Roger Ebert: 1942 - 2013

There are several ways of ranking movies: IMDb's Top 250, Rottentomatoes, Metacritic... But more often than not when I Google a movie (and I Google them a lot), I begin the search with the word "Ebert". He could explain why I'm obsessed with movies better than I can, from Fellini and Bergman to mass market blockbusters. For example, in this Star Wars review from January 1st, 1977: "The movie relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling form known to man, the Journey. All of the best tales we remember from our childhoods had to do with heroes setting out to travel down roads filled with danger, and hoping to find treasure or heroism at the journey's end..." Well, here are Ebert's last words on his last post two days before his death: "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

Heaven's movie theater today:

He definitely found treasure in his journey, in the form of the love and adoration of his millions of fans, as evidenced by the outpouring on Twitter. He had more to him than movies though, as you can see from his incredibly emotional 2011 Ted talk below. He will be missed.

Wreck-It Ralph - Proustian Madeleine in 8-bits

For those of us born in the late 70's and early 80's, "Wreck-It Ralph" is like an electronic Proustian Madeleine that melts in your mouth and triggers an explosion of memories. These range from the love on your parent's face as you unwrap a Nintendo on your eighth birthday, afternoons in the arcade by the beach, countless late nights at your best friend's house trying to finish "Contra" or "Mega Man" (which you had to finish in one go because you couldn't save), "Mario Kart" races in high school, playing "Pac Man" at a birthday party in a bowling alley to avoid those first conversation with girls, all the way to the "Halo" and "Call of Duty" tournaments in the basement of your friend's parents' house as we turned 30 and started having children of our own. But at the same time the new characters are so well developed and the plot so emotionally engaging that kids can enjoy the film without having to recognize the old references. There is no question that Q*Bert is there for the adults.

This film has been in development since the first Nintendo came out in the 1980's, but I'm glad it took as long as it did. Unlike "Toy Story" in 1995 and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," in 1988, the characters in "Wreck-It Ralph" have accompanied us throughout our lives, and the emotion is so much more powerful as we get older. The animators pencilled the famous video game characters into the story before asking the copyright holders for permission to use them. Director Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer later met with Sega, Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, and other executives at the E3 Entertainment Expo in 2010 to ask for permission to use the characters, and not only did they get the permission but the video game companies got deeply involved in the making the film and the development of the characters. Some characters that the filmmakers decided not to use were Dr Willy from "Mega Man," as well as Mario and Luigi, so we are hoping that there will be a sequel that includes the most famous video game characters of all time.

The film was directed by Rich Moore, the Emmy-winning director of classic episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" (Moore also voices Sour Bill in the film). Although he must have had a lot of help from cheat codes and legendary Pixar producer John Lasseter, who directed "Toy Story" and "Cars," and worked as an executive producer on the film.

There are lots of cameos in the film, but the main scene that left people wondering was the Bad-Anon meeting from the trailer. For those who might have missed one or two villains, below are pictures of each character. Here we have Bowser from "Super Mario Bros.", Zangief from "Street Fighter," and Dr. Eggman from "Sonic the Hedgehog:"

Next we see M. Bison from "Street Fighter" and Clyde from "Pac Man" and a generic robot:

Lastly we have a generic blue RPG avatar, Neff from "Altered Beast," a generic green monster, Kano from "Mortal Combat," and a generic zombie from "House of the Dead". (There is also a generic devil called Satine who I didn't show).

Disaster Films We Imagine Watching During Sandy

Hey everyone, hope you are all doing well in the East Coast after the disaster movie we are living through in the wake of hurricane Sandy. We are located in the East side of Manhattan, where we are still waiting for the power to come back on. Refilling the toilet with the water we saved in the bathtub, walking down 16 flights of stairs with only glow sticks to guide us, walking north for 20 blocks for food, showering in friends' apartments, walking past military convoys, candlelit dinners, sporadic cellphone service, getting water from a fire hydrant, complete darkness in Manhattan, rationing the iPad battery... These are a few of the things we 21st century urban Robinson Crusoes have to live with in the new normal in New York. And worst of all, no tv or movies! Our thoughts are with the people who lost their belongings or loved ones.

We are much better off than most. We will be back next week with regular articles when we get power back on. Stay safe! In the meantime, here are a few of our favorite end of the world disaster films with people who have it worse than us, that we would be watching if we had electricity:

The Day After Tomorrow
War of the Worlds
Fight Club
Beasts of the Southern Wild
28 Days Later
The Dark Knight Rises
Mars Attacks
The Andromeda Strain
The Towering Inferno
Super 8
When Time Ran Out
Mad Max
Ghostbusters II
Terminator 3 & 4
The Perfect Storm
12 Monkeys
Cloud Atlas
I Am Legend
Shaun of the Dead
In Time
Independence Day
Deep Impact
Dante's Peak
Planet of the Apes
The Matrix
Children of Men
The Road

Any other suggestions of films we can play in our heads?

Argo - Affleck Flaunting Directorial Superpowers

Ben Affleck has returned victorious from a symbolic quest to collect his own golden fleece, definitively cementing his legitimacy in film directing. After springing a leak about a decade ago, his acting reservoir was almost completely drained of all mojo. To come back, he switched to the directors chair in "Gone Baby Gone," which grabbed everyone's attention. As he told the NYTimes, “I knew how the sausage was made. Whether I could make a good sausage, I didn’t know. But I knew how to get into the sausage factory and stuff intestines.” He followed up with "The Town," which also unclogged the congealed heart of critics. Both movies have 94% on rottentomatoes, but other than supporting actor nominations, the Academy Award was out of reach. With his new film he has probably confirmed a parking spot next to the constellation Aries in the Hollywood firmament.

"Argo" is loosely based on a nail-biting Wired article published in 2007 using recently declassified CIA docs which detail an actual screwball rescue operation that took place during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Affleck plays CIA officer Tony Mendez, known within the CIA for rigging Fidel Castro's Cohibas to blow up in his face, disguising black and asian officers as white businessmen, and outfitting cats with microphones to record conversations. Mendez, who at one point was head of the CIA's Disguise Section and later of the Authentication Division, wrote a memoir called 'The Master of Disguise' which details his adventures over a career in the clandestine service. John Goodman plays John Chambers, a real character who won an honorary Oscar for his costumes in "Planet of the Apes." Alan Arkin plays a fictional Hollywood producer who he based on Jack Warner. Bryan Cranston effectively delivers the angry lines of a CIA boss. The story can't get any crazier if it was made up: they falsely set up Studio Six Productions (named after the six Americans they would rescue) to use the cover of a fake production to get some Americans out of Iran. The film could not have been better timed, with the current state of relations with the Persians.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto used several techniques to increase the emotional tension in the film. He made experiments with every type of film he could get his hands on, and allocated different formats for the scenes according to their location. For the CIA buildings and other scenes in Washington, Prieto used anamorphic 35 mm film and got some inspiration from "All the President's Men" for the angles, camera movements, and the general layout of the office. For the sequences in Los Angeles, Prieto approximated the color and contrast of 1970's reversal film by using EFILM, and he replicated the feel of the era by studying the 1976 film "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." In the Tehran scenes, Prieto used 2-perf 35 mm, (two perforations out of the common four) which means he only uses half of every frame, and then doubles the size of the image, which adds a grainy quality which enhances the feeling of authenticity.

As a film, it will hold up as one of the best of the year; as a historical documentary, not so much. It's important to understand that Ben Affleck had to take some liberties in the narrative to make it a little bit more engaging. For example, in the prologue we get a sense of the dangers of meddling with the internal affairs of foreign countries, but one minor fabrication is when he mentions that Prime Minister Mossadegh was "overwhelmingly elected by the people," but we know that in parliamentary democracies people elect governments, not prime ministers. It is the parliament that appoints a Prime Minister, and his position has to be confirmed by the Shah. Another oversight is that in the flyover scenes of Hollywood, we can see a dilapidated and broken Hollywood sign, but in reality the sign was rebuilt in 1978, a year before the hostage crisis. Also, Mendez did not go alone to Iran, he was accompanied by some colleagues, and he obtained a visa in the Iranian consulate in Bonn, Germany, not in Istanbul. As you can see in this NYTimes video, Mendez supposedly finds the script for "Argo" in a stack of screenplays. In reality, the script was called "Lord of Light," and Mendez was the one who changed the name to "Argo." Furthermore, the portrayal of the minimal involvement of the Canadian government was criticized in the Toronto International Film Festival, but Affleck gladly added a postscript after that screening. Among other things, it mentions that "the affair has become an admirable example of international cooperation," which gives some more well-deserved credit to the Canadians.

I don't want to rain on Affleck's parade. Although I can't see it winning the Oscar for best film, it is an excellent movie, and the historical transgressions are minor. He exercised a lot of discipline to hold back from over-directing the film, letting the events speak for themselves. To finish up, take a look at an example of brass balls: the incredible 60 minutes interview Mike Wallace managed to get from the Ayatollah during the crisis.