to the audience that they know it too.

The Onion A.V. Club [Keith Phipps]


As Peter Jackson tells it, the original King Kong made him a filmmaker. After watching it on television when he was 9, he woke up the next day and began making models. It's almost too tidy a story, but it's probably true. King Kong is the kind of movie that can plant hooks that dig in for a lifetime. In 1933, its effects were groundbreaking, but the real breakthrough had as much to do with the heart as the eyes. Effects master Willis O'Brien and co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made Kong come alive in every sense. When he made his fatal plummet, they made it easy to forget he was really just a lump of clay.
Peter Jackson made a lot of smart choices in making his new version of King Kong, but not trying to outdo the original might be his smartest choice of all. Sure, Kong, co-written by Jackson with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is longer, louder, and more action-packed than its predecessor, and filled with effects unimaginable in the '30s. But it's also fundamentally the same double-edged tragedy of humans and apes wanting what can never be theirs. (Also, scenes of apes fighting dinosaurs continue to play an important part.)
Retaining the original film's art deco-and-Great Depression setting, Jackson's King Kong opens on a world of big dreams and dire straits. Struggling actress Naomi Watts gives her all to vaudeville audiences who can barely be bothered to look up from their newspapers, while across town, producer Jack Black struggles to keep a jungle-adventure film afloat. In sudden need of a leading lady, Black ropes Watts into a scheme to run off with some studio resources and film on an uncharted South Pacific island. (Nothing beats a good location, after all.) After half-kidnapping playwright Adrien Brody, they set sail for the not-so-welcoming-sounding Skull Island.
What happens next will be familiar to anyone who's seen the original (or even the all-but-forgotten 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake), but Jackson finds ways to make every moment feel new. After a start heavy on exposition, the film strings one action setpiece after another, each realized with the breathless excitement of an adventure pulp cover. It's as if Jackson set out to bring to life every fantasy of the last moment before earth gave way to space as the site of the final frontier.
Then there's Kong. Portrayed pre-special effects by Andy Serkis (who did the same for Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings), he's simultaneously a fully realized character and every inch an animal. Rather than projecting human emotions on him, Jackson lets him behave like an ape, launching into violent rages when needed, then turning playful and sulky as his circumstances change. Special effect or not, he holds his own against Watts, and their impossible relationship becomes the heart of the film.
The big ape sees something he wants in the human world and doesn't understand why he can't have it; the humans attempt to drag a bit of untamed nature back to the modern world, and their efforts only underscore the gulf that divides civilization and nature. It's a long way down to the bottom of that gulf, but for a brief moment, Watts and Kong find a way to ignore it. Jackson gets that right as surely as he does the sick thrill of tentacled creatures emerging from a pool of mud. He's made a Kong as sure to evoke the same sense of wonder and heartbreak as the original did for him.

King Kong   Kim Newman from Sight and Sound


Bright Lights Film Journal [Alan Vanneman]


DVD Times  Eamonn McCusker


Slant Magazine [Jeremiah Kipp]


Jigsaw Lounge [Neil Young]


The Lumière Reader  examines all the Kong releases


James Berardinelli's ReelViews


The New Yorker (David Denby)


The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]


King Kong (2005)  Bryant Frazer from Deep Focus


Edward Copeland on Film


Lessons of Darkness [Nick Schager] [Stephanie Zacharek]


PopMatters  Cynthia Fuchs


Creative Loafing [Curt Holman] (Chris Barsanti)


d+kaz (Daniel Kasman)


Flipside Movie Emporium [Rob Vaux]


Ruthless Reviews ("potentially offensive") [Steven Flores]


The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review  Richard Scheib


Movie Vault [Mel Valentin]


Nick's Flick Picks (Full Review)


Friday & Saturday Review


World Socialist Web Site  James Brewer


DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson)  Andrew Mackenzie


Celluloid Dreams  Simon Hill  Fernando F. Croce


Combustible Celluloid [Jeffrey M. Anderson]


Movie Review, DVD Town [John J. Puccio]


DVD Verdict [Jim Stewart]


The QNetwork Film Desk [James Kendrick]


Critical Culture [Pacze Moj]


Monsters and Critics - DVD Review - Extended Ed. [Jeff Swindoll]




The Oregon Herald [Mark Sells]


Los Angeles Times [Carina Chocano]


Austin Chronicle [Marc Savlov]


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


New York Times (registration req'd)  A.O. Scott [Gary W. Tooze]


THE LOVELY BONES                                           B-                    81

USA  Great Britain  New Zealand  (135 mi)  2009  ‘Scope


”What am I now? The dead girl? The lost girl? The missing girl? I’m nothing.”       —Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)


A gentle and loving portrait of death as seen through the eyes of a young 14-year old girl who is brutally murdered, Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, who’s not yet ready to let go of her life just yet, so after death she remains lingering in “the in between,” a hereafter between heaven and earth, still holding onto as much of her life as she can before finally moving on.  It’s always interesting to hear narrations from characters that acknowledge they’re already dead, such as SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) or AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), as it adds an eerie dimension of extra depth, as there’s a foreboding shadow that hovers over everything the audience sees.  But unlike those others, Susie is a child, so her world is still decorated in a child-like fantasy of rainbow colors and wonderment.  Ronan is really very good in the narration, as her knowledge about herself is wise beyond her years and challenges the audience to share her uncommonly sharp perceptions about the world from this place where none of us have ever been.  Since a good deal of this film comes from the afterlife, where one can look down from above and sympathize with their own family trauma but they can’t see you, it’s interesting how much of our lives remain unfinished and incomplete even after death, as the questions and reverberations about our death may linger in people’s minds for a long time afterwards.  In this way, the movie makes us appreciate the short time we have in life, as we never know when it could abruptly be taken away so unexpectedly.  

Susie has an ordinary life, with loving parents and a younger brother and sister, and she’s discovered her first boy, Ray Singh, played by Reece Ritchie, who’s actually interested in her, that leaves her dreamily off-guard, a contributing factor in her death, as she was too easily distracted and missed visible signs that might have warned her away from her eventual killer.  But as she points out, in the early 1970’s, there were no TV stories, no amber alerts or child hotlines, and no pictures on the sides of milk containers, as no one had any idea that these kinds of things actually happened, so she was totally caught off-guard by her life’s final chapter, which is menacingly suggested without being shown shown, deleting rape or other sexual deviations that occurred in the book, as this is a family picture.  Her life suddenly turns into a dream world where she remains invisible, where she’s left to wander silently, having no impact on what she sees, where she hopes her family can figure out the clues, but the loathsome killer (Stanley Tucci), who lives just a few doors down the block, feels more comfortable every passing day believing he’s actually gotten away with it.  The gist of the story becomes the dramatic contrast between her father’s grief and the killer’s compulsions, as the audience wonders if the killer will get his comeuppance and the father can avenge his daughter’s horrible murder.  Moving back and forth between the two worlds, Susie discovers that while her own family’s life is in utter turmoil from the grief, despair and complete disbelief, there are also several other victims of the same killer. 

While the film does feel overly long, and moving back and forth between worlds eventually does grow tiresome, the lyrical tone of the film remains appealing, as it’s hard not to feel for what Susie and her family are going through, as her experience fills us with the same regrets that she has.  It’s interesting that even in the afterlife what she most regrets is never knowing the feeling of that first kiss.  There is an offbeat side character living on the outskirts of town that no one likes, Ruth (Carolyn Dando), but Susie grows to appreciate her from the world beyond, as she’s a seer who senses the presence of dead souls and channels them into her life, while Susan Sarandon is weirdly introduced as the free spirited alcoholic family grandmother that supposedly holds the family together, an improbable notion and probably a completely unnecessary one, as her comic tone doesn’t fit with the devastation of the family loss.  When the killer starts getting ready to strike again, this time targeting Susie’s younger sister, a certain panic sets in.  Might he actually get away with it?  The idea that different levels of awareness exist side by side is intriguing, as is the visual conception of the afterlife, suggesting there are stages to pass through before entering heaven, but even more compelling is the idea that the living could potentially interact with the afterlife, or vice versa.  Certainly there are connecting thoughts, but this is one of the few films that blends a dialogue between both worlds. 


One of the underlying subplots of the movie is the film’s history, where Lynne Ramsay was initially hired to adapt a screenplay from the Alice Sebold novel and direct the film.  But once Stephen Spielberg came onboard to produce the movie, she was fired in favor of fellow blockbuster filmmaker Peter Jackson, who it turns out was probably the wrong choice, as while the interplay between worlds, the living and the in between, is miraculously conceived with some eye-popping computer imagery, the brightness of tone is all wrong for a story involving brutal victims of rape, serial killings, and even dismemberment.  It’s missing the dark edge that Ramsay would no doubt have brought to the story.  One would have to be familiar with the book to be aware of all the grisly details, which are completely omitted from the movie, and while the choice of narrator is excellent, all the rest feels oddly inconsistent with a strange reliance on a candy colored afterlife.  


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review [2.5/4]


Loyal readers have waited since 2002 to see the movie version of Alice Sebold's novel; the project has changed hands a few times, unfortunately bypassing Lynne Ramsay and winding up in the hands of Peter Jackson. I suppose that if Jackson could have made something akin to his masterpiece Heavenly Creatures (1994), he may have been onto something, but the finished film of The Lovely Bones is more like one of his "boy's adventure" movies, filled with jokes, suspense and special effects. Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon ("like the fish"), who is murdered at age 14 and watches her family from heaven. Her father (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with finding the identity of the murderer: a creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci), who builds dollhouses and keeps to himself. Rachel Weisz plays the mother who gives up and runs away. Thankfully Susan Sarandon is on board as Grandma Lynn, who drinks constantly and makes it look as if everyone else is nuts. Meanwhile, Susie occupies a visually splendid heaven, with all kinds of colorful, ever-shifting images, shared with the mysterious "Holly Golightly" (Nikki SooHoo). More than anything, The Lovely Bones feels like a film circling the book, eyeing it uncertainly and trying different kinds of styles and moods to see if anything fits. As it stands, some scenes work and some do not, and they fail to add up to a coherent artistic whole.


The New Yorker (David Denby) review  (Page 2)

Of all human illusions, the hardest to give up is the belief that consciousness exists after death. This may seem a stiffly rational response to anything as shrewdly executed as Alice Sebold’s best-selling 2002 novel, “The Lovely Bones,” but it becomes inescapable when you see the bizarre and sentimental movie that Peter Jackson has made from the book. In the movie, as in the book, Susie (Saoirse Ronan), a fourteen-year-old girl, narrates her own murder, in 1973, at the hands of a neighborhood creep (Stanley Tucci). Then she watches him cover his tracks, and her father (Mark Wahlberg), her mother (Rachel Weisz), and her sister (Rose McIver) try to cope with her death. She is not merely present in their minds; they can’t quite see her, but she is there, prompting, warning, claiming a kiss from her handsome teen boyfriend.

The book was brought off with considerable delicacy—it’s really an affectionately detailed portrait of a suburban girl’s life. Literalized in the movie, the material is closer to a high-toned ghost story. Jackson intermingles family goings on with Susie’s gossamer interventions, and some of the brushed-with-ether imagery verges on the uncanny. Yet Jackson has become an undisciplined fabulist: the movie is redundant and undramatic. Heaven is notoriously harder to make interesting than Hell, but Jackson has outdone other artists in cotton candy—there are luscious hills and dales, and gleaming lakes and fields of waving grain, and sugarplum fairies with music by Brian Eno rather than by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “The Lovely Bones” has been fashioned as a holiday family movie about murder and grief; it’s a thoroughly queasy experience. The lesson that Susie has to learn is that she must “let go” of her past life. Meanwhile, skilled, opportunistic artificers like Alice Sebold and Peter Jackson won’t let go of a chance to mingle life and death. 

The Onion A.V. Club review [C]  Tasha Robinson

Everything about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestselling book The Lovely Bones is worked out to an excruciating fault. The décor is precise for the early-1970s middle-America setting, with photo cubes, period knickknacks, and hideous wallpaper dominating the sets. Jackson’s version of the afterlife—a majestic, bright realm where Important, Obvious Symbols dominate a shifting fantasy landscape—is rendered in gorgeous digital detail. Unfortunately, the themes are similarly fussed-over and underlined, as if Jackson and his habitual co-writers—his wife Fran Walsh and their partner Philippa Boyens—are worried that viewers might dare to get lost in the arty visuals and miss the slight messages about grief and obsession.

Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan stars as the story’s narrator, a murdered girl (and rape victim in the book, though the film elides that entirely) who refuses to move on to heaven; trapped in a beautiful between-realm shaped by her desires, she watches her sister and parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) struggle emotionally over her death, while her murderer (a convincingly creepy Stanley Tucci) plots his next crime. Her fixation on her incomplete life and the man who cut it short mirrors Wahlberg’s fixation on finding her killer; Wahlberg provides an early key to the story when he gives Ronan a banal primer on obsession. He also explains a snow globe in terms that will later become significant when she, too, is trapped outside of time, within a perfect world. It’s that kind of film, where every casual utterance later winds up draped in weighty significance or irony, and where Ronan, in a breathy little whisper of narration, spends nearly every moment of the film reminding viewers what they should be thinking or feeling.

And yet The Lovely Bones is often moving, almost in spite of itself. Jackson draws excruciating tension out of scenes where the audience knows exactly what’s coming but the characters don’t, and his dreamlike, allusive handling of Ronan’s murder is stunning. The afterlife scenes are gorgeous, even though they often seem to be ultra-glossy updates of sequences he managed with more heart back in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures. And Ronan remains a tender, touching performer, though Wahlberg edges perilously close to his bug-eyed sincerity mode from The Happening. But for all its successes, Bones remains more crafted than sincere, more meant to look achingly pretty on the screen than to resonate in the heart. 

Time Out Online (Dave Calhoun) review [2/6]


Let nobody say that Peter Jackson doesn’t like a challenge. After filming Tolkien’s three ‘The Lord of the Rings’ books and spending over $200 million on a new three-hour version of ‘King Kong’, the New Zealand director who started out making splatter horror in the late 1980s has turned to Alice Sebold’s hugely popular ‘The Lovely Bones’, the 1970s-set American novel narrated from beyond the grave by Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old who is raped and murdered by a neighbour in a field near her suburban home . From a vantage point somewhere between heaven and earth, Susie follows the reactions and behaviour of her parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), her sister (Rose McIver)  and her killer, Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci), as she struggles to gain the closure that will allow her to depart this earth completely.

Not that we see anyone raped or even murdered in this $100 million, 12A version of the story: Jackson softens the edges of both the initial tragedy and its fallout among Susie’s family. But that’s not the main fault of the film. The real let-down is its heavy reliance on overblown special-effects sequences to represent the celestial limbo where Susie resides immediately after death. Coming across like Salvador Dali was commissioned to represent Middle Earth for the New Zealand tourist board, these scenes dominate the film to such an extent that you begin to doubt that Jackson has much concern for the real family disaster at the film’s heart. Wahlberg, Weisz and McIver are all sidelined in favour of the magic of the animator’s hard drive. It doesn’t help that a gin-swigging Susan Sarandon is called on to play Susie’s louche grandmother for inappropriate comic effect just when you feel the film could do with a touch more tragic weight.

However, these are mere niggles compared to the film’s fatal flaw: perspective. Who’s telling us this story? The answer, of course, should be Susie Salmon, and at points, we hear some of the book’s first-person narration as voiceover, including the well-known opening – ‘My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973 – which graces the film’s opening and close . But there’s no consistency to Susie’s presence as the prism through which we see her story. Certainly the chocolate-box look of this American suburban world, which barely ever feels real, suggests that it’s a 14-year-old girl’s view of life. Yet there are whole sections of the movie when we forget Susie’s all-seeing eye and don’t know whether we’re in a family drama, a crime thriller or a horror. There are distracting hints of all three, without any of them taking hold and defining the tone of the film.

There are good points. Saoirse Ronan is a compelling presence as Susie Salmon, especially as she must have been acting alone and against a green screen for much of the shoot, and both her and the film are strong at capturing her burgeoning attraction to her schoolmate Ray (Reece Ritchie), a hint of adult sexuality cut short by tragedy. Stanley Tucci is creepy as Mr Harvey (even if he resembles a million movie paedophiles), and Jackson is at his best as a director when creating a sense of dread around Harvey whenever he’s anywhere near Susie or, later, her sister. Yet there’s no escaping the digital glare of Susie’s half-dead existence – a glare that threatens to blind us to anything remotely human in this drama.


Some Came Running: "The Lovely Bones"  Glenn Kenny from Some Came Running, December 8, 2009, which includes an interview with the director:  Peter Jackson Answers Questions From The Auteurs Community


For those so inclined, I remind them that an interview with Peter Jackson, featuring reader-generated questions, and conducted by myself, is up now at The Auteurs' Notebook, here

I've mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating: I was quite a bit more excited about the prospect of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones being made into a movie when Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish visionary behind Ratcatcher and the spectacular Morvern Callar, was attached to said adaptation. Not excited enough to go out and read the novel, which is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, the victim of a horrific rape and murder. I did wonder if Ramsay would jettison the book's first-person narration, as she did with Morvern Callar, also an adaptation of a novel, and find a new way to tell the story. I wondered quite a few things. And then, for reasons never made fully clear in the trades, at least to my knowledge, Ramsay was off the project, replaced by writer/director Peter Jackson and longtime partner and co-writer Fran Walsh, and longtime co-writer Philippa Boyens. At first I rather resented this, not least because it likely meant that I was going to wait that much longer for the next Lynne Ramsay film. (Morvern Callar came out in 2002; Ramsay, it appears, is currently preparing to shoot We Need To Talk About Kevin.) As my investment in the actual source material was minimal, I didn't feel much beyond that, except, you know: Peter Jackson, whose sensibility I like and whose films a largely admire, was going to direct it, and so I was probably going to want to see it on some level. Had a studio handed it over to Joel Schumacher we wouldn't be having this conversation. 

And so, Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, a film I found, well, enormously frustrating. I was not put off by the elaborate CGI visuals that many viewers of the film take to depict "Heaven" (and as a matter of fact, they don't depict Heaven, which you'll understand if you're paying attention; Jackson addresses the issue very diplomatically in the above-mentioned user-driven interview I conducted with him for The Auteurs' Notebook); and I don't think that it looks too much like What Dreams May Come, or some such—have you seen What Dreams May Come lately? Totally different thing, and bad.

No, my frustration stems from the picture's thoroughly inconsistent tone, the way it can grab you by the throat one minute and make you throw up your hands the next. A picture that can cut from a searing depiction of a father's grief to a goofy montage of his tipsy mom moving in to "help," scored to the tune of The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman," to cite the one instance that doesn't involve dropping a major plot spoiler. The sore-thumb-like lapse in judgment is not an entirely new feature for Jackson; remember the depiction of the Skull Island natives in his King Kong, or the ill-advised soft-show with which Naomi Watts entertains the titular lug in that film? (Although Watts was so game she almost pulled it off, I have to say.) One feels rather grateful for Tolkien fanatics, if it was the fear of their wrath that kept Jackson so thoroughly focused and faithful in his Lord of the Rings telling. 

First, it's a fantasy/thriller, and as the film depicts Susie's awful death, and how she sees her killer from the afterlife getting away with murder, the thriller aspect here is particularly ferocious. Bones also wants to be an intimate portrait of how a family heals, or doesn't heal, in the wake of such a terrible trauma. And a little of it wants to be an affectionate half-sendup of the American '70s. And of course there's no reason this film can't be all three. But Jackson seems incapable of mixing, or melding, his modes. Instead, it's as if the film starts, and then stops and restarts every time he wants to switch gears. He's got a lead foot on the clutch. 

And more I cannot say, without giving away major parts of the film's storyline. I will note that I had many of what I call "Deuce" moments watching the film; that is, times when I felt like yelling something up at the screen. Not in a good, excited way, like "Get out of that vent you stupid motherfucker the demon is crawling right up your ass," knowing all the while that the demon's gonna catch up with whoever anyway; but in a bad, irritated way, like "What the hell is wrong with you people why aren't you calling the goddamn police RIGHT NOW!" Of course you can't do that in a screening room. After the picture's been out for a while maybe we can get into it, and we can get into my...wait for it...philosophical objection to the film, too.

Before I go, though, a word about Brian Eno's score. Again, I am frustrated, and I'm a big Eno fan. Actually, I'm frustrated on account of being a big Eno fan; viewers who aren't familiar with the guy's work are simply not going to have this problem. Which is: about one-third of the score (at least) is adapted, mashed-up, or remixed from previously-released Eno work from the '70s. Mostly. Which meant that during crucial stretches of the picture, this viewer, and a colleague who's also similarly knowledgeable, were sucked into a game of "Name That Brian Eno Tune" for much of the movie. You're supposed to be galvanized, emotionally fraught, by some on-screen violence, and instead you're thinking, "Interesting how he staggered the intro to Robert Fripp's guitar solo on 'Baby's On Fire' so that the most frenzied part would hit just as [name redacted] is getting whalloped with a baseball bat..." But as I said, the majority of viewers won't have this problem, and nice for them. 

Village Voice (J. Hoberman) review


Salon (Stephanie Zacharek) review


Slant Magazine review  Ed Gonzalez


Pajiba (Daniel Carlson) review


ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [2/4]
Bloody-Disgusting review [3/5]  BC
PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review


Slate (Dana Stevens) review


The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern) review (Chris Barsanti) review [3/5]


Critic's Notebook [Robert Levin]


Addictive Thoughts  John


Mark Reviews Movies [Mark Dujsik] (Jay Seaver) review [2/5]


Screen International (Mike Goodridge) review [Alonso Duralde]


Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick) review [2.5/4]


Urban Cinefile (Australia) - [Louise Keller + Andrew L. Urban]


DVD Talk (Jason Bailey) review [1/5] (Peter Sobczynski) review [1/5] (Rob Gonsalves) review [2/5]


Film Freak Central review  Walter Chaw


The Land of Eric (Eric D. Snider) review [B]


CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review Hollywood Movies (Rebecca Murray) review [B-] (Devin Faraci) review


One Guy's Opinion (Frank Swietek) review [C] (Brian Orndorf) review [C]  also seen here:  Briandom [Brian Orndorf] (Kiko Martinez) review [C]


"The Lovely Bones" trailer gives us a glimpse of heaven ...  Dorothy Snarker from After Ellen, August 5, 2009


Gerald Peary - interviews - Lynne Ramsay  April, 2003


Lynne: People quote your films at parties. Mike: Those are lousy ...  Oscar contender Mike Leigh and Lynne Ramsay talk about what works on screen - and what doesn't, by Leo Benedictus from The Guardian, February 4, 2005


Entertainment Weekly review [C+]  Lisa Schwarzbaum


The Hollywood Reporter review  Kirk Honeycutt


Variety (Todd McCarthy) review


Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf) review [3/6]


Time Out Chicago (Ben Kenigsberg) review [2/6]


The Lovely Bones attracts most complaints in 2010  Ben Child from The Guardian, June 14, 2011


Austin Chronicle review [1.5/5]  Marjorie Baumgarten


Tulsa TV Memories [Gary Chew]


San Francisco Chronicle [Mick LaSalle]


Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan) review


Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [1.5/4]


The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review


The Lovely Bones (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Lynne Ramsay - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Jacobs, Azazel


TERRI                                                                        B                     86

USA  (105 mi)  2011


The director is the son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, but zeroes in on a fairly likeable Sundance indie feel with this film about a teenage social outcast Terri (Jacob Wysocki) who is continually teased about his enormous size.  Little is made of the fact that he also wears pajamas around town (“because they fit”) as well as to public high school without anyone raising objection, which by itself suggests a certain tolerance for the character, which just doesn’t have the feel of credibility, as kids themselves would likely raise an uproar about broadening the acceptable dress code standards for one kid while adults would be sending him off to see the shrink.  Instead the film focuses in on his gently attentive daily routines, where he lives with his eccentric and senile uncle, Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who has an extensive collection of books and old record albums, occasionally showing the clarity to impressively play the piano, much to the delight of Terri, who is something of a quiet recluse himself, used to taking care of him, making sure he takes his medicine, watching his moods and his behavior so he doesn’t do something he’ll regret, and also putting him to bed at night.  His uncle is friendly enough, but has a tendency to easily forget things.  With the film opening on their morning routine, making sure his uncle has what he needs before he sets out for school, it’s easy to see why Terri has a history of arriving late, which gets him sent to the Principal’s office, none other than the always offbeat John C. Reilly as Mr. Fitzgerald, who welcomes him as a buddy, suggesting they meet regularly just to see how things are going. 


With Mr. Fitzgerald, one is never sure who’s weirder, him or the misfit kids that are sent to see him, which includes Terri, though he soon comes to question why he has been included with this group of outcasts.  Fitzgerald appears to be sincere, but he is clearly unlike other school authority figures who would just as soon banish Terri from their classrooms or gymnasiums than have to look at him, as his unmotivated mild manner and seeming disinterest in school alarms them, as they think he’s just a big fat oaf, not bothering to see beyond that blank expression on his face.  Terri is unusually clever, however, as he spends much of his time observing others as they continually try to annoy him or ignore him, developing a kind of third eye, sensing what’s going on around him even as he withdraws socially.  What’s soon apparent is how the film quietly becomes fascinated exclusively with unconventional characters, where outsiderism becomes the norm, as there are few glimpses of anything resembling mainstream behavior.  Instead what we see touches on the bizarre without ever actually going there, never fully exploring the ramifications.  Outside of Terri, few other characters are fully explored, including Fitzgerald, as they are only seen within the context of their relations with Terri.  One of the other misfit kids, Chad (Bridger Zadina), an angry kid who continually pulls his own hair out and is likely to do just about anything, having no cautionary feelings, attempts to befriend Terri, but the closeness catches him offguard and comes as something of a surprise, like why me? —something he’s perhaps not expecting or even ready for yet.                    


The heart of the film changes when Terri observes an attractive girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), being taken advantage of sexually by a boy appropriately enough named Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice) during Home Economics, which quickly becomes the subject of unstoppable school rumors, where the girl is about to be expelled from school until Terri speaks up to the Principal, claiming it happened against her wishes, changing the entire perspective of the event.  This sequence also changes the tone of the film, as the focus is finally on someone other than Terri, as the entire student body turns against the girl, except Terri, becoming even more ostracized than the previously identified group of misfits.  This leads to a friendship, of sorts, which only proceeds in the most offbeat path imaginable, where for a moment, Terri, Heather, and Chad become a psychologically demented, John Hughes style BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), where they have to decide what to do when they have too much time on their hands.  One thing is for certain, and that is the languid pace of Terri’s unhurried life, which allows this film to develop slowly, accumulating pertinent details and developing character traits, all of which combine to paint an unusual portrait of teenage alienation when seen under this probing miscroscopic scrutiny, where life on the edges stops feeling so miserablist and alone, where shared experiences, even the most atypical and bizarre, make these kids feel less like the monsters they have been portrayed as and more like something closer to their own skin.  This film, perhaps overly optimistic and upbeat, has a way of taking the teenage spirit of rebellion and insurrection and somehow offering it a safe place in this world, where, in reality, one is not so assured that safe havens like this exist outside the realm of the imagination. 


Review: Terri - Reviews - Boston Phoenix  Gerald Peary


He's gawky, obese, and neither charming nor funny, so why would we want to spend a whole movie with Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an unpopular high-schooler who annoys the teachers with his lateness and lethargy? Credit indie director Azazel Jacobs for building a case for Terri, so that — without manipulation or sentimentality — we begin to appreciate the clumsy lad at the same time that he starts to shed his self-loathing. Maybe the respect begins with our enjoyment of Terri's wardrobe, a different pair of pajamas for every day of class. And we are warmed by Terri's weird friendship with his school's deeply out-to-lunch assistant principal (a superbly fruitcake John C. Reilly). Finally, Jacobs and co-screenwriter Patrick Dewitt manage the impossible, getting Terri involved, sort of, with the perkiest girl at school (Olivia Crocicchia). Terri is subtle, sweet, and eccentric, and marks Jacobs, who earlier succeeded with Mama's Man (2008), as an independent filmmaker of formidable talent.


Nick Dawson  interview with the director from Filmmaker magazine, January 18, 2011 (excerpt)

Azazel Jacobs’ profile has grown steadily since he made his striking, black-and-white debut feature, Nobody Needs to Know, in 2003. He followed it in 2005 with the delightfully quirky and inventive The GoodTimesKid, a film which found a devoted audience on the film festival circuit and was eventually released theatrically in 2007. Jacobs’ third feature, Momma’s Man, a poignant tale of adult regression into childhood, had its world premiere at Sundance. It became one of the hits of the 2008 festival, and played in theaters later that year to universal acclaim.

Jacobs, the son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, grew up in New York City and is now based in Los Angeles, and his first three features were all set in one or the other of those two cities. With Terri, his fourth film, he moves into new territory as he tells a touching tale of a obese, socially withdrawn teenager (Jacob Wysocki) in a small California town who develops a surprising friendship with his high school headmaster (John C. Reilly). Jacobs, who seemingly never repeats himself as a filmmaker, has made a more polished and commercial kind of indie film that nevertheless still bears the sensitivity, emotional insight and deft directorial touch that is the mark of his work.

The Village Voice [Karina Longworth]


Azazel Jacobs' higher budget, much more conventionally polished follow-up to his 2008 Sundance hit Momma's Man, Jacob Wysocki stars as Terri, a fat kid loner who lives with his mildly mentally ill uncle and lumbers off to school wearing pajamas to school every day. 


Chronically tardy and harassed by the other kids for his "double ds," Terri is embraced as a problem case by his high school's assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reily), who has problems of his own. When Mr. Fitzgerald asks Terri to meet with him every Monday, the grown-up bills it as a friendly gesture--"What's weird about two guys sitting down, sharing snacks and shooting the shit?"

But Terri soon realizes that he's one of a half dozen other misfits who meet with the adult weekly, and that since the others are either physically deformed or obviously crazy, the tap from Fitzgerald only confirms that Terri is "part of a group of ... monsters."

Humanistic without being moralistic, and very funny, Terri is a measured, observational examination of the stratification of teenage loser-dom. It sketches out the steep learning curve of high school, in which the playing field between a mean-spirited burnout and a sweet kid who simply doesn't fit in is leveled with a single incident, and a lapse in self confidence can plunge a would-be mistress of the universe several levels down into the freakiverse. At the same time, Terri bitter-comically reveals that the disciplinary structure of teenage life is a farce compared to the muddled, endless purgatory of adulthood.

Its climax, a glorious extended three-hander in which Terri, his love interest and a frenemy get wasted and confront their basest impulses, is perfectly modulated. The kind of scene that would be played for nihilist shock in a typical Amerindie, Jacobs stages it to reveal depths, layers, and vulnerabilities to characters who couldn't reveal their vulnerabilities until forced by intoxicants. Crowd pleasing without being pandering, Terri above all else feels true.


Film Comment [Amy Taubin]  at Sundance


Letters wasn’t the only movie where an enchanted forest provided refuge for an outsider. In Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, a shy, overweight adolescent (Jacob Wysocki) leaves the ramshackle house that he shares with his only caring relative, an uncle in the early stages of dementia, and walks to school through a wooded glen that we see though his eyes as a place where he can lose his self-consciousness and even feel empowered. As he pauses on a ridge to look down on the high school sports field, we know he is trying to marshal the strength he gained from his brief idyll so that he can face yet another day of not being accepted by a pitiless teenage hierarchy. Working with a beautifully observed script by Patrick deWitt, perfectly pitched between comedy and pathos, Jacobs makes the silence around dialogue come alive through the gestures and gazes of his marvelously understated actors and the way subtle changes in light can illuminate not only the outside world but a shift in the inner life of the person on whom it falls. (Tobias Datum’s 35mm cinematography is outstanding.) Neither sentimental nor exploitative, Terri depicts high school as a place where, as the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) explains, Terri has the opportunity to come to terms with the fact that “life is a mess, dude, but we are all just doing the best we can.” Terri bonds with this unusually honest adult and with two other students who are also receiving counseling: anxiety-ridden Chad, who compulsively pulls out his own hair strand by strand, and gorgeous Heather, whose popularity takes a sudden plunge after she allows her boyfriend to finger-fuck her in plain sight of every student in the cafeteria. In the climactic scene, the three repair to Terri’s house where they down a bottle of Scotch and an array of prescription drugs. The ensuing trip, which at a few moments touches the sublime, recalls a similar shared adolescent rite of passage in Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season. Like that film, Terri is a teen comedy that is not sadistic, salacious, or scatological—i.e., not easy to market.


Jacobs made such brilliant use of concrete autobiographical materials in his previous feature, Momma’s Man, that one wondered if he could let go of the mother-lode. But Terri is every bit as personal to Jacobs’s filmmaking voice.  Chris Cabin


It is not unfair to look upon the story being told in Azazel Jacobs's new film Terri on paper and groan heavily -- if not tear off your clothes, curl up in a fetal position, and cry from sheer exhaustion. The 39-year-old Jacobs's sixth film concerns the titular overweight outsider (Jacob Wysocki) as he is taken under wing by his friendly, odd, and oddly honest vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (the great John C. Reilly), following a string of homeroom tardies and general anti-social behavior. His home life with his dementia-ridden uncle (Creed Bratton of The Office) is weird, to say the least; he has a crush on a popular, damaged but essentially kind-hearted girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia); the only people he could possibly call his friends are Chad (Bridger Zadina), an outlandish deviant suffering from trichotillomania, and Mr. Fitzgerald. The funk of presaged, quirk-heavy familiarity is enough to make one pass out -- which makes Jacobs's sublime triumph all the more surprising and riveting. This is a clear sign of a major film artist breaking through the chrysalis.

Jacobs himself has spoken of the film as a break from the personal storytelling of his previous feature, the superb Momma's Man, though it doesn't seem that this has affected his highly intimate style. Even so, it's hard not to see the significance of Terri's jolly, energetic stroll through the woods in the morning, freed from the cluttered environs of his uncle's house, which is something like the loft the "hero" of Momma's Man shared with his parents transplanted to a Los Angeles suburb. Teased at school for his "double d's" and his habit for wearing matching pajamas to school, Terri finds solace in the freedom and power of nature, never so much as when he witnesses a hawk devour a dead mouse. Out there he is a king; in school, he is one of Mr. Fitzgerald's "monsters," an unsettling term Terri uses for the outcasts and special-needs kids that the vice principal pencils in for personal time during the week. He feels isolated, weirder than ever, and Fitzgerald's attempts to paint it over with a few white lies and a speech about "good hearts" only make matters worse.

Jacobs embeds his film with pathos which blends beautifully with the film's robust humor, which can be attributed to both Patrick deWitt's witty, nuanced screenplay (based on his own short stories) and Jacobs's deft work with his talented cast. The humor derives from the inherent innocence and gentleness of our lumbering hero, contrasted against the cynicism, wisdom, hormones, and discipline he encounters at school. Heather's near-immediate fall from grace, precipitated by her willingness to get fingered publicly by a boy in home economics, is followed immediately by a scene in which the boy holds out his still-moist fingers for Terri to sniff. The scene is inherently raunchy, but Jacobs handles it with a sense of sincere discovery that befits the tenderness that Terri exudes. It's the same tenderness that everyone but Terri withholds from Heather when she returns to school and is essential to the friendship that blossoms between the two outcasts and, to a lesser extent, between Terri and Chad.

What is perhaps most striking about Jacobs's film is how perfectly he pitches it between waking life and real life, with Terri as his oversized Little Nemo and the dreadful age of maturity galloping towards him like a wild, haunted steed. The death of Mr. Fitzgerald's secretary, for example, begets a stirring speech about the small horrors and mediocre triumphs of adulthood, which Reilly delivers with his patented shaggy dog honesty. It's told by a man who has been disappointed by life, but the essential message is that of understanding, of doing your own thing while trying to tolerate what other people do.

Terri's relationships with Heather and Chad are on uncertain ground by the end, but his friendship with Mr. Fitzgerald survives and promises respite. Terri's wonderment at such small pleasures as nailing a hook shot gives Fitzgerald hope, even in the face of his troubled marriage, and Jacobs harnesses that delirious sweetness without stumbling into sentimentality. This is to say that despite its narrative pedigree, which strikes the difference between John Hughes and Good Will Hunting, the film's hazy, transcendent beauty and distinct artistry reclaim the rote set-up. Jacobs has stated that the film was born out of both his love for and experience in independent cinema (his father is the brilliant avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs) and the early influence of the late Hughes's films. In Terri, we can see those two forces within the titular, lovable oddball: The struggle and yearning for acceptance, and the need to be the singular self. And for once, the two forces do not collide, but rather intertwine and meld, the result of which is a deeply humane comedy that touches the ethereal. It's one of the few outright masterpieces that have graced the cinema thus far this year. 


Chicago Reader [J.R. Jones]


REVIEW: Terri Is More Than Just Another Fat-Kid Movie | Movieline  Stephanie Zacharek


Terri : DVD Talk Review of the Theatrical  Jason Bailey


Movie Shark Deblore [Debbie Lynn Elias] | Terri  Katherine Follett


indieWIRE [Eric Kohn]  at Sundance


Terri Review | "Angus" with a Side of Cruel, Brutal Truth | Pajiba ...  Dustin Rowles from Pajiba


'Terri' Review | Screen Rant  Kofi Outlaw [Adam Schartoff] [Omar P.L. Moore]


ReelTalk [Diana Saenger]


Slant Magazine [Bill Weber]


Filmleaf [Chris Knipp]


Hollywood Jesus [Darrel Manson]


Film School Rejects [Robert Levin]  at Sundance


Terri - Reelviews Movie Reviews  James Berardinelli


Temple of Reviews [Nathan Adams]


Film Threat [Don Lewis]


Monsters and Critics [Ron Wilkinson]


HitFix [Daniel Fienberg]  at Sundance


Terri | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club  Noel Murray


Review: 'Terri' |  Beth Accomando


eFilmCritic [Jay Seaver]


Screen Daily [Anthony Kaufman]


Gordon and the Whale [Allison Loring]


CompuServe [Harvey Karten]


Terri: movie review - - Christian Science Monitor  Peter Rainer


The NYC Movie Guru [Avi Offer]


Moving Pictures Magazine [Caroline J. Nelson]


Daily Film Dose [Alan Bacchus] [Eric D. Snider]


The Reel Bits [Sarah Ward]


Lonely Reviewer [Vatche]


SLUG Magazine [Jimmy Martin] [Cole Smithey]


The Reel Deal [Mark Sells]


Sundance 2011. Azazel Jacobs's "Terri"  David Hudson at Sundance from Mubi, January 27, 2011


Nick Dawson  interview with the director from Filmmaker magazine, January 18, 2011


The Hollywood Reporter [David Rooney] [Peter Debruge]


Time Out New York [Joshua Rothkopf]


Austin Chronicle [Marjorie Baumgarten]


'Terri' review: a fresh adolescent misfit film - SFGate  Walter Addiego


Terri Review | 'Terri': Review - Los Angeles Times  Betsy Sharkey


Terri :: :: Reviews


Movie Review - 'Terri' - 'Terri,' Directed by Azazel Jacobs ...  A.O. Scott from The New York Times, June 30, 2011


Jacobs, Ken


All-Movie Guide 


Cinematexas Profile


Conversation with Ken Jacobs, Film Artist   5-part series by Harry Kreisler, October 14, 1999


Jacobs, Ken  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They



USA  (122 mi)  1969–71  color and b&w, silent


Electronic Arts Intermix


This special edition of Jacobs' classic work Tom Tom the Piper's Son includes the two-hour film, which is recognized as a structuralist masterpiece, as well as A Tom Tom Chaser (2002), Jacobs' never-before-seen poetic riff on the transformation of his film from chemical to electronic form during the telecine process.

Writes David Schwartz of the American Museum of the Moving Image: "Jacobs reveals film as a Frankenstein art. What is a movie but a celluloid corpse brought to life by the electrical spark of the projector? Rephotographing a 1905 Biograph one-reeler, Jacobs penetrates into the image, delving into each shot, zooming in on details, probing deeper and deeper... A journey into the abyss."

Ken Jacobs writes: "Ghosts! Cine-recordings of the vivacious doings of persons long dead... I wanted to 'bring to the surface' that multi-rhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light two-dimensional force areas struggling edge to edge for identity of shape... to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself - a chemical dispersion pattern unique to each frame, each cold still... stirred to life by a successive 16-24 frame-per-second pattering on our retinas, the teeming energies elicited (the grains! the grains!) then collaborating, unknowingly and ironically, to form the always-poignant-because-always-past illusion. A movie about penetration to the sublime, to the infinite..."

The VHS (or 1/2") format editions also include a 214-page bilingual book. The publication is a special "Tom Tom" issue of Exploding, the French magazine of analysis in film experimentation, and includes articles by Xavier Baert, Nicole Brenez, Frédérique Devaux, Vincent Deville, Ken Jacobs, Emeric de Lastens, Loïg Le Bihan, Stéfani de Loppinot, Christophe Passemard, Emmanuel Siety.

from imdb Author: Son of Cathode from New England:

I must confess; when I saw this legendary avant-garde experiment in 1972, in some weirdo hippie church in Boston, I thought I had seen the ultimate experimental film rip-off. No, this wasn't even a film. It was an exercise in tedium. Jacobs took an old silent fairy tale and dissected it cinematic ally, by running it first forward, then backward, then fast, then slow, then enlarging certain scenes, then freezing frames, and even letting it whir by the film gate for minutes without registering a clear image of any kind. It was not only non-linear and bizarre, it was excruciating. It was torture. I was in pain; my hippie pal (now a Hollywood superstar editor,) waltzed up with glassy eyes and barked, "Wow! Isn't this great?"

Thirty-odd years later, my aesthetic taste veers dangerously close to certain aspects of Jacob's work, and I see how brilliant, unique and revolutionary this film is. Jacobs turned me on to a radical new perspective that I wasn't ready to embrace until years later, as if he had planted an intellectual seed which took, in my case anyway, a long time to germinate. Better late than never!

By dissecting an old film, one not only explores and comments on it, one threatens to annihilate it. Jacobs eschewed the narrative structure of the old silent cinema by replacing it with the shockingly nihilistic uber-structure of post-modernism. This wildly revisionist exercise has the power to rewrite history itself, symbolized here by a simple children's yarn turned into sheer aesthetic mayhem. Brilliant, disturbing, frustrating, even frightening, Jacobs challenged the structure, indeed the very essence of the filmic experience as a fictional temporal reality, by deconstructing it with extreme prejudice. The results, although unnerving in the extreme, are revelatory.

Movie Martyr [Jeremy Heilman]



USA  (23 mi)  1991


User reviews Author: from United States

All in all, I thought this movie was fantastic. The plot grabs you from the beginning and never lets go. I was expecting the movie to deal with the daily rigors of life as a cop named 'Keaton', but the director really took it in a different direction.

Helen Ackerman turns in an exceptional performance as the crying lady. She deserves her own starring role in a major Hollywood picture, and until she gets one, there will be injustice in the world.

Kenny Freed loves the movie 'Waiting', not because it was funny, but because it gives him many opportunities to stare at guys' balls. He likes that.


USA  (9 mi) 1991

User reviews from imdb Author: Michael Sicinski [Hey! Who’s this Michael Sicinski guy??] from United States

The cinema of Ken Jacobs is most importantly about experiencing light, shadow, and motion on the screen, as stunning phenomena which don't require a "story" or a "plot" to thrill. "Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896" is a Jacobs piece comprised of an 1896 tracking shot from a European train window, shot by the Lumiere brothers. In re-presenting this film, Jacobs distributes light-polarizing filters on wands, which audience members are asked to hold over one eye, then the other, and back again. This filter takes the "flat" information on the screen and imbues it with astonishing multi-planar depth. Trees, buildings, telegraph wires, all move horizontally across the screen in recessed space, all at different rates and in different three-dimensional spaces. The filter allows us to see this film in ways unimaginable to its makers. As Jacobs said at the conclusion of his presentation, "There it is, folks, 3D, 1896."


USA  1994


Bitemporal Vision: The Sea  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack



USA  2002


The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]

Having first seen In Praise of Love in Toronto last September 12, I found Godard's rote anti-Americanism particularly tiresome. A year later, his not unwarranted grievances seem subsumed in his melancholy film's overall sense of loss. It's not that America appropriates the rest of humanity's history so much as it solipsistically replaces that history with its own. The events of September 11 may well be the most extensively documented catastrophe in human history. Among the numerous anniversary series and screenings, I'd single out Ken Jacobs's feature-length video Circling Zero: We See Absence, showing twice this weekend as part of the "Attack and Aftermath" program at the American Museum of the Moving Image.

No less than his acerbic Swiss contemporary, Jacobs is a cine-philosopher whose continually innovative and richly eccentric movies mix heady formalism with deeply intuited film-historical and social concerns. Circling Zero is less focused on the attack than its aftermath. Jacobs, who lives on Chambers Street (formerly in the shadow, literally, of the Trades), was out of town the day the buildings fell, and much of Circling Zero concerns his and his wife Flo's attempt to slip past the police barricades that marked the militarized forbidden zone and re-enter their loft. (Amazingly, they get through. Pasted on a neighbor's door is the scrawled note, "I Just Started Walking North.")

Jacobs interpolates some footage of the WTC aflame that was shot by his daughter Nisi from the building's roof. It's striking to note how many other people are up on their roofs similarly documenting the unfolding disaster. (One result is the real-time WTC Uncut, screening at AMMI September 11.) Circling Zero is intensely personal—in visual terms, it's totally first-person—but it's also a portrait of the body politic. The crowds of cops, volunteers, vendors, and tourists that circle the absence are as organic as antibodies surrounding a wound. The tape's last half explores another fact of nature: the Sargasso Sea of flowers, votive candles, and handmade placards that consumed Union Square last fall. Jacobs is fascinated by the fantastic assemblage and new public space. The impromptu performances and metaphysical debates of this spontaneous agora are, in every sense, signs of life.




Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


[At the Q&A following this multimedia performance (film and video sequences along with Nervous System light objects), Jacobs noted that in his recent formal explorations, he's been increasingly interested in velocity. How can you generate effects by making abstract forms move in space? To be honest, the forms didn't seem to be hurtling by that quickly, but I will say that my mind was definitely lagging behind my eyes and ears, so perhaps Ramble's speed-demon intent impressed itself on my body. I always want to be more eloquent when addressing Jacobs' Nervous System works, for a number of not-very-original reasons. For one thing, these pieces move me more than just about any ongoing series of film explorations. I tend to sit before them in a state of slack-jawed amazement, a sort of "oh, fuuuuuuuck" disbelief in what I am witnessing. So when work is this enthralling, I would like to have something at least nominally intelligent to say about it. For another thing, not many people write about this work, and the reasons given are usually some variations of the same basic copout -- they are so abstract, so visceral in their impact, they defy description. But I think maybe we're just not trying hard enough. So here goes. Ahem.]


Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble consists of a halting amalgam of four distinct components. The two non-Nervous System elements are projections of single-channel film works that, if you will, "interrupt" the main action of the other two components, the Nervous System "magic lantern" play and a phenomenal (in both senses -- wonderful and physically bone-rattling) electronic score performed live by Ikue Mori and John Zorn. If you've seen Jacobs' recent video completion of Star Spangled to Death, certain "remixed" portions of that piece will be familiar as they reappear here. There are moments of Jack Smith street theatre, and a long passage of Jerry Sims' apartment, studying the notes and pictures and scraps of paper stuck to his walls, perhaps a grungier version of Aby Warburg's "Mnemosyne Atlas" collages, or just stuff he liked. These reprised moments from SSTD come later, as the first long digressive insert (shown on film) is an unfinished Kodachrome portrait of Orchard Street, alive with bustling street commerce, neighborhood grocers and sidewalk sales, a vibrant scene with New Yorkers of every stripe. What these two parts have in common, apart from the Lower East Side, is their placement within the overall fabric of Ramble. Much like Star Spangled to Death, which breaks up hilarious, atmospheric footage of Smith, Sims, and friends with found footage of racist, anthropological, and pseudo-scientific stupidity, Ramble also interrupts its own program. But instead of the outside world crashing in on our very private relationship with Jacobs' world, we see this world juxtaposed with another, more cosmic way of seeing. The Nervous System portions of the program are deeply colored, bulbous forms which exceed the bounds of the screen on all sides. Like magnified soap bubbles becoming solid forms, or like parts of a metal carburetor with holes that pulsate and become convex forms over and over, these magic lantern effects (like so much of Jacobs' work) emphasize unstable relationships between positive and negative space. They also operate on multiple cognitive channels, since these forms (whirling and emerging in 3D from the screen, due to the action of the Nervous System propeller) connote a cellular-microscopic viewpoint, a heavenly-telescopic one, and neither -- something with no concrete reference to "the world" as we know it. (Nothing much looks like these forms, but the only things that come close are the paintings of Terry Winters.) The order of presentation gives us an Orchard Street of the 50s, and its dialectic between what has changed (even in NYC, the human exchange depicted is giving way to top-down global capitalism) and what remains (many of the buildings, the alleyways, the unique street life that, for me and many others, is NYC). And then we see the SSTD excerpts, the improvised thought-in-action of Jacobs' friends, their interactions and interventions in that street life, as it was and as they were. The framework, instead of being the mundane media world Jacobs and the gang were / are fighting against (as is the case in SSTD, and rightfully so), is another way of envisioning the freedom and the energy the other passages memorialize. Together with the score, which builds on musique concrete recordings of city sounds, honking cars, subway rattling, the sonic physicality of the urban, the Nervous System portions of the piece take the eye on an adventure of uncertain seeing, where forces of love and life cannot be constrained by representation. This dialectic -- between a New York that can be depicted and a bodily sensation of being in NYC, and how the two extend and communicate with one another -- is the balancing act holding the work together. At the Q&A, Jacobs also mentioned that he wanted to show that a small area like the Lower East Side is in reality an infinite space, an entire universe of perception. I've been an admirer of Jacobs' work for quite some time, but after seeing Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble I realized that, apart from his numerous other creative achievements, he is one of the pre-eminent poets of the New York City experience.



USA  (402 mi)  1957 – 2004


Time Out

One of the last surviving giants of avant garde American cinema, Ken Jacobs spent 50 years assembling this six-hour epic video commentary on a half century of US mischief, mistakes and occasional downright madness. This found-footage feast of cartoons, information films, documentaries and musicals, given fresh context and impact when threaded with Jacobs' own sequences. Primarily from street-level late '50s NYC, these chart the emergence of a new cinema, society and way of being. It's a panoramic vision of a country's schizophrenic stumbling towards this delirious now. Moments to savour include a pre-presidential Nixon seeking the modest man's vote with a telling lift from Abe Lincoln: 'God must have loved the common people, he made so many of them.'

The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]  May 2004, later named Hoberman’s #1 Film of the Year in 2004, seen here:  J. Hoberman: 1977-2006

Finished—or perhaps abandoned—after nearly half a century of work, Ken Jacobs's monumental, monstrous Star Spangled to Death receives its first ever theatrical run this week at Anthology Film Archives. The movie is a six-hour assemblage of found audio-visual material ranging from political campaign films to animated cartoons to children's phonograph records, interwoven with gloriously eccentric original footage shot mainly on the streets (and in the dumps) of late-'50s New York.

Do these underdog antics gloss the evidence Jacobs has gathered? Or is it vice versa? The movie is a vast, ironic pageant of 20th-century American history and consciousness. Fantastic street theater alternates with classroom hygiene films or dated studies of behavioral modification; Jacobs's performers, notably the young Jack Smith, hobnob with Mickey Mouse, Al Jolson, and American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. Obsession overflows as Jacobs's private mythology and outspoken cultural criticism merge with relentless documentation of America's ongoing military mobilization and institutionalized racism. I reviewed Star Spangled to Death when it was shown once last October as part of the New York Film Festival; since then Jacobs has made it even more topical in his references to our current war.

Jacobs has availed himself of advancing technology by adding all manner of annotation, some even subliminal. As a work of art, Star Spangled to Death has as much in common with the Watts Towers or the Barnes Foundation as with cinema as we know it; still, its theatrical run is most likely the movie event of the year.

The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]  October 2003

The ultimate underground movie, Star Spangled to Death, Ken Jacobs's epic, bargain-basement assemblage, annotates a lyrical junkyard allegory with chunks of mainly '30s American movies—or is it the other way around?

When Parker Tyler identified the cinematic desire to "provide a documentary showcase for the underdog's spontaneous, uncontrolled fantasy," he was surely thinking of Jacobs's desperately beautiful immersion in childish behavior and political despair. Jacobs began shooting Star Spangled in the late '50s, and the movie has become his life's work. Over the years, he's screened it in various versions—for the 1976 Bicentennial as Flop, heavily Reaganized in 1984, and a few years later for his AMMI retro. The movie has always been "too long," but this six-hour, possibly definitive, version, showing at the New York Film Festival, adds even more found footage—including a 30-minute prologue drawn from a documentary of Osa and Martin Johnson in Africa—while updating sections with references to the war in Iraq.

Jacobs alternates between marshaling evidence and showcasing manic performance. The young Jack Smith appears variously as a sheikh, a matador, a bishop, and an odalisque. Smith is fearless in making a public spectacle of himself. Repeatedly mixing it up with his environment—erupting on the Bowery in gauze-festooned splendor or materializing on St. Marks Place with a paper-bag crown and brandishing a mop—he provides a constant Feuillade effect, introducing wild fantasy into the sooty neorealism of '50s New York. Jacobs provides him with a foil—an emaciated piece of human wreckage, Jerry Sims, typically seen amid the creepy clutter of his Lower East Side hovel. (In the last chapter, Sims's misery is redeemed—he's permitted to set fire to a campaign poster for the movie's bête noire Nelson Rockefeller.)

Jacobs uses movies throughout—a Warners short made to publicize the NRA; an early, scummy Mickey Mouse cartoon; an excerpt from Kid Millions in which Eddie Cantor opens a "free" ice-cream factory—to ground the action in Depression flashbacks. This found material, often layered with added sound, allows Jacobs to brood on human programming, military triumphalism, and—most insistently—American racism. There's a devastating progression from a virtual Nazi-toon version of Uncle Tom's Cabin through Al Jolson's infamous "Going to Heaven on a Mule" and an excerpt from Oscar Micheaux's God's Step Children to Khalid Muhammad's speech in praise of LIRR gunman Colin Ferguson. The Holocaust figures here as well—although Jacobs ultimately apologizes for typecasting the outcast Sims as suffering ghetto Jew.

Although the movie's collage structure is designed to boggle the mind, individual shots can be breathtaking. Jacobs's dynamic compositions use mirrors, scrims, and random debris in a manner anticipating Smith's Flaming Creatures. (Indeed, shown as performance, Star Spangled to Death provided the model for Smith's own unfinished epics—particularly No President.) In the end, the movie turns mournfully self-reflexive. With its intimations of aesthetic utopia amid the rubble of social collapse, this is a tragic meditation on what Jean-Luc Godard called "the film of history."

Star Spangled to Death   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


Star Spangled to Death  Ken Jacobs’s own comments about his film from Cinematexas


Martin Teller


Philadelphia Weekly [Matt Prigge]


New York Times (registration req'd)  Dave Kehr [C.P. Czarnecki]



USA  (92 mi)  2007


d+kaz [Daniel Kasman]

Ken Jacobs spends almost ninety minutes digitally taking apart and exploring A.C. Abadie’s 1903 short for the Edison company Razzle Dazzle in as many ways as one can imagine only to reach the conclusion that there are nearly an infinite amount of details of motion, distortion, horror, surprise, and secrets in any given amount of moving film. Abadie’s single-shot short is of a fairground ride that is a gigantic suspended circle, upon which ride mostly children and some adults, and is spun and tilted around and around by men pushing the orbital ring. The oscillation of the ring as it approaches the camera and recedes gives an almost three dimensional sense of space to the film, one which Jacobs becomes fascinated with. He juxtaposes the false sense of dimensionality of this short with stereopticon photographs (the ones where binoculars combine two images taken adjacently to produce an optical illusion of three-dimensionality) which he cleverly edits together, cutting rapidly back and forth between the two images so that they appear animated. Coupled with additional digital warping (the entire film is digitally made, processed, and projected) makes these “still” photographs almost look like the camera is moving around a three dimensional object, unlike the clips of Razzle Dazzle which for all its false dimensions is but a flat projection. Meanwhile, Abadie’s short is being endlessly explored: for the most part changing the color scheme to a bleeding red, white and black, Jacobs deeply zooms in, stutters motion, slows it down, performs picture in picture, overlaps the footage with slower or faster footage, and so on. As in Lars von Trier’s excerpts and remakes of Jørgen Leth’s short in The Five Obstructions we never see the source material in its original form all the way through, though a tantalizing glimpse of unaltered, unzoomed footage about fifteen minutes in becomes an unexpected physical relief on the eyes. All the manipulations find unique elements inside what seems like the limited motion and content of Abadie’s beautiful but simple film, everything from miniscule human gestures to abstractions of shapes and movement beyond recognition. These often tilt towards the horrific; zoomed in so far, the colors saturated and warped, and the footage slowed down to grotesque levels of distortion, often times the human faces seem to melt, the eyes turning hollow and ghastly very much like a nightmarish Edvard Munch character. These silent, screaming figures that seem to erupt from the footage or more likely lurk beneath its surface gaiety are reflected in the turn the film takes in its last third, moving most overtly away from all the varied and repeated manipulation of Razzle Dazzle and moving towards a montage of the stereopticon images, almost all dealing with war (specifically the Spanish-American war of this proto-cinematic era), the soundtrack quoting Edison’s “first” recording of his voice in giving his support to what sounds like American intervention into World War I, and a final use of the three dimension effect to bubble out a pile of skulls as eerie and undercutting as Holbein’s implicitly referenced optical illusion in The Ambassadors.

To what end is all this? It is not clear; the film’s burrowing absorption with Abadie’s short and experimentation with digital manipulation (much of it inspired, some of it unfortunately baring the marks of someone not used to the conventions of computer imagery—some of the three dimensional uses Abadie’s short with spheres, squares, and receding imagery looks awkward and dated) is indeed alarmingly painful, exhilarating, tiresome, revelatory, rhythmic, and fascinating in and of itself, as much about film texture (and the digital texture of film) as it is about Abadie’s specific photographic content. The connection with the optical view of the life inside the film with its digital manipulation, and its comparison to the more surreally paradoxical “still lives” from stereopticons, unreally animated into partial movement, lightly touches on phenomenological questions about cinema as a medium. There is a strange gap in the idea and perception that the still images, taking place over space (next to one another) cognitively approximate real life better than the two-dimensional Razzle Dazzle. Yet Abadie’s short, taking place over time, provides real movement that can only be simulated in Jacob’s manipulation of the stereopticon (just like the 3D effect of the short is likewise only approximated digitally). And it seems like it is movement in time rather than space that is most interesting overall, as Razzle Dazzle seems to provide an immense catalog of details and moments that the stereopticon lacks in its powerful spatial “thereness”. Yet it is these latter images that call into question most directly and literally the state of the world, both around the time of their creation and now, during another imperialist state of war. This theme’s connection to the Edison film seems mostly tangential, unless one reads some of the horror lurking in the digital, pixilated depths of its images as a kind of implicit acknowledgement that behind any utopist scene or sense lays a suggestion of darkness. The film may never coalesce—if it was even meant to, though one with so few parts so carefully played with suggests a strong, concrete deliberation—and definitely overstays its welcome, but the amount of visual variety and mystery to be found in an early silent film and the degree to which new technologies can root out and find new pleasures and meanings in an old, perhaps forgotten film is a pleasure to see. The larger questions asked in terms of dimensionality of images and this aesthetic and perceptional notion’s relationship to death, war, and politics, is much less clear but no less stimulating.


USA  2007


2007 New York Film Festival "Views from the Avant-Garde"  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


Much of Jacobs' recent post-Star Spangled to Death output has consisted of his finding new and unique ways of employing video to create permanent versions of the 2D / 3D pulse-and-flicker film-performances known as the Nervous System. Although the rate of flicker is different, and Jacobs has a slightly altered set of tricks at his disposal when sitting down to the editing console, video has served him well. The hypnotic, deeply physical character of the Nervous System has carried over, even if the specific quality of light and shadow is less tangible. However in many if not most of these new works, Jacobs is examining a concrete artifact of visual culture -- an early movie, a stereoscope card, a set of photos -- and this lends significant optical weight to the pieces in question. Surging Sea of Humanity is a fine example of this work. In it, Jacobs uses digital superimpositions, kaleidoscopic reverb and flange, and differential focus to take us around an image of a late 19th century crowd gathered at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Jacobs shatters the picture but always brings it back together with a tunnel-like focus on a single individual from the crowd, as though both the orthogonals of the image and the crowd itself were organizing and reorganizing itself around a single body. In time, figures becomes paneled excerpts which strobe and flicker, and the two parallax views of the stereoscope are presented in rapid succession, giving the visual field a 3D, hologrammatic feel. But Jacobs' continual realignment of "the mass" around shifting individual souls hints at a social theory, a radical democracy of both the image and the public sphere. Surging Sea provides a glimpse of how we might act collectively without sacrificing our subjectivities to the mob.



USA  2007


Dreams That Money Can't Buy  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


In all fairness, this is the sixth Nervous System-derived performance work I've seen, and while every single one of them entails dazzling effects and visceral thrills you will never find anywhere -- Jacobs is an American master in every meaningful sense of the word --, Dreams was the first that struck me as uneven and rather murky in its overall structure. One way through the piece, a productive one that offers some concepts without minimizing the pure phenomenology of the work itself, is to recall that Jacobs has dedicated Dreams to Phil Solomon. The performance has concrete correspondence to Solomon's work, particularly the thick, hovering tactility of his work in celluloid. Jacobs' work here produced fewer individual forms across time, instead opting for craggy sheets of visual material that allude to the surfaces of Solomon's films while also momentarily solidifying into semi-objects. Dreams is the most purely abstract Magic Lantern work I've seen from Jacobs, and it makes perfect sense here -- Jacobs is performing (no firm object or residue) and producing effects, not forms (nothing much to "apprehend" in an acquisitive, vicarious-ownership kind of way). As one might expect, the results are somewhat inconsistent across time, and Reed's soundtrack reflects this. It's more a series of musical snippets that a symphonic work, per se. All in all, Dreams is usually lovely, and often a dark, shimmering world in which it's a pleasure to lose oneself.



USA  (3 mi)  2007


Nov  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


When confronted with experimental film or video, it's not an uncommon response for viewers to find themselves at a loss for words. This typically hasn't been a problem for me; in fact, I'd tend to say I throw rather too much verbiage at the avant-garde films I love. But for weeks now, I've been at a bit of a loss for just how to grapple with Ken Jacobs's Capitalism: Slavery, a videowork of deceptive simplicity. Like many of his recent videos, Capitalism: Slavery is a transcription of certain procedures Jacobs has adapted from his Nervous System performances. In this case, he has taken a stereoscope image of slaves in a field picking cotton, with a white overseer monitoring them on horseback, and zeroed in one certain portions of the image. Furthermore, he has once again chosen to alternate rapidly between the two parallax views, resulting in a twisting, pulsating 3D force field in which the image "moves" but does not progress. I have now seen this three-minute video three times, and only this time do I really feel prepared to comment on it in any substantive way.


The piece is quite remarkable, in part because its rather straightforward presentation of an emotionally volatile historical fact slowly reveals itself as a far more complex, more plangent work of art -- a silent threnody, if you will. At first I couldn't get past the content of what I was seeing -- the visual record of one of the most unfathomable injustices in human history. What's more, Jacobs's pairing of the piece with the longer Capitalism: Child Labor makes a larger, crucial political point, that our present New Gilded Age, and all wealth amassed since the foundation of the American nation, is borne on the backs of the oppressed, a ledger forever stamped in blood. No reparation, no monument, and no day of remembrance can change this. But Jacobs's video actually accomplishes something more. In the opening shot, we see a young woman, scarf-covered head down, in the airy, entwined tendrils of the cotton field. She is lovely, and in any other context her pose and poise would make her a candidate for immortalization by Vermeer. At this split second of the camera's click, her misery has accidentally assumed a classical pose. Jacobs allows us to admire her beauty and her dignity, and then slowly he reintroduces her surroundings -- the cotton field, the other slaves, the slavedriver. Near the middle of the film, Jacobs again isolates individuals, allowing them to come forth in their individual radiance and singularity before they are, in essence, forced to return to "the field" of visual generality. As with his other recent works, Jacobs has found abstract aesthetic means to promote a rigorous intellectual program that asks nothing less than a reimagining of our social relations. Like those earnest pamphleteers who tell us next to nothing, all he asks is a few minutes of your time. The rewards are immeasurable.



USA  (13 mi)  2011


Pushcarts of Eternity Street  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

In his brief comments before the screening, Jacobs (tongue presumably in cheek) noted that since "everything is futile," he had given up on grand endeavors and was (temporarily?) restricting himself to "small gestures." I suppose this makes a lot of sense after spending decades completing Star Spangled to Death, a film so trenchant and anarchically righteous that should have brought about instant regime change. Working in an entirely different vein, Pushcarts is in every way a deliberately minor work, and although it is quiet and lovely, it is the sort of piece that might function more successfully as a gallery installation. Jacobs extends an early actualité of street vendors and their clientele milling about a city street, using video to introduce a periodic stutter into the footage. Naturally this allows us to see isolated gestures and fragments of the original film that, if it were moving at normal speed, we'd never notice. But Jacobs has been working with these strategies for quite some time, and Pushcarts is the first piece of his that seems limited in the spectatorial possibilities it could generate. From Tom, Tom through the Nervous System pieces, to say nothing of Jacobs' infamous pedagogical work with the analytical projector, there has been a trajectory of increased dispersal, "cinema" as an ever-expanding galaxy. Pushcarts, despite its beauty and built-in nostalgia, feels comparatively small -- not reductive, exactly, but certainly bounded tightly on all sides. The imagery flickers but doesn't lose its forms in abstraction. The stuttering advancement of the film is measured out, but no clear impact results from this structure. Jacobs asks us to see this short film with new eyes, but it would require a more expansive framework, or Jacobs himself at the podium, to really let the original film mutate into something new.

Jacobs, Michael


AUDIENCE OF ONE                                               D-                    52

USA  (88 mi)  2007


“If you ask me, this was the message of Christ: To dream big.”   —Pastor Richard Gazowsky, Voice of Pentecost Church, San Francisco

A completely forgettable movie experience, though there were bits of unanticipated humor due to the sheer absurdity of it all, but I was unpleasantly surprised at how completely uninteresting the subject of this documentary film is, an exposé on an arrogant, self-inflated Pentecostal preacher from San Francisco whose life should hold little interest to anyone.  But because he believes God speaks to him, and he makes wild proclamations, people listen, forgetting that Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s convicted assassin also felt God was speaking to him as well, as well as many other sociopaths.  That in itself is not news (See:  "God Made Me Do It" and any other number of similar occurrences).  But what’s ludicrous here is that so many people actually listen to this man for more than thirty seconds, apparently buying into his delusional story that God told him to create the greatest film company in the world and make the greatest movie, a Christian message movie where he initially alleges he has received over $250 million dollars in financial backing.  Knowing absolutely nothing about the business of making films, he travels to Italy with his congregation and hires movie extras on faith alone, expecting everyone to ardently follow his optimism that simply wishing it so will make it so.  A series of one folly after another, what can go wrong will go wrong, seen as a behind the scenes BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE (1971), he shows no regard for the health concerns of the crew, working them all hours of the night for shots that never get made, using shoddy equipment that continually breaks down and oftentimes places individuals into hazardous situations, while he simply overlooks everything placing his faith in the Lord. 


When his overseas adventure doesn’t work out, he sets up his film crew in an abandoned warehouse on an island in the San Francisco Bay (See:  Treasure Island (California) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).  But when his alleged funding doesn’t come through, he is quickly served eviction notice for non-payment of rent, where he preaches to his flock that the politicians are also being tested by God, as are they, to have faith that it will come, yet can be seen still spending money (on credit) that they don’t have.  Unlike AMERICAN MOVIE (1999), a terrific movie about making a home grown movie on the fly, there’s little to learn here about the moviemaking process itself or the crazy notions that inspire a vision, as unlike other documentaries that actually attempt to educate the public about a certain subject or issue, this one simply shows this preacher and his congregation in operation, where his own mother, the previous pastor, all but disowns him, claiming she never should have turned the ministry over to her son.  One disaster after another, they continue on their path of believing that this is what God has told them to do.  Out of nowhere, in the direst hour, the pastor comes up with his latest solution, the 8 Arrow Path, which includes owning a Christian airline as well as the first Christian colonization of another planet, which is met with enthusiastic applause, as they all pray that God will somehow provide this miracle.  While the filmmaker never interjects or asks for sensible explanations, he simply records their actions, but in doing so, he never attempts to hold them rationally accountable for any of their actions and instead quietly goes about the business of making his own film, come what may.  In this manner, there is absolutely no lasting value to anything offered up in this film.  Some may sit back and laugh “at them,” but that is equivalent to watching the Saturday morning cartoons on TV.  There is no reason to sit through this film.  I found it mind-numbingly vacuous.      


Audience of One   Andrea Gronvall from The Reader


Richard Gazowsky, pastor of San Franciso's Voice of Pentecost Church, saw his first movie at age 40 and, claiming a divine mandate to create "the greatest movie ever made," persuaded his small but loyal flock to pool their money and energies on what he described as a cross between Star Wars and The Ten Commandments. The flamboyant clergyman seems like an ideal target for cheap shots, but Michael Jacobs, who directed this rollicking 2007 documentary, treats him and his parishioners with compassion and restraint. Still, this is a chronicle of delusion and hubris: everything that can go wrong on a movie set does, from equipment failure to budget problems to disgruntled crew members who realize too late that Gazowsky's heavenly instructions don't include any pointers on directing. 89 min.

AUDIENCE OF ONE  Facets Multi-Media

Near the end of the 20th Century, a Pentecostal pastor from San Francisco was praying on a mountain top, when he received a vision from God to "spread the Gospel through filmmaking." Using donations from his congregation, he slowly transformed his church into a fully functioning movie studio, and the production company Christian WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Filmworks was born. After experimenting on a number of small projects, Pastor Richard Gazowsky announced that he and his WYSIWYG crew were to begin production of the sci-fi epic, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph – a biblical science fiction movie that would redefine the Hollywood epic! Audience of One chronicles a journey - from pre-production meetings in the church basement, to principal photography in Italy, to the leasing of a gigantic Bay Area studio –that would ultimately test the limits of everyone’s faith. Hilarious, provocative, and always entertaining, Audience of One, expertly documented by director Michael Jacobs, is a story of stupendous ambition, staggering inexperience and, ultimately, the sort of faith that few of us can muster for anything, much less a divinely ordained feature film in all its convoluted glory. Directed by Michael Jacobs, USA/Italy, 2007, 35mm, 88 mins.

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review

San Francisco Pentecostal minister Richard Gazowsky received word from God that he was to make a movie. Not just any movie, but an epic science fiction, Biblical epic shot in 70mm, with a budget that eventually swells past $100 million. Documentary filmmaker Michael Jacobs documents the process, which -- to say the least -- goes slightly less well than Noah's building the ark. The new documentary -- largely shot in my neighborhood -- breaks down into two main sections. We see all the planning, and all the aliens and gizmos that Gazowsky dreams up for his movie, followed by a quick trip to Italy for five days of shooting. Although, thanks to many camera problems, those five days come down to just a couple of completed shots. Then the crew comes back to San Francisco, rents a space in the luxurious Treasure Island studios, and waits, fending off thieves and beaurocrats until more money comes in. Gazowsky is a likeable enough character, with a larger-than-life personality, but the key to this film should have been in finding a balance between passion and insanity. Even Gazowsky himself admits: "a guy says he hears the voice of God; either I'm right or I'm crazy." Unfortunately for the film, Jacobs chooses a side in the final scene, thereby negating all the mystery and anticipation. Moreover, the film feels unfinished and anticlimactic, with too many huge leaps in time and no real ending. But I'm still recommending it, mainly because of the great story it hints at and for the way it genuinely captures the excitement and heartbreak of filmmaking. Arne Johnson, also known as the director of the documentary Girls Rock! (2008) is interviewed in his capacity as editor of Film/Tape World, who has the "real" scoop on Gazowsky.

User comments  from imdb Author: JustCuriosity from Austin, TX

This film screened at the SXSW film festival in Austin, TX where it was very well-received by audiences and received a Special Jury Award. Audience of One may be the first "Making Of" film for an unmade film.

The film captured the incredibly bizarre story Reverend Richard Gazowsky's San Francisco-based Pentecostal Church and their efforts to create a film studio and film a great Christian epic film that would be a combination of "Star Wars" and the "Ten Commandments." Audience of One brilliantly captures the inevitable train wreck that ensues as they assemble a cast and crew of mostly incompetent amateurs and attempt to create a great film. Their mistakes are laughable and absurd to any film professional.

Despite persistence and dedication, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and are never able to come anywhere close to creating a real film. Audience of One is really a study of the meaning of fundamentalist faith and asks us where we should draw the line between reason/rationality and faith in God. Rational Modernists could view their actions as insane and irrational and wonder whether these people would actually "drink the Kool-Aid" if asked. The film is also a study of the power of charismatic leadership to make people act in ways that seem irrational to outsiders. Still, while their pursuit may seem wasteful and a little foolish it is ultimately fairly harmless compared to, for example, the Rev. Fred Phelps "God Hates Fags" ministry as portrayed in the brilliant documentary "Fall from Grace" (which also screened this year at SXSW).

Audience of One is a truly enjoyable film to watch. It is both humorous and sad at the same time. While Audience of One serves as a warning about the dangers of fundamentalism, it should also offer secular viewers people a useful window into the power of religious faith to inspire believers. Perhaps the real lesson is that faith is a powerful tool and if harnessed for the right means can actually inspire believers in many ways. Here the task that people are inspired to pursue is one that is beyond their means, but that should be contrasted with the vast amount of good deeds that is accomplished by religious believers on a daily basis. I hope that people don't take from this film only the message that faith is dangerous and destructive, but rather the message that faith needs to be balanced with rationality.

User comments  from imdb Author: Adam Donaghey ( from United States

After the screening of Audience of One, much to the surprise--nay, the horror--of viewers, Pastor Richard Gazowsky and some of his congregation approached the stage with director Michael Jacobs. I, for one, had my hand over my mouth; my eyes were widened; and I certainly didn't know what to expect next.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--let's backtrack.

It took Gazowsky forty years to see his first feature film. Now the mission statement of his San Francisco based WYIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") Filmworks is: "To bring the presence of God to people all over the world through entertainment." A highly unlikely candidate for a director, Gazowsky has made it his lifelong mission--since God told him to do it, of course--to get the biggest film ever on screen. It's kinda like "Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments"; shot on 65mm, it will be "the greatest movie ever made" and with a two million dollar budget to boot! A humble goal, indeed. Well, with that kind of pressure on your shoulders, it's no doubt that the film hasn't been made, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars and over a decade invested.

Jacobs doesn't really interfere much, in this film. He simply sits back and watches the roller coaster that is WYSIWYG Filmworks. Throughout the documentary, we see a highly inexperienced crew, a director who treats the set as a dictatorship instead of a collaboration, and a train wreck of goofs, mix-ups and failures. Anyone outsourced--and with any experience--ends up leaving, due to the misguided creative vision of the wannabe director. The crew spends money they don't have, relying on "investors" we never see; who end up dropping the whole project in the grease. Yet, the troupe hold on to that crazy vision and pray like there's no tomorrow because they are bound by faith! Just about the entire film made me laugh out loud, but at the same time, I felt a little ill in my stomach. The real question here--despite all the buffoonery and delusion--seems to be of immense import: is all of this a tad bit dangerous? Going back to the Q&A session, after the film; one audience member asked the pastor if he'd immediately turn to operate, if God had asked him to be a surgeon. And while the pastor's answer is an obvious one, the question still lingers in the air. Is this man's ambitiousness capable of hurting others around him? I certainly don't doubt this man's determination or his conviction--he actually sold his house to help the project--however, I do have doubt in his ability to deliver. And while he may be blinded by his own ambition, it's simply no excuse to waste the hopes and aspirations--and money!--of true believers, on the weak foundation of a deluded dream. This problematic, cultish mentality might be funny from the outside; but as we've seen so many times over: fundamentalism can be a very dangerous thing.

The pastor's response to all of this?

"It's like watching yourself go to the toilet," he says with sincerity. "I don't like to see myself cry. I feel like a total idiot in front of you guys. But what if we end up getting funded, dude? Then I'm not so stupid. Maybe." Maybe. Or, perhaps you're just a charlatan, who's just wasted another large sum of money--and someone else's dreams--due to false promises, based on absurdity and lofty goals, impossible to meet.

Karate Party  Steve McCleary

Audience of One is the documentary about Richard Gazowsky, pastor of the Voice of Pentecost Church in San Francisco (you know, the types of churches that tend to involve groups speaking in tongues and having dancing fits), and his belief that God spoke to him and told him to take his congregation on the path to creating the biggest Biblical epic in film history. It was to be entitled Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph and set in the future. This is the story of Pastor Richard and his goal that has shaped the life of his Church for the last ten years as they attempt to fight against all odds, with none bigger than their own naivety and ignorance. But then the question remains…is this any different than any other aspiring filmmaker?

This documentary is extremely fun to watch, although tinged with sadness. If you remember the end of Borat, where he visited a Pentecostal Church then you have a small insight into what I mean. It’s kind of humorous watching people blame Satan for the power company shutting off their power, when they really should be blaming the fact that they didn’t pay their power bill in six months. But then, it’s sad to know that people live this way…never really understanding the way the world really works, expecting hand-outs and special treatment constantly, and when that doesn’t work out then it’s ‘evil forces’ conspiring against them. This is pretty much the case in this film.

I’m a pretty big fan of documentaries like this one. And right from the get-go I think you already know whether there is any chance of you going to see it…if this type of thing doesn’t interest you then you're not going to go. If it does, the main questions are ‘will it be any good…will I be preached to…what angle is taken?’ Simply; yes, it’s a good one. And the pleasant thing about this filmmaker is that there is no preaching, or anti-religion message, from them. They remain completely neutral and you never get an idea for how they feel about the situation as it unfolds. That is a key point here, as you need an impartial eye to follow the Pastor and his dedicated flock, as well as follow the tales of the poor people taken along for a ride they never signed up for. Things, of course, are edited a certain way (as with all docos) to create a certain effect, but the events that take place are still things that actually happened. It’s a good job by all.

This is worth seeing for the bizarre people involved. From the poor actor (with no specific religious inclination-just looking for work) who gets trapped in their production, to the naming of their production company ‘WYSIWYG’ (What You See Is What You Get…catchy) to another main actor who I’m pretty certain is Tommy Chong’s illegitimate child. There is much humour and many awkward moments contained within for your viewing pleasure. And hey-you haven’t heard of this film taking the world by storm, so there’s an indication of how it all turns out...

Having seen a lot of these types of documentaries, ones about filmmaking and ones about religious groups, I found this quite entertaining and fascinating. I heartily recommend it for an enjoyable watching experience.

Twitch (Todd Brown) review

Village Voice (J. Hoberman) review

Cinematical  James Rocchi

The Lumière Reader  David Levinson

Ruthless Reviews review  Matt Cale

Providence Journal  Michael Janusonis

Pop Journalism [Sarah Gopaul]

Hollywood Jesus  Elisabeth Leitch

Slant Magazine review  Keith Uhlich

Movie Patron [Andrew James]

Variety (Ronnie Scheib) review


Boston Globe [Wesley Morris]


Austin Chronicle  James Renovitch


San Francisco Chronicle (Walter Addiego) review


Jacobsen, Jannicke Systad


TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! (Få meg på, for faen)           B+                   92

Norway  (76 mi)  2011


While the film title reflects a whimsical, almost comic book style silliness, where there’s not likely to be anything to take seriously, this is instead a hilarious, surprisingly complex and insightful youth film, told from the point of view of one 15-year old Norwegian girl, Alma (Helene Bergsholm), who is smart and sarcastic as hell.  Just the opening segue introducing her tiny Norwegian town in the mountains as a place of empty roads and sheep, where absolutely nothing ever happens, where the girls her age give the village sign the finger every time they enter town, which is in stark contrast to the majestic mountainside forests with a pristine lake down below set in the rugged fjords of the region.  In fact, it looks like a perfect vacation destination, but every kid loathes the town they get stuck in.  Alma hangs out with two sisters, Ingrid (Beate Støfring), a buxom Scandinavian Brünnhilde with a love for lip gloss and Saralou (Malin Bjørhovde), an edgier outcast with a social conscience closer to Thora Birch’s Enid from GHOST WORLD (2001).  Alma, herself a blond beauty, pokes fun of the world around her while continually imagining herself in the throes of some wild sexual experience, where unlike many teen movies she isn’t having lots of sex, she’s dreaming of having lots of sex, keeping her so confused her fantasy and reality worlds are interchangeable, keeping the viewer off balance as well where they can’t tell the difference.  Her alternate world is sexy and hilarious and certainly keeps her upbeat and happy.  The problem is having to return to reality and bear the same monotonous doldrums again.


Based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen, about a girl in a small place with very active hormones, the story could be anyone and is not unique to Alma, but the director wraps this film around Alma’s snappy wit and personal charm, making this something of a Scandinavian delight constantly poking fun at itself, a film that would never be made in the United States, as the uninhibited sex scenes are scandalous showing teenagers actually enjoying themselves—how novel an idea.  For instance, in the opening scene, Alma gets down and dirty on her kitchen floor, fingering herself while listening to Stigge, an overfriendly phone sex operator from “Wet and Wild Dreams.”  But the real object of Alma’s desires is Artur (Matias Myren), a cute kid living nearby that she sees at school and also occasionally while walking her dog, but she envisions him climbing through her window at night crawling into bed with her and spending the night in each other’s arms.  Instead she meets him at a dance at the local youth center, which is basically a gymnasium without basketball nets and old beat up sofas sitting outside.  While Alma is standing outside sipping a beer, Artur walks up and exposes himself, actually poking her thigh with his erection, where it’s impossible to know whether this is real or imagined.  However venomous rumors rapidly spread throughout the school and Alma is immediately shunned and ostracized, even by her own friends, becoming the least popular kid in class, where graffiti on the bathroom walls label her “Dick-Alma.”


This is like every 15-year old’s worst nightmare, expressed in a laceratingly dark comic style that also contains a touch of poignancy, as despite the fact her fantasies do resemble the sexually hyper-exaggerated world of musicals, she is completely devastated by the turn of events.  Making matters worse, her mom finds out about her phone sex bills and blabs about it to everyone she knows all over town.  This is the true portrait of small towns where everyone knows everybody else’s business, where you can’t do a thing without the whole world knowing about it.  In panic, Alma runs away to Oslo to visit Saralou’s older sister Marie in college, hoping she can offer some perspective, where after hearing Alma’s story one of her boyfriends actually composes a tender tribute song on the spot called “Dick-Alma.”  Wonderfully capturing the awkward age of teenagers, this is a coming-of-age comedy where Alma hopes to reclaim her lost self esteem, where her sexual awakening coincides with her newly developing maturity, where she has to find a way to handle the gossipers and backstabbers that thrive in every small town.  This first time filmmaker hits all the right notes with this one, writing an impressively smart screenplay that obsesses and thrives on teen boredom, a socially observant and delightful romp, drop dead hilarious at times, made even more appealing by the outstanding music from Ginge Anvik.  Yana Litovsky


The landscape of teenage daydreams (the raunchy kind) are captured with titillating precision in this stylish comedy about one girl’s explosive sexual awakening. Stuck in a tiny Norwegian town, Alma spends her afternoons calling a friendly phone sex operator and fantasizing about a dreamy classmate. When she’s shunned by her school (and even the neighborhood toddlers) for telling an uncorroborated story about said crush’s unusual pass at her, her social isolation winds her sexuality into even more of a frenzy. Frequent musical interludes over images of angelic blondes in gleaming IKEA-laden apartments seem like commercials for organic cotton, but they are cut off as harshly as an interrupted reverie. [Cole Smithey]

Finally, there is a coming-of-age teen comedy that addresses the confused effects of horniness from a young girl’s perspective. That such an inevitable viewpoint comes from Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, a Norwegian woman filmmaker, seems fitting. Jacobsen’s debut film draws its twitching heart and soul from its 15-year-old leading character Alma (persuasively played Helene Bergsholm).

Alma hates her small rural town of Skoddenheimen, Norway. She and her friends ritually flip the bird at the town’s roadside sign whenever they pass it.

Momentarily addicted to masturbating with the aid of a paid phone sex line, Alma almost gets her real-life wish when her heart-throb neighbor Artur (Matias Myren) presses his bare member against her dress while the two chat privately outside a house party. Excited by the event, Alma makes the grievous mistake of announcing Artur’s sexual overture to everyone at the party. Ostracized by the community, and given the unfortunate title of “Dick Alma,” the confused young woman suffers even more than her reproving single-parent mother could ever hope for as punishment. Based on a popular Norwegian novel, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is at once a celebration of youthful sexuality and a cautionary tale of kissing-and-telling.

Spout [Daniel Walber]

We’re halfway through Tribeca and “Turn Me On, Goddammit” still holds up as my favorite narrative film premiering at the fest. I wrote about it before in our pre-festival recommendation post, but in the context of the rest of the World Narrative Competition, I need to sound off a bit more. The first word that comes to mind when I think on the Norwegian sex comedy is “refreshing,” a point which I think can’t be over-stated when it comes to coming of age movies of this caliber.

Alongside “Turn Me On” in the competition is “She Monkeys,” a drama that is a sort of understated companion piece from across the border in Sweden. Directors Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (“Turn Me On”) and Lisa Aschan (“She Monkeys”) each take a look at the standard sexually-focused coming of age narrative and add not only a great degree of honesty and integrity but also an emphasis on the experience of young women that is often severely lacking (at least in American cinema).

There are a few obvious points to make first. The actors in the films are roughly the age of their characters, none of this 20-something or even 30-something casting that seems to pervade every teen movie produced in the US these days (“Prom” is a notable exception, which deserves to be commended). There’s also a commitment to veracity of character in “Turn Me On” and “She Monkeys” and their respective filmmakers present their adolescent protagonists with the perfect collage of innocence, awkwardness and emerging desire. American movie teens tend to be either saturated with an unrealistic sexual sophistication or extraordinarily idealized naïve purity, both of which fall far off the mark.

More importantly, however, is the way that these two films take seriously the goal of creating well-constructed and genuine young women to lead their narratives. I acknowledge that I’m the kind of guy that just can’t turn off the Bechdel test in my head, but it is definitely worth pointing out that both “Turn Me On” and “She Monkeys” bring some much needed humanity and vitality to the generally boy-crazy teenage girls that populate their genre.

The two films and their protagonists, Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), are very different. Alma is somewhat possessed by her burgeoning sexuality, spending far too much of her mother’s money on phone sex (to hilarious result) while Emma is daring but inexperienced, and much more introspective. Yet they each have a deeply complex and developing perspective, like any real teenager. Moreover, the interactions they have with the other female figures in their lives, whether friend or mother or coach, are artfully written articulations of the way these girls live. Shockingly, it seems that the days and nights of teenage girls are not completely dominated by obsessing over boys. Who knew? Someone please send some screeners of these films to Catherine Hardwicke.

Culture Blues [Jeremiah White]

The last few years have been pretty good for teen comedies. We've finally evolved past the American Pie induced era of gross out fests, and have been getting more choice offerings like Adventureland, Superbad and last year’s terrific Youth in Revolt. It seems the trend is not limited to the States, as Norway’s Turn Me On, Goddammit is a fresh and highly enjoyable treatment of all the familiar teenage issues: fitting in, escaping the trappings of a small, provincial hometown and, of course, sex.

Based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen, Turn Me On tells the story of Alma (played with poise by newcomer Helene Bergsholm), a relatively unspectacular teenager whose overactive imagination and hyperactive hormones only exacerbate her frustrations with a concerned mother, a nosy old neighbor, and bitchy friends. Unlike many movie teenagers obsessed with sex, Alma does not spend her time trying to do the deed, she spends most of her time thinking about doing it. It’s much more palatable and interesting than a bunch of horndogs desperate to lose their virginity before they graduate.

An awkward pseudo-sexual encounter with her popular crush turns Alma into an outcast. Despite battle lines being drawn, Turn Me On avoids treating its characters as good guys and bad guys. The audience can sympathize with Alma throughout, but she can also be a bit of a brat. Her best friend, Sara, pulls away from her along with everyone else at school, rather than face the exclusion and scorn of peers herself. It’s not exactly noble, but it’s easy to understand her desire to not make waves. High school is bad enough without going out of your way to make enemies.

Turn Me On acts out a number of Alma’s daydreams. It’s a common ploy in teenage movies, but here these sequences are not just an excuse for exaggerated scenes of triumph and humiliation or predictable jokes where Alma is jolted out of her reverie. Instead, they help deepen our understanding of Alma. A unique and welcome twist is that Alma even imagines some scenes where she isn’t present, and others are simply talking about her. As a teenager, what people say about you is just as important as what happens to you.

Turn Me On is the first narrative film from veteran documentary filmmaker Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. Her understated direction furnishes the film with a dry sense of humor and a melancholy appropriate for a bunch of kids who can’t wait to graduate high school but don’t know what they are going to do afterward. The laughs aren’t constant, but they’re well earned and Turn Me On’s atmosphere and story don’t require constant gags to hold the viewer’s interest. Consider it further evidence of the teen comedy renaissance.

NPR [Ian Buckwalter]


TRIBECA REVIEW | Despite the Crude Title, “Turn me on, goddammit” Is a Delicate Drama  Eric Kohn from indieWIRE


Teenage Girls Want Phone Sex? Turn Me On, Dammit! Honestly Explores Teenage Sexuality  Emma Pearse from Slant


Movieline [Alison Willmore]


Tribeca Film Fest Review - “Turn Me On Goddammit” > Shadow and ...  Tambay from the indieWIRE blog


Turn Me On, Dammit! - Movie Review  Chris Cabin [Brian Orndorf]


Anomalous Material [Nick Prigge] [Andrew O'Hehir]


Village Voice [Melissa Anderson]


Smells Like Screen Spirit [Don Simpson]  also seen here:  JEsther Entertainment [Don Simpson]


The Velvet Café [Jessica] (English)


Slant Magazine [Andrew Schenker]


Review: 'Turn Me On, Dammit!' A Fun Yet Uneven Look ... - indieWIRE  Christopher Bell from the IndieWIRE Playlist


IONCINEMA [Nicholas Bell]


Movie Buzzers [Alex DiGiovanna]


Turn Me On, Dammit! - BOXOFFICE Magazine  Sara Maria Vizcarrondo [John Soltes]


Pick 'n' Mix Flix [Colin Harris]


Bonjour Tristesse (English)


Jannicke Systad Jacobsen × Helene Bergsholm “Turn me on ...  Cool Bilingual Art Magazine, including an interview with the director and  lead actress, May 14, 2011


Turn Me On, Goddammit! - The Hollywood Reporter  Jordan Mintzer


Variety Reviews - Turn Me On, Goddammit - Tribeca Reviews ...  John Anderson


Time Out New York [Matt Singer]


Jacobson, David


DOWN IN THE VALLEY                            B+                   92

USA  (125 mi)  2005
DOWN IN THE VALLEY, with an accentuation on the word “down,” includes a soundtrack of extremely personalized, so- quiet-it’s-nearly-inaudible music, just a soft voice and a lone guitar, personified by a scene in the film where a character (David Morse) sings Hank Williams “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry.”  For the most part, I thought the film actors themselves were singing their own songs, as they had such a personalized amateur sounding frailty that sounded overly downbeat, to the point of being morose and peculiar, actually distracting from the film itself.  Despite the willingness of this film not to condescend to Hollywood’s expectations, as well as the powerfully affecting performances of the entire cast, it veers a little too far off the road, stretching the credulity of the viewer, feeling overly influenced by the multiple film styles of other films.  Despite its dour, off-beat presentation, what happens always felt predictable, even if how it happens remained tantalizingly appealing. 
Opening with David Gordon Green’s ALL THE REAL GIRLS, highlighting the experience of the personal, represented by naturalness and authenticity, perfectly demonstrated by the effortless performances of Edward Norton, a seemingly naive, super alienated urban cowboy mysteriously living in the San Fernando Valley, and Evan Rachel Wood, a lost and bored teenager who senses a world beyond the confines of her teen circle, who, in a car filled with giddy teenage girls, picks him up from his job working at a gas station and takes him to the beach, as he claimed he’d never seen it before.  The ease of their relationship and how quickly they take to one another, expressed by scenes kissing in the water, where two tiny heads are alone in a huge mass of ocean, or later still smooching on the bus in front of other embarrassed riders, accentuates the theme of two lost souls completely oblivious to the rest of the world, immersed in their own closeness.  The audience is moved by their obvious affection for one another.


But the film takes a strange turn, as Norton does his best Travis Bickle TAXI DRIVER imitation, where we see him alone in his cheap motel room acting out fictitious cowboy movie scenes in his head, always leading with his guns blazing, offering some very peculiar conversation that is an odd variation of real life incidents, as if he is fantasizing his wish fulfillments, ultimately having his way, showing up whoever it was in real life that made him feel small.  The film is rooted in another strong performance by David Morse, Wood’s overly stern father who works in law enforcement, apparently as a corrections officer.  He keeps a collection of guns in the house, but leaves his kids to wander on their own, especially Wood’s younger brother, Rory Culkin, who feels so completely detached from reality and abandoned that he may as well be parentless.  We find out later that Morse is not his real father.  Norton comes looking for Wood one day, finds no one at home except the kid, and takes him out for a little target practice, offering a love-starved kid what may very well be the first friend he’s ever had.  The scenes of Norton on a horse with either Wood or Culkin on his back, riding along the smog covered hills, overlooking the long reach of the valley, best express what this film has to offer, a man left alone from the worries or responsibilities of the real world, in his element riding a horse on the edge of the world looking in. 
At this point, the film takes a turn into BADLANDS, as the stern reaction of Morse to this weird cowboy is stunningly similar to Warren Oates’s reaction to Martin Sheen, as is Norton’s response, becoming the living personification of that film’s character Kit, returning to the home where he has been banished by the father figure, insisting that the girl run away with him.  But as we knew it must, the doors of reality come kicking in on Norton’s world, but this is where the film parts company and walks its own separate path, turning into an outlaw on the run movie, perhaps James Dean, with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but this guy’s a real outlaw, and a demented one at that, succumbing to a nearly delusional world where everyone is out to get him except, somehow, these two strange abandoned kids from this randomly chosen family, which leads to very similar territory already explored in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, as he tries to get his mitts on them.  In this man’s mind, they are his future, and they belong together, come what may.  The delusion takes on special resonance when, while on the run, they awake in what appears to be a fictitious ghost town that is actually filming a live movie on the set, interestingly mixing illusion with reality until Morse arrives in his car.  The scene turns into a real shoot out, with the man on his horse, taking the kid, making his get away.  There are eerie moments on the run, not the least of which is what happens to the girl, but there’s a beautifully developed night scene in a strange darkened haze, eventually becoming somewhat ludicrous the next morning when the guy on his horse makes his way directly into the urban sprawl of a newly developed suburban subdivision, complete with row after row of identical looking houses, hiding out in the construction zone of newly built homes, being chased by a man in a car.  Hiding the horse in the garage was a mistake, as it brays its dissatisfaction at being couped up, a metaphor for the Norton character, a wild beast that wants to be free, cooped up in a human body that must adhere to society’s rules that make no sense to him.  He has no choice but to stand his ground, even when he has no ground to stand on. 


The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias] 

Hollywood could exist in no other place but Los Angeles, the city of dreams, a place malleable enough to accommodate fantasists of all stripes because it doesn't have a particularly strong identity of its own. In David Jacobson's strikingly beautiful Down In The Valley, Edward Norton stars as one of those fantasists, a pistol-slinging, 10-gallon-hat-wearing cowboy who turns contemporary Death Valley into his personal OK Corral, willfully oblivious to the times. And for as long as it can, the movie plays it straight: There's no suggestion of who he really is or how he came to embrace this persona, and Norton's enormous charisma sells him as a charming naïf, cheerfully out of step with an ugly, vulgar world. So, too, Down In The Valley, which recalls George Washington or The Brown Bunny in the way it looks and feels like nothing on the independent scene, and the way it owes more to idiosyncratic '70s films like Badlands, Taxi Driver, and Two-Lane Blacktop than to today's arthouse quirkfests. It's no wonder a film this accomplished took so long to find a distributor.

Lean and handsome, with an easy drawl that could pass for Montgomery Clift's, Norton first appears as a gas-station attendant, smiling his way through the veiled insults of a station wagon full of teenage girls en route to the beach. But one of those girls, a lithe beauty played forcefully by Evan Rachel Wood, takes an instant liking to him and invites him along, perhaps in part because she knows it'll tick off her domineering father (David Morse), who goes toe-to-toe with her every night. Though they seem mismatched, Norton and Wood connect deeply and palpably, in spite of—and in some ways because of—his anachronistic manner, which can be gentlemanly and full of surprising romantic gestures, like stealing a horse for a gentle gallop around an unspoiled landscape. Norton also takes a shine to Wood's young brother (Rory Culkin), a shy kid who feels empowered by a father figure who isn't so obviously disappointed in his weakness.

Of course, reality inevitably comes crashing down on Norton, whose beautiful vision curdles into a frightening obsession, and Wood, who's too fundamentally levelheaded to not see the cracks in his façade. Jacobson (Dahmer) makes their relationship work through exceptional direction, which turns the city's few undeveloped territories into a sun-dappled idyll, the only place where such an unlikely affair could flourish. It's almost a shame that the film has to shift into murkier psychological ground in its second half, when Norton's true nature starts coming into focus, because the film could just as easily be about the modern world encroaching on paradise. Either way, it's mysterious and bold at every turn, and refreshingly removed from the commonplace.

Mike D'Angelo review


Set deep in the San Fernando — depicted here largely as an infertile crescent of looming power lines and anonymous housing tracts — David Jacobson's terrific new film probes the absurdities of contemporary suburbia in time-honored (and still potent) fashion: by introducing a walking anachronism. En route to the beach to escape her domineering sheriff father (David Morse) and her perpetually needy little brother (Rory "the talented Culkin" Culkin), rebellious hot-pants teen Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) meets up with a courtly, aw-shucks stranger in jeans and a Stetson. Harlan (Edward Norton) seems to have wandered into town directly from some long-forgotten B-Western. Creepy age difference notwithstanding (and bravely uncommented upon), Harlan and Tobe begin a passionate affair, much to the consternation of her dad, who's convinced that Harlan's genial twanginess has to be a put-on. And indeed, Harlan turns out to be something other than he seems, though not necessarily in the cut-and-dried way you might expect.

Mostly ignored when it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival (in the smaller Un Certain Regard section), Down in the Valley has reportedly since been trimmed by about twenty minutes, though I didn't notice anything of import missing in the shorter cut. Still present, for better (aesthetically) and worse (pragmatically), is a key scene in which Harlan practices his gunslinging moves before his boarding-room mirror, which has prompted lazy critics to dismiss the character as a dime-store psycho and the film itself as a pale retread of Taxi Driver. But Harlan's reasons for creating his lone-warrior persona are far more personal than sociological, and Down in the Valley soon veers in a completely unexpected and fearsomely complex direction, making it clear that Jacobson's true interest is exploring the definition of masculinity, and, by extension, paternity. (Norton has repeatedly said in interviews that he sees the film as a companion piece to Fight Club.) Distinguished by dynamic widescreen compositions and a quartet of superlative performances, the movie is essentially an old-fashioned showdown between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, duking it out over the soul of a small boy. That you're never entirely sure who you want to see prevail is a testament to its power.


The New York Times (Stephen Holden) review 


Down in the Valley  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


Auteur Seeks Complex Character / Writer-Director David Jacobson ...  Lily Percy interviews the director for MovieMaker Magazine, March 3, 2007


Jacques, Guy


ZE FILM                                                         D+                   65
France  (105 mi)  2005
An annoying mess of a film that only grows more annoying as the film progresses.  The film is designed to look young and carefree, an improvisational ode to youth, as a trio of young guys quite by accident have a loaded movie truck dropped into their laps, including a 35 mm camera along with much of the equipment needed to make a film.  So they line up all their friends, hold a humorous audition, and decide to cast Romeo and Juliet as an Arab girl and a white guy living in their housing project where they live outside Paris, whose families, of course, disapprove, which allows them to film scenes of disastrous consequences, including a stolen motorbike, a car chase scene with an unexpected three spins in the air collision, jealousy by the filmmakers, one Arab and one white, over how to treat the leading lady, which leads to more and more expressions of adolescent stupidity.  And while one of the kids is appealingly funny, the rest routinely breaks down in a jumbled, disorganized mosaic that has little to nothing to offer, as each idea is left alone to fall flat, nothing is ever explored, nothing is revealed, it’s largely a waste of time. 


Jacquet, Luc


MARCH OF THE PENGUINS                   B+                   90

USA  France  (80 mi)  2005


A visually extraordinary experience, carrying us off into the distance of a remote and uninhabitable land that none of us would otherwise see, much less imagine, the bleakest and most inhospitable terrain on earth, which may as well be the surface of the moon or Mars, enhanced by the very spare music of Alex Wurman.  Here the filmmakers have trod off into this desolate wilderness lugging cameras and film equipment to show human beings how emperor penguins, with utter grace and simplicity, all breed at the same isolated region some 70 miles from water, where they have to walk single-file to get there, a spot chosen as the ice is deep enough that it won’t melt in the spring, protecting the newborn chicks from drowning.  Unbelievably, they survive the hostile winters of Antarctica, the lone animal to do so, where the temperatures alone get to 80 degrees below zero, where the winds reach 100 mph, where it turns to only night, where the males huddle together in packs to conserve heat, protecting their lone egg for up to four months in these conditions, losing one-third of their weight without eating, waiting for the females to return, passing the egg back to them so they as well can make the long trek to back water, which eventually shortens as winter wanes and the temperatures rise.  In these bitter conditions, these impressive creatures not only adapt, but survive year after year.  The landscape itself is overwhelming, a vast emptiness of ice, and the fact that human camera crews, cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison, could actually survive there to make this film is stunning, but the documentation of the details this species undergoes to actually breed is utterly amazing, one egg at a time, losing many to the elements, causing horrible anguish when they do, but they endure and they survive, narrated sparingly and eloquently by Morgan Freeman.  

Jacquot, Benoît

THE DISENCHANTED (La désenchantée)                  B+                   91

France  (78 mi)  1990


Written by the director in collaboration with Marcel Bozonnet, this is sort of a music box, existentialist fantasy, a fleeting moment in the eyes of a young girl whose world is racing out of control.  We get a sense of her restless anxiety as she has to make very adult decisions trying to decipher how to maneuver her way through her own desires, and at the same time being the object of other men’s desires.  These opposite forces create an internal paralysis for which she finds no way out. 
Judith Godreche plays 17-year old Beth, who is forced to reveal her innermost thoughts in bed to her manipulative boyfriend against her will, so she reveals a dream, like a nightmare, about a young, empty-hearted hooker who finds sex loathsome, responding to no one, until one day she discovers a man who is fucking her from the rear is her one true love.  But when she looks back, it is an ugly, old geezer, the only one, however, that moved her.  Her boyfriend insists she needs to find the ugliest man she can find, which he hopes will make her appreciate him, so she runs away, thinking he’s a jerk.
She picks up her younger brother, Remy, from school, telling him she spent the night with what’s-his-name, but they’re through.  Remy has found a marble lying in the street and hands it to her, “Here’s a marble for your tears.”  They live at home with their invalid mother, supported by her friend that they all call Sugardaddy, but Sugardaddy has his eyes on Beth.
Beth meets a girlfriend at a loud disco where they can go window shopping for boys.  Her friend bets her 100 francs that she can’t pick up the ugliest boy on the dance floor.  “You’re on.”  After a rather pathetic display on the dance floor where her hands and body are all over him while he just stands there, he brings her home to his mom’s house, sneaks her into his room while his mom is entertaining guests, and lets her flip through the pages of an art book, Treasures of the Louvre.  She dwells on a photo of ancient Egyptian sculpture, and later visits this sculpture in the Louvre, where parts of the head and legs are missing, damaged through the passage of time, as in the background we hear Chris Isaak sing:  “I never dreamed I’d need somebody like you, I never dreamed I’d lose somebody like you.  No, I...don’t want to fall in love...”  After he clumsily attempts to maul her, she runs away, taking the art book with her, which she immediately sells on the street, “What a wicked thing to say, what a wicked thing to do, make me fall in love with you.  No, I don’t want to fall in love with you.”
In class the next day, she gives an oral presentation on the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, “I used to believe in all manner of enchantments,” reporting Rimbaud searched his entire life, but discovered “his long bitterness was his failure to find his enchantment, a shadow reflected on his soul.  ‘I understand, but not being able to express enchantment in words, I prefer to remain silent.’  So Rimbaud gave up writing, but remained a poet, the silent man, the penniless poet, an envoy of darkness.  Why are you strange?  Why are you a stranger to everything?”  The teacher’s response was to tell Beth she better stop getting so carried away or she wouldn’t pass. 
Beth decides to meet what’s-his-name, but hey get in a big fight.  A stranger intervenes, actually pulling a knife, chasing the boy away, giving Beth his business card with only the initials A.D.  Meanwhile, her mom tells her that Sugardaddy has made a date to see Beth tomorrow, and he’ll give her the family check from now on.  Later, with the help of a graffiti artist friend, they spray paint a picture of what’s-his-name on the wall of his address with the word “Bastard” next to it, before going to see A.D, who turns out to be a writer with a large switchblade collection.  He challenges her to stand still next to a wall while he throws a knife near her outline.  She trusts him, but he doesn’t throw the knife.  Then he challenges her to recite a poem by heart, threatening to leave if she refuses.  She refuses and he leaves her alone in the apartment to stare at her reflection in the window, only to return later with the same demand, so she recites:  “You want the world to end because of her.  You ant to end yourself, then re-enter the world.”  He carries her off to bed, leaving a note as he leaves the next morning to meet again the next night.
She visits Sugardaddy for lunch the next day, but refuses to speak to him.  “Words aren’t everything,” he tells her, “a person’s face may be louder.  Now that you’re here, you wish you could leave, but you’re not going to.  You have so many different ways of being beautiful,” before being called away to the phone.  She silently walks through his house, which includes a doctor’s office, where she finds a marble on the floor.  She undresses, meeting Sugardaddy when he returns completely naked.  “An utterance at last,” he muses, as she faints.  She goes to meet A.D. and sees him waiting from her view from a bridge above him, deciding to watch him wait, but then she turns and runs away down a busy city street noisy with cars and traffic, disappearing alone into her room.     


A SINGLE GIRL (La fille seule)                                        B+                   92

France  (90 mi)  1996


Written by the director with Jerome Beaujour, this expresses an experimental, near documentary film style, as the story plays out in a series of natural time sequences.  There’s an interesting audience reaction when one sequence re-appears again, as if a reel was placed out of time.  Featuring the incomparable Virginie Ledoyan as a young Parisian girl, Valerie, who discovers she’s pregnant, deciding she wants to keep the child with or without her boyfriend, the film opens with the two of them squabbling in a coffee shop before she heads to her first day at a new job with room service in a luxury hotel, agreeing to meet again in an hour. 
The camera follows Valerie from start to finish throughout the entire film, each and every shot, every glance, every gesture, every wince, every smile, called by some critics “an intellectual fuck fantasy.”  This film features a lot of brisk walking as the camera follows her walking down endless corridors on her rounds, up and down elevators, performing routine tasks on her job before walking across the street and arguing with her boyfriend over a cup of coffee, creating a rhythmic cycle of repetition.  A whole emerges from the cumulative effect of revealing minute details in a single girl’s life, whose mother was also a single girl, both of whom feel the need to live without the certainty or need for a man’s presence or love.  Valerie observes the various sexual quirks taking place everywhere in the hotel, and as she is astonishingly young and attractive herself, men are all inclined to be drawn to her.  She tells her boyfriend, “They fuck because they feel abandoned,” then finds an excuse to return back to work late before deciding to tell him the truth that she was pregnant and breaking up with him at the same time.  The screen fades to black, but we hear music from a Dvorak string quartet, then a scene in a park with Valerie and her young son, leaving him with her mother as she wanders off, disappearing into a crowded street, where she could be anyone, everyone.    

TOSCA                                                                      B+                   91

Great Britain  France  Germany  Italy  (126 mi)  2001


Filmed in Rome, while nearly impossible to transport opera to the screen, and this film version is NOT for the purists, as it's extremely stylized, but this is *the* emotional powerhouse of opera, and it's simply rapturous, here the heightened passion is delivered with in-your-face close-ups, capturing a much more intimate feel than you would ever get in an opera house, featuring a real-life husband and wife team as the lovers on screen, some wonderfully original set designs, which includes a few video asides, and stunning, luminous color – Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca is nothing short of breathtaking.


RIGHT NOW (A TOUT DE SUITE)                      B-                    82

France  (95 mi)  2004


A film that opens like a remake of BREATHLESS, re-establishing the same New Wave mood and atmosphere, a fast-paced, widescreen, low-grain black and white film featuring a pretty girl on the run with a wanted thief, featuring plenty of close-ups and street scenes in exotic locales.  From her dull and mediocre upper-class existence, danger now lurks everywhere, so of course, she chooses danger.  I found this surprisingly lame, as it all felt like déjà vu, especially the girl, a pouty, sullen, brat (Isild Le Besco) who is being showcased like she’s the next Bardot in AND GOD CREATED WOMAN.  However, the mood changes midway through the film when the pace comes to a screeching halt and the focus shifts from her carefree, indulgent naiveté to utter paralysis, lost in the void of her own delusions.  While that at least made it more interesting and less predictable, much of this film never rises above standard cliché’s.  I guess this shows what a little promiscuity will do for you. 


Jaeckin, Just



France  Germany  Italy  (97 mi) 1975


Time Out


For those who enjoy kitsch, Just (Emmanuelle) Jaeckin's adaptation of Pauline Réage's S&M novel is a must. There's puffy, blank-faced O (Cléry) with cruel lover René, (Kier), the one with the husky eyes and 'I'm an arsehole' hairdo. So far, so risible. But then the film gets a story. It's Sir Stephen (Steel) who does it, the older man who brands O's bottom with his own initials. She suddenly seems madder, but not in a photogenic, wild child way; what she comes to resemble most is a raging bourgeois housewife, a role she's been prepared for from childhood. Having lived the modern life, complete with her own apartment and Vogue photoshoots, O gravitates towards a house with servants and lacy tablecloths and realises her taste for them. Thus, when she finally turns the tables on Sir Stephen it doesn't feel like a coda tacked on to appease feminists: she's just discovered what it means to be adult, and her attendant sensations rush over us too. As anyone who's seen Romance will know, the film has obviously been influential - but not enough so. Stanley Kubrick borrowed the visuals - the ornate face masks and the cloaks - but his orgy slaves were pure Barbara Cartland. The Story of O disturbs precisely because it takes us through the dumb mask, to the damaged, unpredictable human brain beneath.  Christopher Null

This is old-school cheesy softcore porn. We're talkin' dinosaur cheesy softcore porn. The standard, with Emmanuelle, against which all late-night Cinemax films are measured. The start of it all. Well just about, anyway.

And now at last The Story of O (based on the classic, scandalous erotic novel) comes to DVD, 27 years after its introduction way the hell back in 1975. And it's just as salacious as ever. Filled with fuzzy lighting, soft focus, large hairdos, and sounds-like-classical synthesizer/vibraphone music, O set a benchmark for its genre.

As the film begins, O (Corinne Clery) finds herself abruptly dropped off by her boyfriend (Udo Kier) at a kind of brothel/dungeon, where she is to be educated in the ways of sex and servitude. Whippings, chains and handcuffs, easy-access outfits, and of course near-constant sex training sessions quickly fill the day. O takes this all in stride, philosophizing all the while. She's into it! Eventually she moves on to a series of five or six "masters," each with their own sexual proclivities. (And don't miss the final scene, aped nearly exactly in Eyes Wide Shut.)

As an NC-17 (originally rated X) movie, O is pretty tame save for the constant nudity. The bondage is tame, and the sex is off-camera. Only the subversion of an utterly submissive woman (and her companions in the castle/schoolhouse/whorehouse) as the film's star is cause for much alarm. Even that's kind of tongue-in-cheek jokey -- Clery doesn't exude the wanton idiocy of the women that have followed her into the hard-R and beyond. She's playing a role here as a subtle deviant, and she's doing a damn fine job of it -- even if it's unconvincing that anyone is actually even touching her with that whip.

The Story of O is hardly a great movie. It's completely silly and cornball, but it's that it's pioneeringly silly and overwhelmingly cornball -- and a true part of cult movie history -- that make it a must-own for any true movie buff. Not into naked chicks? Open a bottle of wine, warm yourself up to period pieces on a Jane Austen adaptation, and ease yourself into O.

You go, girl.

The Story of O   Linda Ruth Williams from Sight and Sound


DVD Talk (D.K. Holm) [Sylvia Stralberg]


DVD Net (Anthony Horan)   Paul Brenner


Channel 4 Film


Pornography and doubleness of sex for women   Joanna Russ from Jump Cut


Interview with women porn stars   Annette Fuentes and Margaret Schrage from Jump Cut


Jalili, Abolfazi


DANCE OF THE DUST                             A-                    94

Iran  (73 mi)  1992


Certain films gain an enhanced reputation when it is banned in their own country, later released for viewing several years later.  This film was banned since its screening in Iran in 1992, due to the harsh depiction of impoverished bricklayers, was re-edited, adding an offscreen narration which the director had nothing to do with, then resurfaced again about 7 or 8 years after its initial release, returned to its original form, supposedly due to a recent liberalized arts policy in Iran.  The film follows a young boy, Ilia, Mahmood Khosravi, who works in a brick kiln, and a young girl Limua, Limua Rahi, who lives with a family of seasonal workers, using a near wordless documentary style, adding a love story between the boy and the girl which is more than a mere suggestion of romance.  The film reveals a poetic sense of longing, an imaginary escape from the brutal and dreary world they live in, reminding me of an impoverished, stark contrast to Julie Dash’s elegantly beautiful film DAUGHTERS IN THE DUST, especially when the innate culture of the characters is revealed in such a poetic exploration of their imaginations.   


DON                                                               A-                    93

Iran  (90 mi)  1998
A chilling and unique portrait of slum life in Iran, especially in the way it reveals such dire consequences on children.  Using a documentary style of film realism, a 9-year old boy tries to find work without an ID card, causing him to have to confront such adult issues as child labor, heroin addiction, prisons, even suicide as he quite successfully weaves his way in and out of society’s outcasts.
When both parents have a history of heroin addiction, the government threatens to intervene and send their four children to a government orphanage.  Instead they eventually send the father to prison, leaving their 9-year old son, Don, to support the entire family by working at a factory burning broken glass.  His sister, who was scoring at the top in her class, is removed from school without ever being told a reason by her mother, who is not seen, only heard, as she remains an addict, hidden behind closed doors.  Told somewhat out of sequence, we see, interspersed with the daily routines of their lives, incessant police interrogations leading up to the father’s incarceration.  When Don steals a typewriter from his employer for his sister to learn, hopefully so she can get a job, his own father sells it for money.  Don’s employer won’t give him back his work ID until he returns the typewriter, leading to ever more improbable circumstances that simply get worse, as behind every turn are only relentless roads to rejection.  The film is dedicated to Don and the children in the orphanage dormitory.   

James, Eugene S.



USA  (72 mi)  1968

User comments  from imdb Author: John Schindo ( from

I not only saw this documentary but I served with Mike Co. during the filming of it.

This is an exceptionatly well made film about the Vietnam war during 1966, during a time when we as Marines thought we were doing something that was helping the people of Vietnam. We set up on hill ten which was between two villes, Phuli3 and no name village. Phuli3 was very friendly and after the area was secure, which was no easy task, we were allowed to walk there in pairs and get haircuts, buy soft drinks, Vietnamese beer and other creature comforts and play with the kids. The film showed how a few hundred meters would change things drasticly. On other side of the hill was no name village. Going out on a patrol on that side of hill 10 was a different world. The ville its self was loaded with booby traps and more often than not we would have one or two Marines wounded or killed as the Viet Cong would change the locations of the booby traps almost nightly. In the film it showed us relocating the people and leveling it and using a flame throwing tank burning the entire area to the ground. The film makers were a very brave lot as they were right with us during most of the intense fire fights and ambushes. Everyone in Mike Co. had the utmost respect for these unarmed brave men, armed only with their camera and sound equipment. Anyone who would like to see how a Marine rifle company operates would not be dissapointed watching A FACE OF WAR. For the most part it centered around one squad which spent their nights in Phuli3 protecting the people from the VC. There is quite a bit of other action involving the entire company. People who want to see what it was all about before the war became unpopular will see that the Vietnam vets were not a bunch of lowlife drug addicted "baby killers" as we were portrayed by the protesters in the latter years, and why,'til this day, the combat vets of the Army and the Marines suffer from PTSD and other problems coping with every day life.

Time Magazine  May 3, 19968

Combat photography has become almost a commonplace, an adjunct to the 6 o'clock news and weather. A Face of War, though, has a rightful claim to be judged as art: it is a documentary in the great tradition begun by Civil War Photographer Matthew B. Brady when he took his cumbersome cameras to Virginia in 1861. The film's producer-director is Eugene S. Jones, a veteran television cameraman who fought with the Marines during World War II. He spent 97 days with a company of Marines in the heartland of Viet Nam. In the course of that time, more than half of Mike Company's 135 men were killed or wounded; Jones was wounded twice, and an assistant once.

What Jones and his crew caught in their cameras and microphones is a superbly balanced sampling of this war of snipers and booby traps, night patrols and burning villages, in which the enemy is almost always at hand and almost never seen. No commentator's rhetoric comes between the audience and the action. All that is on the sound track is the noise of what is happening —the tense silence of a patrol exploding into a racketing firefight, the terrible pleadings of wounded men, the ominous urgency of a chaplain's sermon about death. The men of Mike Company are not identified by name until the epilogue; by that time many of them have already established their personalities by what they say and do.

The excellence of A Face of War is not only in its fine camerawork but also in its sense of completeness. Its 77 minutes encompass the totality of Viet Nam combat: the fear and pain and boredom, heat and rain, rare relaxation, and uneasy meetings of East and West. The Marines are genial giants running a village clinic or delivering a baby; they are stunned young men around the whimpering body of a mortally wounded child; they are stone-faced juggernauts of mechanical war evacuating bewildered civilians in helicopters, methodically incinerating their houses with flamethrowers to deprive the enemy of a hiding place.

A Face of War grinds no axes, pleads no cause. The war it shows is the specific war of small and large necessities, braveries and sacrifices, and its record of this battleground should endure long after the agony is ended.

The winning and losing of hearts and minds: Vietnam, Iraq, and the claims of the war documentary  Tony Grajeda from Jump Cut, Spring 2007


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [2.5/4]  who describes THE FACE OF WAR as he reviews THE ANDERSON PLATOON


The New York Times (Howard Thompson) review


James, Steve



USA  (170 mi)  1994


Time Out review


Steve James' essential inner-city epic chronicles the lives of two young blacks growing up in a Chicago housing project. At 14, basketball prodigies Arthur Agee and William Gates win scholarships to a suburban high school, St Joseph's. Then their fortunes diverge. William looks set to follow in the footsteps of St Joe's favourite son, all-star Isiah Thomas. Arthur doesn't make the cut. Skinny and immature, he finds himself back in the inner city when his parents fall behind on the fees. Over the next four years, however, the boys' lives are to intersect more than once, and in unexpected ways. A three-hour documentary about basketball is probably not most people's idea of a night out, but this one rewards the effort. James and his collaborators shot more than 250 hours of footage, and the cumulative emotional power is simply devastating. Sport is the only dream Arthur and William are allowed, their only ticket out of the ghetto, but they also have to carry the weight of their parents' aspirations - and if they make it, they will become role models for thousands of kids just like them. Unforgettable.


Read full review  Kim Newman from Empire magazine


In American Cinema, baseball is always associated with nostalgia and fondly-imagined virtues of family and country, but the current rash of basketball films (Blue Chips, White Men Can’t Jump etc.) are about a divided, desperate American present. Easily outclassing the fiction films is this extraordinarily compelling near three-hour documentary, which follows a pair of black kids from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project through four years of high school, examining the assumption that their basketball talent is a chance to get out of the ghetto and into college, and which is being heavily talked up as a possible Oscar contender outside(ital) the documentary category.

Both Gates and Agee are spotted as 14-year-olds by a recruiting man who arranges basketball scholarships for them at an up-scale school. Both struggle, Gates with injuries and Agee with low academic achievement, but continue to shine on the court. With exceptional skill at distinguishing drama from the raw footage of fly-on-the-wall shooting, James hits on a real irony: Agee’s presence peps up his no hope team into a winning streak while Gates is troubled by doubts and a “good but not great” career.

Though there is plenty of hoop action, the film focuses on the various pressures on the heroes (and heroes they become) from families, schools, coaches, friends, sponsors, college recruiters and hanger’s-on. Confident enough to leave plenty to implication — both kids are fathers by the time they leave high school and Agee has a friend who seems to be leading him into a life of crime — this is the best type of documentary, giving an intensely personal story you can’t help but become involved in, and also raises fundamental issues about America in the 90s. (Rob Gonsalves) review [5/5]

The documentary "Hoop Dreams" has the sprawling force of the best fiction. In fact, it's the closest movie equivalent to the great American novel I've seen in years.

If you're wary of a nearly three-hour film about basketball, so was I, at first; sports bore me to tears. Yet I watched the movie in an absolute trance of fascination. Hoop Dreams is less about hoop than about dreams -- dreams nurtured, dreams annihilated. In its understated, journalistic way, the movie is overwhelming in its cumulative impact. It's both depressing and exhilarating; it's truth and it's life.

The film tracks two 14-year-old boys -- Arthur Agee and William Gates, both from squalid sections of Chicago -- whose one and only passion is basketball. Watching them sitting mesmerized and ecstatic in front of a game on TV, you realize you're seeing the primal moment of awakening: This is what you were put on Earth to do, so go practice your jump shot. William, who is taller, and who develops a thick neck and imposing build as the years pass, is a dependable shooter with balletic moves. Arthur, a shorter boy with a quick, casual smile, is a more erratic player but also more electrifying; his are the kind of moves that look foolish when they don't work but dazzle when they do work. The movie is a parallel study of these boys as they grow into young men, father children, and respond to various forms of crushing pressure.

Pressure. We often take sports stars for granted, mumbling about their astronomic salaries. Hoop Dreams implicitly challenges our perception of athletes as spoiled rock stars. For these boys, the question of whether they have the skills to make it to the NBA is the least of their worries. The film suggests that grabbing the gold ring in the pitiless world of sports requires inhuman persistence and resilience -- the ability to weather constant blows to the body, the mind, the soul. William and Arthur are sent to the suburban school St. Joseph's, alma mater of the legendary Isiah Thomas. Arthur, whose parents can't come up with the tuition, is forced to drop out and enroll in a city school, where he keeps playing but sinks into a haze of disappointment. William, meanwhile, in his comfortable position on St. Joseph's team, is nearly crippled by a knee injury. His knee becomes an almost metaphysical villain in the film's second half; William's frustration at being sidelined is so palpable you can feel the angry heat of his flesh.

Hoop Dreams makes the unsurprising point that the boys, who are both goof-offs in school, have been shaped into basketball machines -- incomplete people, who worship the game to the exclusion of almost everything else. (By the end, one of them will have learned that there are other things in life.) Who can blame their parents for pushing them? This is the boys' ticket out of the ghetto, and the film daringly focuses on family members -- Arthur's screw-up father and William's disillusioned brother, both former high-school hoop stars -- who hang over the boys' careers, experiencing their triumphs vicariously. (The boys' mothers, less sensuously obsessed with the game, encourage their sons but keep a hard eye on their grades. We come to love these women.)

The blame falls on the shoulders of the coaches and recruiters, themselves entrenched in the bizarre, punishing culture of high-school athletics. Gene Pingatore, the coach at St. Joseph's (he resembles Mandy Patinkin in the cruel lines around his tight mouth), bullies his players towards greatness. When William's knee gives him trouble during an important game, Pingatore takes him aside and says, "Of course, if your knee is bad, you shouldn't be playing." This is an innocuous remark on the face of it, but Pingatore's tone gives him away; we know he's trying to shame William into playing hurt. Pingatore emerges as a Dickensian figure, a remorseless man who never stops justifying his callousness and bursts of temper. Yet you also see that he's powerless to be anything other than what he is. If his team doesn't win, his ass is at stake, and so is St. Joseph's. The culture of sports doesn't respect, doesn't even acknowledge, the concept of benevolence. The boys are in the rough hands of wrathful, insecure gods.

As Arthur bucks the odds and cracks the books, and William studies half-heartedly and grows disgusted with the game, Hoop Dreams pulls its themes together. The filmmakers -- Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert -- began this project as a study of playground hoop. What they came back with goes far beyond the usual sports movie. Passing awkwardly into manhood, the boys create themselves out of the rubble of their dreams. At the same time, the people who love them are either enjoying their own triumphs or destroying themselves.

Watching this documentary about basketball (which I don't care about, in and of itself), I kept brushing tears away. "Hoop Dreams" seems to encompass everything and resolve nothing. The metal hoops, so seductive and high, await the next generation of boys, ready to exalt or humble them.

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [4/4]  October 21, 1994

A film like "Hoop Dreams" is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.

"Hoop Dreams" is, on one level, a documentary about two African-American kids named William Gates and Arthur Agee, from Chicago's inner city, who are gifted basketball players and dream of someday starring in the NBA. On another level, it is about much larger subjects: about ambition, competition, race and class in our society. About our value structures. And about the daily lives of people like the Agee and Gates families, who are usually invisible in the mass media, but have a determination and resiliency that is a cause for hope.

The movie spans six years in the lives of William and Arthur, starting when they are in the eighth grade, and continuing through the first year of college. It was intended originally to be a 30-minute short, but as the filmmakers followed their two subjects, they realized this was a much larger, and longer story. And so we are allowed to watch the subjects grow up during the movie, and this palpable sense of the passage of time is like walking for a time in their shoes.

They're spotted during playground games by a scout for St. Joseph's High School in west suburban Westchester, a basketball powerhouse. Attending classes there will mean a long daily commute to a school with few other black faces, but there's never an instant when William or Arthur, or their families, doubt the wisdom of this opportunity: St. Joseph's, we hear time and again, is the school where another inner-city kid, Isiah Thomas, started his climb to NBA stardom.

One image from the film: Gates, who lives in the Cabrini Green project, and Agee, who lives on Chicago's South Side, get up before dawn on cold winter days to begin their daily 90-minute commute to Westchester. The street lights reflect off the hard winter ice, and we realize what a long road - what plain hard work - is involved in trying to get to the top of the professional sports pyramid. Other high school students may go to "career counselors," who steer them into likely professions. Arthur and William are working harder, perhaps, than anyone else in their school - for jobs which, we are told, they have only a .00005 percent chance of winning.

We know all about the dream. We watch Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas and the others on television, and we understand why any kid with talent would hope to be out on the same courts someday. But "Hoop Dreams" is not simply about basketball. It is about the texture and reality of daily existence in a big American city. And as the film follows Agee and Gates through high school and into their first year of college, we understand all of the human dimensions behind the easy media images of life in the "ghetto." We learn, for example, of how their extended families pull together to help give kids a chance. How if one family member is going through a period of trouble (Arthur's father is fighting a drug problem), others seem to rise to periods of strength. How if some family members are unemployed, or if the lights get turned off, there is also somehow an uncle with a big back yard, just right for a family celebration. We see how the strong black church structure provides support and encouragement - how it is rooted in reality, accepts people as they are, and believes in redemption.

And how some people never give up. Arthur's mother asks the filmmakers, "Do you ever ask yourself how I get by on $268 a month and keep this house and feed these children? Do you ever ask yourself that question?" Yes, frankly, we do. But another question is how she finds such determination and hope that by the end of the film, miraculously, she has completed her education as a nursing assistant.

"Hoop Dreams" contains more actual information about life as it is lived in poor black city neighborhoods than any other film I have ever seen.

Because we see where William and Arthur come from, we understand how deeply they hope to transcend - to use their gifts to become pro athletes. We follow their steps along the path that will lead, they hope, from grade school to the NBA.

The people at St. Joseph's High School are not pleased with the way they appear in the film, and have filed suit, saying among other things that they were told the film would be a non-profit project to be aired on PBS, not a commercial venture. The filmmakers respond that they, too, thought it would - that the amazing response which has found it a theatrical release is a surprise to them. The movie simply turned out to be a masterpiece, and its intended non-commercial slot was not big enough to hold it. The St. Joseph suit reveals understandable sensitivity, because not all of the St. Joseph people come out looking like heroes.

It is as clear as night and day that the only reason Arthur Agee and William Gates are offered scholarships to St. Joseph's in the first place is because they are gifted basketball players. They are hired as athletes as surely as if they were free agents in pro ball; suburban high schools do not often send scouts to the inner city to find future scientists or teachers.

Both sets of parents are required to pay a small part of the tuition costs. When Gates' family cannot pay, a member of the booster club pays for him - because he seems destined to be a high school all-American. Arthur at first does not seem as talented. And when he has to drop out of the school because his parents have both lost their jobs, there is no sponsor for him. Instead, there's a telling scene where the school refuses to release his transcripts until the parents have paid their share of his tuition.

The morality here is clear: St. Joseph's wanted Arthur, recruited him, and would have found tuition funds for him if he had played up to expectations.

When he did not, the school held the boy's future as hostage for a debt his parents clearly would never have contracted if the school's recruiters had not come scouting grade school playgrounds for the boy. No wonder St. Joseph's feels uncomfortable. Its behavior seems like something out of Dickens. The name Scrooge comes to mind.

Gene Pingatore, the coach at St. Joseph's, is a party to the suit (which actually finds a way to plug the Isiah Thomas connection). He feels he's seen in an unattractive light. I thought he came across fairly well. Like all coaches, he believes athletics are a great deal more important than they really are, and there is a moment when he leaves a decision to Gates that Gates is clearly not well-prepared to make. But it isn't Pingatore but the whole system that is brought into question: What does it say about the values involved, when the pro sports machine reaches right down to eighth-grade playgrounds? But the film is not only, or mostly, about such issues. It is about the ebb and flow of life over several years, as the careers of the two boys go through changes so amazing that, if this were fiction, we would say it was unbelievable. The filmmakers (Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert) shot miles of film, 250 hours in all, and that means they were there for several of the dramatic turning-points in the lives of the two young men. For both, there are reversals of fortune - life seems bleak, and then is redeemed by hope and sometimes even triumph. I was caught up in their destinies as I rarely am in a fiction thriller, because real life can be a cliff-hanger, too.

Many filmgoers are reluctant to see documentaries, for reasons I've never understood; the good ones are frequently more absorbing and entertaining than fiction. "Hoop Dreams," however, is not only a documentary. It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.

Hoop Dreams: Serious Game  Criterion essay by Jay Edgar Wideman

Hoop Dreams (1994) - The Criterion Collection


Hoop Dreams  Hollywood Dreams, by Murray Sperber from Jump Cut, March 1996


Hoop Dreams  Hoop Realities, by Lee Jones from Jump Cut, March 1996


PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review [Criterion Collection]


DVD Talk (Bill Gibron) dvd review [4/5] [Criterion Collection] (Jon Danziger) dvd review  Criterion Collection


Read full review  Clarence Beaks from DVD Journal, Criterion Collection


Scott Renshaw review [10/10] (Aaron West) review


Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx's 'Hoop Dreams ...    Scott Foundas from Documentary magazine


DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson) dvd review  Criterion Collection, also seen here:  Turner Classic Movies dvd review dvd review [4/4]  Tim Knight, Criterion Collection


Read full review  False Hoops, Richard Corliss from Time magazine


Read full review  Ronnie D. Langford Jr. from Documentary Films


Collector's Corner [Wes Marshall]


Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick) dvd review [4/5]  Criterion Collection


ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [3.5/4]


DVD Verdict (Patrick Bromley) dvd review [Criterion Collection]


DVD Town (Christopher Long) dvd review (M.P. Bartley) review [5/5]


Turner Classic Movies review (Christopher Null) review [4/5] (Jeff Vorndam) review [A]  Top 25 Films of the 90’s


Movieline Magazine review  Stephen Farber


Entertainment Weekly review [A]  Owen Gleiberman [Todd McCarthy]


TV Guide Entertainment Network, Movie Guide review [4.5/5]


My favourite film: Hoop Dreams  Christian Bennett from The Guardian, November 11, 2011


Washington Post (Hal Hinson) review


Washington Post (Desson Howe) review


Austin Chronicle (Marc Savlov) review [4/5]


San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle) review


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) recommendation [Great Movies]  July 8, 2001


The great American documentary  Roger Ebert on the 15th anniverary, November 5, 2009


The New York Times (Caryn James) review


DVDBeaver dvd review  Gary W. Tooze


the complete film online.  from Joost (2 hours, 51 minutes)


STEVIE                                                         A-                    94

USA  (140 mi)  2002


This certainly resembles a welfare film – a truly remarkable look at the world of social services in crisis that we have all seen before, some of us have actually worked in it as well, but probably never seen reflected back in our faces quite so memorably as this does.  Filmed in Murphysboro and the neighboring Southern Illinois rural community, this is an oddly affecting film, an unbelievably accurate portrayal of a backwoods, trailer park outcast who is one truly flawed and messed up individual, who represents every bit of the welfare system, beaten and abandoned by his mother at an early age, raised by his grandmother until he was 11, spending the rest of his adolescence raped and/or neglected in every single juvenile foster home in Southern Illinois, building a huge rap sheet of petty crime upon his release, spending time at Choate Mental Health Center, and finally, through a horrific trial process revealed as part of this film, sentenced to 10 years for a Class X felony conviction for molesting his 8 year old cousin.  My guess is he'd already been well known in the Southern Illinois community even before the making of this film, but the attention to detail here was riveting for me.


If ever the purpose of art was to expose the world to a particular time and place that is unlike their own, this is it, as we come to know this man's world and the few people who populate it, by examining him through the lens of all the people who know him, and we hear all persons concerned point of view, until we are able to see, in a more objective light, the kind of man, and the kind of world, he lives in.  Despite the personalized vantage point of the filmmaker, who happened to be the Big Brother of this troubled kid when he was in college, a potentially exploitive attachment that remains troublesome to the viewers throughout the film, this is the kind of film that makes the world seem like a different place afterwards, deep in the heart of Steve Earle country where you hunt rattlesnakes and where the character in question was not afraid to run with the brothers of the Aryan nation.  Aghast as it sounds, their appearance in the film is significant, as they are appropriately connected to his life and the choices he faces, and they actually help paint this rather extraordinary portrait of a wretched and miserable soul, the heart of which is provided by the continued hope of his learning-impaired girl friend, who may not even know why she has hope, but in this rather decrepit world, she has it. 


STEVIE   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion


THE INTERRUPTERS                                          A                     96

USA  (125 mi)  2011      Trailer              Official site


We got over 500 years of prison at this table.  That’s a lot of fuckin’ wisdom.        — Zale Hoddenbach, former gang member, now a CeaseFire interrupter


First of all, gang violence is not something most people understand or have any insight into, considered a cultural phenomenon unique to neighborhoods infested with gangs, and largely ignored, out of sight, out of mind, by people living in safer neighborhoods.  It’s like prison reform, as you never stop to consider the ramifications of undermanned and overcrowded prisons until the day you find yourself incarcerated.  But in large urban areas across the country, this is the story that usually leads off the evening news, another senseless death, a child accidentally shot down in a gang shooting crossfire, where it’s rarely the intended victim that’s harmed.  The stories are relentless, with few, if any solutions offered, because the perpetrators are outside the reach of the police, family, or church influence, and therefore usually end up dead or in prison at an early age, supposedly immune to the powers of persuasion, or so we thought. 


In the aftermath of this 2008 New York Times piece, a thoroughly engaging essay by Alex Kotlowitz that scientifically examines the root causes of Chicago gang violence, offering treatment along the lines of neutralizing a medical epidemic, actually offering a bit of insight into the seemingly impenetrable gang culture for a change, documentary filmmaker Steve James, the heralded director of HOOP DREAMS (1994), enlisted the assistance of Kotlowitz in following on camera some of the individuals mentioned in his article who were providing gang intervention, known as “violence interrupters,” as they hope to stop the neverending cycle of revenge and prevent future shootings before they happen.  With the experience of having been in gangs and prison and survived, some for committing murder when they were teenagers, these interrupters already understand the mindset of the upcoming gang youth who shoot before they think, never for a second thinking about their own lives they are throwing away, instead it’s all about getting immediate retribution in a moment of anger, thinking that in some way killing makes things right, at least in their eyes—Death before dishonor.  This kind of thinking is what fills the prisons. 


This is one of the most heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful subjects of any film you’ll ever see, as the camera searches out families of recently shot teenagers, including their younger brothers and sisters or their grieving parents, focusing on their immediate reaction, oftentimes on their front steps, in their living rooms, or at the funeral and burial services.  Unlike the news media that exploit these situations, the violence interrupters routinely put their own lives on the line, trying to diffuse anger by placing themselves in harm’s way, where they have unique insight into just what these kids are feeling and how they intend to resolve the conflict.  But violence isn’t inherited at birth, it’s a learned behavior that reflects the world around them, where kids are just following the examples of people they know.  The interrupters have an obligation to re-educate them on the spot, using as examples those around them who are dead or imprisoned, where they could become just another statistic or they could have a second chance at life.  The interrupters are placed in the precarious position where they are not cops and do not inform on illegal activity, and while they don’t condone gang activity, they’re not in a position to change or even alter that culture, only the hair-trigger response of certain individuals to shoot whoever shot one of them.  


The film documents a year in the life of an inner city organization called CeaseFire, founded by an infectious disease physician Gary Slutkin who spent a decade in Africa with the World Health Organization attempting to halt the spread of infectious diseases, returning home to Chicago where he viewed the spread of youth violence as similar to an infectious outbreak.  Tio Hardiman, a neighborhood social activist with a prior history of drug and alcohol abuse, invented the interrupters program, attempting to stop the violent outbreaks using individuals who have street credibility not just with gangs, but in the eyes of youth who have few positive role models.  Especially because they are so familiar with the effects of violence in their own lives, having somehow survived, now returning back to the streets offering an alternative, this is an extremely volatile and highly personalized approach to mediation, getting in the faces of gangbangers and angry kids who just lost a brother or an innocent nephew, attempting to redirect their hostility, which usually means staying with them, continuing a lengthy dialogue much like negotiating with a hostage taker or a downbeat individual considering suicide, until the inflammatory anger passes, and then following up afterwards, continuing to offer crisis intervention services. 


While the city’s interrupters meet weekly with Hardiman to discuss their works in progress, James chooses three to follow, all extremely charismatic individuals with tortured pasts whose impressive turnabout makes them uniquely qualified.  Ameena Matthews gives what is perhaps the most wrenching performance of the year, whose no nonsense authenticity, directness under pressure, and personal charm gives her an overwhelming onscreen presence.  The daughter of Jeff Fort, iconic founder of the Black P. Stone Nation and imprisoned-for-life leader of the notorious El Rukn street gang, she was a drug using party girl (seen in vintage El Rukn home video) and former gang lieutenant now converted to the Muslim faith.  When Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Fenger High School was beaten to death walking home from school, all caught on YouTube by a camera phone (Beating Death Of Derrion Albert, 16, Caught On Video), her family asked for Ameena to speak at the funeral service, which is an awe inspiring and unforgettable moment, attempting to publicly hold those responsible accountable for their actions.  But her easy, down-to-earth manner and accessibility in the lives of wayward teens is exemplary, if not heroic.    


Ricardo “Cobe” Williams is a big man with a similar purpose, a kid who went haywire when his father was beaten to death by a baseball bat, spending his youth in and out of prison until he also found religion, where he seems determined to offer a path of redemption for others that he never experienced himself.  Another easy going guy, whose wife says is really “nerdy,” where according to Hardiman, among his many talents is knowing when to walk away in dicey situations.  This is a guy so dedicated that he continued going to work even after the funds dried up and he was laid off for a period, because like a CIA undercover operative in the field, once you make a promise to be there in saving people’s lives, people in high risk situations where their lives may be in danger, you have a commitment to be there.  One of the most riveting scenes in the film is Cobe bringing a young 19-year old armed offender known as Li’l Mikey, a youth who spent nearly 3 years in prison, back to the scene of the crime where he held up a barber shop.  This kind of theater you can’t invent, as it’s among the most dramatically powerful and intensely personal moments of the film.  Mikey is so committed to finding that redemptive path that Hardiman actually considers him as their first teen interrupter.         


Eddie Bocanegra shot a killed another kid when he was 17.  Now, like the other two, he’s on a spiritual mission to make up for it, talking to disaffected youth, offering an art class for those kids who have been affected by violence, where one 11-year old girl describes the experience of her brother getting shot in the head and dying in her arms.  Because of the tender age of many of these kids, he’s more like a big brother offering them positive alternatives or a shoulder to cry on, where their heartfelt comments are remarkably unfiltered.  One of the more poignant moments is joining the family at the cemetery site, where they gather every single day, offering a silent communion for their loss.  While Eddie is able to console the young girl, the figure of her father sitting there in silence every day is a haunting and tragic sight.    


For 25 years murder has been the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 34, while more than 11% of black males age 25 to 34 are incarcerated, while black women are incarcerated at nearly 4 times the rate of white women and more than twice the rate of Hispanic women.  Nothing seems to put a dent in these numbers despite neighborhood marches, media speeches, church activism, a Mayor’s attempt to ban handguns (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court), and the police continually asking for crime witnesses to step forward.  While it’s impossible to measure the results, CeaseFire claims they show a 40 – 60% reduction in shootings in six targeted neighborhoods, which would include West Garfield Park, Englewood, Maywood, Logan Square, Roseland, and Rogers Park, with as much as a 67% reduction in others.  Despite these claims, the interventionist program has continued to face budget cuts, where 50 or 60 interrupters were reduced to less than 20, where the elected politicians seem as far removed from this problem as those living in the isolation of the rural plain states.  As profoundly relevant as any documentary seen in the past 5 years, there’s a  soulful, organ drenched rendition of “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Solomon Burke that plays over the end credits, an ominous reminder of just how hard it is to remain committed to a lifelong project fraught with this degree of intense tragedy and pain.


THE INTERRUPTERS |  Barbara Scharres

In this stirring and powerfully insightful year-long journey through Chicago’s inner city, Oscar-nominated director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS), in collaboration with author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), follows three courageous “violence interrupters” working for the innovative organization CeaseFire, as they patrol the city’s meanest streets to defuse scenarios of heart-stopping volatility. Interrupters, including dynamo Ameena Matthews, daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort, are seen to be the only force standing between a killer and his victim when gang vengeance threatens. With unprecedented access, and with the specter of Derrion Albert’s horrific death hanging over the community, James captures the increasingly urgent one-on-one encounters where lives hang in the balance. HDCAM video

The Interrupters  Tom Huddleston from Time Out London

Stories of life on the mean streets of America’s inner cities have become far too familiar: does the world really need another movie, even a well-meaning documentary like ‘The Interrupters’, telling us how tough it is on the block? Well, as it turns out, yes. ‘Hoop Dreams’ director Steve James isn’t interested in bemoaning gang culture or pointing fingers at the cops – his film simply documents the daily grind of a group of ‘interrupters’, or conflict resolution experts, from Chicago’s CeaseFire initiative.

Most of James’s subjects are ex-bangers themselves, even articulate activist Ameena, the undoubted star of the piece, a woman so intensely self-possessed she can stand in the midst of a group of six-foot teenage thugs and still look like the toughest person in the room. ‘The Interrupters’ lacks the crowd-pleasing sports movie arc that fired ‘Hoop Dreams’ – this is, by necessity, a more fractured, disparate piece of work – but the political and emotional power behind it is impossible to ignore.

The Interrupters : The New Yorker  Richard Brody (capsule review)

Steve James’s documentary, based on an article by Alex Kotlowitz (who also co-produced), follows members of CeaseFire, a Chicago-based conflict-mediation group, over the course of a year of their attempts to defuse potentially violent situations. Most of the group’s activists, as seen in the film, were once criminals themselves, which, together with their roots in the community, gains them the respect of the people they advise, cajole, dissuade, and mentor. James centers the film on a few of these “interrupters” and a handful of young people in need of guidance, and, with his insistent yet compassionate camerawork, gathers poignant, troubling stories. Among the recurring themes are the nefarious influence of gangs, the allure of easy money, the emotional toll of families broken by violence and drugs, and the need for jobs—and the hard-won wisdom the elders convey also includes their frequent mention of incarceration as the ultimate dissuader. Law enforcement comes across as awkward and misguided, yet it looms, ubiquitous and unexamined, in the film’s margins. James’s approach is not analytical but emotional; his depiction of people bearing inextinguishable pain is empathetic and powerful, and the struggle toward stability of one profound and troubled soul (a thirty-two-year-old man who has spent fifteen years in jail) has a Dostoyevskian intensity.

The Wooden Kimono [Joe Gastineau]

Next up was a film I was hugely excited about, Steve James' The Interrupters. James' Hoop Dreams is one of the best films I've ever seen, so this certainly had a lot to live up to. Much like Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters takes a sobering look at life in Chicago's inner city, where the murder rate is reaching epidemic proportions. The titular Interrupters are the members of Ceasefire, an organization made up of former crime kingpins and gangbangers, intent on mediating disputes between warring factions to avoid further bloodshed. Amongst their number are Ameena, daughter of a Chicago's 2nd biggest gangster since Al Capone, who has the biggest balls of any human being I've ever seen. She thinks nothing of wading into a throng of hoods about to kick off and reducing them all to submissive silence using nought but her powerful oratory. Other members of the Ceasefire team include Cobe, who struggles to keep hot-headed Flamo from retaliating in the face of police harassment and Eddie, a soft spoken convicted murderer who uses art to educate youngsters and also try to find a little redemption for himself.

It's a hugely powerful work, focussing as it does on flawed but inspirational individuals trying to make a real difference. It never once feels patronizing or voyeuristic and stays fixed on getting beneath the surface of the Ceasefire team and those they are most desperately trying to reach. Also, if I see a funnier introduction to a character this year than when we meet the furious dealer Flamo, I'll be god damned. Touching and tragic, The Interrupters is essential viewing.

exclaim! [Allan Tong]

They were once gang-bangers. They were teenagers when they gunned down enemies on the streets of inner city Chicago, often over a careless word or the wrong look. They served time and grew up behind bars. Now, they return to their old neighbourhoods to stop the bloody vendettas that poison young lives and perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Steve James (who directed the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) follows three Violence Interruptors over the course of a year as they negotiate with headstrong young men and women to lay their guns down and stop the bloodshed. They don't hold back and speak in hard, frank terms.

Ammena, Cobe and Eddie grew up in a spiral of drugs, sexual abuse and poverty. The program they work for, CeaseFire, views inner city violence as a virus, in that the disease must be snuffed out at the source. They literally stop fights on the street, knock on the doors of those they counsel and at the darkest moments, attend funerals. They risk their lives, as we see in one tearful scene where an Interruptor lies in a hospital bed after getting shot in the back.

Though running at 142 minutes, The Interrupters is one lean, unapologetic film — there isn't a wasted frame. It's gritty and harsh, but also inspiring. There's nothing sentimental here — no voiceover to reveal someone's inner feelings. It's all on screen. This is one of the best films of this festival.

The Interrupters | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club  Scott Tobias

Unlike many other socially engaged documentaries, the films of Steve James (Hoop Dreams) are more descriptive than prescriptive, exposing deep, intractable problems that may not have solutions, in spite of the best efforts of those concerned. James’ heartbreaking 2002 documentary Stevie relayed his own challenges and shortcomings as a Big Brother to a violent, erratic young man in rural Illinois. Produced in collaboration with Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist who wrote a 2008 New York Times piece on the effort to curb violence in Chicago, James’ powerful new film The Interrupters offers the lessons of Stevie writ large, as local activists commit, with varied results, to halting a tragic epidemic. It’s a job fraught with volatility and peril, taken with the understanding that some cases may ultimately end in failure.

Filmed over the course of a year that saw more killings on the streets of Chicago than among American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Interrupters embeds with CeaseFire, an organization devoted to violence prevention. Founded by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who likens the violence to the spread of infectious diseases, CeaseFire employs mediators whose credibility often lies in the tragic lessons of their own criminal histories. James follows three of them: Ameena Matthews, the daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort, who’s shown counseling a 19-year-old girl with immense reserves of anger; Cobe Williams, whose disarming charisma helps tame a young parolee who served an armed-robbery stint and a squatter who constantly threatens to use the pistol tucked in his jeans; and Eddie Bocanegra, a former Latino gang member trying to atone for a murder he committed at age 17. 

The Interrupters was shot at a time when violence in Chicago became national news, spurred on by the case of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student whose death in a South Side mêlée was captured on videotape. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both swung by the city for press conferences, and there was talk of National Guardsmen being deployed in “war zones” like Englewood and Roseland. But after the media spotlight fades, CeaseFire remains present to do the tricky work of putting itself in the middle of conflicts, which takes enormous courage on several fronts simultaneously. CeaseFire members aren’t in the business of stopping criminal activity or serving as informants, which occasionally puts the group at odds with the police, and its mediators routinely throw themselves into dangerous situations where they stand between warring parties.

James’ camera is present for moments of extraordinary tension: A contrite ex-con apologizing to the family he terrorized in a barbershop robbery; a street fight that escalates with a butcher knife and a hunk of concrete; a pair of brothers so hostile that they come to blows whenever they see each other. Witnessing outreach workers intervening in these situations is inspiring enough, but their subtlety and nuance in neutralizing people of different backgrounds and temperaments is especially impressive. Given such a wealth of material, James has trouble wrangling it all: Different cuts have been screened at 164 minutes and 145 minutes, and the current 125-minute version feels rushed, with a uncharacteristically pat postscript. If there’s one lesson to be learned from violence interrupters, it’s that their work is never done.

The Interrupters reviewed: This documentary on Chicago gang violence is the most necessary film of the year.  Dana Stevens from Slate

The Interrupters (The Cinema Guild), a documentary about an initiative to stop urban violence in Chicago, may be the most necessary film you'll see this year. But if you go to the movies in search of emotion rather than edification, don't let that word necessary deter you, because this is also one of the most engaging films you'll see this year, full of vibrant, complex real-life characters whose troubles and joys will stay with you long after the movie's done. The "violence interrupters" are a group of ex-convicts and former gang members who've joined CeaseFire, an organization with a unique approach to quelling youth violence. Rather than lecturing in schools or running drop-in centers, they get out on the street, find kids in situations of potential danger (on the South Side of Chicago, they're in no short supply), and do what it takes to resolve conflict on the spot, whether that involves wresting a chunk of concrete out of the hands of an angry teenager or taking a disaffected 19-year-old dropout to get her first-ever manicure.

Filmed over the course of a year—we watch the seasons progress in four separate chapters—The Interrupters does a magnificent job of establishing what's at stake for the workers at CeaseFire: Consumed with regret over the sins of their youth (which, in the case of at least one, included murder), they will stop at nothing to keep kids in their community from making the same mistakes.

As in his classic 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, director Steve James (collaborating with Chicago journalist Alex Kotlowitz), establishes an immediate and powerful sense of intimacy with his subjects. The interrupters aren't holier-than-thou do-gooders, just struggling, suffering, astonishingly brave people. Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a legendary Chicago gang leader who's now in jail for life, spent her youth living the high life as a drug-running party girl; she's now a married mother, a convert to Islam, and one of CeaseFire's star interrupters. In the course of her work with neighborhood kids, she develops an intense relationship with the aptly named Caprysha, a troubled girl who swings rapidly from puppylike devotion to sullen withdrawal.

Cobe Williams, a former gangbanger who's now a suburban family man (his wife describes him dryly as "a very, very nerdy person"), is shown intervening in several different cases, most notably that of Flamo, a volatile loner whose resistance to being helped at times places Cobe in physical danger. And Eddie Bocanegra, a Latino ex-con with a monklike devotion to his work, teaches a painting class to young children who live in fear of random violence, then counsels a depressed girl who watched her older brother die in her arms.

Some scenes are difficult to watch; I wasn't the only one on my row occasionally shielding my eyes as if from a horror film. A group of women runs down a city block seeking revenge for some slight done to their brother, one of them wielding a kitchen knife, as children age 4 or 5 tag along after. At a teenager's funeral, his friends pose for pictures next to the open casket, taking turns playing the role of the corpse. On a wall mural with the names of local kids who've lost their lives to violence, a graffiti scrawl reads "I am next."

Just when you're about to despair, though, The Interrupters offers glimpses of the hope that must be what keeps the interrupters plugging away at their exhausting work. Li'l Mikey, a young man who held up a barbershop two years ago, agrees to return to the shop with Cobe to apologize to everyone who was there that day. His reconciliation with a woman whose children are still traumatized by the memory is harrowing and uplifting at once. The movie's epilogue, in which we follow up with each case after the year is over, contains a few joyful surprises—not happy endings, perhaps, but at least the prevention of endings that could have been so much worse.

“Blocking the Transmission of Violence” New York Times Magazine, Alex Kotlowitz  Alex Kotlowitz from The New York Times, May 4, 2008, also seen here:  Blocking the Transmission of Violence - Alex Kotlowitz - Gang ... 


Meet Chicago's Interrupters…   Andrew Anthony from The Guardian, August 6, 2011


Slant Magazine [Lauren Wissot]


Pick of the week: Real-life crime drama "The Interrupters" - Andrew ...  Andrew O’Hehir from Salon


Movie Review: The Interrupters | Movie Review | Chicago Reader  Andrea Gronvall


BFI | Sight & Sound | Film of the month: The Interrupters (2011)  Michael Brooke, September 2011


In Theaters: "The Interrupters" - Film Writings by Jason Bailey  Fourth Row Center


The Film Pilgrim [Frances Taylor]


indieWire [Eric Kohn]  also seen here:  Sundance Review | Fighting Gang Violence in Steve James’s “The Interrupters”


Village Voice [Melissa Anderson] [Nora Lee Mandel]


The Interrupters: Heroes in an Urban War Zone - TIME - Time Magazine  Richard Corliss


The House Next Door [Christopher Ellis Gray]


Gordon and the Whale [Brian Kelley]


New Statesman [Ryan Gilbey]


Cinespect [B.L. Hazelwood]  Chris Cabin


The Interrupters: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz document CeaseFire  Deanna Isaacs from The Chicago Reader


Cinematical [Christopher Campbell]


ReelTalk [Donald Levit]


Moving Pictures Magazine [Jeremy Mathews] 


The Interrupters — Inside Movies Since 1920 - Box Office Magazine  Vadim Rizov


The Interrupters | Review | Screen - Screen International  Tim Grierson


Best For Film  Lara Choksey


Little White Lies Magazine [Matt Bochenski]


The Interrupters - 2011 - Movie Review - Documentaries -  Jennifer Merin


City Pages [Ira Brooker]


The Interrupters  Ed Koziarski from The Chicago Reader


'Interrupters' Take On Chicago's Youth Violence  NPR interviews with various cast and crew, June 29, 2011


Interview: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz Interview  Elise Nakhnikian interview from Slant, July 28, 2011


Gang 'Interrupters' Fight Chicago's Cycle Of Violence : NPR  NPR interviews with some of the film’s participants , August 1, 2011


'The Interrupters'—Stopping Violence Before It Spreads in Inner-City ...  Ari Berman interviews the fimmakers from The Nation, August 2, 2011


'The Interrupters' Look to Stop Inner-City Violence  Nick Anderson interviews the writer and director from The Wall Strreet Journal, August 3, 2011


A Conversation with Writer Alex Kotlowitz of The Interrupters  Interview from The Chicagoist, August 9, 2011


The Interrupters: Sundance Review - The Hollywood Reporter  John DeFore


Variety [Peter Debruge]


The Interrupters and Elite Force 2 – city violence spreads to the big screen   Danny Leigh from The Guardian, August 12, 2011


The Interrupters – review  Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian

The Interrupters – review | Film | The Observer   Philip French from The Observer, also seen here:  The Interrupters – review 

The Interrupters (15) - Reviews, Films - The Independent  Anthony Quinn


The Miami Herald [Rene Rodriguez]


The Interrupters - Roger Ebert - Chicago Sun-Times


Letters: Blocking the Transmission of Violence   Letters to the Editor from The New York Times, May 18, 2008


“Upending Twisted Norms” New York Times, Bob Herbert  Op/Ed Piece, May 10, 2010


Murder of Derrion Albert - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


"4 Teenagers Charged in Youth’s Beating Death"  Emma Graves Fitzsimmons from The New York Times, September 28, 2009


Final sentencing in Fenger beating case  Jason Meisner from The Chicago Tribune, August 29, 2011


Last suspect in beating death of Derrion Albert gets 32 years  Don Babwin from The Chicago Sun-Times, August 29, 2011


Daily Journal - Violence 'interrupter' says police outreach better after ...  The Daily Journal, August 29, 2011


Chaos Theory Part I  Josh Gryniewicz from CeaseFire, October 28, 2010


Chaos Theory Part II  Josh Gryniewicz from CeaseFire, November 3, 2010


Chaos Theory Part III  Josh Gryniewicz from CeaseFire, November 9, 2010


“Homicide that Didn’t Happen” Chicago Tribune, Dr. Gary Slutkin  February 9, 2011


“Chicago’s CeaseFire Program Targets Poor Youth in Dangerous Urban Neighborhoods”  The Huffington Post, March 26, 2011


Evaluation of CeaseFire  U.S. Department of Justice Study


Copy of the full report  CeaseFire Evaluation Report


Jeff Fort - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Black P. Stones - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Moorish Science Temple of America - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Blackstone Rangers/ Black P. Stone Nation/El Rukns (c. 1957--c ...  Black Past


FBI — El Rukns  FBI Records


El Rukn - Terrorist Organization Profile - START - National ...


The Chicago Crime Scenes Project: El Rukn Leader Jeff Fort's Home


The Chicago Crime Scenes Project: El Rukn "Temple"


El Rukns Indicted In Libya Scheme - Chicago Tribune  Maurice Possley and William B. Crawford Jr. from The Chicago Tribune, October 31, 1986


Jury Convicts 10 Members of Notorious Gang - New York Times  August 11, 1991


El Rukns had early terror ties  Carlos Sadovi from The Chicago Sun-Times, June 11, 2001


New book on the Black P. Stone Nation - Chicago Tribune  Courtney Crowder interview with Natalie Y. Moore, the author of the new book, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang


Qaddafi: Ties to the El Rukns Chicago Gang  Natalie Y. Moore from The Root, March 16, 2011


LIFE ITSELF                                                            A-                    93

USA  (115 mi)  2014      Official site


Gatsby’s house was still empty when I left — the grass on his lawn had grown as long as mine. One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident, and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own. I didn’t want to hear it and I avoided him when I got off the train.


I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.


On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.


Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.


And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.


Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby finale, 1925, Ebert’s favorite literary passage


Arguably the most powerful documentary seen so far this year, as it’s like witnessing the passing of a close personal friend, adapted from Ebert’s 2011 autobiographical memoirs, written five years after thyroid cancer left him unable to speak, eat, or drink, but he “began to replace what I lost with what I remembered,” making a resurgence on the Internet with his interactive Ebert blog where he only became more prolific and influential as a writer, where his legacy is contained on his revamped website ( that currently receives 110 million visits per year, where there are some 70 writers offering diverse opinions and views carrying on his name.  The only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and for almost 30 years he was the only film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975 for outstanding criticism.  Ebert was also an honorary member of the Director’s Guild of America, working as the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013, his reviews were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and Canada.  Ebert also appeared on television for four decades, including twenty-three years as cohost of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (1986–99), becoming the most popular and best known film critic of our time, eventually accepted as a familiar household name.  While the sadness of his death was a tragic loss, much of it expressed in an outpouring of affirmation at his public funeral service (Roger Ebert), much of this film captures behind-the-scenes glimpses of Roger and his wife Chaz while he was undergoing extensive rehabilitation treatment in the hospital, which includes the dramatic mood swings that come with the territory of reaching the end stage of one’s life, where this film doesn’t sugar coat it, showing the depths of exasperation and depression, where despite his overall positive attitude, there were times when he preferred to end it.  This is no movie version of death, but brings the viewer into the wrenching personal moments when he was simply overcome by the devastation of his illness.   As he is unable to speak, Chaz acts as the narrator of his thoughts, reading personal notes that he writes or recounting his innermost feelings that he shared.  His death serves as the backdrop to what is otherwise an exposé of his life. 


Born as a middle class kid from Urbana, a small Midwestern town in central Illinois, his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife, where they subscribed to three newspapers to accommodate Roger’s voracious interest.  While he hoped he could follow in the Kennedy’s footsteps to Harvard, his working class family could only afford the nearby University of Illinois where he became the editor of the school newspaper, spending late evening hours setting the type press, a notable experience to others who remember Roger as he already knew how to write in a distinctively mature style, as evidenced by an article he wrote after a Birmingham church bombing (16th Street Baptist Church bombing) killed four young black girls on September 15, 1963, beginning with a quote from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who told then white separatist Alabama Governor George Wallace “The blood of four little children…is on your hands.”  At only 21, Ebert took issue with King’s comments, suggesting in The Daily Illini that the blood was on the hands of not just one man, but many, as legislated white separatism must pass through the minds and thoughts of hundreds, then voted upon by hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions more voters before it is enacted into law, enforced by still more police, sheriffs, district attorneys, juries, and ultimately judges who sit upon the wisdom of such racially divisive practices.  While he moved to Chicago as a doctoral student in graduate school at the University of Chicago, the economic reality meant he also needed money, so while he intended to be a freelance reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times while still attending classes, he was actually hired as a reporter and feature writer.  In less than a year, without asking for the position and without so much as an interview he was offered the job as full-time movie critic when Eleanor Keane left the paper in April 1967, becoming the youngest film critic in the nation at age 24, a job he never relinquished until his death.  Enriched by old black and white archival photographs, narrated by a few old clips of Ebert himself, but mostly voice actor Stephen Stanton as Ebert, there are plenty of recollections from friends, colleagues, and drinking buddies, recounting tales from Ebert’s drinking days at O’Rourke’s Pub near Old Town where a bartender recalls, “Back in the old days, Roger had the worst taste in women of probably any man I’ve ever known.  They were either gold diggers, opportunists, or psychos.”


Improbably, or perhaps not, Roger developed a close association with schlock sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer, writing the screenplay for the cult film BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), which captured the thoughts of young director Martin Scorsese, who started amusingly with the title, claiming they meant it when they say it goes “Beyond…Far Beyond,” always remembering the editing sequence when the girl has sex in a luxury Bentley car, which edits the grill of the Bentley into the middle of the sex act.  Scorsese recalls the interest a young Ebert took in one of his earliest efforts, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), seen when it was entitled I CALL FIRST, already recognizing the talent behind the camera, which he recalls in his book here, Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert, an excerpt.  In one of the lowest periods of Scorsese’s life in the early 80’s, after several failed marriages, he acknowledges he was actually contemplating suicide, but before he had the chance to act, he received an invite from Siskel & Ebert to join them in a retrospective panel discussion about his works at the Toronto Film Festival, something he never forgot, as it literally saved his life.  Scorsese’s comments were particularly heartfelt, even as Ebert lambasted his film THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), which struck a nerve, but he insisted that even when writing a negative review, Ebert never lost his professionalism or went for the juggler, a trait that describes his innate humaneness.  Similarly, Errol Morris attributes much of his success to Ebert’s enthralling endorsement of his first documentary film GATES OF HEAVEN (1978), a small film about pet cemeteries that Roger championed throughout his life.  The same could be said about Werner Herzog, who calls Ebert a “soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade,” but it is Morris who acknowledges, “Here I had someone writing about my work who was a true enthusiast.  His enthusiasm has kept me going over the years, and the memory of his enthusiasm will keep me going for as long as I make movies.”  The director’s own association with Ebert dates back to 1994 when Siskel & Ebert used their television show as a platform to endorse his unheralded urban basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS (1994) as one of the best films of the year, where both listed it as their #1 Best Film.  All of this attests not only to his influence, but his personal generosity, reflected by countless others who recall how Ebert took the time to acknowledge their work when nobody else was, like Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) or Gregory Nava’s EL NORTE (1983), where kindness is a recognizable human attribute one never forgets. 


After winning the Pulitzer Prize, The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee tried to lure him away with a big-money offer, but Ebert continually refused, replying, “I’m not gonna learn new streets.”  Much is made of Ebert’s professional legacy, specifically the thumbs up/thumbs down shorthand of film criticism, a technique that film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dismisses, claiming it is not film criticism, which Ebert is not ashamed to acknowledge, as television time restraints demand a simplistic rating system, a short cut style of divulging sufficient information for viewers to make an intelligent choice.  But other serious cinephiles were equally appalled by the system, including this erudite March/April 1990 Film Comment attack by Richard Corliss, All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism? that attacks the dumbing down, sound bite mentality of movie reviews as little more than television marketing.  In the next edition of the magazine, Ebert's reply may be as meticulously detailed, lengthy, and well-argued as the original piece, delivering a strong defense for the show.  This perfectly illustrates Ebert’s clear-headedness, as according to newspaper colleagues and friends, Ebert never spent more than a half hour writing a review, that he comes from a newspaper background where the secret is outlining the ideas in your head before you start to write.  Ebert had the ability to write, and speak, in whole paragraphs while retaining the ability to remain clear and concise, displaying old-fashioned Midwestern logic and common sense.  Even when writing about complex artists like Bergman, Dreyer, or Bresson, Ebert never wrote above the heads of the audience by describing often incomprehensible film theory (which he was known to do in classrooms, spending hours dissecting movies shot by shot), always aware that he was writing for the widest possible readership.  When paired with philosophy major and Yale graduate Gene Siskel, a man who never met one of his own opinions he didn’t prefer, Ebert was often stunned by his inability to convince his partner of the error of his thinking, where both stubbornly refused to acquiesce to the other, which provided the fireworks for the show.  As someone ingeniously acknowledged, “Gene was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.”  Of course there are film clips from the show, including inflammatory shouting matches objecting about the incredibly poor taste of their partner, over BENJI THE HUNTED (1987), of all films, where Ebert strains to yell over another Siskel snide remark, “I disagree particularly about the part you like!”  But the worst behavior occurs during a series of outtakes where both are seen continually trading personal insults, captured on camera as they dutifully flub line after line of promo shots, eventually walking off the set in a huff.  Eventually, perhaps because of the amount of time they spent in such close quarters together, they grew a special affection for one another.  


Among the many surprises of the film is not about Roger, but Gene Siskel, former playboy, who was part of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle of the early 70’s before he became a movie critic, seen jet setting around the country with a bevy of beautiful models on the Playboy private jet.  And who would have guessed that among Roger’s favorite literary works was a special affection for The Great Gatsby, often asking his lifelong friend Bill Nack to recite the final lines in the book from memory, which he proudly does onscreen, as he has done hundreds of times, where the overriding hope and optimism of a new and better world ahead seems to have been Roger’s guiding light.  At the beginning of the film he offers his description of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy,” which has an almost science-fiction feel to it, suggesting there is a healing power in cinema, which may have transformed his life.  He wasn’t particularly proud of his reckless behavior on display during the 70’s while working for The Chicago Sun-Times, describing himself as “tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat,” where he was also a preeminent storyteller that could hold a room, a womanizer, and an alcoholic, eventually joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he remained sober since 1979.  In his book, Ebert claims Ann Landers introduced him to his eventual wife Chaz at a restaurant in Chicago, but the film tells another story, that he met the love of his life at age 50 in an A.A. meeting.  A former chair of the Black Student Union at her college, and perhaps the least likely person to choose a white man for a husband, Chaz steadfastly remains at Roger’s side throughout his most difficult ordeals, often understanding the underlying anguish and despair even as Roger tends to remain optimistic.  Despite the graphically uncomfortable moments where Roger has to continually return to the rehab hospital five times, each time thinking it would be his last, that it would lead him on the road to recovery, where he was initially informed, “They got it all.  Every last speck,” only to realize the cancer had continued to spread elsewhere.  This stream of medical news is exhausting and demoralizing, none of which is hidden from view, where among Roger’s more acute observations was his wife’s inextinguishable support, “To visit a hospital is not pleasant.  To do it hundreds of times is heroic.”  In a startling revelation, Chaz describes the final moment when they finally decide to let go, easily the most heartbreaking moment in the entire film, where death has rarely felt more genuine.  Yet it is this heartfelt intimacy that carries us through this film that helps us understand the power of love, where it nearly has the capacity to raise the dead, perhaps best expressed by Kenneth Turan from The Los Angeles Times:


If you had asked me ahead of time what I would have found most interesting about Life Itself, I would have guessed that it would be the parts I knew least about, specifically Roger’s harum-scarum days as a young film critic about town in high-spirited Chicago.  Paradoxically, the opposite was true, (where perhaps most surprising are) the sections that enlarged my understanding of Roger’s relationship with his remarkable wife, Chaz, particularly as their vibrant marriage took on the cataclysmic series of illnesses that marked the final decade of Roger’s life.  The cascading surgeries that Roger went through would have toppled a less indomitable man, and it was difficult for me to watch the scenes that show Roger in obvious discomfort and pain.  But having a behind-the-scenes look at the truth of Roger’s remark that Chaz’s love was ‘like a wind pushing me back from the grave’ genuinely brought tears to my eyes.


Roger loves Chaz | Roger Ebert's Journal | Roger Ebert  July 17, 2012, a selection from Life Itself: A Memoir:


The greatest pleasure came from annual trips we made with our grandchildren Raven, Emil and Taylor, and their parents Sonia and Mark.  Josibiah and his son Joseph came on one of those trips, where we made our way from Budapest to Prague, Vienna and Venice.  We went with the Evans family to Hawaii, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Venice, and Stockholm.  We walked the ancient pathway from Cambridge to Grantchester.  Emil announced that for him there was no such thing as getting up too early, and every morning the two of us would meet in a hotel lobby and go out for long walks together.  I took my camera.  One morning in Budapest he asked me to take a photo of two people walking ahead of us and holding hands.




“Because they look happy.”


Ramin Setoodeh 5 of the Film’s Most Surprising Moments, from Variety at Sundance, January 19, 2014

Roger Ebert knew that he wouldn’t live to see “Life Itself,” the documentary based on his 2011 memoir. In one of the most touching scenes of the riveting film by director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Ebert learns that his cancer has metastasized to his spine. The doctors estimate he only has six to 16 months to live, although he doesn’t make it that long. Ebert died in April 2013 at 70.

“It is likely I will have passed when the film is ready,” Ebert calmly predicts on-camera.

At the Sunday premiere of “Life Itself,” James broke into tears as he introduced his film, which will air on CNN. The next two hours were a sobfest, as most of the audience cried — and often laughed, too. When the credits rolled, Ebert’s wife Chaz took the stage joined by Marlene Iglitzen, the wife of Ebert’s longtime movie sparring partner Gene Siskel.

Chaz talked about how people called her a saint for taking care of Roger as his health failed after a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2002. “What they didn’t know is how much my heart grew from having been with him for all those years, for loving him, for taking care of him, for having him take care of me,” Chaz said. During the Q&A, an audience member asked what Ebert would have thought of “Life Itself.” Chaz knew that “he would say two thumbs up.”

The stirring documentary, which was shot during what would be the last five months of Ebert’s life, includes interviews with Ebert’s director friends Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, as well as critics A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss. Here are five of the film’s most surprising moments.

1. Ebert never got to say good-bye to Gene Siskel. In the documentary, Marlene talks about how Gene hid his brain cancer diagnosis in 1998, out of fear that Disney would replace him on ABC’s “Siskel & Ebert.” Ebert had planned to visit Gene at the hospital, but he passed two days before the visit. Chaz said that Ebert was so heartbroken, he was determined to share the details of his own health after he got sick.

2. Ebert signed “a do not resuscitate.” In the final days of his life, he sent James emails like “i’m fading” and “i can’t.” He said his hands were so swollen, he wasn’t able to use a computer. He secretly signed a DNR at the hospital without telling Chaz, which she learned about on the day of his death. In the film, she described the moment of his passing as “a wind of peace” and “I knew it was time to accept it.”

3. Ebert met Chaz at Alcoholics Anonymous. In his memoir, Ebert claims to have first talked to her at a Chicago restaurant, after an introduction by Ann Landers. In the film, Chaz says she met Roger at AA, a fact that she had never publicly revealed. And until he started dating her, Ebert had a wild bachelor streak–according to one pal, he used to court “gold diggers, opportunists and psychos.” Another buddy recalls that Roger introduced him to a prostitute he was seeing.

4. Laura Dern once gave Ebert a present that belonged to Marilyn Monroe. After Ebert presented Dern with a Sundance tribute, Dern sent him a heartfelt letter with a special memento. It was a puzzle that Lee Strasberg had given her, a gift from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe. Ebert later gave the puzzle to director Ramin Bahrani, with the instructions that one day, “You have to give it to someone else who deserves it.”

5. Ebert loved “The Great Gatsby.”It was his favorite book. He had his journalist friend Bill Nack recite the final lines back to him hundreds of times. Here it is, Roger: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Ebert compiled "best of the year" movie lists beginning in 1967, thereby helping provide an overview of his critical preferences.  His top choices were:


Roger Ebert Documentary Life Itself Is a Poignant ... - Vulture  David Edelstein 

Steve James’s Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, is a tender portrait of the late film critic, who managed to put an apparently Brobdingnagian ego to benevolent, ultimately life-affirming ends. James—whose Hoop Dreams was the beneficiary of a fervent campaign by Ebert—cuts back and forth between Ebert’s last days and the story of his rise, first as a daily newspaper critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, then as co-host with Gene Siskel of Sneak Previews (later Siskel & Ebert & the Movies). Friends and colleagues allude to the hugeness, the Chicago-ness of the man—the appetite for food, booze (until he sobered up in 1979), raucous storytelling, and sex. (“He had the worst taste in women … gold-diggers, opportunists, or psychos,” says one old pal.) But that portrait is ­poignantly at odds with the man who appears on-camera missing much of his lower face, a flap of skin hanging in the approximate shape of a chin. The surgery—which eliminated Ebert’s ability to speak, eat, or drink—gives his face a simpleminded, Quasimodo-like cast that is constantly belied by the words he types and that are spoken aloud by a computer. Not even The Diving Bell and the Butterfly drives home the mind-body schism as movingly.

According to friends and colleagues, Ebert was “facile”—he never spent longer than half an hour writing a review. He was an old-fashioned newspaperman: clear, succinct, logical. His concentration was phenomenal. He had the ability to outline in his head, to write (and speak) in whole paragraphs. That’s one reason he paired so well with Siskel, no less an egomaniac but a random sputterer, an often touchingly vulnerable blowhard.

James does a superb job chronicling their hate-love relationship, suggesting in the end that apart from his wife, Chaz, Ebert never had a truer bond. That might be because no one else got away with challenging him—he hated being jarred out of those elegant paragraphs. Nevertheless, he reached out to other critics. A few of the best—A. O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Richard Corliss—attest to his influence and personal generosity. More surprising is the number of directors who appear and with whom he hobnobbed: Werner Herzog, who calls Ebert “a soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade,” and Martin Scorsese, who credits Ebert and Siskel with shoring him up at a very low point in his career. But it’s easy to see why they deferred to him. He was, for a time, the most powerful critic in America and a TV celebrity. He was one of them.

Love him or not, the modern film critic must define himself or herself against Roger Ebert—especially in how he adapted to changing technology, finally building a community via blogging and tweeting around his titanic self. The modern human being must define himself against how he lived his final years, when he lost his (big) mouth and discovered an even stronger, truer voice.    

jonathan rosenbaum | The Cape Cod Film Society  also seen here:  richard corliss | The Cape Cod Film Society

When I was preparing to go to the Nantucket Film Festival, the first thing on my list of films to see was Life Itself. I wanted to see it because it is a documentary about Roger Ebert, a film critic who was so central to the development of film criticism in America, and also probably the first person to introduce me to the idea that films could be taken seriously enough to argue about them on television. When I realized that the film was directed by Steve James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was also central in my development as a documentary filmmaker, I was filled with anticipation for what I thought would be a film about Ebert’s work. But the film I saw was not really about film criticism and Ebert’s significance to the field; it was a document of the end of Ebert’s life, when the man known for his words could no longer speak.

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind as to whether or not this was a disappointment. Life Itself does tell Ebert’s story, and there was a lot to his professional development that I did not know about, but because James’ focus is on the man behind the thumbs, the documentary is more about Ebert’s spirit. Yes, there are interviews with directors whose work he championed (most notably Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, both of whom I admire), and other film critics, such as A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Corliss are interviewed about  his contributions to their field, but a good portion of the film is spent on the footage James got of Ebert in his hospital room and in rehabilitation as he tried to recover from cancer, which had plagued him for 10 years. It is that end-of-life struggle that resonates most.

Ebert is depicted as a character of depth and complexity, which is rare in contemporary documentaries. In fiction films, we are given complete access to the characters created for the story–their emotional lives, as well as their behaviors. But in a documentary, we are often limited by the subject’s power to reveal only what (s)he wishes to make public. In this case, the film is based on Ebert’s previously published memoir of the same name, but in James’ hands–with this footage of Ebert at the end of his life, the choice to include his step-children and grandchildren, who learned a lot from him, as well as early outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert television show that demonstrate the very real animosity between the two critics–we see many layers to Ebert’s personality. He is a loving and beloved husband, stepfather, and grandfather. He is a sometimes arrogant film critic and writer who had no trouble defending his views, but who, unlike the stereotypical critic, was just as passionate in promoting outstanding films as he was in cutting down poorly conceived, bad films. It is not all a show for the cameras, although Ebert seems to have been very pleased to have become a film subject in his last days. There are things missing from this documentary (for example, Siskel’s successor, film critic Richard Roeper is never mentioned, although he co-hosted At The Movies with Ebert for eight years), but then how could there not be; no one’s life story can be told in 116 minutes. This depiction feels very real.

Ebert was criticized, along with Gene Siskel, for having simplified criticism with the thumbs up/thumbs down designations, but for those of us who have actually read Ebert’s criticism and not just watched him on TV, the thumbs are a minor part of his contribution. Ebert, the film tells us, once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Life Itself fits that description as well. It also leaves us thinking about mortality, love, passion, and how to embrace life’s challenges. The feeling I left the Dreamland Theater with after seeing Life Itself was one of loss, but at the same time, I felt reinvigorated about the value of cinema, and I think Ebert would have liked that.

Life Itself / The Dissolve  Genevieve Koski

At one point in Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary based on Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, Ebert’s wife, Chaz, wryly mentions that her husband is “death-obsessed”—an understandable position, given that at this point in filming, Ebert was in the midst of what would turn out to be the last of many, many hospital stays during his 11-year battle with cancer. But there’s an overwhelming sense that Ebert’s fixation on death is simply an extension of his zeal for life in all its complexity, which Life Itself embodies from its title on down. Death is a part of life—one that informs everything we do, on some level or another—and watching Ebert characterize whatever time he has left as “money in the bank,” from what viewers know is his deathbed, is life-affirming and heartbreaking in equal measure. 

Those hospital scenes help make what could have been a fairly straightforward profile a remarkable piece of documentary filmmaking, as much a discourse on life and death in general as the story of one specific, extraordinary life. Credit for that certainly goes to James, but also to Ebert, who helps the director orchestrate the movie as it’s filming, via onscreen emails and the computer software that allowed him to speak when his body would no longer let him. When Ebert cheekily orders James to film himself in the hospital-room mirror, or sends the director an email expressing glee that they got some grody footage of his G-tube being suctioned out, it’s clear he considers himself more than just the subject of this film.

Such moments of fourth-wall-breaking are appropriate in the context of Ebert’s life, a good portion of which was spent hobnobbing and collaborating with the filmmakers he wrote about in his official capacity as the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic, and later, as the co-host of Sneak Previews and At The Movies. (James is among those filmmakers; Ebert, along with Gene Siskel, was a vocal advocate of Hoop Dreams when it came out in 1994.) Ebert wrote about film, yes—prolifically, astutely, and seemingly effortlessly—but he also lived it, and the filmmakers he befriended along the way were cast members in the movie of his life. Many of them are actual cast members in Life Itself as well, including Martin Scorsese (who also executive-produced), Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, and Ava DuVernay, who all contribute fond remembrances of Ebert as both a critic and person.

But not too fond. Appropriately, Life Itself is reverent while still being critical of its subject, acknowledging his flaws (his alcoholism, his terrible taste in women pre-Chaz, a prurient streak that led, among other things, to his collaboration with Russ Meyer) in the context of his humanity. The film’s overview of Ebert’s rivalry with Siskel in particular is fascinating for the glimpse it provides of both men’s insecurities, as well as their biting wit; a blooper reel of At The Movies where the two snipe at each other between takes, camera-ready smiles pasted on as they hiss between their teeth, is deliciously awkward. But it also makes time to acknowledge the deep-seated—sometimes very deep—respect the two held for each other, even if it took Siskel’s death for it to become completely evident to Ebert and those around him.

The At The Movies era was arguably the most important phase of Ebert’s career, and Life Itself spends an appropriately sized chunk of time exploring it, via archival footage and interviews with producers and Siskel’s widow Marlene, among others. But it’s only a single chapter in the sprawling story of Ebert’s life, which the film skips through semi-chronologically, filling in the essential moments on the timeline, but finding much more fruitful material in the footnotes. The stamp he used to print his byline as a journalism-obsessed adolescent; the time he literally stopped the presses of the college paper The Daily Illini as a cocky, audacious editor; his stilted, disastrous first time on camera; him explaining Michael Apted’s Up series to his granddaughter as he writes a review of 56 Up from his hospital bed: These are the shadows and highlights that fill in the picture of Ebert as a person, not a Wikipedia entry. And they’re given further life by Ebert’s words, written in the book Life Itself and judiciously delivered via voiceover in the film by voice actor Stephen Stanton, who makes his voice sound just enough like Ebert’s to make the narration feel natural without tipping over into spooky.

Despite all that, the specter of death hangs heavy over Life Itself, which went into production when Ebert was still alive and relatively optimistic about the future. (A short scene where Roger and Chaz discuss the re-design of, which didn’t launch until after his death in April 2013, is an especially meta bit of foreshadowing.) Watching that optimism fade over the course of the present-day footage in the hospital is gut-wrenching, particularly when James focuses his camera on the steadfast Chaz, who lets only the tiniest glimpses of fear and frustration peek through her resolute façade. Those glimpses are enough, though, to remind viewers that they are watching Ebert’s eulogy, one he helped author in more ways than one.

But Life Itself’s most powerful element is one Ebert had no control over: its context.  Ebert was an advocate of context in criticism, and it would probably please him as both a critic and a fan of irony to know that his death is what enlivens Life Itself. Watching that context actually take shape onscreen is remarkable—remarkable that James had the premonition and audacity to capture it as he did, and that Ebert not only let him, but encouraged it. After 45 years of watching, critiquing, and loving film, the man knew what made a good movie.

'Life Itself': Ode to a cinematic game changer - Brent ...  Brent Marchant


It’s a rare occasion when someone comes along who ends up being a genuine game changer in his or her particular field of endeavor. But, when such individuals make their presence felt, they leave an indelible mark on their craft, changing it forever. In the field of film criticism, that distinction belongs to Roger Ebert (1942-2013), who almost single-handedly altered the way we look at movies and whose storied life is now the subject of the engaging new documentary, “Life Itself.”

Based on Ebert’s autobiography, director Steve James’s documentary chronicles his subject’s life story from his teenage years as neighborhood reporter for a self-published newspaper to his acclaimed career as America’s top movie critic to his heartbreaking yet ever-hopeful battle against terminal cancer. In presenting Roger’s story, James serves up a wealth of archival material, coupled with narrated segments from Ebert’s memoir, interviews with family, friends and colleagues, and candid footage of the difficulties his subject faced in his final days. The result is a remarkable and surprisingly forthright depiction of Ebert’s life, something he insisted on before agreeing to be involved in the project.

Ebert’s contributions to the field of film criticism are almost too numerous to mention. His 46-year career included positions as Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, as co-host of several TV series (most notably Sneak Previews, At the Movies and Siskel & Ebert & The Movies) and as the author of numerous books. He was also a regular presenter about cinema at the Conference on World Affairs and even co-wrote the screenplay for the Russ Meyer cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970). And his efforts didn’t go unnoticed, either. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first film critic ever to receive this prestigious award. Then, in 2005, he was honored again, this time with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the only film critic ever so recognized. (Not bad for a middle-class kid from Urbana, Illinois.)


While the picture covers the entire spectrum of Ebert’s career, much of it examines his famous (some might say infamous) relationship with film critic Gene Siskel (1946-1999) of The Chicago Tribune. As rivals at Chicago’s two daily newspapers, they initially vied for the attention of the Windy City’s moviegoing public. But that was just the beginning. The duo would later go on to host the aforementioned TV series, which often featured spirited – sometimes downright nasty – debates about current film releases. Their colorful arguments made for great television, but those disagreements (and the shows themselves) also changed the way movie lovers viewed the cinematic landscape. They brought film criticism out of the pages of the newspaper and made it more available to a wider audience. In doing so, they became the best known (and some would say most influential) film critics in America, as well as celebrities in their own right. Yet, for all the fame and fortune they built together, they never much cared for one another, their contentious rivalry characterizing much of the nature of their relationship (some of which becomes plainly apparent in outtakes from promos for their TV series and in interviews with Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, and several of their shows’ producers).

The film also focuses heavily on the other significant relationship in Ebert’s life, that of his marriage to his wife, Chaz. Roger met Chaz late in life after years of dating women who, according to some of his friends, were of “questionable character.” But Chaz changed Roger’s life, introducing him to the love that always eluded him in his younger years. She would prove to be his rock in his waning days, too, remaining loyal and upbeat through all of his travails, which were much more taxing than most people knew, despite his very public presence almost right up until the end.

But what’s perhaps most illuminating about this film is its portrayal of the relationship Roger had with himself. He was very much in touch with who he was and how his life unfolded. In fact, he believed that we each compose the script of our own lives, that they’re like our own personal movies in which we’re actor, director and screenwriter all rolled into one. And, even though he was quite outspoken in his criticism of alternative life philosophies (such as New Age thought), his own outlook nevertheless seems remarkably consistent with the principles of conscious creation, the notion that we create our own reality with our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Some might argue that there are discrepancies between his views and those who practice conscious creation, but, in my opinion, I believe any such differences are mostly semantic, particularly given the similarities in the outcomes that each outlook propounds to evoke.

The creations Ebert materialized were quite impressive, to say the least. For instance, through his TV series, he brought film criticism to the masses, and, in doing so, he made it accessible to those who may have previously seen the subject as too high-brow or aloof. In fact, he was so successful at this that industry insiders were initially reluctant to embrace these shows (or even to measure their impact) simply because they were hosted by “Midwestern” film critics, presenters viewed as folksy rubes who couldn’t possibly possess the sophistication and clout of New York or Los Angeles critics like Pauline Kael. How wrong the detractors were, especially when the shows took off and became hits in the ratings.


By broadening the audience for serious film criticism, Ebert also helped to broaden the profession itself. This is most evident on his web site,, which became his “voice” after his cancerous lower jaw was surgically removed and left him unable to speak. But, in addition to providing a venue for Ebert’s output, the site also became a platform for upcoming film critics whose words might not otherwise have been given voice. By mentoring a new generation of reviewers, Roger furthered the reach of his calling and those who would take up the gauntlet in his wake. His efforts in this regard are praised in the film, too, in interviews with fellow critics like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss.

Roger’s generosity of spirit was apparent not only in the nurturing of new critics, but also in the development of new cinematic talent. Throughout his career, Ebert was famous for giving press to the works of aspiring or little-known directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Greg Nava and Ava Duvernay, all of whom are interviewed in the film. He was instrumental in helping to make their careers, something that benefitted both those artists and the moviegoing public.

However, despite Ebert’s willingness to support the works of up-and-coming directors (and even to befriend them in some cases), he maintained a scrupulous degree of integrity when it came to assessing their pictures. Scorsese, for example, discusses Ebert’s harsh (and disheartening) criticism of his film “The Color of Money” (1986). Despite four Academy Award nominations (including a best actor win for Paul Newman), Ebert tore into his friend’s picture. Scorsese confesses that he was disappointed at the time, but he also admits how he later recognized that Ebert’s criticisms helped make him a better filmmaker, a “gift” that would prove valuable in his future projects. In being honest, Ebert may have ruffled some feathers in the short run, but his wisdom subsequently helped elevate the art form he so loved, another of his inspired creations, to be sure.

But, for all his professional accomplishments, his personal triumphs were amazing achievements as well. Just ask Chaz and her family, many of whom are interviewed in the film and serve as a topic of discussion in voiceover narrations from Roger’s memoir. Through them, he built a family for himself. And that accomplishment, as fulfilling as it was, wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for another of his achievements – kicking the drinking habit – for it was through his association with Alcoholics Anonymous that he would meet his future bride (and everything that came with that). Indeed, to paraphrase Clarence, the lovable guardian angel from Frank Capra’s legendary Christmas classic, “Roger, you’ve truly had a wonderful life.” And, fortunately for Roger, he recognized this, too, regardless of whatever difficulties may have graced his path along the way.


“Life Itself” paints a beautiful portrait of a towering figure, and it does so with sequences that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Its selection of archive, interview and recent footage tells a balanced, frank and compelling story, warts and all. There are both ample laughs and touching moments, as well as film clips from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, all combining to create one of the most complete pictures I’ve seen in quite a long time. The film is a sure-fire contender in the documentary categories for this year’s awards competitions.

As a longtime Chicago resident, I became well-acquainted with Roger Ebert over the years through his work as a critic for the Sun-Times, a movie reviewer for the local ABC-TV affiliate and as a co-host of Sneak Previews, the PBS series produced by the network’s Chicago affiliate, WTTW. But, beyond his published and broadcast works, I came to admire Roger’s approach to film criticism, one that was thought-provoking but that never went beyond the audience’s comprehension. And, just as Roger saw himself as the creator of the movie of his own life, I frequently offer comparable observations in my own writings – but, then, I had a good source of inspiration to draw from.

Roger Ebert left an incredible mark on an industry, an art form, even the nation’s culture. He helped transform a casual pastime into something more, something that both entertains and enlightens but that also maintains a certain familiarity we can all relate to. That’s quite an accomplishment, one for which all moviegoers should be grateful.

Take a bow, Roger.


PopMatters [Cynthia Fuchs]


Ferdy on Films [Marilyn Ferdinand] [Erik Lundegaard]


Life Itself: The Roger Ebert documentary, directed by Steve ...  Dana Stevens from Slate


Sight & Sound [Jason Anderson] November 14, 2014


1NFLUX Magazine [Steve Pulaski]


Nonfics [Christopher Campbell]


Film Racket [Chris Barsanti]


Filmleaf [Chris Knipp]


A Critical Movie Critic [Howard Schumann]


Slant Magazine [Chuck Bowen]


Sundance Review: 'Life Itself' -  James Rocchi 


Sound On Sight [Josh Spiegel]


Indiewire [Chase Whale]  The Playlist


Life Itself Celebrates Roger Ebert and His Capacity for Joy   Stephanie Zacharek from The Village Voice


Film Pulse [Adam Patterson]


Sundance 2014 Review: Thumbs Up For Roger Ebert Doc LIFE...  Jason Gorber from Twitch


'Life Itself' Review: A Too Loving Tribute to Roger ... - Pajiba  Corey Atad


In Review Online [Drew Hunt]


Grolsch Film Works [Jack Jones]


Film Corner, The [Greg Klymkiw]


Cinemixtape [J. Olson]


Vérité [Timothy E. Raw]


Life Itself - Reelviews Movie Reviews  James Berardinelli


Flavorwire [Jason Bailey]


Armchair Cinema [Jerry Dean Roberts]


Spectrum Culture [David Harris]


Surrender to the Void [Steven Flores] [Ted Metrakas] (Blu-ray) [Michael Reuben] Blu-ray [Matt Paprocki]


DVD Talk [William Harrison]  Blu-Ray [Brian Orndorf]


DVD Sleuth [Mike Long]  Blu-Ray


Cinema365 [Carlos deVillalvilla]


Can't Stop the Movies [Andrew Hathaway]


Cinemablographer [Pat Mullen]


Little White Lies [David Jenkins]


The Film Stage [Raffi Asdourian]


Independent Ethos [Hans Morgenstern]


Sound On Sight  Brian Welk


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz]


Cambridge Day [T. Meek]  Tom Meek [Katherine McLaughlin]


Sundance Review: LIFE ITSELF | Badass Digest  Devin Faraci


Georgia Straight [Ken Eisner]


FILM REVIEW: Life Itself - The Buzz - - Canadian...  Eli Glasner from CBC News


SBS Film [Michelle Orange]


The Playlist [Chase Whale]  capsule review


jdbrecords [Jeffery Berg]


5 surprises about CNN's Roger Ebert film, 'Life Itself'  Thom Patterson from CNN, January 7, 2015


Daily | Sundance 2014 | Steve James's LIFE ITSELF - Fandor  David Hudson from Fandor


'Life Itself' Director Steve James Explains the Challenges of ...  Eric Kohn interview from indieWIRE, July 5, 2014


Chaz Ebert and director Steve James on Roger Ebert's legacy  Andrew O’Hehir interview from Salon, July 2, 2014


Life Itself: Sundance Review - The Hollywood Reporter  Todd McCarthy


Todd McCarthy on the Secret to Roger Ebert's Popularity  Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 2013


TV Guide [Nathan Southern]


'Life Itself' Review: Roger Ebert Gets the Doc He Deserves ... Scott Foundas from Variety, also seen here:  Ebertfest: Roger Ebert's Film Festival: Life Itself 


Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself': 5 Most Surprising ...  Ramin Setoodeh from Variety [Mark Kermode] [Peter Bradshaw] [John Patterson]


Documentary Life Itself is strangely devoid of Roger Ebert's ...  Liam Lacey from The Globe and the Mail [Rick Marianetti] [Travis Hopson]  also seen here:  Punch Drunk Critics [Travis Hopson] [Chris Sawin]


Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]


'Life Itself' movie review - Washington Post  Ann Hornaday 


Review: “Life Itself” lovingly chronicles the complex life of ...  Steve Murray from Atlanta Arts


The Cleveland Movie Blog [Pamela Zoslov]


Austin Chronicle [Louis Black] [Devin D. O'Leary]


Roger Ebert doc 'Life Itself' deserves a thumbs up - Los ...  Kenneth Turan from The LA Times


L.A. Biz [Annlee Ellingson]


Chuck Koplinski: 'Life Itself' unique and moving  Chuck Koplinski fron The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette


Life Itself Movie Review & Film Summary (2014) | Roger Ebert  Matt Zoller Seitz [Michal Oleszczyk]


Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents [Seongyong Cho]


And Fade Out ... but Not Fade Away  Geoffrey O’Brien from The New York Times, also seen here:  'Life Itself,' Reminiscences of Roger Ebert - 


Jancsó, Miklós

Jancsó, Miklós  World Cinema

Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó gained international recognition in the late 1960s, when The Round-Up (1966), The Red and the White (1967) and The Confrontation (1969) garnered numerous awards at a variety of international film festivals. Displaying evidence of a developing revolutionary vision and uniquely formalistic cinematic style, these films not only established Jancsó's reputation as an auteur, but also helped to serve notice to the world that Hungarian filmmaking had entered into a dynamic new era.

Jancsó's world-wide acclaim reached its peak with Red Psalm (1972), for which he was named best director at the Cannes Film Festival. Red Psalm stands as perhaps the most coherent expression of the director's desire to combine a revolutionary form of filmic language with the theme of the moral complexities of social revolution. Although he would receive a lifetime achievement award at Cannes in 1979, Jancsó's more recent films, such as The Dawn (1986) and Season of Monsters (1987), have not found the widespread approval granted to his films of the 60s and early 70s. His films are now criticized as experiments in purely abstract formalism, devoid of social relevance and lacking in human compassion. Ultimately, his most enduring contribution to cinema may well be the role he played during the 60s in liberating Hungarian filmmaking from the formal and thematic constraints of state-sanctioned realism.       Baseline

All-Movie Guide   Sandra Brennan from All Movie Guide

A key figure in the development of the new Hungarian cinema, filmmaker Miklós Jancsó earned international recognition for his films Szegénylegények/The Round-Up (1965), Csillagosok Katonák/The Red and the White (1967), and Csend és Kiáltás/Silence and Cry (1968). These films best reflect Jancsó's tendency toward abstraction and contain a distinctive combination of revolutionary viewpoints and highly structured, formal cinematic style. Imagery is more important than dialogue, which is used sparingly to encourage audiences to contemplate Jancsó's underlying messages. The director tends to place actors in geometric patterns that mirror the landscapes around them.

Born in Vac, Hungary, Jancsó studied ethnography and art history while earning his law degree in 1944. He spent several years in Transylvania doing ethnographic research before enrolling in Budapest's Academy of Dramatic and Film Art, where he graduated in 1950. Jancsó began filming numerous newsreels and documentary shorts until 1958, when he made his feature debut with A Harangok Rómába Mentek/The Bells Have Gone to Rome (1958). The film is one of the few in Jancsó's repertoire that does not reflect his signature style. In 1963, he earned international acclaim for his medical drama Oldás és kötés/Cantata (1963).
Many of Jancsó's films examine the terrible aftermath of war. Although his first films offered sympathetic explorations of the human characters, his later works became increasingly concerned with the use of imagery for its own sake. Jancsó's landmark films of the '60s won many international awards and special recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1972, he again earned international acclaim and the Best Director Award at Cannes for Red Psalm. Seven years later, Jancsó won a lifetime achievement award from the prestigious French film festival. He continued to make films throughout the rest of the century, earning particular acclaim for a number of increasingly enigmatic works, including Szeressuk Egymast Gyrekek...A Nagy Agyhalal/Let's Love One Another...The Great Brain Death (1996) and Nekem Lampast Adott Kezembe Az Ur Pesten/The Lord's Lantern in Budapest (1999).

Film Reference   Charles L.P. Silet
Miklós Jancsó is probably the best internationally known of the directors to emerge from the new wave Hungarian cinema of the 1960s. With his hypnotic, circling camera, the recurrent—some critics say obsessive—exploration of Hungary's past, and his evocative use of the broad plains of his countries' Puszta, Jancsó fashioned a highly individual cinema within the confines of a state operated film industry. Although a prolific director of short films during the 1950s and an equally prolific director of feature films since the early 1970s, it is for his work during the middle and late 1960s that Jancsó is best known outside his own country.
Beginning with My Way Home, which dealt with a young Hungarian soldier caught up in the German retreat and Soviet advance during the Second World War, Jancsó discovered both a set of themes and a style which helped him to fashion his own voice. My Way Home, unlike most of Jancsó's films, has a hero, but this hero often behaves in a most unheroic way as he makes his way home. Set free by the chaos of the war's end, he is fired upon both by the Russians and the Germans and finally dons a Russian uniform as a protective disguise. Although clearly focused on individual figures, Jancsó's movie does contain an interesting allegory of the fate of his native country as, freed from Nazi oppression, the soldier only reluctantly dons the Russian uniform.
Szegénylegények (The Round-up, literally The Hopeless) established Jancsó as a filmmaker of international importance. The film is set in the Hungarian plain in a fort that houses a group of peasants under surveillance following the Kossuth rebellion of 1848, and focuses on the ritual quality of the games played as tormentors and informers and rebels interchange in a mysterious, elliptical dance of human passions. Shot in black and white, the film also revealed a purity of style as each meticulously composed shot conveys Jancsó's preoccupation with humans dislodged from convention and victimised by history. In spite of its scope, however, the film won praise for its analysis of the politics of terror and of the Kafkaesque state machinery through which such terror works.
Csillagosok Katonák (1967, The Red and the White) and Csend és Kiáltás (1968, Silence and Cry) moved into the early twentieth century and are concerned with communist revolutions of the immediate post-World War I period. The Red and the White was commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. The film isolates a group of Hungarian volunteers who are fighting on the side of the reds during the Russian civil war. Once again the expansive plain provides an open background against which huddle the opposing groups, both red and white. It is interesting considering the source of his commission that Jancsó refuses to choose to side with either the red or the whites but rather to present each as a mixture of compassion and understanding, barbarity and stupidity. Silence and Cry, operating on a smaller scale, deals with an isolated farmstead but also raises questions about people caught up in a society torn by social and political change. Here Jancsó's circling camera becomes hypnotic, and his tendency to depsychologize his characters is at its most extreme. Jancsó explains very little in his plot, leaving the viewer to wrestle with its obscurities and ellipses.
The claustrophobic qualities of Silence and Cry prepared his audience for Fényes Szelek (The Confrontation), set in the immediate post-war world and dealing with students, both Catholic and Communist, who square off in a quadrille interweaving accusation and intimidation. Clearly the film was occasioned by the student riots and sit-ins in 1968–69 in Budapest. It pits the Marxist students as the voice of change and revolution against the conventions of the Catholic students. The plot is minimal and Jancsó's camera at its most vertiginous, hardly ever stopping in its unceasing search for the truth. The truth, of course, as it so often does, eludes us, as the confrontation finally has more to do with temporary power games than it does with ultimate reality.
In Sirokkó (Winter Wind), made in Yugoslavia as a Franco-Hungarian co-production, he returned to the use of color (as in The Confrontation) and photographed, like Silence and Cry, with a minimum of shots, twelve in this case. The story deals with the historical and political irony of a Croatian anarchist leader of the 1930s who is destroyed by his own forces, only later to be resurrected as a hero. Égi Bárány (Agnus Dei), a favorite film of Jancsó's and regarded by many Hungarians as his most nationalistic, is once again set in the broad Hungarian plain during the period of civil war, but it is far more symbolic and anticipates the new ground he would explore in his next film.
With Még Kér a Nép (Red Psalm), Jancsó returned to the Puszta and to the end of the last century during a period of peasant unrest. A confrontation between workers and their landowners is interrupted by the army. The subsequent action follows patterns established earlier in Jancsó's other films. But there is a difference in Red Psalm—the symbolic elements always present in the earlier films become foregrounded: a dead soldier is resurrected by a kiss from a young girl; the soldiers join the peasants in a Maypole dance but eventually surround the rebellious farmers and shoot them down; a girl outside the circle using a gun tied with a red ribbon guns down all of the soldiers. The mannerisms noted by a number of critics are missing here, and Jancsó seems to have found a new direction amidst old material: the symbolism of the film elevates it beyond Jancsó's usual concerns. Red Psalm exemplifies what is often hidden in his other films: the totality of the film, and the celebration of life in the revolution which will bring joy in the renewed possibilities for human expression and freedom.
Although Miklós Jancsó has gone on to make other films, many of them outside Hungary itself, his body of work from My Way Home to Red Psalm seems to best exemplify his unique contribution to world cinema. Like many of the other new Hungarian filmmakers, Jancsó rejected the traditions of the conservative and classic bound national cinema he inherited, turning to a more liberating and avant-garde style that allowed him not only greater artistic expression but also increased freedom from state censorship. By adopting a more modernist approach, most notably evident in his use of a minimal plot and in the dialectical tensions between the images, he has urged his audiences out of their complacency by challenging the status quo through his questioning of the uses and abuses of state power wielded in the name of the people. This has made his films truly revolutionary.
Miklós who?  an introduction to Miklós Jancsó by Andrew James Horton from Kinoeye, also here:  Kinoeye Feature  
Read Part I (Overview and the 1960s and 70s)   Images of power and the power of images: The films of Miklós Jancsó, Part I from Kinoeye


Images of power and the power of images: Part II  Part II: 1981 onwards from Kinoeye


This silly profession  Miklós Jancsó interviewed by Andrew James Horton from Kinoeye


'There's Nothing More International Than a Pack of Pimps'  A Conversation between Pierre Clémenti, Miklos Janscó, Glauber Rocha and Jean-Marie Straub convened by Simon Hartog in Rome, February 1970, from Rouge


Jancsó, Miklós  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


CANTATA (Oldás és kötés)

Hungary  (107 mi)  1963


User reviews from imdb Author: marcbanyai from Romania

This is Miklos Jancso`s most Antonionian film. I`m saying this because it draws most eloquenty the figure of the estranged intellectual in search for his roots. Beautifuly photographed, intelligently exposed. Don`t go searching for a plot though; focus on the characters.

Oldás és kötés (1963)   Kristie Hassen from the All Movie Guide

Highly acclaimed Hungarian director Miklos Jancso brought this interesting film to the Argentina Film Festival in 1964, indicating to the world what was going on in the art community of Hungary at the time. Based upon a story by Jozsef Lengyel, this drama details a few days in the life of a doctor (Zoltan Latinovits). Working in a hospital, he takes leave to go back to the place of his childhood where his father is deathly ill. During his journey and stay at the old farm, he becomes introspective about the importance of friendship and family. Oldas Es Kotes/Cantat is Jancso's earliest work which illustrated his characteristic style of long takes and strong, symbolic imagery. He would go on to make more highly acclaimed films like Szegenylegenyek/The Round Up (1966, also starring Latinovits), Csillagosok, Katanok/The Red and the White (1967) and Meg Ker a Nep/Red Psalm, for which he would win a Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival in 1972.

Kinoblog [Michael Brooke]


Hungary  (90 mi)  1966  ‘Scope


Time Out

A vast, burned-out plain; dwarfed in the middle of it two buildings, whitewashed walls blazing in the sun, against which black-cloaked figures flit to and fro; silence, except for occasional curt words of command, as a man running for the horizon is coolly shot down, others are taken away never to return. As one watches, fascinated but mystified, a pattern begins to emerge, and one realises that a terrifying cat-and-mouse game is being played. The setting is the years following the collapse of the 1848 revolution against Hapsburg rule; the authorities, to crush the last traces of rebellion, must eliminate the legendary Sándor Rózsa's guerilla bandits; and the plan deploys a Kafkaesque mix of fear and uncertainty to winnow, slowly but inexorably, the guerrillas from the peasant populace which has been rounded up. Jancsó's formally choreographed camera movements later developed into a mannerism; but here the stylisation works perfectly in making an almost abstract statement of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. There are effectively no characters, no heroes one can admire or villains to hate; simply the men who always win, those who always lose.

Derek Malcolm's Century of Films: The Round-Up   from the Guardian

Those who have never seen a film by Miklos Jancso from the 1960s, when this Hungarian director was at his peak, are usually astonished by the experience. When The Round-Up, his third film, came to London in 1965, the broadsheet critics almost dropped their pens in surprise. Here was a deeply serious, decidedly uncamp and certainly not musically-minded middle European Busby Berkeley, who made formal patterns on the screen with humans and horses in order to illustrate the betrayals of his country's history. I joke, but not much. To watch The Round-Up or 1967's The Red and the White for the first time is to witness a kind of film ballet entering the realms of political drama.

In The Round-Up, Austrian soldiers representing the triumphant Hapsburg empire trap and interrogate the Hungarian partisans whose revolt against the empire's rule has petered out. The period is the mid-19th century and only the legendary Sandor Rosza's fighters stand in the way, succoured by the peasants. The drama is virtually divested of characters we can either sympathise with or hate. Instead, it deals largely in formal, abstract generalities. It is as if Jancso is merely watching, regretfully conscious that there are those who will be killed and those whose job it is to kill them. A man running on the horizon is calmly shot down. Another is taken away to be tortured. Short words of command seem to be the apotheosis of dialogue. The film achieves, in one critic's accurate view, "a total absorption of content into form".

All this takes place on a very particular landscape: the vast, summer-scorched Hungarian plains where whitewashed buildings, cloaked men and their horses appear to be the only occupants. It seems like a world apart, but one able to illustrate both a specific vision of Hungarian history and part of the story of mankind, where the powerful slowly but surely triumph over the weak.

The film is so precisely choreographed that the patterns play on the mind until they become clear and obvious in their meanings. The camera style is beautiful but almost merciless. If the film can be criticised for its lack of emotion, it can't be for its absence of power or for its cold appreciation of the situation it illustrates.

Later, with films such as The Confrontation and Red Psalm, Jancso's work begins to lose something through familiarity, and his obsession with half-naked girls and patterns becomes enervating. When he left Hungary for Italy in the 1970s, making erotic films such as Private Vices and Public Virtues (based on the Mayerling story), it seemed he had little more of value to say, or no way of saying it without repeating himself or exaggerating his weaknesses.

But the first few films were astonishing, whether dealing with Kossuth's rebels of the 1860s or the aftermath of the 1919 Hungarian revolution. They bitterly analysed the history of his persecuted country and commented, too, on the nature of violence in more general terms. No one has tried quite the same thing in the same way, and that is his most formidable legacy.  Fernando F. Croce


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz] (Chris Dashiell)


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


DvdClassik Review (French)


THE RED AND THE WHITE                    A                     99

Hungary (92 mi) 1967  ‘Scope
A brilliant visual style, absolutely stunning shots, which bring to mind Tarkovsky’s 1966 film ANDREI RUBLEV, particularly in the obsession with capturing extraordinary images of horses in and out of battle.  No one choreographs the movements of horses like Jansco.  Set in Central Russia in the aftermath of the 1918 Revolution, the Bolshevik Red Communist forces are clashing against the Cossack White Guard czarist forces that are ordered to crush them.  The film is a stark depiction of the Hungarian forces who joined the Red army, detailing the constant shifting of power between the two sides, first at an abandoned monastery, later at a field hospital, where soldiers, horsemen, and peasants shift from the background to the foreground, and back again, reflecting the continually shifting nature of power and ideology.  Jansco uses a widescreen ‘Scope technique consisting of very long takes, a friend Fred Tsao counted 43 shots, some five to eight minutes in length, using a ceaselessly tracking camera movement which weaves in and out of the geometrically shaped groups, featuring meticulous, intricately choreographed scenes, using an almost ballet-like artistry, very smooth and fluid with grand, gorgeous sweeping shots, a powerful work, the sheer beauty of which is elegant and haunting.


In one of the more extraordinary filmed sequence, two biplanes fly over a ridge.  From their view in the sky, a thunderous herd of horses can be seen below, some with riders, some without, making a mad dash in a cloud of dust, while rifle shots are continually heard.  Later, as the sound of shots continues, all the horses are running without riders, herded by the airplanes, while men on foot are chased by the airplanes as well, both running as fast as they can, herded to the river.  Few of the men on foot have any arms.  Those without can be seen lined up next to the river to be shot.  From the airplane, the camera glides through the air, flying through the fields past a farmhouse, where soldiers on horses are seen waving their arms.  In another stunning sequence shot on an open field, we see a Calvary charge, absolutely wonderful stuff, horses charge with soldiers raising their sabers high in a cloud of dust, the bugle sounds as the camera glides by, side by side with the charging horses.
The aura of history