Sunday, December 1, 2013
I'd seen it dozens of times. But never like this.
Friday night, at the AFI Silver, just outside of Washington, DC, I saw The Great Escape as if for the first time — because for the first time I saw the 1963 classic stretched across a theater screen.
To say that viewing fulfilled a lifelong dream would be an exaggeration, but only by about 11 years. My uncle introduced me to The Great Escape in my preteen years on two grainy VHS tapes — and in so doing he connected me with a movie that instantly became one of my favorites and that fanned the flames of my growing passion for cinema.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
The 1983 NFL Draft produced more great quarterbacks than any other before or since. And that was just the first round. Six quarterbacks were taken in the first 27 picks that year, including two who would become among the top five (or so) ever to play the position, one who would play in four Super Bowls, two who would be fairly average and, not to be forgotten, a guy named Ken O'Brien who would flash enough brilliance to be named to two Pro Bowls but remain forever overshadowed by guys in his draft class named John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Elway to Marino, the latest entry in the ESPN Films "30 for 30" series, is fixated, no surprise, on the guys at the top. But in a documentary collection that has produced great films like June 17, 1994, The Two Escobars and Catching Hell, Elway to Marino is nothing more than a Ken O'Brien.
That's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's not much to cling to either. Director Ken Rodgers retells the events of the draft clearly and evocatively through talking-head interviews and archival footage, even going as far as to recreate the banquet room where then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the picks under a gaudy chandelier. But drafts are only so interesting, particularly in retrospect — even drafts in which the consensus best talent available, Elway, used a potential Major League Baseball career as leverage to avoid signing with the Baltimore Colts, which had the top pick that year. And for all the ways Elway's draft experience was unusual, Marino's is actually typical. Sure, his eventual professional output suggests he should have been selected a lot sooner than 27th. But it wasn't all that long ago that NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers fell to the 25th pick in 2005, suffering all the while in the green room. And all-time legends Joe Montana and Tom Brady didn't get picked until the third and sixth rounds, respectively. So this stuff happens.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Exteriors at magic hour. Interiors before the movers come. Curtains blowing in the wind, often with someone hiding on the other side. Trees. Sky. Churning, trickling and spraying waters. Hands caressing wheat and tall grasses. Women scampering away from the camera with sprightly verve. Lost, anguished men scanning the horizon for answers. Swings. Empty chairs. Livestock. Birds. Necks and necking. Classical music. Elliptical voiceover narration. Constant searching. These are the fundamental, incontrovertible elements of Terrence Malick's cinema — those things that both his most ardent fans and his befuddled detractors agree make a Malick film distinct.
Thus, any debate about Malick's cinema typically comes down to whether those elements combine to exude the two qualities Malick most consistently explores: grace and awe. Malick's latest film, To the Wonder, might have more of those basic signature elements than any of its predecessors, despite being Malick's shortest film in more than three decades, but it's almost entirely lacking in grace and awe. It's all fundamentals with almost no feeling — save for emptiness. The gestures are familiar, but this time there's no soul behind them. The auteur's trademark flourishes feel less designed for this film than leftover from previous ones. To the Wonder is Terrence Malick via Overstock.com.
Friday, April 5, 2013
"Funny, thoughtful, opinionated, brilliant. An inspiration to anyone who ever wanted to write from a certain point of view." - Joe Posnanski
"To be able to have done exactly what he wanted to do for a living until the very end is an inspiration to anyone." - Jake Cole
"To be a good critic, you have to know your art-form. To be a great one, you have to love it." - Peter Sagal
"When I was a kid, no person turned me on to more movies and filmmakers than Roger Ebert. He changed my life." - Michael Bonfiglio
"Roger Ebert. Everything else you say is superfluous." - Ray Ratto
Up the stairs, past the scattered toys and piles of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my grandparents' mostly unfinished attic, was the childhood bedroom of my mother's brothers. They'd been out of the house for more than 10 years. Their double beds were still there, neatly made as if waiting for them to return from school, but now this mostly forgotten space in the rafters belonged to my grandfather, who'd lined one wall with more fishing rods than anyone who went fishing only a few times a year could possibly hope to use in a lifetime and whose hoard of fishing magazines, lures and spools of line covered almost every available surface space except for the two square feet or so of table on which sat a small black-and-white television.
It was on that television, on an otherwise unmemorable day during a summer I can't quite pinpoint, that I distinctly remember watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert debating on the show that made thumbs famous. Or, more to the point, I remember trying to watch them. The TV in the attic provided me a bit of privacy and a respite from my grandfather's steady diet of local news, but it also gave me rabbit-ear antennae to adjust and a serrated tuning knob to manipulate ever so slightly in the hopes of generating a clear picture. Of course, no matter how much time you spent getting the image to come into focus, as soon as you stepped away from the TV whatever progress you'd made was sure to come undone.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Dereck Whittenburg receives the awkward one-handed fling from Thurl Bailey less like the targeted shooter in the closing seconds of a national championship basketball game than like a defensive back intercepting a wayward pass before it sails into the bleachers. From nearer to half court than the 3-point arc, Whittenburg gathers the ball, turns, takes a deep knee bend and fires. It's a moon shot, and at the very moment it becomes obvious that the ball won't reach the rim Lorenzo Charles leaps into the frame, collects the ball near the iron and drops it into the hoop as time expires, giving North Carolina State a 54-52 upset victory over the University of Houston and sending the Wolfpack's flamboyant head coach Jim Valvano running around on the court looking for someone to hug.
It's one of the most famous sequences in college basketball history — memorable because NC State wasn't supposed to have a chance against Houston in that 1983 NCAA championship, memorable because Valvano's reaction reveals both his shock and his spirit, memorable because the game-winning bucket and Valvano's reaction are so charmingly inelegant and, last but not least, memorable because CBS and ESPN play the hell out of that highlight clip each March. If you're even a little bit of a college basketball fan, you've seen that play at least a dozen times. It's the quintessential March Madness moment and it's something of an eternal flame for Valvano, the beloved coach, broadcaster and motivational speaker. That said, the ubiquity of the NC State upset highlight is the very thing that made me skeptical about Survive and Advance, the latest edition of ESPN Films' "30 for 30" series, which seeks to climax with a sports moment that is as worn from overuse as a child's favorite toy. In the original "30 for 30" volume, director Jonathan Hock did a marvelous job reviving the forgotten legend of Marcus Dupree, but I wondered if he could be as successful crafting drama and insight from a story that is already so familiar.
Turns out, he was ready.