What can I say about a man I never met, but who had been part of my life for decades? I, seemingly like a whole generation of film fans, watched Siskel and Ebert back in the 1980s, and then graduated to reading his reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times during my college years. Every Friday morning, I made my sojourn to the Annenberg School of Communications library and collected the Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Village Voice, and Variety so that I could prepare for the weekend’s new releases. I didn’t always go to the movies, but I wanted to know what the critics thought, which meant I wanted to know, first and foremost, what Ebert thought. I didn’t always agree with him – many times, in fact, I was flummoxed by his wrongheadedness – but reading his take was a necessary and very personal prequel to the filmgoing experience.
I’ve been a working critic now for almost 13 years, and for the last seven I’ve also taught film review and feature writing classes at the University of Cincinnati. I never imagined I would be working in the same field as Ebert, even while I was taking undergraduate level class that examined film as text. I simply loved movies. Always have and always will. I know that last part will be the case thanks to Ebert. His love of the movies evolved as the form and critical analysis experienced their own growing pains. He made us all critics, by opening up an exchange that now, thanks to the Internet, has a global forum. What has been most inspiring about his work and approach over the last decade is his willingness to embrace technology as a means of broadcasting that very singular voice of his, overflowing with knowledge, but also immediately accessible. His sense of the need for accessibility is the greatest and most lasting impact he will have on criticism. It is what can and should continue to guide the would-be critics to come – the next generation of bloggers, tweeters, and those adherents to whatever is to come.
More established critics and writers have stories about meeting Ebert, spending time in his presence, what have you. My remembrance of the man is different. I’m one of those Johnny-come-lately types who “knew” him from afar. I’ve attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the last four or five years, and I recall, my first Ebert-sighting, about three year back. He and his wife were ahead of me on the escalator at the downtown multiplex space that serves as the main screening hub. They were engaged with others, talking very likely about the upcoming screening or maybe he was thinking about the Twitter event he was scheduled to host. Whatever was the case, there he was, despite all those years of globetrotting and a dizzying collection of screenings, still so full of life and joy for the festival experience. I didn’t need to speak with him or even be near him. Just to know he was there, doing his thing, seeing movies, helping us to engage with them by any means necessary, was more than enough. I looked for him each year after that and was always glad when I spotted him. I’ll likely do the same thing this year and I won’t be surprised if my mind plays a little trick on me and I convince myself that I’ve seen him again, roaming about Toronto somewhere.
This story was originally published on tt stern-enzi's blog, here.
In an obvious stroke of marketing synchronicity, it’s no coincidence that James Franco’s and Anne Hathaway’s recent films are being released on DVD/Blu-ray this week, just a few days after the duo hosted Hollywood’s biggest yearly extravaganza of pomp and self-congratulation.
In a cinematic turn of events akin to a cicada uprising (especially given our slim pickings in recent months), this week delivers no less than 10 new releases that span a number of genres, topics and stylistic approaches.
Better yet, several are actually (or look) worthwhile, headlined by a trio of smaller, character-driven films: Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Xavier Beauvios' Cannes-approved Of Gods and Men and Tom McCarthy's Win Win.
There’s no denying it: The British TV drama Sherlock is popular — ridiculously popular. So popular that one could say that it’s what launched Benedict Cumberbatch’s status from actor to superstar. Thankfully, his talent is still intact.
But I’m not here to talk about Cumberbatch. I’m here to talk about Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is, of course, a legendary character. Even if you’ve never read a book in your life, you’ve at least heard of this famous British detective.
A lot like the famous miser Ebenezer Scrooge, Holmes has had several versions of himself on the big screen. There’s The Hound of the Baskerville (1939) starring Basil Rathbone. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) starred in Hammer Film’s 1959 remake the same story. Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986) had a Holmes-like mouse character named Basil of Baker Street (nice little reference to Rathbone’s version). Then, of course, there’s the newer films with Robert Downey, Jr. which are surprisingly enjoyable, plus countless others with many legendary actors portraying Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. John Watson. There’s far too many to list off.
But the one I want to highlight was made in 1976 by Herbert Ross — The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The film tells of Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) luring Sherlock (Nicol Williamson) to Vienna to meet the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) in an attempt to kick Holmes’ cocaine addiction. But a kidnapping caper soon presents itself, and the trio joins forces to solve the mystery.
The mystery aspect of the film, while interesting, isn’t the main focus. This story concentrates on an aspect of Holmes stories that really hadn’t been explored often — Sherlock’s cocaine addiction. Through the books it is noted that Holmes did recreational drugs but, to the best of my knowledge, this film is the one version that takes a look at what made him do it.
At the beginning of the film we see Holmes become totally obsessed with trying to find a way to outsmart his arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), and catch him in the act. But here’s a twist: It turns out Moriarty isn’t the criminal mastermind the stories portray him as. He’s this aging and timid mathematics teacher. It’s this that gives Watson and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) the idea that Sherlock may need help.
That’s not to say that Moriarty doesn’t have a role in the film. He does, but that would lead to a big spoiler and I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
The detoxing of Holmes, while it does last a bit longer than it should, is a very impactful scene that shows this usually confident character in a different light. It’s nice change of pace from the typical Holmes story.
The film is also full of spectacular performances. One of the main reasons I wanted to check this film out was because I saw Robert Duvall played Dr. Watson, which, despite Duvall being one of my favorite actors, seems like bizarre casting. But he was surprisingly good in the role. Alan Arkin was more than perfect for the role of Dr. Freud, combining a stern professional persona and a man who cares about his patient.
But, as one would suspect, the guy who stole the motion picture was Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes. He gives a performance that is so great it’s almost indescribable. Just check him out and be amazed by his spectacular portrayal.
Here’s interesting little connection between this film and Sherlock: In 2013 J.J. Abrams directed Star Trek Into Darkness, which featured Benedict Cumberbatch as the main villain Khan, who was also the villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). That film was co-written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the screenplay for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution which was based on his book of the same name.
The fall movie season gets underway this week with a curious quartet of options: a languid character piece about a mysterious hit man played by George Clooney; a reasonably effective romantic comedy featuring a pair of real-life lovers; a B-movie homage packed with a crazy-quilt cast; and an intriguing documentary about our ill-advised adventure in Afghanistan.
There's no denying that the Guild had a tough job in narrowing the field — it was another stellar year for the ever-evolving genre — but only two of the final five would have made my list: Inside Job (read my interview with Ferguson here) and Client 9, both of which appeared on my top 10 list of 2010 films.
Our movie-house winning streak continues, as this week delivers yet another collection of worthwhile options — from Davis Guggenheim's eye-opening documentary Waiting for Superman and Sam Taylor-Wood's John Lennon docudrama Nowhere Boy to the latest works from the irrepressible Jackass crew and the ceaselessly prolific Woody Allen. Even the right-wing “documentary” about the role government should play in our lives, I Want Your Money — which (not so) curiously didn't have an advanced press screening — looks intriguing/amusing if likely one-sided.
Just in time to align nicely with our annual Green Issue comes the Do Something Reel Film Festival, which is described as a “collection of six provocative, character-driven films focused on passionate people making a world of difference.” Presented by Whole Foods Market in conjunction with and in celebration of Earth Month, the traveling festival will hit more than 70 cities through April, including our own Esquire Theatre tomorrow through April 21.