Roger Ebert presents At the Movies – coming in January 2011

The show that spanned over three decades is back. The show that got me (and a big chunk of my family) hooked on movies, er, on films – is heading back to television. We’re willing to forgive ABC and Disney the last few years of less-than-stellar reviews (and hosts), along with terrible past-midnight timeslots. We’re going to ignore the fact the Gene Siskel is long gone, and Ebert is only vocal in his massive twitter and blog universe. We’ll even put up with a bunch of new hosts, and new ideas – which may make it better, or may not. We just want to watch.

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Bunny and the Bull (2009) – a low-budget gem from TIFF09

This quiet little gem of a movie came out of nowhere last year at Toronto Film Fest, and we really hoped it would pick up. Sadly, almost a year later, it’s gone through a handful of European film fests, and disappeared. Too bad. Bunny and the Bull really deserves to be watched, in small groups of friends, or family – because it’s about true friendship. It’s about understanding and accepting each other no matter how freakishly odd you may be. It’s about compromising and going left, just because a friend thinks it’s the way to go – even as your whole entity wants to turn right. It’s about the little sacrifices we make for friends (or in the name of friendship) every day. This is what ‘bromance’ should be – mature, respectful, solid and at times – tender.

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Agora (2009)

I first saw Agora at TIFF in Toronto almost a year ago, and remember walking out thinking: “this film will not find a distributor easily (if at all), and that’s a real shame”. You see, it’s a ‘swords and sandals’ epic story, loosely based on the events in Alexandria, Egypt in 4th century. It shows the famed library, and the emerging scientific renaissance that unfortunately takes a step back, when this new world brings in young, volatile religions, and things start to turn violent.

You see, the “bad guys” in this film are Christians – shown as a vicious, brainwashed crowd that slowly grows in strength, dismisses the (populist at the time) multi-god religion, and instead, shoves early version of Jesus mythology down people’s throats. It’s an intellectual conquest in reverse – tell the masses what they want to hear, discourage learning, and turn them against the popular rule. The film features a few massacres, and the eventual burning of the priceless library (also loosely based on historical facts), which directly and simply accuses religious zealots – especially early Christians – of intolerance and dirty political shenanigans. Sounds familiar? Something we’ve witnessed in recent years? Well, no wonder the reviews at the time were harsh, and the film really couldn’t get the attention it deserved.

A quick side note here – forget about the film as a spectacle, or story – and just consider the source material. Wikipedia actually lists 4 different destructions of the famous library – historically recorded (and here’s the entry on the film itself, take time to read the ‘critical reception’ section). The director (Alejandro Amenabar) just happened to pick one of them, and added some elements from surrounding events/places to punch up the drama. Notice the Muslim conquest in AD 642 – do you think this movie would even be made (without threats, suicide attempts, or negative campaining), if the bad guys were, gasp – Muslims? Just a thought – this region was handed from one empire to another for ages, and often, death and destruction was quite prominent. Nothing wrong with depictions of bigotry and violence – it DID HAPPEN, and dismissing it is an equivalent of burying your head in the sand.

If the so-called critics, and potential distributors would bother to look up the historical evens, and maybe see the movie for its ideas – the value of science, and freedom of expression – perhaps Agora would have been seen by more people.

As a spectacle, it’s a pretty good epic story, with high ideas expressed within the walls of the library, and sharply contrasted with seething, unstoppable violence on the streets. There are some great references to the beginning of the end of Roman empire, and there are dead-on observations of Christian and Jewish – still emerging – traditions and values. Politically incorrect, definitely, but making a point and drawing parallels with today’s intolerance. The whole ‘slavery’ angle is given more thought and shown as an acceptable practice – at the time. But no, this just didn’t go over well, I clearly remember people hissing in the theater, and being genuinely displeased with the way things were portrayed. Well, as an ‘idea’ movie, maybe that was the point, no? To turn the tables a little?

I felt the discomfort, but appreciated the intent – it’s the 4th century, the world is still emerging, there will be bloodshed, and there will be unnecessary destruction. As long as we remember what is lost during this turmoil, we perhaps can learn and prevent it from happening again. After all, the book-burnings were quite popular just 60 years ago in Germany. And as for the slavery – some southern states are still holding out hope that things will go back to the way they were. These people ‘want their country back’! Intolerance stays, bigotry has immense power, and knowledge/truth/enlightenment usually suffer when left unprotected. Tea Party, anyone? Fringe movements that make things worse for others?

It’s a real shame the film never got the attention it deserved. Was ‘widely’ released just a couple of months ago, and quickly died at the box office. Find it online, or rent it – you won’t like the tone and some of the finger-pointing – but I hope you will approve of the ideas and intent. The last time something similar was on the big screen was probably “The Name of the Rose”, in 1986. I still remember Sean Connery musing: “How many more rooms? Ah! How many more books? No one should be forbidden to consult these books freely.” Oh, and if you will sit through all the black and white portrayal of Christians vs. Jews (yes, the film does show a little bias, but there’s a reason for it), and wait until the closing scenes, please compare it with the opening sequence, and consider the end-credits. Knowledge is invaluable, and freedom of expression – if mixed with careful misinformation campaigns – can be a devastating weapon. Sadly, it’s still used today…

Agora. 4th century Egypt. The famous Alexandria library. Rachel Weisz, Alejandro Amenabar, Oscar Isaac, Max Minghella. Get it. It’s worth your time.


At the Movies is canceled

Disney/ABC is pulling the plug on the popular ‘movie-critics-going-at-each-other’ show in August. It lasted 24 years. As far as I know, At the Movies died when Roger Ebert lost his voice in 2006. Yes, Gene Siskel’s death in 1999 was a big blow to the show, but the two of them have been doing it so long between ’75 and ’99 and knew each other so well that Ebert was able to continue the legacy of intelligent, informed, entertaining arguments about the state of cinema. He had a tough season with rotating guests in ’99-’00 (Kevin Smith and Richard Roeper were my personal favourites). Roeper stuck around for a few seasons as a second chair to Ebert, but the last few years were a big mess. ABC/Disney tried to put in Ben Mankiewicz and Jeffrey Lyons , but  got horrible reception, bad ratings, and people just didn’t like them. Besides, what the hell happened to Roeper? Pushed out?

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Babel (2006)

Last year’s everyone’s favourite movie – a winner of many awards, nominated for dozens more, is Babel really that good? We’ve had our share of undeserved award-hype in the past – Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love, so does Babel fill the same over-hyped shoes, or is it actually worth watching? Well, if you are not intimidated by subtitles, huge cast and intertwining plot lines – you will enjoy this film. The imagery and morals might be a little too heavy, but then again, a project that spans multiple cultures and languages will not translate as poetically as intended. Babel is heavy, but so are its themes. Last year’s Crash is very similar – it touched on subjects that are very difficult to resolve – only illuminate. And it’s during that illumination that you start seeing people in the audience disagree. But, at least they’re talking about something of substance. As opposed to say “The Devil Wears Prada” – an entertaining and moving film about nothing.
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Casino Royale (2006)

You know you’re getting old and cranky when an old movie franchise is revived to the delight of both fans and critics, but you sit back in the theater and ask yourself “so this is Bond?” I really liked Brosnan in this role (even though deep inside I bow down to Connery), and I have a hard time understanding how a 40-year-old novel can be adapted to post 9/11 world of international crime and spying. But I have to accept that actors can be replaced and novels – rewritten. Casino Royale is a solid action flick, but it’s missing so many trademark Bond elements that I don’t know if it’s an issue of “starting over” or “trimming down”.
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Everything is Illuminated (2005)

We are all immigrants. We all have roots elsewhere. Even if you think you’ve lived in the same little town for generations, keep digging and eventually you’ll find that somewhere, at some point in the past, your ancestors have come here, and decided to stay. They immigrated. Therefore you too are immigrants. Don’t argue with it, don’t rationalize it, just look long enough at your family tree and you’ll see where the roots come from. And if you don’t see them – aren’t you curious to find out? That’s the idea at the core of this movie. And you don’t have to be a nostalgic, odd-looking, Jewish boy to start looking for your roots half-way across the globe. You just have to be curious enough…

Everything Is Illuminated is a directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (Spinning Boris, Manchurian Candidate, Sum of All Fears, RKO 281) based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. A great novel, heavy with stories of a Ukrainian Jewish village that was essentially saved by one woman. Liev mentioned (after the screening) that he discarded most of the heavy material and concentrated on a “road trip” movie. I think it was a great decision – leave the heavy stuff for readers – tell a compelling story in less than two hours. And here’s the story.

A strange-looking American comes to town (Elijah Wood playing Johathan Foer), looking for his Ukrainian roots, more specifically a village that no longer exists on any maps. He’s escorted around countryside by Alex (Eugene Hutz), his grandfather (they run a business together – showing out-of-towners around – to find graves of their ancestors, archival records, etc), and grandfather’s seeing-eye dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Elijah is the odd man out, a collector of memories – he has a wall in his room covered in plastic bags, each containing a piece of his family’s history, a piece of himself. The collection is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen – brooches, pens, pins, wrappers – it’s not your typical photos and letters. But then again, he’s not a typical kid. For instance, he also doesn’t eat meat – which not only provides a hilarious running joke for the movie, but also comments on our personal choices as individuals.
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The Terminal (2004)

So the big Spielberg/Hanks movie is not doing as well as originally expected. Why is this happening – the movie got great reviews, and the star power is attractive. What went wrong? Here’s a few ideas that have crossed my mind as I watched “The Terminal” this past weekend.

Right off the bat, I admit I’m a Spielberg junkie. I may not know his birthday or the names of his kids, but I really love most of the movies he makes, and have been caught defending failures like “Amistad” and “A.I.” Why? Because he’s a man with a vision, who just happens to be very successful, and allows that success to blur his vision from time to time. I can live with the occasional hiccup, as long as it’s followed by stronger, more entertaining film. That’s why I defend Spielberg’s weaker movies – they’re the in-between projects that still make for good entertainment, just nothing extraordinary.

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The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Here’s the best animated film of 2003, which wasn’t even noticed in theaters. Only after a few positive mentions at some film festival, this cartoon got its second life. Now it’s out on DVD, and I absolutely must have it.

What a joy it was coming out of a half-empty theater back in the winter of 2004. I just watched this unknown flick, co-produced by France, Belgium, Canada and UK (read: very small budget), and I wanted to sit down and watch its sequel, or prequel, or anything else with so much energy. I don’t know why Disney is preaching the death of 2D animation – with a bit of creativity even stick figures can be entertaining. Not so say this movie involves stick figures. Quite the opposite – it combines some 3D shots, some b/w animation, and a few tricks, but at its heart, it’s a good old hand-drawn animation.

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Bon Voyage (2003)

Movies like this one rarely get the attention they deserve. It’s not just the “European” stigma and low budget. It’s not the “tough to read” subtitles. I think it’s mainly because the movie is unusual, and therefore, difficult to sell, and even more difficult to digest. Not to say it’s a heavy movie. Not at all. It’s just an atypical experience.

I saw this movie about 7 months ago, at the Toronto Film Festival (love the city, love the festival, wish more people came here and discovered it for themselves). Sorry ‘about the plug – the film fest is an annual tradition for me, and seeing any of these movies picked up for major distribution is always a pleasure. Especially if a movie is not a “sure bet”, and not a crowdpleaser.
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