Maximus: "I'm required to kill--so I kill. That's enough."

Proximo: "That's enough for the provinces, but not for Rome."


A foolish choice in art direction casts a pall over Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" that no swordplay can cut through. The film looks muddy, fuzzy and indistinct. Its colors are mud tones at the drab end of the palette, and it seems to have been filmed on grim and overcast days. This darkness and a lack of detail in the long shots helps obscure shabby special effects (the Colosseum in Rome looks like a model from a computer game), and the characters bring no cheer: They're bitter, vengeful, depressed. By the end of this long film, I would have traded any given gladiatorial victory for just one shot of blue skies. (There are blue skies in the hero's dreams of long-ago happiness, but that proves the point.) The story line is "Rocky" on downers. The hero, a general from Spain named Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a favorite of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). After Maximus defeats the barbarians, Marcus names him protector of Rome. But he is left for dead by Marcus' son, a bitter rival named Commodus (the name comes from the Latin for "convenient" and not what you're thinking).


After escaping and finding that his wife and son have been murdered, Maximus finds his way to the deserts of North Africa, where he is sold as a slave to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a manager of gladiators. When Commodus lifts his late father's ban on gladiators in Rome, in an attempt to distract the people from hunger and plagues, Maximus slashes his way to the top, and the movie ends, of course, with the Big Fight.


This same story could have been rousing entertainment; I have just revisited the wonderful "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which is just as dimwitted but 12 times more fun. But "Gladiator" lacks joy. It employs depression as a substitute for personality, and believes that if the characters are bitter and morose enough, we won't notice how dull they are.


Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of those spoiled, self-indulgent, petulant Roman emperors made famous in the age of great Roman epics, which ended with "Spartacus" (1960). Watching him in his snits, I recalled Peter Ustinov's great Nero in "Quo Vadis" (1951), collecting his tears for posterity in tiny crystal vials. Commodus has unusual vices even for a Caesar; he wants to become the lover of his older sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), whose son he is bringing up as his heir.


The moral backbone of the story is easily mastered. Commodus wants to be a dictator, but is opposed by the senate, led by Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). The senators want him to provide sewers for the city's Greek district, where the plague is raging, but Commodus decides instead on a season of games. Proximo arrives with his seasoned gladiators from Africa, who prove nearly invincible and threaten the emperor's popularity. The moral lesson: It is good when gladiators slaughter everyone in sight, and then turn over power to the politicians.


The Colosseum productions play like professional wrestling. Events are staged to re-create famous battles, and after the visitors wipe out the home team, a puzzled Commodus tells his aide, "My history's a little hazy--but shouldn't the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?" Later, an announcer literally addresses the crowd in these words: "Caesar is pleased to bring you the only undefeated champion in Roman history--the legendary Titus!" The battle sequences are a pale shadow of the lucidly choreographed swordplay in "Rob Roy" (1995); instead of moves we can follow and strategy we can appreciate, Scott goes for muddled closeups of fearsome but indistinct events. The crowd cheers, although those in the cheaper seats are impossible to see because of the murky special effects.


When Maximus wins his first big fight, it's up to Commodus to decide whether he will live or die. "Live! Live!" the fans chant, and Commodus, bowing to their will, signals with a "thumbs up." This demonstrates that Commodus was not paying attention in Caesar School, since the practice at the Colosseum at that time was to close the thumb in the fist to signal life; an extended thumb meant death. Luckily, no one else in the Colosseum knows this, either.


Crowe is efficient as Maximus: bearded, taciturn, brooding. His closest friend among the gladiators is played by Djimon Hounsou, who played the passionate slave in "Amistad." Since protocol requires him to speak less than Maximus, he mostly looks ferocious, effectively.


Nielsen shows the film's most depth, as the sister. Phoenix is passable as Commodus, but a quirkier actor could have had more fun in the role. Old pros Harris, Jacobi and Reed are reliable; Scott does some fancy editing and a little digital work to fill the gaps left when Reed died during the production.


"Gladiator" is being hailed by those with short memories as the equal of "Spartacus" and "Ben-Hur." This is more like "Spartacus Lite." Or dark. It's only necessary to think back a few months, to Julie Taymor's "Titus," for a film set in ancient Rome that's immeasurably better to look at. The visual accomplishment of "Titus" shames "Gladiator," and its story is a whole heck of a lot better than the "Gladiator" screenplay, even if Shakespeare didn't make his Titus the only undefeated champion in Roman history.










































It is largely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made and is preserved in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Sunset Blvd is a classic example of film noir. It is also very meta, and its dark, cynical tone, voiceover, and dialogue remain relevant to this day.


Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard” is the portrait of a forgotten silent star, living in exile in her grotesque mansion, screening her old films, dreaming of a comeback. But it's also a love story, and the love keeps it from becoming simply a waxwork or a freak show. Gloria Swanson gives her greatest performance as the silent star Norma Desmond, with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, her grandiose delusions. William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. But the performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max.


The movie cuts close to the bone, drawing so directly from life that many of the silent stars at the movie's premiere recognized personal details. In no character, not even Norma, does it cut closer than with Max von Mayerling, a once-great silent director, now reduced to working as the butler of the woman he once directed--and was married to. There are unmistakable parallels with von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in "Queen Kelly” (1928), whose credits included "Greed" and "The Merry Widow,” but who directed only two sound films and was reduced to playing Nazi martinets and parodies of himself in other people's films.


In "Sunset Boulevard,” Desmond screens one of her old silent classics for Joe Gillis, the young writer played by Holden. Max runs the projector. The scene is from “Queen Kelly.” For a moment Swanson and von Stroheim are simply playing themselves. Later, when Joe is moved into the big mansion, Max shows him to an ornate bedroom and explains, "It was the room of the husband.” Max is talking about himself; he was


In one of the greatest of all film performances, Swanson's Norma Desmond skates close to the edge of parody; Swanson takes enormous chances with theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for most of the picture, before letting her slip over. We might not take her seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma, and that in turn helps explain how Joe can accept her.


Norma of course is not a wrinkled crone. She is only 50 in the film, younger than stars such as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. There is a scene during Norma's beauty makeover when a magnifying glass is held in front of her eyes, and we are startled by how smooth Swanson's skin is. Swanson in real life was a health nut who fled from the sun, which no doubt protected her skin (she was 53 when she made the film), but the point in "Sunset Boulevard” is that she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past.


Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks” by Gillis, are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,” and calls Norma "little fellow,” which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s.


"Sunset Boulevard” remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn't. When the silent star first greets the penniless writer inside her mansion, they have a classic exchange. “You used to be big,” he says. Norma responds with the great line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.” Hardly anyone remembers Joe's next line: "I knew there was something wrong with them.”


The plot has supplied Joe with a lot of reasons to accept Norma's offer of a private screenwriting job. He's broke and behind on his rent, his car is about to be repossessed, and he doesn't want to go back to his job as a newspaperman in Dayton. He is also not entirely unwilling to prostitute himself; Holden projects subtle weakness and self-loathing into the role. He goes through the forms of saying he doesn't want Norma's gifts, but he takes them--the gold cigarette cases, the platinum watch, the suits, the shirts, the shoes. He claims to be surprised on New Year's Eve when she throws a party just for the two of them, but surely he has known from the first that she wants not only a writer, but a young man to reassure her that she is still attractive.


The thing about Norma is that life with her isn't all bad. She isn't boring. Her histrionics and dramaturgy are entertaining, and she has a charming side, as when she stages a pantomime for Joe, playing a Max Sennett bathing girl and then doing a passable version of Chaplin's Tramp. Joe is willing to be kept. The only thing the film lacks is more sympathy between Joe and Max, who have so much in common.


There is of course the young blond Paramount writer Betty (Nancy Olson), who Joe meets early in the picture. She's engaged to be married (to a young Jack Webb), but as Joe begins sneaking out of the mansion to collaborate on a screenplay with Betty, she falls in love with him. He's attracted, but pulls back, partly because he doesn't want her to discover the truth, but also because he likes the lifestyle with Norma. And ... maybe because, like Max, he has fallen under her spell? His dialogue is sharp-edged and can be cruel. (When she threatens suicide, he tells her, "Oh, wake up, Norma. You'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago.”) But there's a certain pity, too. "Poor devil,” he says, "still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by.”


I have seen "Sunset Boulevard” many times, and even analyzed it a shot at a time at the University of Virginia. But on this latest screening I was struck by its similarity with the 1964 Japanese drama "Woman in the Dunes." Both are about men who are trapped in the home, or lair, of a woman who simply will not let them out again. They struggle, they thrash a little, they look for the means of escape, but at some subterranean level they are content to be prisoners, and perhaps even enjoy it. Both women need a man to help them hold back the inexorable advance of the sands--in Norma's case, the sands of time.


Of all the great directors of Hollywood's golden age, has anybody made more films that are as fresh and entertaining to this day as Billy Wilder's? The credits are astonishing: “Double Indemnity,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Stalag 17,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Sabrina.” And who else can field two contenders among the greatest closing lines of all time? From “Some Like It Hot” there is “Nobody's perfect.” And from “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond's: “There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


A vast empty Western landscape. The camera pans across it. Then the shot slides onto a sunburned, desperate face. The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us.


In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.


There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them.


Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie cliches, using style to elevate dreck into art. When the movie opened in America in late 1967, not long after its predecessors "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), audiences knew they liked it, but did they know why?


I saw it sitting in the front row of the balcony of the Oriental Theatre, whose vast wide screen was ideal for Leone's operatic compositions. I responded strongly, but had been a movie critic less than a year, and did not always have the wisdom to value instinct over prudence. Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a "spaghetti Western" and so could not be art.


But art it is, summoned out of the imagination of Leone and painted on the wide screen so vividly that we forget what marginal productions these films were--that Clint Eastwood was a Hollywood reject, that budgetary restraints ($200,000 for "Fistful") caused gaping continuity errors, that there wasn't a lot of dialogue because it was easier to shoot silent and fill the soundtrack with music and effects. There was even a pathetic attempt to make the films seem more American; I learn from the critic Glenn Erickson that Leone was credited as "Bob Robertson" in the early prints of "Fistful," and composer Ennio Morricone, whose lonely, mournful scores are inseparable from the films, was "Dan Savio." Even Eastwood's character, the famous Man With No Name, was an invention of the publicists; he was called Joe in the first movie, Manco in the second, and Blondie in the third.


Perhaps it is the subtly foreign flavor of the spaghetti trilogy, and especially the masterpiece "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," that suggests the films come from a different universe than traditional Westerns. Instead of tame Hollywood extras from central casting, we get locals who must have been hired near the Spanish locations--men who look long-weathered by work and the sun. Consider the legless beggar who uses his arms to propel himself into a saloon, shouting, "Hand me down a whiskey!"


John Ford made Monument Valley the home turf of his Western characters, and he made great films there, but there is something new and strange about Leone's menacing Spanish vistas. We haven't seen these deserts before. John Wayne has never been here. Leone's stories are a heightened dream in which everything is bigger, starker, more brutal, more dramatic, than life.


Leone tells the story more with pictures than words. Examine the masterful scene in the cemetery. A fortune in gold is said to be buried in one of the graves, and three men have assembled, all hoping to get it. The actors are Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad), and Eli Wallach (the Ugly). Each man points a pistol at the other. If one shoots, they all shoot, and all die. Unless two decide to shoot the third man before he can shoot either one of them. But which two, and which third?


Leone draws this scene out beyond all reason, beginning in long shot and working in to closeups of firearms, faces, eyes, and lots of sweat and flies. He seems to be testing himself, to see how long he can maintain the suspense. Or is it even suspense, really? It may be entirely an exercise in style, a deliberate manipulation by the director, intended to draw attention to itself. If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures.


Eastwood, 34 when he first worked with Leone, already carried unquestioned authority. Much is made of the fact that he came from television, that he starred in "Rawhide," that in those days it was thought that a movie audience wouldn't pay to see an actor it could watch for free. Eastwood overcame that jinx, but not any actor could have done it--and not with any director. He says he took the roles with Leone because he wanted to make movies and Hollywood wouldn't hire him.


Yes, but Eastwood himself was to become an important director, and even then he must have sensed in Leone not just another purveyor of the Italian sword-and-sandal epics, but a man with passion. Together, Leone and Eastwood made The Man With No Name not simply bigger than a television star, but bigger than a movie star--a man who never needed to explain himself, a man whose boots and fingers and eyes were deemed important enough to fill the whole screen.


I wonder if Eastwood's character has a tenth as much dialogue as Tuco, the Eli Wallach character. The Man With No Name never talks; Tuco never stops. This is one of Wallach's inspired performances, as he sidesteps his character's potential to seem ridiculous, and makes him a desperate, frightened presence. When he makes a clown of himself, we sense it is Tuco's strategy, not his personality. Trained in the Method, a stage veteran, Wallach took this low-rent role seriously and made something evocative out of it.


Lee Van Cleef, as Angel Eyes, was New Jersey-born, already a veteran of 53 films and countless TV shows, many of them Westerns (his first movie credit was "High Noon," where he played a member of the gang). In a movie with a lot of narrowed eyes, he has the narrowest, and they gleam with insane obsession.


All three men are after the fortune in Civil War gold, and the secret of its location is parceled out among them (one knows the cemetery but not the grave, the other knows the name on the tombstone but not the cemetery). So they know that they will remain alive until the grave is found, and then it is likely that each of them will try to kill the others.


In a film that runs 180 minutes in its current restored version, that is not enough plot, but Leone has no shortage of other ideas. There is the opening shootout, involving unrelated characters. There is the con game in which Wallach plays a wanted man, Eastwood turns him in for the reward, and then Eastwood waits until he is about to be hanged and severs the rope with a well-aimed shot. There is the magnificent desert sequence, after Eastwood abandons Wallach in the desert, and then Wallach does the same to Eastwood, and the sun burns down like a scene from "Greed." There is the haunting runaway wagon, filled with dead and dying men.


And, surprisingly, there is an ambitious Civil War sequence, almost a film within a film, featuring a touching performance by Aldo Giuffre as a captain in the Union Army who explains his alcoholism simply: the commander who has the most booze to get his troops drunk before battle is the one who wins. His dying line: "Can you help me live a little more? I expect good news."


Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was a director of boundless vision and ambition, who invented himself almost as he invented the spaghetti Western. Erickson, whose useful essay on the trilogy is at, notes that Leone hyped his own career "by claiming to be the assistant director on Robert Aldrich's Italian production of 'Sodom and Gomorrah' (1962), even though he was fired after only a day." Leone made a forgotten Roman Empire epic in 1961, and then based "A Fistful of Dollars" so closely on Akira Kurosawa's samurai film "Yojimbo" that perhaps Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho" (1998) was not the first time the technique was tried.


A man with no little ideas, Leone made two other unquestioned masterpieces, "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) and "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984). By the end of his career, Hollywood was suspicious of films with long running times, and criminally chopped "America" from 227 minutes to a sometimes incomprehensible 139. Nineteen minutes were cut from the first release of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But uncut versions of all of his films are available on DVD, and gradually it becomes clear how good he really was.


Roger Ebert

The Seven Samurai


Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954) is not only a great film in its own right, but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission--an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, "The Magnificent Seven," as well as "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen" and countless later war, heist and caper movies. Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) was remade as "A Fistful of Dollars" and essentially created the spaghetti Western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" inspired George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.


That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. One of the central truths of "Seven Samurai" is that the samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix. Indeed, we learn that these villagers had earlier been hostile to samurai--and one of them, even now, hysterically fears that a samurai will make off with his daughter. Yet the bandits represent a greater threat, and so the samurai are hired, valued and resented in about equal measure.


Why do they take the job? Why, for a handful of rice every day, do they risk their lives? Because that is the job and the nature of the samurai. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them by society, and in To the Distant Observer, his study of Japanese films, Noel Burch observes: "masochistic perseverance in the fulfillment of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan." Not only do the samurai persevere, but so do the bandits, who continue their series of raids even though it is clear the village is well-defended, that they are sustaining heavy losses, and that there must be unprotected villages somewhere close around. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, they perform the roles they have been assigned.


Two of the movie's significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited samurai played by Toshiro Mifune as a rambunctious showoff, was not born a samurai but has jumped caste to become one. And there is a forbidden romance between the samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and a village girl (ironically, the very daughter whose father was so worried). They love each other, but a farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin; when they are found together on the eve of the final battle, however, there are arguments in the village to "understand the young people,” and an appeal to romance--an appeal designed for modern audiences and unlikely to have carried much weight in the 1600s when the movie is set.


Kurosawa was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors (too Western, some of his Japanese critics sniffed). "Seven Samurai" represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films, Jeck observes, subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, noncomformists and rebels. The turning point can be seen in his greatest film, "Ikiru" (1952), in which a bureaucrat spends his days in the rote performance of meaningless duties but decides when he is dying to break loose and achieve at least one meaningful thing.


That bureaucrat was played by Takashi Shimura--who, incredibly, also plays Kambei, the leader of the seven samurai. He looks old and withered in the 1952 picture, tough and weathered in this one. Kurosawa was loyal to his longtime collaborators, and used either Shimura, Mifune, or often both of them, in every movie he made for 18 years.


In "Seven Samurai," both actors are essential. Shimura's Kambei is the veteran warrior, who in an early scene shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest in order to enter a house where a hostage is being held. (Did this scene create the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation unrelated to the later plot?) He spends the rest of the movie distractedly rubbing his bristling head during moments of puzzlement. He is a calm, wise leader and a good strategian, and we follow the battles partly because he (and Kurosawa) map them out for us, walk us through the village's defenses and keep count as the 40 bandits are whittled down one by one. Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, is an overcompensator. He arrives equipped with a sword longer than anyone else's and swaggers around holding it over his shoulder like a rifleman. He is impulsive, brave, a showoff who quickly assembles a fan club of local kids who follow him around. Mifune was himself a superb athlete and does some difficult jumps and stunts in the movie, but his character is shown to be a hopeless horseman. (As a farmer's son, Kikuchiyo would not have had an opportunity as a youth to learn to ride.) One running gag involves Kikuchiyo's inability to master an unruly local horse; there is a delightful moment where horse and rider disappear behind a barrier together, and emerge separately.


The movie is long (207 minutes), with an intermission, and yet it moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in "Falstaff” conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords.


Repeated viewings of "Seven Samurai" reveal visual patterns. Consider the irony, for example, in two sequences that bookend the first battle with the bandits. In the first, the villagers have heard the bandits are coming, and rush around in panic. Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, and the ronin run from one group to the next (the villagers always run in groups, not individually) to herd them into cover. Later, after the bandits have been repulsed, a wounded bandit falls in the village square, and now the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. This time, the samurai hurry about pushing them back. Mirrored scenes like that can be found throughout the movie.


There is also an instinctive feeling for composition. Kurosawa constantly uses deep focus to follow simultaneous actions in the foreground, middle and background. Often he delineates the distance with barriers. Consider a shot where the samurai, in the foreground, peer out through the slats of a building and across an empty ground to the sight of the bandits, peering in through the slats of a barrier erected against them. Kurosawa's moving camera often avoids cuts in order to make comparisons, as when he will begin on dialogue in a closeup, sweep through a room or a clearing, and end on a closeup of another character who is the point of the dialogue.


Many characters die in "Seven Samurai," but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.


Roger Ebert



Kevin Costner reaches a welcome career high in this new movie, a live-action based-on-a-true-story inspirational tale of school sports, produced by Disney. It sounds a little over-determined when described that way, I know. But one thing I almost forgot going into this picture is that this kind of picture is the kind of thing that Disney can do very well. And it is very well done here, thanks in no small part to the superb direction of Niki Caro. Caro, a New Zealand-born woman, might seem to some an unusual fit for the story of an all-Latino cross-country running team coached by a white man who’s working, against his will for all intents and purposes, at an underfunded high school in the California town that sometimes advertises itself as “the fruit basket of the nation.” But Caro, who established some good cross-cultural uplift bona fides with her first feature, 2002’s “Whale Rider,” brings huge reserves of both curiosity and empathy to the story, and her abilities as an entertainer keep the movie generous in both heart-tugging and smile-inducing moments. Costner’s uncanny evocation of Gary Cooper masculinity and Gregory Peck compassion in the role of coach Jim White is the glue that holds it together, but the rest of the cast is equally inspired.


There’s been a lot of talk in cultural criticism of the last several decades about “white messiah” narratives: stories in which the intervention of a Caucasian rescues ethnic minorities at risk. (You may remember “Dangerous Minds.”) Many representatives of ethnic minorities in academia and media find this irritating, with good reason, and despite its based-on-a-true-story status, “McFarland, USA” could very well be just such a story. But Caro, along with writers Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson do something unusual. It’s not something as obvious and crass as the “and she saves him back” trope of “Pretty Woman,” but more along the lines of a family values cultural exchange. Costner’s Jim White is a high school teacher and coach whose passionate temper gets him fired from a series of gigs in the white-bread towns of which he’s a product and has been a fixture.


On arriving with wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters, teen and pre-teen, in a town where the rooster next door wakes everyone up before five and Jim can’t get a burger, the teacher is almost immediately assailed by colleagues and students who think it’s hilarious that his name is “White.” Despite his chafing at his fish-out-of-water status, White also gives a damn, and he, like Caro, is a keen observer. He knows the school’s football team isn’t, and likely can’t be, worth a damn, but once he sees more than one of his students running, rabbit-like, to get to their after-school jobs helping their parents and other family members with produce-picking, he resolves to create a cross-country running team.


To make it work he has to gain the trust of both the kids and their parents, and that means he needs to give a little of himself. Getting involved in the lives of these self-described “pickers” gives White a painful understanding of the economic realities of his environment and the privilege that he’s long taken for granted. He misses the birthday celebration for his teen daughter Julie, which is a common enough device in the too-busy-doing-good-white-guy scenario, but here it pays off in a dividend, as White gets educated by his prize runner and the local grocery store owner in the Latin American tradition of the Quinceañera. As White steers his initially ragtag crew to victory after victory, he attracts the attention of tonier towns and schools, presenting a challenge to his own commitment to family and community.


Because, finally, “McFarland, USA” is a paean to family and community. And a story about why, even as so much of what we see about the so-called “American Dream” is tinged with disillusion and corruption, the United States remains a land of some kind of opportunity for millions of people who come here to do back-breaking work, day in, day out. It is also, of course, a really entertaining and enjoyable movie. Caro is particularly deft at handling supporting character roles. All the young runners make an impression, particularly Carlos Pratt as the troubled, gentle, and lightning-fast Thomas, and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny, the chunky anchor of the team who’s all heart. But Valente Rodriguez as the harried principal and Danny Mora as the aforementioned store owner are also outstanding, bringing un-stereotypical life to their archetypal roles. And while for this viewer, who’s also a sometime runner, cross-country running is perhaps the least cinematically-engaging sport ever, Caro and company imbue each of the race scenes with more than sufficient drama to give the proceedings a good share of “Rocky”-triumphant moments. Tear-jerking ones, too. The result, as far as I’m concerned, is a feel-good movie that pretty much anyone can feel good about feeling good about. Particularly Costner fans.


Glenn Kenny

Boogie Nights


Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights'' is an epic of the low road, a classic Hollywood story set in the shadows instead of the spotlights but containing the same ingredients: Fame, envy, greed, talent, sex, money. The movie follows a large, colorful and curiously touching cast of characters as they live through a crucial turning point in the adult film industry.


In 1977, when the story opens, porn movies are shot on film and play in theaters, and a director can dream of making one so good that the audience members would want to stay in the theater even after they had achieved what they came for. By 1983, when the story closes, porn has shifted to video and most of the movies are basically just gynecological loops. There is hope, at the outset, that a porno movie could be "artistic,'' and less hope at the end.


"Boogie Nights'' tells this story through the life of a kid named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) from the San Fernando Valley, who is a dishwasher in a Hollywood nightclub when he's discovered by a Tiparillo-smoking pornographer named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). "I got a feeling,'' Jack says, "that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.'' He is correct, and within a few months Eddie has been renamed "Dirk Diggler'' and is a rising star of porn films.


If this summary makes the film itself sound a little like porn, it is not. Few films have been more matter-of-fact, even disenchanted, about sexuality. Adult films are a business here, not a dalliance or a pastime, and one of the charms of "Boogie Nights'' is the way it shows the everyday backstage humdrum life of porno filmmaking. "You got your camera,'' Jack explains to young Eddie. "You got your film, you got your lights, you got your synching, you got your editing, you got your lab. Before you turn around, you've spent maybe $25,000 or $30,000.'' Jack Horner is the father figure for a strange extended family of sex workers; he's a low-rent Hugh Hefner, and Burt Reynolds gives one of his best performances as a man who seems to stand outside sex and view it with the detached eye of a judge at a livestock show. Horner is never shown as having sex himself, although he lives with Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a former housewife and mother, now a porn star who makes tearful midnight calls to her ex-husband, asking to speak to her child. When Jack recruits Eddie to make a movie, Amber becomes his surrogate parent, tenderly solicitous of him as they prepare for his first sex scene.


During a break in that scene, Eddie whispers to Jack, "Please call me Dirk Diggler from now on.'' He falls immediately into star mode, and before long is leading a conducted tour of his new house, where his wardrobe is "arranged according to color and designer.'' His stardom is based on one remarkable attribute; "everyone is blessed with one special thing,'' he tells himself, after his mother has screamed that he'll always be a bum and a loser.


Anderson wisely limits the nudity in the film, and until the final shot we don't see what Jack Horner calls "Mr. Torpedo Area.'' It's more fun to approach it the way Anderson does. At a pool party at Jack's house, Dirk meets the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), who finances the films. "May I see it?'' the silver-haired, business-suited Colonel asks. Dirk obliges, and the camera stays on the Colonel's face as he looks, and a funny, stiff little smile appears; Anderson holds the shot for several seconds, and we get the message.


The large cast of "Boogie Nights'' is nicely balanced between human and comic qualities. We meet Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never takes off her skates, and in an audition scene with Dirk adds a new dimension to the song "Brand New Key.'' Little Bill (William H. Macy) is Jack's assistant director, moping about at parties while his wife (porn star Nina Hartley) gets it on with every man she can. (When he discovers his wife having sex in the driveway, surrounded by an appreciative crowd, she tells him, "Shut up, Bill; you're embarrassing me.'') Ricky Jay, the magician, plays Jack's cameraman. "I think every picture should have its own look,'' he states solemnly, although the films are shot in a day or two. When he complains, "I got a couple of tough shadows to deal with,'' Jack snaps, "There are shadows in life, baby.'' Dirk's new best friend is Reed (John C. Reilly). He gets a crush on Dirk and engages him in gym talk ("How much do you press? Let's both say at the same time. One, two...") Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is a second-tier actor and would-be hi-fi salesman. Rodriguez (Luis Guzman) is a club manager who dreams of being in one of Jack's movies. And the gray eminence behind the industry, the man who is the Colonel's boss, is Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall), who on New Year's Eve, 1980, breaks the news that videotape holds the future of the porno industry.


The sweep and variety of the characters have brought the movie comparisons to Robert Altman's "Nashville" and "The Player." There is also some of the same appeal as "Pulp Fiction," in scenes that balance precariously between comedy and violence (a brilliant scene near the end has Dirk and friends selling cocaine to a deranged playboy while the customer's friend throws firecrackers around the room). Through all the characters and all the action, Anderson's screenplay centers on the human qualities of the players. They may live in a disreputable world, but they have the same ambitions and in a weird way similar values as mainstream Hollywood.


"Boogie Nights'' has the quality of many great films, in that it always seems alive. A movie can be very good and yet not draw us in, not involve us in the moment-to-moment sensation of seeing lives as they are lived. As a writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson is a skilled reporter who fills his screen with understated, authentic details. (In the filming of the first sex scene, for example, the action takes place in an office set that has been built in Jack's garage. Behind the office door we see old license plates nailed to the wall, and behind one wall of the set, bicycle wheels peek out.) Anderson is in love with his camera, and a bit of a showoff in sequences inspired by the famous nightclub entrance in "GoodFellas," Robert De Niro's rehearsal in the mirror in "Raging Bull" and a shot in "I Am Cuba" where the camera follows a woman into a pool.


In examining the business of catering to lust, "Boogie Nights'' demystifies its sex (that's probably one reason it avoided the NC-17 rating). Mainstream movies use sex like porno films do, to turn us on. "Boogie Nights'' abandons the illusion that characters are enjoying sex; in a sense, it's about manufacturing a consumer product. By the time the final shot arrives and we see what made the Colonel stare, there is no longer any shred of illusion that it is anything more than a commodity. And in Dirk Diggler's most anguished scene, as he shouts at Jack Horner, "I'm ready to shoot my scene RIGHT NOW!'' We learn that those who live by the sword can also die by it.


Roger Ebert



Saturday Night Fever


"Saturday Night Fever'' was Gene Siskel's favorite movie, and he watched it at least 17 times. We all have movies like that, titles that transcend ordinary categories of good and bad, and penetrate straight to our hearts. My own short list would include "La Dolce Vita," "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Third Man." These are movies that represent what I yearned for at one time in my life, and to see them again is like listening to a song that was popular the first summer you were in love.


Although "Saturday Night Fever'' appealed to him primarily on an emotional level, Siskel spoke about it in terms of its themes, and there are two central ones. First, the desire of all young people to escape from a life sentence of boring work and attain their version of the beckoning towers of Manhattan. Second, the difficulty that some men have in relating to women as comrades and friends and not simply sex facilitators.


There is a scene in the movie where the hero, Tony Manero, sits on a bench with Stephanie, the girl he loves, and tells her all about one of the bridges out of Brooklyn: Its height, length, how many cubic yards of concrete went into its making--and you can taste his desire to cross that bridge and leave Brooklyn behind. Earlier, Stephanie has described him in a few brutal words: "You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You're a cliche. You're nowhere, goin' no place.'' Tony senses that she is right.


The theme of escape to the big city is central to American films and literature, and "Saturday Night Fever'' has an obvious predecessor. Both the lure of Manhattan and the problems with women were treated 10 years earlier in Martin Scorsese's "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" (1967), which also has a hero who suffers from what Freud called the Madonna-Whore Complex. (The complex involves this logic: I love you so much I want to sleep with you, after which I cannot love you any more because you are the kind of woman who has sex with men.) By the end of the film, Tony has left his worthless friends behind and made the first faltering steps to Manhattan and to a more enlightened view of women, and so the themes have been resolved.


But I suspect that "Saturday Night Fever'' had another kind of appeal to Siskel, one that reflects the way the movies sometimes complete the unfinished corners of our lives. In a way, Tony Manero represented the kind of adolescence Gene didn't have, just as Marcello, the hero of "La Dolce Vita,'' led the kind of life I once lusted for. The most lasting images are its joyous ones, of Tony strutting down a sidewalk, dressing for the evening and dominating the disco floor in a solo dance that audiences often applaud. There's a lot in the movie that's sad and painful, but after a few years what you remember is John Travolta on the dance floor in that classic white disco suit, and the Bee Gees on the soundtrack.


The Travolta performance is a great cocky affirmation, and his performance is vulnerable and mostly lovable; playing a kid of 19, he looks touchingly young. The opening shots set the tone, focusing on his carefully shined shoes as he struts down the street. At home, he's still treated like a kid. When he gets a $4 raise at the hardware store, his father says, "You know what $4 buys today? It don't even buy $3.'' But in his bedroom, with its posters of Al Pacino and "Rocky," he strips to his bare chest, admires himself in the mirror, lovingly combs his hair, puts on his gold chains, and steps into his disco suit with a funny little undulation as he slides the zipper up. ("The peculiar construction of disco pants is a marvel of modern engineering,'' observes Scott T. Anderson, on a Web page devoted to the movie. "So loose at the ankles, yet so tight in the groin.'') At the dinner table, his dad slaps him, and he's wounded: "Would you just watch the hair? I work a long time on my hair, and you hit it!''


The home is a trap, presided over by the photo of Tony's older brother, Father Frank Jr. (Mrs. Manero crosses herself every time she utters the name). Freedom is represented by cruising the streets, and starring on the disco floor. The movie's plot involves his choice between Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl who loves him, and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who works in Manhattan and represents his dream of class. In the Scorsese film, the girl really was class (she was a ballerina), but Stephanie is simply a dressed-up version of Annette who got a typing job in an office where famous people (Paul Anka!) sometimes visit.


I've always thought Annette was a better choice for Tony than Stephanie, because Annette has fewer delusions. ("Why do you hate me so much,'' she asks him, "when all I ever did was like you?'') But Tony can't see that because he can't really see women at all, and in the cruel closing scenes he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape Stephanie, and then sits in the front seat of a car while Annette is being raped in the back by two of his buddies. Of course, at that time, in that milieu, perhaps it wasn't considered rape, but only an energetic form of courtship.


The film is far from perfect and some of its scenes are awkward. Watching it again, I was struck by how badly the whole subplot of Father Frank Jr. is handled. Tony's older brother comes home, announces he is leaving the priesthood, has a peculiarly superficial conversation with Tony, accompanies him to the disco, smiles gamely, and then disappears from the disco and the movie. It's as if we're glimpsing a character passing through this movie on his way to another one ("The Priest," perhaps?). It's also interesting to see how little screen time the final disco competition really has, considering how large it looms in our memories.


It's odd, too, how the rape of Annette is misplaced as the movie gets sidetracked by the death of Bobby C (Barry Miller), who falls, halfway on purpose, off the bridge. The happy ending, as Tony and Stephanie sit on the window ledge and smile, evokes a hopeful future without finding closure on the problems of the immediate past. Tony, who has not gone to college and doesn't share Stephanie's typing skills, may indeed be able to get a job in Manhattan, but it's likely his new job won't be as interesting as the hardware clerking he's leaving behind.


So why, I wonder, did this movie mean so much to Gene Siskel? Because he saw it at a certain time, I imagine. Because Tony Manero's dreams touched him. Because while Tony was on the dance floor, his problems were forgotten and his limitations were transcended. The first time I saw "La Dolce Vita," it represented everything I hoped to attain. Ten years later, it represented a version of what I was trapped in. Ten years after that, it represented what I had escaped from. And yet its appeal to me only grew. I had changed but the movie hadn't; some movies are like time machines, returning us to the past.


We all have a powerful memory of the person we were at that moment when we formed a vision for our lives. Tony Manero stands poised precisely at that moment. He makes mistakes, he fumbles, he says the wrong things, but when he does what he loves he feels a special grace. How he feels, and what he does, transcend the weaknesses of the movie he is in; we are right to remember his strut, and the beauty of his dancing. "Devote your life to something you love--not like, but love,'' Siskel liked to say. "Saturday Night Fever" is about how Tony Manero does that.


Gene bought the famous white suit at a charity auction. I got to inspect it once. It came with a shirt that buttoned under the crotch, so it would still look neat after a night on the dance floor. I asked Gene if he'd ever tried it on. It was too small, he said. But it wasn't the size that mattered. It was the idea of the suit.


Roger Ebert


The Peanut Butter Falcon


In "The Peanut Butter Falcon," co-written and co-directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, Zac (Zack Gottsagen) is a man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home by the state since he has no family and no resources. He has befriended every elderly resident, as well as Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kindly young woman who works at the facility. Zac is a huge wrestling fan and all day, every day he watches an ancient video tape put out by a wrestler named SaltWater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whom Zac idolizes. Zac's goal is to get to Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school, the one advertised in the video. And so Zac tries to escape. Repeatedly. Eleanor is forced to label Zac a "flight risk." Zac rooms with Carl (Bruce Dern), who complains about having to watch the same wrestling video all day but sympathizes with Zac's desire to bust loose. One night, Carl helps Zac bend back the iron bars on the window, suggests Zac grease himself up with hand soap, and watches his roommate flee into the night, barefoot and wearing just his underwear.


Zac takes shelter under a tarp on a rusty boat. This boat belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman embroiled in a quickly escalating war with a rival named Duncan (John Hawkes). Tyler discovers his "stowaway" while being chased by Duncan through the complicated tributaries of North Carolina's Outer Banks. At the same time, Eleanor searches for Zac before her supervisor orders him to be put into a state hospital with a terrible reputation.


After a bumpy beginning, Tyler and Zac bond. Zac tells Tyler his mission is to get to Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school, and Tyler, on his way to Florida, decides to help. They set off on foot through a swampy landscape. By the time Eleanor catches up with them, they have built a raft with lumber given to them by a blind backwoods preacher. After some arguments, she is convince to join them on their outlaw journey. The trio float down the coastline, unmoored from the trials and stresses of their respective worlds, like Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi River.


If all of this sounds too sentimental to be believed, it isn't. "Peanut Butter Falcon" is a buddy movie, but it has the quality of a fable, even down to how it's shot by cinematographer Nigel Bluck. The film takes place in a very specific locale. You can smell the salt and pollen and mold in the air. The waves, cornfields, marshes, crab pots ... even the condition of Tyler's boat—comes from reality, not someone's idea of reality. Bluegrass, country songs, gospel hymns punctuate the narrative. It's a fable, but a fable grounded in details, the here-and-now. Except for the "names," the film seems to be populated by many non-professional actors, or at least people who actually live in the area. This makes a huge difference. Zac lives in the real world. Unlike so many disabled characters in film, Zac is not utilized as a symbol, a metaphor, or created to be "inspirational." He's the central figure, he's outspoken and strong, funny and vulnerable. He's never had a friend before. He's always wanted to be "bro dawgs" with someone. Watching the relationship develop with Tyler is one of the film's many pleasures.


Some of the adventures work better than others. Some of it feels contrived. But these are nitpicks in the face of what "The Peanut Butter Falcon'' accomplishes. Both LaBeouf and Johnson (and later, Church) approach their roles with ease and simplicity, highlighting Gottsagen (who has studied acting since he was a child) beautifully. Johnson's irrepressible sense of humor serves her well as an actress, and watching her react to LaBeouf's initial flirtation—trying to maintain her boundaries all while she is drawn into his humorous rat-a-tat—is just a small example of what this film does really well. Church's eventual appearance as The SaltWater Redneck does not occur as planned. Nothing really does.


Cliches aside, there's something at work in "The Peanut Butter Falcon," something eccentric and exuberant. Nilson and Schwartz's devotion to the details of Zac's world highlights Gottsagen's funny and intelligent performance, giving the film an authenticity it wouldn't otherwise have. The conversation about "representation" in cinema often excludes the disabled. Able-bodied actors play disabled characters all the time, and sometimes win Oscars for it. This is not to say that these aren't good or empathetic performances, but all you have to do is watch Gottsagen's performance to see what we are missing when we discount the complaints of the disabled community in re: representation. It is inconceivable to imagine an able-bodied "name" playing this role and bringing to it even half of what Gottsagen does naturally.


Sheila O’Malley




Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is a delicious pastry of a movie, a lighthearted fantasy in which a winsome heroine overcomes a sad childhood and grows up to bring cheer to the needful and joy to herself. You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile. Audrey Tautou, a fresh-faced waif who looks like she knows a secret and can't keep it, plays the title role, as a little girl who grows up starving for affection. Her father, a doctor, gives her no hugs or kisses and touches her only during checkups--which makes her heart beat so fast he thinks she is sickly. Her mother dies as the result of a successful suicide leap off the towers of Notre Dame, a statement which reveals less of the plot than you think it does.


Amelie grows up lonely and alone, a waitress in a corner bistro, until one day the death of Princess Diana changes everything. Yes, the shock of the news causes Amelie to drop a bottle cap, which jars loose a stone in the wall of her flat, which leads her to discover a rusty old box in which a long-ago boy hoarded his treasures. And in tracking down the man who was that boy, and returning his box, Amelie finds her life's work: She will make people happy. But not in any old way. So, she will amuse herself (and us) by devising the most extraordinary stratagems for bringing about their happiness.


I first began hearing about "Amelie" at the Cannes Film Festival, where there was a scandal when "Amelie" was not chosen for the Official Selection. "Not serious," sniffed the Very Serious authorities who decide these matters. The movie played in the commercial theaters of the back streets, where audiences vibrated with pleasure. It went on to win the audience awards at the Edinburgh, Toronto and Chicago film festivals.


Immediate satisfaction with a film that is all goodness and cheer--sassy, bright and whimsical, filmed with dazzling virtuosity, and set in Paris, the city we love when it sizzles and when it drizzles. Of course this is not a realistic modern Paris, and some critics have sniffed about that, too: It is clean, orderly, safe, colorful, has no social problems, and is peopled entirely by citizens who look like extras from "An American in Paris." This is the same Paris that produced Gigi and Inspector Clouseau. It never existed, but that's OK.


After discovering the box and bringing happiness to its owner, Amelie improvises other acts of kindness: painting word-pictures of a busy street for a blind man, for example, and pretending to find long-lost love letters to her concierge from her dead husband, who probably never mailed her so much as a lottery ticket. Then she meets Nino (the director Mathieu Kassovitz), who works indifferently in a porn shop and cares only for his hobby, which is to collect the photos people don't want from those automated photo booths and turn them into collages of failed facial expressions.


Amelie likes Nino so much that one day when she sees him in her cafe, she dissolves. Literally. Into a puddle of water. She wants Nino, but some pixie quirk prevents her from going about anything in a straightforward manner and success holds no bliss for her unless it comes about through serendipity. There must be times when Nino wonders if he is being blessed or stalked.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet has specialized in films of astonishing visual invention but, alas, impenetrable narratives. With "Amelie," he has shaken loose from his obsession with rust and clutter, and made a film so filled with light and air, it's like he took the cure. The film is filled with great individual shots and ideas. One of the best comes when Amelie stands high on the terrace of Montmartre and wonders how many people in Paris are having orgasms at that exact instant, and we see them, 15 in all, in a quick montage of hilarious happiness. It is this innocent sequence, plus an equally harmless childbirth scene, that has caused the MPAA to give the movie an undeserved R rating (in Norway it was approved for everyone over 11).


It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. "Amelie" takes those chances, and gets away with them.


Roger Ebert