Thursday, April 29, 2010

Roger Ebert's Descent

I have a lot of symmpathy for Roger Ebert. He has endured, among other things, the tragic death of his brilliant co-host, Gene Siskel, a stroke, subsequent surgeries that have rendered him unable to speak, and the cancellation of his namesake show, At The Movies (though he had ceased to be involved and has a new project in the works.

I also regard Roger Ebert as something of a hero. He took film criticism from the format of austere nitpicking to a genre relevant to all film-goers of reasonable intellect. In so doing, he rightly eviscerated manipulative pap like Dead Poet's Society, and condescending comedic trifles like Tommy Boy, while elevating unheralded family films like Fluke, and discovering odd masterpieces like Walkabout.

The man has earned his Pulitzer prizes, and will be remembered as one of the great writers of two centuries. Rightly so.

But now, his critical mind seems to be off-kilter, and his once reliable reviews are a crapshoot. I could forgive his persistent love of Drew Barrymore vehicles (she is charming, in the classical cinema sense), but lately, he has become as incoherent as the film critic for your local daily.

Exhibit A: His review of Kick-Ass... Ebert in bold. Me in not-bold.

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?

You are a film critic. You should have feelings AND be cool.

Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point?

No, you will seem presumptuous in assuming the movie has a "point". Has anyone ever enjoyed a movie that had a "point". Dead Poet's Society has a "point". Dead Poet's Society sucks.


Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in.


Fair enough. If you think the movie sucks, then who cares if it's like the comic book. I'm trackin'...


***spoiler alert***

A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life.

I gave the spoiler alert because Ebert felt not so compelled. Apparently, this movie didn't deserve it, in his view. Revealing spoilers is a sanctimonious thing to do, as you are dismissing the film's merits entirely. That's fine for the latest Bruckheimer flick, but there is empirically SOME artistry on display in Kick-Ass, no?

Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

I will tell him about context. Let The Right One In is one of the most violent films I have ever seen. Lot's of "blood everywhere" scenarios. The violent acts are perpetrated, by and large, by an 11 year old girl. Ebert gave that film an emphatic thumbs-up, and rightly so; it is one of the best films ever made.

Clearly, context matters.

The movie's premise is that ordinary people, including a high school kid, the 11-year-old and her father, try to become superheroes in order to punish evil men. The flaw in this premise is that the little girl does become a superhero.


How is this a flaw in the premise? Isn't this just the premise? Perhaps the premise is flawed, but why? No need to explain, I guess. Not like we're writing a review or anything.

In one scene, she faces a hallway jammed with heavily armed gangsters and shoots, stabs and kicks them all to death, while flying through the air with such power, it's enough to make Jackie Chan take out an AARP membership.

Yep. Action movies pit protagonists against impossible odds. And, lo and behold, they succeed. This, of course, is awful. I mean, we can all agree that Empire Strikes Back sucked, right?

This isn't comic violence.

No. That's the point of the film. Violence has consequences. Life isn't a comic book. Didn't you watch the movie?

These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead.

Yes they are.

And the 11-year-old apparently experiences no emotions about this. Many children that age would be, I dunno, affected somehow, don't you think, after killing eight or 12 men who were trying to kill her?

As would any 40-year-old. We suspend disbelief when we go to movies. Is Ebert really dismissing any movie where the protagonist does not agonize over each and every person he or she kills?

Ethical heebee-geebies aside, can we discuss whether the movie was entertaining?

I know, I know. This is a satire. But a satire of what? The movie's rated R, which means in this case that it's doubly attractive to anyone under 17.

This from a guy who spent years (justly) criticizing the MPAA for lacking a true "Adults Only" rating for films. Does he think such a rating would not be triply enticing for young teens?

I'm not too worried about 16-year-olds here. I'm thinking of 6-year-olds. There are characters here with walls covered in carefully mounted firearms, ranging from handguns through automatic weapons to bazookas.

This is a terribly unclear sentence. What Ebert means to say is that two of the characters reside in an apartment lined with advanced weapons. This is an homage to any number of films which have earned Ebert's thumbs up. Hell, Pulp Fiction was an homage to the same films, and Kick-Ass is an homage to Pulp Fiction.

I will not include the paragraph where Ebert explains the film's ending, and then derisively condemns it. It adds nothing to his review, nor to my criticism of same.

The little girl is named Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz). She adopts the persona of Hit Girl. She has been trained by her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), to join him in the battle against a crime boss (Mark Strong). Her training includes being shot at point-blank range while wearing a bulletproof vest.


This scene is brilliant, and lets us know that the film is willing to play any card in the deck. It creates genuine tension for the protagonists and... Ah, who cares. Back to the soap box.

She also masters the martial arts — more, I would say, than any other movie martial artist of any age I can recall.

Most martial arts films are known for their gritty realism and faithful recreations.

She's gifted with deadly knife-throwing; a foot-long knife was presented to her by Dad as, I guess, a graduation present.

It was a butterfly knife. It featured prominently in the film. And it was a birthday present. Again, did he see watch the movie?

Big Daddy and Mindy never have a chat about, you know, stuff like how when you kill people, they are really dead.


Yeah, that would have made the movie much more entertaining.

This movie regards human beings like video-game targets.


Says the guy who gave The Losers three and one-half stars. I mean, seriously? Tarantino doesn't treat human beings like video-game targets? Ridley Scott? George Lucas? No?

What about (Spielberg's) War of the Worlds? 11 year old girl watches hundreds of people destroyed before her very eyes. Does Tom Cruise sit Dakota Fanning down and explain that the exploding people are really dead?

Kill one, and you score. They're dead, you win. When kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.

Ebert even liked the Rambo movies. Come on.

Hit Girl teams up with Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), the film's narrator, a lackluster high school kid who lives vicariously through comic books. For reasons tedious to explain, he orders a masked costume by mail order and sets about trying to behave as a superhero, which doesn't work out well.

Tedious to explain? He is searching for self worth. I did it in six words. It is tedious to put six words to paper? This is a terrible review.


He lacks the training of a Big Daddy. But as he and Hit Girl find themselves fighting side by side, he turns into a quick learner.


No, he doesn't. It is now clear to me that Ebert did not watch the movie, he read the synopsis on IMDB, decided it would offend his sensibilities, and phoned it in.


Also, you don't need to be great at hand-to-hand combat if you can just shoot people dead.


True, but not relevant.

The early scenes give promise of an entirely different comedy. Aaron Johnson has a certain anti-charm, his problems in high school are engaging, and so on.

No! These are the most contrived portions of the movie! They are obviously inserted to sell a difficult film to producers who might be inclined to approve a Batman meets Superbad type of movie. Ebert was once a master at sniffing out this sort of manipulation.

A little later, I reflected that possibly only Nic Cage could seem to shoot a small girl point-blank and make it, well, funny. Say what you will about her character, but Chloe Grace Moretz has presence and appeal.

Ironically, Moretz's next role is the vampire in the misguided remake of Let The Right One In. If Ebert finds her role here to be problematic, he should be apoplectic come remake time. But again, he approved of the Swedish version of the film, so who knows? Maybe he'll actually go see the movie.

Then the movie moved into dark, dark territory, and I grew sad.

Okay. So, in synopsis... Wait, the review is over? It made him sad? That's all we get? Thanks for the preachy, Roger...

Now up your game.

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