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Films I Neglected To Review: Django On Base

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/11/13 14:45:12

Please enjoy short reviews of "42" and "Upstream Color," a brief overview of the first Chicago Critics Film Festival and a few memories about the late, great Roger Ebert

For the past couple of decades, Spike Lee has spoken of making a Jackie Robinson biopic but has never been able to amass the kind of commercial clout required to get such a presumably expensive period piece off the ground. Instead, writer-director Brian Helgeland was given the okay to bring the story of the first African-American to play major-league baseball to the screen with "42" and the end result is exactly the kind of mildly dispiriting drag that one might expect from the auteur of "A Knight's Tale" and "The Order." Granted, Lee hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders in recent years but I suspect that even if his proposed version had been as flawed as some of his last few projects, it almost certainly would have been at least somewhat ambitious and challenging in its mixture of history, racism and America's pastime. Helgeland, on the other hand, gives the story of how Robinson made the transition from the Negro Leagues to the majors thanks to the machinations of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Dickey the flattest and most perfunctory treatment imaginable.

It offers no insights into Robinson's story other than the obvious ones about how Racism Is Bad and how Stealing Home is Good. By having Rickey initially suggest that his decision to hire Robinson is strictly business, it sets up a potentially interesting exploration of how the notion of rich white men buying and selling black men in order to make money off of their labors transmogrified from the horrors of slavery to the more acceptable form practiced by professional sports but immediately chickens out--Rickey gets a noble speech or 12 at the end that tries and fails to make the film into something akin to "Schindler's Lineup Card." As Robinson, newcomer acquits himself reasonably well (though Robinson himself did a better job in the role in the long-forgotten quickie "Jackie Robinson") while Harrison Ford is a blustery embarrassment as Rickey--although he makes more of an obvious effort than he has with many of his recent performances, he so thoroughly overdoes it here that you'll want to send him back to dramatic Triple-A after only a few minutes. "42" is a film that really should have been a home run but after watching this vaguely noble and deeply dull disappointment, most viewers will be more likely to score it as a balk.

It is best to enter "Upstream Color," the new film from writer-director Shane Carruth--his first since his mind-bending 2004 debut "Primer"--knowing as little about it as possible. This is actually easy for once because even after having seen it a couple of times, I am not entirely sure that I could quite sum it up for you. Suffice it to say, it starts off as a woman (Amy Seimetz), through means that I will not get into here, is compelled to do certain things that eventually cause her entire life to quickly fall apart. Having hit rock-bottom, she begins to run into a man (played by Carruth himself) and eventually develops a romantic relationship with him that is thrown into a certain state of confusion when it seems as if he has undergone circumstances frighteningly similar to hers. Of course, there is a lot more to it than just that--mind control, weird experiments involving pigs, a guy who hangs out in fields to sample their sounds and, most terrifying of all, significant quotes from "Walden" being just a few of the additional details--and Carruth spins them together in such an oblique manner that he makes Terrence Malick seem direct and to the point by comparison. As one who was enthralled by the head games of his previous effort, I was primed--no pun intended--for his latest but even I confess to being baffled by the weirdness that he has sprung this time around. And yet, while I could not pass a quiz on each and every detail that the film has to offer, I was nevertheless enthralled by Carruth's wild ambitions, his hypnotic storytelling approach and the deeply affecting and convincing relationship that he and Seimetz are able to develop that cuts straight to the heart while everything else is busy blowing your mind. "Upstream Color" is not one of these exhausting slogs that you have seen a hundred times before and it does ask viewers to do a lot of heavy lifting but for those up to the challenge, it is definitely worth the effort.






As a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, I am proud to have been a part of the creation of the first Chicago Critics Film Festival, a three-day collection of as-yet-unreleased films that members of our organization have seen and admired on the festival circuit and will be presenting in their local premieres. Running from April 12-14 at the Muvico 18 in Rosemont, the festival kicks off with Oscar-nominated actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley presenting her latest film, the powerful and surprising documentary "Stories We Tell," followed by wunderkind 20-year-old writer-director Emily Hagins on hand to introduce her fourth feature, the charming Halloween comedy "Grow Up, Tony Phillips ." Among the other films on display are "The Kings of Summer," a coming-of-age comedy in the footsteps of "Napoleon Dynamite" featuring Nick Offerman and Allison Brie, the long-delayed horror film "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane," the superhero saga "Sparks" (with co-stars William Katt and Jake Busey in attendance), "The Artist and the Model," the latest work from Oscar-winning director Fernando Treuba, the "Star Wars"-related documentary "The Force Within Us " and the Sundance favorite "The Spectacular Now." To top things off, legendary filmmaker William Friedkin will appear on the 14th to sign copies of his new autobiography "The Friedkin Connection," introduce an ultra-rare 35mm screening of his unsung 1977 masterpiece "Sorcerer" and participate in a post-screening Q&A co-moderated by myself and Aint-It-Cool-News scribe Steven Prokopy. This is a pretty impressive lineup--especially for a debuting festival--and if it goes as well as hoped, it should be the first of many. For information on the full schedule and purchasing tickets, go to www.chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com You will be glad that you did.

I was in the middle of writing up some reviews last week when I heard the news about the passing of my friend and colleague Roger Ebert. At first, I was too shocked to say anything but after a few minutes, I typed out a few thoughts on Facebook with the plan of later going back and writing a more befitting tribute. However, looking back on what I wrote, I cannot really think of anything that I could add to it and however inadequate it may be as writing, it nevertheless encapsulates my feelings towards a man whose death I have still not begun to properly process.

Anyway, in the event that you missed it on Facebook and have any interest, here is what I wrote. . .

Okay, I will say something. . .

Today I spent most of my day writing up a bunch of reviews and also took some time out to do an interview over the phone regarding a film festival that I am helping to put together. I can almost certainly assure you I would not have been doing either of those things--or most of the things that I have done in my life--if it wasn't for Roger Ebert.

As a film critic, he was without peer. More so than any film or journalism class that I have taken over the years, I learned how to watch movies from his writings and was able to develop my own taste in cinema as a result. (Of course, considering some of the stuff I have gravitated towards, this might not be something he would have wanted to get credited for but I mean it in the most sincere way possible.) Even if I disagreed with one of his reviews--and there were many of those--it was still fascinating to read where he was coming from and to reconcile his opinions with mine.

As a person, he was also without peer. I knew him for more than 20 years and in all that time, I don't recall ever seeing him in a bad mood or with a cross word for anyone he encountered. I also do not recall anyone who has ever had an even mildly disparaging thing to say about him, even from those whose films he trashed.

From a personal standpoint, I offer this. When I was maybe 7 years old, I wrote a letter to him at the Sun-Times--I think it had something to do with "The Warriors" and how there should be a warning in the ratings for violence (this was when fights were breaking out in theaters during screenings)--and he not only took the time to write back a nice response, he even threw in a bunch of passes to boot. I showed him that note years later and he claimed to be amazed and that this was not something that he did very often. Somehow, I suspect that he probably did that a lot more than he thinks.

He was always supportive of me and my work as a critic--a rare enough feat in a business like film criticism where people are always cagey in regards to the work of their colleagues and especially rare when you consider that he was at the pinnacle of our chosen profession and I was somewhat lower on the ladder. One time I was at a reception for his annual film festival and for some reason, the celebrated Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev was there. At the end of the reception, he was sitting at a table with Makavejev and a few other critics when I came over to say my goodbyes. He not only invited me to sit down with them but introduced me to Makavejev by saying that not only was I an excellent critic, I was one of the very few critics that he knew of that was qualified to review one of his movies. That was maybe a decade ago and I am still giddy over that.

Now he is gone and while I have hardly begun to process any of this, I know that the loss of him, both personally and professionally, is incalculable. There are only two positives to this that immediately come to mind. The first is that the suffering that must have taken an enormous toll on him over the last few years has finally come to an end. The second is the mild comfort that can be taken in the fact that he influenced and inspired so many generations of critics, filmmakers and moviegoers over the years that his legacy will continue to grow for a long time into the future.

I offer my deepest condolences to Chaz and the members of his personal and professional families. And while I subscribe to no fixed notions in regards to the existence of an afterlife or whatnot, I know that if there is such a place, I can only hope that they have one hell of a screening room and that 3-D is nowhere to be seen.

And now, off to give the DVD of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" a spin. . .


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