The Hot Blog Archive for July, 2014

Apes 2: The Moral Implications (spoilers after the jump)

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If homosexuality is the subtext of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, race is – and has been from the start – the subtext of Planet of the Apes movies.

But from the moment of Chuck Heston saying, “Get your hands off of me, you dammed dirty ape” (quoting from memory only, because even if slightly wrong, the spirit lingers for decades), the original filmed versions of the story had a certain lack of subtlety that fit its time.

This gets into the thorny issue of reboots, which don’t offend me, so long as the choice to reboot is, on some level, about bringing a different angle to an old story. As I have written for what feels like eons, movies are an old enough art form to now be taken seriously and revived and reconsidered as books and theater have been for as long as we can remember. As is obvious when you think about it, all of Shakespeare is a reboot.

Rod Serling and Michael Wilson’s adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel was powerfully demanding in 1968. Heston was The Good Guy, not only in the film but as a cinematic icon, and when he showed his disgust towards the apes, it wasn’t a racist acting out, but the admission of fear and ignorance even amongst “good people.”

The Jaffa/Silver/Bomback script for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the issue that was so clearly race back in the day and brings it into a current context, which still finds humans fighting between divisions genetic, mapped, cultural, and imagined. But trust is the primary issue. And the earning of it or loss of it knows no boundaries.

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Review-ish: Planet of The Apes (non-spoiler)

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of movie that can get a film critic in trouble. It’s smart, unexpected, and so skillful in its nearly endless use of computer-generated imagery that you kinda want to scream hosannas.

Of course, it may just be that this film deserves them.

It struck me about a third if the way through the film that the Next Spielberg will be someone who takes the technology, which has gotten so incredibly good and just keeps taking next steps (the CG eyes in this film are CRAZY), to someplace we haven’t even considered yet. Avatar and Gravity both raised the bar breathtakingly. But they were two great films by two great filmmakers who brought magic to the technological possibilities. It would be idiotic not to include Peter Jackson on the list of those changing the idea of what’s possible in astounding ways and in some ways, he has – with WETA – raised the bar so fast that things that were absolutely stunning just a few years ago now seem commonplace.

And I was thinking that Matt Reeves was doing a great job, but this was not that film.

I’m still not sure it’s THAT film. But good gosh, did he make a real run at a CG-driven film that was in a completely realistic setting that could have almost done without its human characters completely.

Love Clarke, love Oldman, love Russell… but this movie belongs to the monkeys. No question.

Serkis is more disappeared here than before. It’s an excellent performance and I can’t put that voice in Serkis’ mouth, but also, the animation is eye-popping. And Toby Kebbell. Lots of people betting on him. Great work here, really outside of his physical boundaries. (Also in the film, Judy Greer… who you won’t recognize… at all.). Can I mention Kebbell again?

And in that evolution (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), this film really becomes The Dark Knight to the first film’s Batman Begins. You spend much of the movie anticipating which weird, never-before-seen turn the thing might take next. It’s Shakespearean, it’s Biblical (Old and New Testament), it’s The Walking Dead, it’s The Lion King, it’s Lincoln it’s The Godfather, it’s Titanic. It’s all over the place. Yet… it really comes together.

SIDEBAR: Here’s another “problem” for serious critics… the film is about 50% a silent/foreign-language movie. How often do you see that from a studio movie?

I will admit, there is an action beat late in the third act that was absolutely unnecessary and, in my opinion, self-defeating in terms of the ongoing story. And yes, it involves the humans. (Always in the way.)

The film smartly works without the first movie (though having seen it is helpful at times). But it really feels like a set up for the more movies. Will it take 5 movies… 6… 8… to get to humans ending up back on The Planet of the Apes? I suspect that the next one will have to leave San Francisco. But how far along will it take us? Don’t know. Don’t care. If it’s as good as this one, I’ll enjoy it and look forward to more.

This is the fifth CG spectacle of the summer. And thought I like most of the others, this one kinda puts the rest to shame. However beautifully done, those films are amazingly free of deep “human” emotion and intimate intensity, though they certainly try. (There are a few moments.). This film, with more CG than any of them, is heavy. Entertaining, but man… lots of life and death and power in which to wallow.

I have no idea how big this thing will be. But it feels like it can be leggy and big for repeat viewing. Whoever is streaming/airing the first film… get ready for some seriously increased numbers on that. Most of all, it feels like a piece in a big Apes puzzle that adults will enjoy for years to come. Huzzah.

(And after this review, do you have no idea of what happens in the movie? Good. Go enjoy it without anticipating it. You’ll be much happier that way.)

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Trailer 2: Gone Girl

I am so in now.

Annals of Sexism: Melissa McCarthy Edition

I am a Melissa McCarthy fan. I loved her from Go.

I had seen her, somehow, before this trailer and then the movie. She had a tiny part. But she made instant, indelible magic. There are a bunch of actors in this film who were around before this, but established street cred with the movie. Sarah Polley, Timothy Olyphant, William Fichtner, Taye Diggs… even Scott Wolf.

Anyway…

The title of this post is a bit sarcastic. There has been a movement amongst some in media to somehow rise up to defend Melissa McCarthy and her movie, Tammy, as victims of the patriarchy. That, somehow, the movie has been overly pilloried. And that, somehow, Melissa McCarthy has become a victim.

I don’t buy it.

At all.

So I decided to go back and look at the facts. Obviously, statistics can be bent to serve anyone’s purpose. But I am trying—you will tell me if I fail—to play it straight.

McCarthy broke out as a supporting actress on the TV series, Gilmore Girls. She followed that with stints on a Lifetime series, Rita Rocks, and ABC’s Samantha Who? But she got a series based around herself and comic Bill Gardell—Mike & Molly—that launched in 2010. Pretty good trajectory.

The star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham, did a couple of studio movies as The Wife, a couple indies, and a small part in a Focus release… all box-office misses. And went on to the ensemble show, Parenthood.

Nicole Sullivan, who starred in Rita Rocks, went back to funny supporting actress status after that show dies after 2 seasons.

And Christina Applegate, 20 years famous, got another series pretty quickly, teamed with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph as a triangular lead, Up All Night.

Seems like McCarthy did pretty well for herself, amongst the leads of the shows she had been on.

Then, Bridesmaids hit in May 2011, after a year of Mike & Molly. Big surprise smash. Oscar nominations for McCarthy and for screenplay (Wiig & Mumolo).

Wiig & Mumolo passed on writing (and Wiig also starring) a Bridesmaids sequel. Annie Mumolo’s second screenplay, Joy, is being made by David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead. Wiig has been working nonstop and there is a deal for her to direct her first film.

On the acting side, Maya Rudolph got a co-lead in Up All Night and was recently given a shot at a variety show, something as rare as blue moon these days (and she’s knocked out a few kids in the midst of this, never letting it slow her down).

Rose Byrne was mid-Damages when Bridesmaids happened and has worked in a bunch of studio movies, most recently Neighbors, in which she had a really strong, developed role, even if the ad campaign didn’t show this.

Wendi McLendon-Covey, who had a role on Reno 911 and was on Rules of Engagement when Bridesmaids hit, had a show built around her—The Goldbergs—though the presence of Jeff Garlin and George Segal have taken some of the “she’s the star” luster away from it.

And Rebel Wilson, launched in America by her cameo in Bridesmaids, and made stronger by the turn in the Elizabeth Banks project, Pitch Perfect, got her own series as writer-producer-star on ABC —Super Fun Nigh—which ABC cancelled in May after mediocre numbers and not much critical love.

I don’t see how anyone makes a case for the women of Bridesmaids suffering under the yoke of male Hollywood oppression. Chris O’Dowd, the one significant male part in the film, on the other hand, has been in small parts in a couple studio films, big parts in some UK indies, had a nice arc on Girls, and was the lead on an 8-episode Chris Guest series for HBO. Not bad. But objectively, all the women have done better so far.

Now… on to Ms. McCarthy’s films since Bridesmaids.

Great little cameos in This Is 40 and The Hangover III.

Two movies as co-lead. Identity Thief and The Heat. Jason Bateman and Sandra Bullock as co-stars.

Bateman is one of those guys who is very funny, but has been inconsistent with audience draw. Horrible Bosses, also from Seth Gordon, had Bateman in the lead… but a lot of other firepower. $118m domestic. But then The Switch did $37m domestic. Not so great. Identity Thief… $135m domestic. How much Bateman—who had top billing—and how much McCarthy? Hard to say. But McCarthy is the shiny object, so she tends to get more credit.

Now, I don’t know what dates Bad Words shot. According to published reports, the film had about half the budget of Tammy. But it was probably “bankable” more because of Horrible Bosses and other Bateman work than because of Identity Thief. Nonetheless, that is what came next from The House of Bateman. And Ms. McCarthy went on to co-star with Sandra Bullock, one of the biggest movie stars of the last decade.

$160m domestic, $230m worldwide for The Heat… directed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig.

So let’s talk Bullock. She took a long time to rise. She became a big star. Then the star fell a bit. After Miss Congeniality II flopped, she did 2 indie dramas, a small love story/thriller, and a straight thriller before going back to a romantic comedy… The Proposal. But before that film ($163m dom/$317m ww) was released, she had fought to make two other, smaller films. One was All About Steve, a comedy for Fox. And the other, which no studio would fund, was The Blind Side, which did $256m via Alcon’s output deal with WB. It also won Bullock the Oscar. Then, BAM. Proposal was a smash. Steve bombed, making the media gasp. Then The Blind Side became an even bigger smash and only Bullock’s 2nd $100m dom drama after 1996’s A Time To Kill.

Bullock slowed down a little. Did Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for Stephen Daldry in an ensemble situation not unlike Crash… but for a studio. And then, The Heat.

The Heat was Melissa McCarthy’s third lead/co-lead since becoming a name commodity for movies. It was Bullock’s 6th $100m domestic film and her third $100m comedy. She was coming off an Oscar and a lot of media love. How much Bullock and how much McCarthy? Still hard to say.

But from that film and the two others, the McCarthy household got a movie that wife & husband wrote, directed, starred in, produced, and got released by a major studio.

Is it a great film? I don’t know. Haven’t seen it. But the consensus seems to be that it’s okay, not what was expected, and not a big, ol’ laughfest.

But it’s theirs. Supported by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions and New Line, they got a reported $20 million budget and made their movie. Home run. It’s grossed $33m in 5 days and the worst likely outcome based on this opening is about $80m worldwide. On most WB films, the P&A alone might leave the film with red ink… but they seem to have showed a bit of restraint on this one. With post-theatrical revenues and all, I don’t imagine that this film will lose money. It won’t be close to being as big as any of her Big 3 films. But who cares? Labor of love. No harm, no foul. And probably not another chance to do something personal to her and her husband until she racks up 3 or 4 more big hits within the system.

Is the media overstating the drama of Ms. McCarthy’s film being “a bomb?” Yes.

Does the media overstate every frickin’ movie opening, one way or the other? Yes.

Is the media hum around Tammy either sexist or size-ist? I just don’t see it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of sexists, both in Hollywood and in the real world. Nor that overweight people don’t get abused by a media obsessed with its own idea of beauty.

Is the phrase “vanity production” fair to Tammy? It’s a semantic argument. Do you define it as a movie in which a star controls the film? Do you define it as a film that is funded from odd sources because it’s too self-indulgent to get funded by traditional methods?

I don’t feel anger towards people calling it a vanity production. I don’t think Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Falcone are particularly vain people. But on the other hand, it is a movie driven by a rising star, able to get the studio to—against all normalcy—let her husband direct his first feature at a reported $20m budget for a studio release with no TV resume or anything like that. Neither member of the couple has had a script made by a studio before.

I think of it as a free kick more than as a vanity production.

It happens. Vin Diesel had A Man Apart and kept announcing “Hannibal.” Brad Pitt had The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Leo DiCaprio (and Danny Boyle) had The Beach. Do you remember Wahlberg’s Broken City? Recall Alec Baldwin passing on the next Jack Ryan movie to do Stanley Kowalski? Which Tom Hanks pet project do you remember worse press for, That Thing You Do or Larry Crowne? Johnny Depp had The Libertine and The Rum Diary. Etc, etc, etc.

Anyway… there is some deconstruction. Your constructive input is welcome.

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Weekend Estimates by Dud Fireworks Klady

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I am so irritated by being put in a position to defend Transformers 4’s box office. But here I am. Facts…

1. Tr4 is the first of the series to open on a Friday, making comparisons of previous Transformers openings Friday-to-Friday and 1st weekend vs 2nd weekend all but meaningless. Am I saying that Paramount is thrilled? No. But let’s be fair, not pile-on asses, burning down films we don’t like with bad stats (while invariably overstating indies we love with outsized exclusive releases).

2. July 4 is not a strong day at the box office. Historically, it is the December of summer, without the massive opening weekends, but with longer legs and some stronger weekdays.

3. Of all the July 4 Weekends bigger than Transformers 4, there are only two that were in the market for at least a week (7 days) on or before July 4. One was Transformers 2, which did $10.7m on July 4 (day 11, a Saturday) and Superman Returns, which did $10.5m (day 7, a Tuesday).

4. X-Men: DoFP, Godzilla, and Fault all had bigger second weekend domestic drops than Transformers 4 did this weekend… with release dates that didn’t include an “off” day like July 4 as one of the three 2nd weekend days.

5. Tr4 has the smallest domestic gross at the end of its second weekend of the series. Yes.

6. Tr4 is on pace to be the #1 movie of the year (at least through summer) domestically and internationally, it is already the #5 film of the year with $575 million. More to the point, after 2 weekends, it is at the aforementioned $575 million ww, while the other big summer movies were at $500m (X-Men), $366m (Cap 2), $336m (Mal), and $279m (ASM2) after two weekends of worldwide and domestic.

In other words, don’t cry for Bay, Hollywoodland.

And stop smirking like “you” beat him. Financially, he’s beat the crap out of us all again, even if he doesn’t hit $300m domestic.

I still feel that if Michael Bay directs Transformers 5, he will destroy whatever legacy he has… except as a CG schlockmeister. Some think he is that anyway and will never escape this in their eyes. I disagree. I think he is a singular, compelling talent… who has made some real shitty movies. But this is another conversation from another day.

Tammy landed right between two output deals, The Nut Job and RoboCop, amongst 2014 opening weekends. (RoboCop is a little more complicated, yes… but still, in essence, Sony distributing MGM.) It’s also, by a good margin, the worst launch for “a Melissa McCarthy movie” since people knew her name.

It’s been fascinating to watch the whiplash created by a film that is, apparently, more complex than most broad comedies, but still being sold exclusively as “fat, stupid, drunk idiot runs amuck.” People love Ms. McCarthy – and with good reason – and don’t want to see her or her career suffer. I get it. I kinda fall in line with it. But this was her free kick, like it or not, and she blew it. Now it’s back to being the scene-stealing sidekick for 5 years or so until she gets another shot. Or until she comes up with a great script for an indie that will get her raves at Sundance. And before anyone throws out the bait, this is not about her being a funny woman or being heavy. This is the way business always works, male or female, fat or thin. If this was a big hit, she would have 3 shots to fail afterwards before being sent back to the ($8 million a film) minors.

The scariest thing about Deliver Us From Evil – besides Screen Gems poaching the title of a great, Oscar-nominated documentary for a crap horror film – is that Jerry Bruckheimer’s name is on it. Has he made a film this “small” since Defiance in 1980? Anyway… the standard for a successful opening of a horror film is $20 million. Half of that this weekend. Happy holidays!

Earth To Echo… is it a floor wax or is it a desert topping? (Most of you over 40 should get that joke.) Why did an ET rip-off try so hard to look like a Wall-E rip-off? I don’t know. Not a good start. But don’t be shocked if you see some pretty good legs on this one in a very thin market for films for the under-10 set.

LionSummitsGate apparently is in need of cash, so it took on America, Dinesh D’Souza‘s second opus on fearing the black man. His first piece of trash, 2016: Obama’s America generated $33.5 million in hate-dollars for Rocky Mountain Pictures. So it’s back with a grown-up distributor trying to rape and pillage fear. $2.6 million is less than half of what the much more clearly racist first film opened to back in 2012…. though I LOVE watching Drudge try to spin it as a big explosive hit because it went from $39k on 3 screens to $2.6m on 1105 screens. UP ALMOST 7000%!!! Idjuts.

Let me be clear… I have no problem with right-leaning filmmaking or filmmakers. I have defended films considered to lean too far right (the one that jumps to mind is We Were Soldiers, but there are more recent ones) that don’t exist just to stir up shit. I have a problem with fact-disregarding hatemongers on either side of the aisle… always… period. And I was not a fan of Fahrenheit 9/11 for the same reason… and still feel it contributed to Bush having a second term as president. I embrace the ideas behind F9/11 a lot more than D’Souza’s junk, but I feel that righties deserve honest opposition the same as lefties. Anyway…

Funny to see 2 Weinstein Company films next to one another on the chart. Begin Again has all the classic audience draw stuff for an indie (actors, pedigree, irony-laden feel-good romance) but Snowpiercer is still right there nipping at its heels. One wonders whether either film will get the audience they might have with more aggressive releases.

I should point out, once again, that I was wrong about the box office upside of X-Men:Days of Future Past. Not domestically, of course, but internationally. Give credit to the new marketing chiefs at Fox, who built the studio into an international powerhouse. Look at the percentage of total gross coming from international for the series and it is quite telling. In order of the release of each film, starting in 2000… 46.9%, 47.3%, 49%, 51.8%, 58.6%, 68%, and 68.7% for DoFP. You can see the leap between Origins: Wolverine in 2009 (51.8%) and First Class in 2011 (58.6%). But then the big leap again to 2013’s The Wolverine.

I should also point out, again, that $750m worldwide is at the bottom of positive hopes for this film. It’s ahead of another weak sister whose success against expectations of failures caused it to be overhyped as a commercial smash, Man of Steel (which performed better than X:DoFP domestically, and teasing WB with hope to really break through internationally by adding Batman this next time). Don’t misread me… this film will be profitable. But it’s still small change in the Marvel universe.

On the indie side, no fireworks, but a nice launch for Life Itself, a good expansion for Third Person and the inferior Saint Laurent movie, Yves Saint Laurent, and good hold for Words & Pictures. Adults do go to the movies. But they take a while to settle in and they don’t make for wildly flashy numbers. But there is a market and it is being serviced pretty well this summer.

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Friday Estimates by Tammyformers Klady

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 11.55.49 AM

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BYOB 070314

byobtruckin

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Death & Life: Part Two

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July 1. 2014. 4p edt

I knew Paul Mazursky for about 10 years.

I am a member of The Table, as we call it. The tradition is, simply, a bunch of guys – and yes, some women – who get together in the mornings to break bread (usually donuts) and talk shit. The common denominator is show business. And the table has enjoyed some of the best writers, directors, actors, comics, artists, execs, journalists, etc for which you could ask. We also have some charming mediocrities, scoundrels, idiots, fools, clowns, and other assorted monkeys. And some great “guest stars.”

Mazursky was the de facto leader. His closest partner in crime remained Charlie Bragg until his last visit. Of course none of us knew it was his last visit when it occurred. And those last few trips to The Table were not Paul at his normal speed.

Given the age group at The Table, mostly over 70 and many over 80, everyone has had his or her share of illness to contend with in this last decade. But amazingly, everyone pulled through. In my decade or so of attending, we had not lost a single regular. We lost a lot of close friends of table regulars. Paul and his wife, Betsy, and their family lost their 50-year-old daughter to cancer.

Most recently, we mourned Ed Lauter, who never sat at The Table, but who did spend mornings at the Farmer’s Market when he wasn’t working and would often stop by, say hello, and get goaded into doing his amazing Monty Clift imitation. The guys would try to get him to also do his Burt Lancaster… because Paul had a good Lancaster… and so does Ronnie Schell… so we could have Burt. Lancaster in 3-point surround sound.

Paul would also do dueling Clark Gables with Ronnie. Paul was also known for his cruel, but funny Andrea Bocelli imitation. And what started as an approximation of Abe Lincoln getting shot would morph into almost anyone getting shot.

He loved theater and we would share word on shows often. The last thing that seemed to blow him away was Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem.” He was not shy about language, but he was underwhelmed by “Book of Mormon” because he felt it devolved into too many raunchy jokes.

Paul would often offer very detailed, strong opinions on films… until someone caught on that he was just making it up and hadn’t seen the film. I think the last film he saw in a theater was The Rover… and he hated it.

He loved The Yankees.

The last time I saw him, The Yankees had lost an ugly one to the Red Sox. The staff at the ICU had been struggling – for hours – to find a vein In his arm for an IV. But somehow, Paul had managed to watch enough of the game to be disgusted.

Paul was often funniest when he was disgusted… or could work up a head of steam pretending to be disgusted. He wore the cloak of leadership at The Table comfortably and would often be the one to drop the bomb on someone – especially guests – when they were working too hard to win the group over. He would just ask whatever question everyone was thinking.

But he was a softie, really. His beloved wife is the sharpest edge in that family, smart, funny, and precise. She might sit silently for a long while… but when the words come, they cut to the quick. A match for Paul.

He was in and out when I last saw him. But he asked about my son by name, as he did almost every time I saw him since Cameron was born. He loved his family. Doted on them. Grandkids. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. And a great-grandkid. And that dog. That stupid dog. He loved that dog so.

He would tell the story of meeting Fellini and becoming friends. Bertolucci. George Segal was a regular at The Table for a while. Leonard Nimoy. Franco Nero. He lunched with Mel Brooks and Laddie and Mike Gruskoff and recently, Dick Donner on Fridays. Lots of tales about his old agent, Sam Cohn. His 400+ pound comedy partner, Larry Tucker. Working as a kid in Blackboard Jungle. Lots of great, crazy Peter Sellers stories. And for Kubrick on Kubrick’s first feature. Writing The Monkees. Shutting down Hollywood Blvd for Alex in Wonderland.

He had two projects he was chasing hard in his last years. One is called “Fiddleman”… and the stories of who almost signed to do it when were plentiful. And he worked on a stage musical of Moon Over Parador for a number of years with Bill Conti and the guy who writes “Forbidden Broadway.” He was hoping for Raoul Esparza and Roger Bart for a while. Didn’t quite happen.

He was a happy and respectful member of the Academy Board of Governors for a long time. He fought (along with others) for awards for John Calley before he was too ill to show up and accept it. He also fought hard (unsuccessfully) for Alan Ladd, Jr to be honored after a remarkable history. Maybe Disney will help make it happen next year to promote the next Star Wars. He got pushed off the Board of Governors with a selective shove by new management, complaining about a few reviews he wrote for a Vanity Fair a few years ago. That’s the new Academy, I guess. But that’s another column.

The last year, in particular, was a rough one for Paul, physically. A perfectly terrible storm. Whatever got fixed, something else sprung a leak. Aging ain’t for the weak. But Paul was a hard ass.

He last was at the table a couple of weeks ago. He was clearly exhausted. But he wanted to show up… participate… live.

I brought him my screener of Land Ho! to watch. (Sorry, SPC.) It’s about two older men going on an adventure… all about life. I was really hoping he’d recover enough to watch the film and take some pleasure from it.

We talked about my trip to New York. We talked about Cameron. The World Cup. The Yankees. How shitty the food was at the hospital. Others from The Table coming to see him. Glenn, one of his assistants, who was on a 48-hour shift with him, sleeping in the chair in his room.

His last words to me were, “That fucking think is driving me crazy!” He was referring to the alarm on his body monitor, which apparently buzzed without purpose much of the time. I examined the thing, saw a button that said, “Silence,” and pushed it, hoping it was referring to the machine and not Paul. And there was silence. Noticing changed on the monitors. Paul slipped back into sleep. And she two nurses came in to poke or prod him some more, I slipped out.

The funny thing was, as sick as he was… as many tubes were going in and on him from every direction… as hard as he was fighting just to say a few words… his hair looked great.

I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, here on the east coast. There was a e-mail from another member of The Table who was very close to Paul, Gregg. “If you are awake, call me.” Busy signal. But there was only one reason for such an e-mail. Paul had died around 9:30p… less than 24 hours since I was there with him. So glad I went.

I know his family will be okay. Betsy is a rock and they have had time to get used to the idea that this moment was not too far off. But there is never anything too comfortable at a time like this.

I’ll be 50 later this year. I’m just at the beginning of this cycle of loss in my life. But here we are.

Love to you, Paul. Maybe I will do some writing about your films soon. I loved so many of them long before I even met you. I can even forgive The Pickle… though Paul would explain why he still loved that film and how it could have worked at the drop of a joke.

He was talented. He was charmed. He was dead serious. And he was an absolute goof.

He is dearly missed.

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Death & Life: Part One

July 1, 2014 – 2am, edit

Death is lurking in my life lately.

In 4 days, it will be the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. It’s been a little over a year since Roger Ebert passed… and we are celebrating his life with Life Itself, which premiered in Chicago tonight. And a couple of hours ago, I lost a friend, who also happens to be one of the great filmmakers of the last 40 years.

This emotional journey really started for me when I saw Life Itself for the second time last week. It was the kind of experience I often hear about from actors when we discuss what their feelings are about watching themselves on screen. Because of my real-life relationship with Roger and the period of his life in which I was a participant, Steve James’ film was like watching a friend’s home movies.

There were few, if any, surprises of fact in the film for me. I am pretty sure that I had met all of the characters from Roger’s long life who were in the film, having spent 13 springs or so traveling to Urbana-Champaign (as he preferred to call it), to spend an annual long weekend in Roger’s company. There may be one or two whom I missed. But EbertFest (née’ Overlooked Film Festival) drew his oldest, dearest friends. And his newest.

I must admit, I have always put a lot of weight on those who took the time and care to show up at the Virginia Theater… and those who did not. It was a glimpse into who Roger really was, not who he had become on TV (though that part was there too). Filmmaking guests who came to town, honored to be honored by Mr. Ebert, were, I think, surprised to find an excited, energized 14-year-old boy who was having a really big party in his hometown. It was his happening and it freaked him in.

But in the film, there is an the empty space between Gene Siskel’s death and Roger’s death… that 14-year period was, pretty much, the whole of my relationship with Roger, the show that was, Chaz, and all the characters and circumstances connected. This included, mostly, Ebertfest.

I got a request, at one point, for photos from Steak-n-Shake outings. The photos all kinda sucked. But the memories were as vivid as when they happened. When Roger sang the Illini fight song for a bunch of college kids who recognized him one night at 2am, there were no iPhones out, capturing the moment. In part, that was because iPhones didn’t exist back when Roger still had his aural voice. But I think the greater truth is that we all expected to hear Roger sing every year. The idea of a silent Roger, while watching his eyes twinkle and his pleasures flow was incomprehensible.

Not only was “my” chunk of Roger’s life missing, but for me, the greatest Roger story… that of his evolution from being a strict creature of habit to one of stunning fearlessness and all the colors in between… was waiting to be unearthed in those years. It still is.

I was too close and too opinionated to see what Steve James saw when I watched the film the first time. I had chosen not to be at Sundance this year… for the first time, aside from the time it coincided with the birth of my son, in 18 years. So I watched it in the Chicago Hilton, on the iPad on which I am writing this, as my wife and son slept (much as they are sleeping now), after celebrating my nephew’s marriage.

This second time around, I had already had a chance to chat with Steve and Chaz on the record, socially with Chaz during a week at the Hotel Splendid in Cannes, and once again with Steve off-the-record. Both the on-and-off-record chats were, for me, enlightening about the choices Steve made for the film. So I took that perspective into the second viewing… my first screening in a theater.

Roger tells his story. It is his memoir from which Steve takes his cues. And even that memoir could not fully be told on screen, much less the history that I lived, which would not have served what this film is very well. It’s not that the history which I lived is so very different from what is in this film. It’s just not there.

And for the record, I am not requesting a Steve James investigation into Rich Roeper and how he got the job. Such small stories are footnotes now, even in my sense of the history.

What haunts me about Roger is the ways he coped with a really difficult time of failure in his remarkably successful life… how he dealt with legacy… how he was shackled by his success and how he was freed (though not always) by his mortality grabbing him by the throat.

Life Itself is To Kill A Mockingbird while my perception of this era in his life is more In Cold Blood. There’s not a dammed thing wrong with To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s just something else.

On a personal level, experiencing Life Itself again made me sad that I was not ready for Roger Ebert when he came into my life (through Yahoo! Life). I didn’t have the career perspective. I didn’t understand what he was, although I had observed he and Gene for many years… even chatted with both men. But he was about the age I am now when he showed his first kindnesses to me. The world looks very different closing in on 50 than it did at 33.

I was not ready to be “good TV” back then. Obviously, Roger wasn’t ready when TV called on him either… but when he and Gene became what they were, it was something magical… beyond television skills or obvious presentation. The burden on me was not just to be skilled at something I was not trained for, but to draw out a television icon to play with me on camera. And I was not up to that task.

As it turned out, no one was. I always thought Jeff Greenfield, who was a friend and peer of Roger, was the best fit. But he had too much on his professional plate with too much money chasing him as a TV personality. I always believed that Manohla Dargis would have brought out the twinkle and the fighter in Roger… but she doesn’t like cameras (for reasons of her own that don’t reflect her charisma and earthy beauty).

But this was not the task asked on Roeper. He served his role as well as anyone could have expected. Nor was the task that eluded me really asked of others. Finding that magic again was, Roger found out, impossible. All that was possible was to chase the magic while doing the best that earthbound creatures – even the brightest ones, like AO Scott and Michael Phillips – could do.

There were six years of Roeper as Roger’s on-air partner and Roger at EbertFest (where I believe his partner may have made 1 appearance in those six years).

Then there were six festival years with Silent Roger. Each year was its own kind of drama, as Roger’s extended family of over a 1000 people waited to see how a Roger would be that festival week. Filmmakers never stopped coming… or even slowed. But the festival – which had been a Roger marathon, as he intro’ed every film and Q&Aed guests and “experts” after every one, then led our late night Steak-n-Shake outings – could not be the same. Chaz became the hostess with the mostest. But Roger’s presence still dominated the room, whether he was able to be physically present or not.

The first year after he lost his voice, as I recall from memory, Roger was still pretty ambulatory, and came to Steak-n-Shake gamely, though he could not eat. His old pal and co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival, Dusty Cohl, continued to gather festival guests for breakfast in the student union, where we all stayed during the fest (from year 3 on), a gregarious Crown Royal-swigging “co-conspirator.” We all had hope that Roger’s voice would be back.

That winter, Dusty died quickly and unexpectedly. And after breaking his hip, Roger missed the festival – the 10th – for the first time. The party went on. Chaz did a great job hosting. Joan Cohl, Dusty’s then-widow, smiled between the moments of anger and loss. There were Steak-n-Shake trips… but not the same. We tried to gather for breakfast in the Union, but without Dusty cajoling and demanding that everyone show up… not the same.

They had a chair set up for Roger in “his spot” the next year, comfortable enough for him to sit for the length of movies. He used the voice synthesizer to open the festival. And he sat there and watched most of the movies. He was like The Pope, smiling and waving for people, individually and in groups.

Roger would have four more Ebertfests. I don’t think he ever stayed in the Union again. The chair remained, but the man was in and out.

That summer, Disney, forever trying to cut costs on the famous show, attempted to lowball Ebert on the “2 Thumbs” trademark and rather than negotiating, dumped the thumbs and soon after, Roeper.

This may have been a “bottom” for Roger… but it was not the end.

By 2010, he had transformed himself. He had become a hugely popular and edgier-than-print blogger. But there was more. He had created The Far Flung Correspondents, allowing him to actively sponsor voices he liked from around the globe. He was building a Sun-Times-separated RogerEbert.com. In February, he literally exposed himself to the world in Esquire, with tough photos as well as a. Interview more honest about the previous few years than he had yet been outside of his personal circles. And there was also the announcement that he and Chaz would produce a show on PBS stations with two young critics and a presence by Roger.

Phew! That was a lot going on for a young, healthy person, much less a 67-year-old with serious ongoing medical issues.

Roger built more in the years of his illness… in his aural silence… than he really had over decades of a wildly successful career. No one was a harder worker than Roger. And as long as he could do the vast majority if what he wanted, he was a man who was perfectly happy to work for The Man. And then, at a point in his life when others would give up and rest on their laurels (and accrued wealth), he not only became an aggressive, energetic, independent builder of things… he became iconic a second time.

Life Itself is really about Roger becoming iconic the first time and overcoming his drinking and other things to find love and happiness. And being brave and brilliant in the face of severe illness.

And that’s okay.

The film is never going to give me peace with the relationship, I had and didn’t have with Roger. But how could it?

I loved Roger. He was very generous to me. I sought his advice on some things over the years and he was always willing… though he never offered more advice than his experience suggested… and sometimes, a little less. He loved his wife, aka The Best. He loved the family that became his instantly with his wife. He loved movies. He loved England. He loved a dirty story. He loved getting the laugh. He loved being right. He hated being wrong.

He made magic with what he had. And he worked as hard as anyone ever did, making it look effortless to the outside world.

I don’t have many people with honor I can share “my Roger.” Either he’s not the same Roger they experienced or they are too in awe to see the man he was or there is enough mutual dislike to choke on or they are in mourning and deserve to have their space with that or we’ve discussed Roger enough over the last decade so as to make continued sharing feel masturbatory already.

But I miss him. I love Steve James’ movie. But I miss that man who had done things I had not done, would eventually do, would never do, etc, etc, etc. and always just an e-mail away.

Cheers, R. And thanks.

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch