Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

A profound sense of sadness overcame me in early April as I contemplated the death of Roger Ebert. Part of it came from the fact that I would never be able to meet him, which I so hoped to do at some point, but more than that, I would never be able to read anything new from him again, although Jim Emerson, who has been helping Roger run his website over the past 10 years, published one, last review– fittingly, for Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” –the week after his death.

I first began reading Ebert’s reviews in either 1996 or 1997, whenever I began writing my own. Over the past 16-17 years, he has been one of the few movie critics I’ve followed with regularity, but without question, Ebert was the most influential to me in my own writing. In 2000, I started to read his “Great Movies” series, where he would go back, and review a movie from the past. I came in on that series with his 100th review, for “8 1/2,” and found myself hooked from then on. It was here where he first started to turn me on to movies and filmmakers of the past that I never would have watched otherwise, an important moment in my cinematic evolution. This series was a big influence on me beginning my own series of movie reviews, “A Movie a Week,” which has included many of the films Ebert wrote about in his “Great Movies” series.

In 2002, Ebert posted a blog on Yahoo! about the notion of “fan commentaries,” in which ordinary people, or specialists in a particular field, recorded their own audio commentaries for movies they wanted to discuss, and posted them online. This struck a chord for myself, and my friend Ron, and in 2003, we began– with our friends Dave and Mike –to record our own under the moniker, Yahoos With a Microphone. (The fact that the idea first came from an essay posted on Yahoo! is a coincidence I’m just figuring out.) To this day, most of these commentaries, as well as the handful of individuals ones I’ve recorded, can be heard online, both here at Sonic Cinema, as well as Zarban.com, which brings together all sorts of commentaries across the internet. Ebert never posted any of his own commentaries, but he recorded several in the early days of DVD, most notably for “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” and “Dark City,” the latter of which became one of my very first DVD purchases because of his commentary for that great sci-fi masterpiece.

I was originally going to share my thoughts on Ebert’s passing earlier in April, when he actually died, but I decided, because it took so long, to add them to this blog, and to take a look back at the first four months of this year in a different way than in previous years. Rather than just listing the movies I’ve seen this year, thus far, I’m going to group them according to the degree of “Elevation” I felt while watching them, and more importantly, after watching them. This concept of “Elevation” was a favorite of Ebert’s to discuss in his later years, and in one blog at his indispensible online journal, he published an explanation by the psychologist who coined the term that went as such: “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

So there you have it. Did any of the film’s I’ve seen thus far achieve the highest level of this idea? No, but a few definitely lifted me higher than I expected. Those are the top tier, regardless of their artistic merits. I hope you enjoy!

Tier One, Featuring:
“Warm Bodies”, “Joke”, “Jack the Giant Slayer, “Stoker”, and “Oblivion”. With the exception of Chan wook-Park’s unsettling family drama, “Stoker,” none of these films are great works of cinematic art, but the emotions I felt in each of these films, which all had love stories to tell that took mostly unusual, but affecting, paths in bringing their characters together in romantic, albeit sometimes troubling, ways. (The exception to this rule is “Joke,” a three-minute masterpiece that only has love for messing with heads, and making us laugh.)

Tier Two, Featuring:
“The Croods”, “Trance”, “The 10 Commandments of Chloe”, “Side Effects”, and “The Days God Slept”. Honestly, “The Croods” just missed the first tier, but only because it didn’t quite get me the way Chris Sanders’s previous films– “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo & Stitch” –did. Still, there’s worse company the film could be with than these terrific, moody character pieces from indie cinema.

Tier Three, Featuring:
“Oz: The Great and Powerful”, “Spring Breakers”, “The Last Stand”, and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”. Admittedly, the idea of “Elevation,” as defined above, starts to become more difficult to apply to films in this rung, but even if there were better films than these, all of them illicited a relatively strong, positive response, sometimes only coming to bear on second viewing.

Tier Four, Featuring:
“Admission”, “Olympus Has Fallen”, “Identity Thief”, and “Gangster Squad”. There was some unexpected depth in Paul Weitz’s “Admission,” with Tina Fey, but otherwise, these were just entertaining.

“Elevation?” These Films? I don’t think so. Featuring:
“Evil Dead”, “A Haunted House”, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, and “A Good Day to Die Hard”. Some of these films were lucky to eek out even the smallest level of entertainment value, let alone a genuine, emotional response. Some films just don’t have the qualities to “elevate” anything other than our frustration with modern Hollywood. On that level, these films succeeded considerably.

10 Movies to Watch This Summer
1. “Iron Man 3” (5/3)- Welcome to the new era of Marvel cinema. We begin Phase Two of Marvel Studios’s bold, cinematic universe where Phase One began, as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces internal, and external, demons in a battle for survival, this time against the dangerous terrorist, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Even though he returns on-screen as Stark’s driver, Happy, Jon Favreau is out as director after the first two films, but Marvel hit the jackpot by bringing on Shane Black, the dynamite action screenwriter (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) who helped bring Downey back to prominence with their inspired 2005 collaboration, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” I can’t wait to see what these two can do when the sky’s the limit.

2. “Much Ado About Nothing” (6/7)- Back in his days as showrunner for “Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” Joss Whedon was known for doing Sunday readings of Shakespeare with various cast members. (That’s also where the inspiration for the great “Buffy” musical episode came from.) It was from these readings that the bug to do a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play came into being, and after he finished shooting “The Avengers,” Whedon did just that on a 10-day shooting schedule at his own house. The black-and-white film, featuring such popular Whedon-verse actors such as Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and others, debuted to rave reviews at Toronto last year, and was picked up by Lionsgate for release this summer. The first of what Whedon hopes will be many films from his low-budget Bellweather studios, I can’t think of a better match for the Bard’s bawdy wit than Whedon’s smart, acerbic sensibilities.

3. “Before Midnight” (5/24)- The second three-quel on this list, although most people probably don’t know about this one. This is the third in an on-going series from director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Waking Life”) began in 1995 with “Before Sunrise.” That film was about two students (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who met on a train, got off in Vienna, and spent an evening discussing life, philosophy, and love. Nine years later, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy reunited to walk through Paris and possibilities in “Before Sunset,” and now, like clockwork, they return for a third installment. I’m planning on going in as cold as possible for this one, so that– once again –this trio can work their magic, and surprise me with where things lead with Hawke’s Jesse and Delpy’s Celine.

4. “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (5/17)- Before J.J. Abrams goes off to direct the first adventure in that OTHER sci-fi franchise in 2015, he has one more epic to deliver unto his fans in the Gene Roddenberry universe, with Captain Kirk and co. facing off with a merciless enemy. In addition to converting the film into 3D during post-production, Abrams also shot portions of the movie using IMAX cameras, and if the early footage we’ve seen is any indication, it looks like Disney and Lucasfilm made the right choice in filmmaker to usher us back into that galaxy far, far away. The only question is, who will we trust “Star Trek” to in the inevitable three-quel?

5. “Pacific Rim” (7/19)- It took a long, LONG time for me to finally see the first trailer for this monsters vs. robots epic from Mexican visionary Guillermo Del Toro, who left work on “The Hobbit” to make this film. All I have to say is, wow, and I hope that the film is successful enough so that we can get “Hellboy III” from him, which I know he really wants to do. The only other question is, when will we get another “Pan’s Labyrinth”-like masterpiece out of the director?

6. “Monsters University” (6/21)- The last Pixar sequel was “Cars 2,” which is something of a low point, more so when you consider that the only other sequels in the Pixar quiver are the two, great “Toy Story” continuations. Now that that is out of the way, though, this prequel to their 2001 hit, which has Sully and Mike (John Goodman and Billy Crystal) meeting in college, seems like a great addition to the Pixar canon, and might even be better than “Monsters Inc.,” which has never been a favorite Pixar film of mine. The recruiting video trailer? Genius. Will the movie be the same? We can hope, especially since one of their next films is another seemingly pointless sequel in “Finding Dory.”

7. “The Wolverine” (7/26)- The smartest thing Fox is doing with this second solo outing featuring Hugh Jackman’s now-classic take on the Marvel character is pretending 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” doesn’t exist. Just below that on the list is using Frank Miller’s popular story of Wolverine in Japan as the material to be adapted. Almost as crucial, however, was their choice of director. I still would have loved to see Jackman reunite with his “Fountain” director, Darren Aronofsky, on this film, but having “Knight and Day” and “Walk the Line” director James Mangold step in was a wise decision, and will likely allow for a grittier, more grounded, take on the character to shine through. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed, though.

8. “Man of Steel” (6/14)- I’ll admit, the idea of trying to reboot Superman for a second time in the past decade feels like a losing proposition. Yes, there were good things about Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”– namely, Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman –but it was too much of a slobbering fan appreciation of Richard Donner’s 1978 classic to really leave us somewhere to go. Enter Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, who approached Warner Bros. and DC with a new take on the character in between Batman epics that got the studio excited enough to give them a crack at it, with Zack Snyder (“Watchman,” “300”) directing. Like the Donner film, and Nolan’s Batman movies, this film has an amazing cast of A-list talent, from Amy Adams to Russell Crowe to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane to Michael Shannon, but a relative question mark in Henry Cavill (“Immortals”) in the main role. That said, the trailers have given me, and many others, hope that maybe, DC might finally be able to bring Superman back to the big screen in a way that lays the groundwork for future DC films.

9. “Elysium” (8/9)- Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and the writer/director of the Oscar-nominated “District 9,” Neill Blomkamp. Hooked yet? “District 9” was a buzz-driven smash that made August of 2009 a memorable one for geeks, with its potent blend of sci-fi and social commentary, and “Elysium,” which seems like another combination of sci-fi and social issues with its story of the select upper-class living on an idillic paradise, while everyone else lives in the ruins of Earth, appears well on its way to achieving the same acclaim, and potentially bigger box-office with Damon and Foster attached. The trailer, seen on “Oblivion,” has got me psyched.

10. “The World’s End” (8/23)- Edgar Wright. Simon Pegg. Nick Frost. Do I really need to say more? The three comedic masters from England complete their trilogy that started with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” and even though I haven’t seen a thing from it, the fact that its release date was pushed up from October to the dog days of August has me stoked that Wright, whose last film was the great, and greatly underseen, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” has another terrific, cultish hit on his hands before moving on to Marvel’s “Ant Man” at long last.

Also on my radar: That’s a pretty staggering, versatile list in and of itself, no? On top of that, feel free to add the following: “The Great Gatsby” (5/10), Baz Luhrmann’s delayed, 3D rendering of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Jazz Age classic, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan; “Epic” (5/24), a very promising, beautiful-looking animated adventure from the studio “Ice Age” built; “Fast and Furious 6” (5/24), with all the major players back for another thriller with fast cars and testosterone to spare; “After Earth” (5/31), an intriguing sci-fi action flick starring Will Smith and son, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, working from another person’s script; “The Purge” (5/31), a chilling horror premise of a future US where, for one night a year, anything goes, and people are killed en mass; “This is the End” (6/12), an apocalyptic comedy with Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, and plenty others in a film that’s either going to be hilarious, or an absolute trainwreck; “The Bling Ring” (6/14), the new film from Sofia Coppola, about a group of friends who go on a stealing spree among the elite in L.A.; “World War Z” (6/21), the long-delayed zombie epic, based on a cult book, with Brad Pitt, directed by “Quantum of Solace’s” Marc Forster; “The Heat” (6/28), an inspired comedic paring of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy from the director of “Bridesmaids,” looking to strike it big again; “Byzantium” (6/28), a promising thriller from Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “The Brave One”); “The Lone Ranger” (7/3), another delayed action epic, this one from the “Pirates” trio of Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp, with Arnie Hammer as the titular hero; “Despicable Me 2” (7/3), a sequel to 2010’s surprise smash animated comedy, with Gru and the Minions back for more mayhem; “The Conjuring” (7/19), a disturbing horror flick, with plenty of buzz behind it, from the producers of “Insidious” and “Sinister”; “RED 2” (7/19), with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and co. returning for more dark action in this comic book sequel; “Kick Ass 2” (8/16), another comic book sequel, this time adding Jim Carrey to the brutal, realistic setting of Mark Millar’s popular franchise; and “You’re Next” (8/23), more hard-R horror thrills, this time from the director and star of 2011’s criminally underseen, “A Horrible Way to Die.”

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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