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For a long time I agreed with Roger Ebert's movie reviews often enough that all I had to do to decide whether a movie was worth seeing was glance at a few lines of his review. But it seems I've been disagreeing with him a lot more lately.

On the one hand, I enjoy mindless action flicks more than he does. (E.g., I enjoyed X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Star Trek. He seemed to dislike them, although his reviews were pretty funny.) I wouldn't stop trusting him for that reason, though.

On the other hand, it's now apparent I can't necessarily trust him for reviews of serious movies either, at least not ones with race as a theme. This disappoints me because it has seemed to me in the past that Ebert is a little more clueful about race than most professional movie reviewers. But at this point we seem to be working from different perspectives.

The OH and I watched Monster's Ball tonight. The movie was extremely well-acted (Halle Berry, who played Leticia, won an Oscar for Best Actress) but we were REALLY MAD about the ending. Since we had decided to watch it based on Ebert's 4-star review, I went back to Ebert's review to see where things went wrong.

The movie is about a Hank, white corrections officer, and Leticia, a black woman whose husband was executed; Hank was on the team of officers who executed him. Afterward they meet and get into a relationship, because she needs economic/practical help and he needs emotional help. He learns fairly early on who she is, but she doesn't know he was one of the executioners until the end of the movie, when he is out of the house and she finds drawings her husband did on the night before his execution. She doesn't tell Hank what she found. In the last scene, they are sitting on the porch eating ice cream, and he says "I think we're going to be all right" and Leticia doesn't say anything but sort of smiles a little, with ice cream in her mouth. Then the credits roll.

Ebert chooses not to take this as a "happily ever after" scene:
Leticia never mentions the drawings to Hank. Why not? Because it is time to move on? Because she understands why he withheld information? Because she has no alternative? Because she senses that the drawings would not exist if the artist hated his subject? Because she is too tired and this is just one more nail on the cross? Because she forgives? What? The movie cannot say. The characters have disappeared into the mysteries of the heart.
But what he doesn't mention is that at that point the music changes noticeably to something more...happy. Because of the music shift I think her choice is portrayed as positive. And to me that suddenly made it a completely different movie.

Ebert also says:
this is not a message movie about interracial relationships, but the specific story of two desperate people whose lives are shaken by violent deaths, and how in the days right after that they turn to each other because there is no place else to turn.
On the one hand I understand why he says this, and I suppose it's possible to make a movie about interracial relationships that isn't a "message movie." But I don't think it's possible to make an apolitical movie about interracial relationships, and it seems that Ebert thinks that's what this movie is ("What a shock to find these two characters freed from the conventions of political correctness, and allowed to be who they are: weak, flawed, needful, with good hearts tested by lifetimes of compromise"). But if a movie is set in Louisiana or possibly Georgia (the IMDB goofs page says it's not clear) and it starts with a white man firing a rifle to chase black children off his property, it's not an apolitical movie.

And I haven't even started on the economic or sexual politics, how Leticia's choices about a relationship with Hank are constricted because she loses her husband, son, car, and house and he offers her economic help.

I should have looked on the Wikipedia page for the movie because it mentioned that some folks had been critical:
Esther Iverem, SeeingBlack.com editor and film critic, stated that..."Ultimately, Monster's Ball uses the legacy of racism in an unconvincing manner to belittle its impact, and its historical and present-day consequences" ("Not All of Us Are Oscar Happy" by Esther Iverem)
which accurately describes how I felt about it, in the context of the ending.

I am glad that reading the wikipedia article led me to discover http://seeingblack.com. It looks interesting.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
For a long time I agreed with Roger Ebert's movie reviews often enough that all I had to do to decide whether a movie was worth seeing was glance at a few lines of his review.
Seeble on that. If you find another film reviewer with that kind of accuracy, let me know, because now that he's not reviewing every movie, I'm also looking for other critics to follow.

Regarding your main point about race, I'm not sure whether it makes any difference, but did you know Ebert's wife is black? That may lead him to put a more positive spin on interracial issues...
May. 17th, 2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
He is back to reviewing pretty much every movie.

I'll let you know if I find anyone else. I just went and looked up Ruthe Stein because I've agreed with her sometimes in the past, but she matched me only 1 out of the first 3 films she'd reviewed that I've seen.

Yes I know his wife is black, and that's a good point. Although to my mind he ought to know that an interracial couple in Chicago is different from an interracial couple in a small town in the deep South.
May. 17th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
If it's a movie about an interracial couple in a southern state involving the death penalty and a huge economic disparity between the two people involved, how can it not be about race? It's not exactly a subtext or symbolic theme, it's right there up front. And yeah, the music change at the end is definitely a cue about how you're supposed to feel about the ending. Imagine how different it would have been if the music had suddenly switched to the "Psycho" theme...

Not that I've seen it, but - damn. That's pretty clue-lacking of Ebert, there.
May. 17th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen it in ages, but wasn't it drawings of her husband done by his son?
May. 17th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
i think it was drawings of him and his son done by her husband, but it's possible i am confused.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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