Seven reasons you have to see Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert Life Itself

Any fan of cinema owes it to him or herself to see Life Itself, which premièred in Montreal on July 11 and is screening exclusively at Cinéma du Parc. (It’s not available on-demand in Canada yet.) The most famous film critic of all time died at the age of 70 in April 2013, but he leaves a rich legacy behind, to say nothing of all the people he’s inspired and turned on to cinema. Life Itself is a great biographical documentary with compelling, raw and honest footage. Here are seven reasons you have to see it:

It’s directed by Steve James, the acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams.

It’s incomplete, and that’s OK.  There were questions director Steve James asked Roger Ebert (about the future of film criticism and Ebert’s own career) via email but Ebert never got a chance to answer due to his deteriorating health. It lets you imagine what he would have answered. I think he would be optimistic, arguing that the Internet has made film criticism a wholly collaborative endeavour. His own website, rogerebert.com, is the perfect example of that, archiving every review he’s ever written and enlisting contributors from around the world to write and report about cinema.

Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris help shed a light on the kind of impact he had on cinema and filmmakers. Scorsese said when Ebert gave an unfavourable review to The Colour of Money, even though Ebert had presented Scorsese with an honorary award a few years prior for Raging Bull, Scorsese knew Ebert was being fair and doing his job – Scorsese cared what Ebert thought not only because of his influence, but because of his respect and love of the art form; Herzog dedicated his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, a gorgeous film, to Ebert; DuVernay appreciated the exposure he gave her film I Will Follow, which likely wouldn’t have been seen by as many people without Ebert’s praise; similarly, Errol Morris’s first documentary Gates of Heaven was lauded by Ebert, to whom Morris credits his career. Morris has gone on to direct the documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, an Oscar winner for best doc.

An anecdote by Ramin Bahrani helps reaffirm the generous man Ebert was. The director of Man Push Cart recalls receiving a gift from Ebert, which Ebert himself received from actress Laura Dern: a jigsaw puzzle that Alfred Hitchcock once gave Marilyn Monroe. Ebert said it’s Bahrani’s responsibility now to give it to someone he deems worthy.

It takes Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself as a jumping-off point, and builds on it to cover his entire life, though archival video footage, old photos and new interviews with the people who knew him best, pre- and post-Pulitzer. The book was first published in 2011, after which Ebert’s health gradually worsened, so the film is as up-to-date as it can be.

Warts and all: Life Itself is really frank and honest, sometimes graphically so. In two instances, we see how Roger is fed – remember, his jaw was surgically removed years ago. But Roger is happy to let the cameras in and the documentary touches on his struggles with alcoholism, and his egotism. There are outtakes from his show with Gene Siskel that are funny now, but seem horrifying when you consider that two people who competed with each other so vehemently also worked very closely together for years. Siskel’s widow Marlene also recalls when she was eight months pregnant and Roger hailed a cab and got into it before her – and left! He’s a totally changed person now, she concedes, and it’s all thanks to…

Life Itself

Chaz Ebert: Life Itself is about Roger Ebert, but by his own admission in the book – and it’s made clear in the doc – there would probably be no Ebert without Chaz. Or at the very least, not this Ebert. Chaz and Roger were married for more than 20 years. She remained hopeful and loving throughout his illnesses and continues to support his work as she always had.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Life Itself is screening at Cinéma du Parc.

Film review: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

Like the train that is the film’s namesake, Snowpiercer is in constant motion.

The Korean production by Joon-ho Bong (The HostMother) stars an international cast that includes Chris Evans in the lead role, with Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Luke Pasqualino in roles of varying importance. It’s Tilda Swinton, though, who steals the show. In her third appearance on our screens this year (she’s in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, but it’s unlikely to get a Canadian theatrical release), and after a career resurgence thanks to her magnetic White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia in 2005, it’s clear there’s not much Swinton does wrong. In Snowpiercer, she’s Mason, a snobby bourgeois who dons a preposterous bob, fake teeth, expensive furs and colourful dresses and suits. She first graces Snowpiercer about 15 minutes in and her Mason is the first pop of colour in Bong’s moody grey-green film, lensed by Kyung-pyo Hong. You get Mason and what she’s about right away.

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the action thriller boasts one of the coolest sci-fi concepts: It’s 2031 and for 17 years after an environmental disaster froze Earth, a train has been chugging along on an cross-national railway carrying the planet’s human survivors. The train is humanity’s only hope, but it’s also developed a nasty class system. At the front of the train are Swinton’s Mason and other well-dressed, well-coiffed, bathed, steak eaters. At the train’s tail are Evans, Bell, Harris and Spencer’s characters living in overcrowded, dirty quarters with no windows. They’re fed protein blocks: they look like Jell-O, but you find out later they’re definitely not Jell-O. There are things that have gone “extinct” in the 17 years since the Snowpiercer started its never-ending journey – cigarettes, for example – but society’s need for justice remains: for throwing a shoe at a guard, a back-of-the-train passenger gets seven minutes of punishment; that’s seven minutes with his arm outside the train, at the mercy of the elements on Earth, immeasurably cold since 2014. Mason addresses the passengers, reminding them that everyone’s place is pre-ordained and the class system must be respected. “I am a hat, you are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.” She continues: “Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.” The screenplay wasn’t written by Friends‘ Rachel Green, but the shoes want to be hats, so Evans’s Curtis and co. devise a plan to take the train, one car at a time. To unlock the gates to get to the front of the train, they’ll need a security specialist who they’ll have to break out of the prison car (if he’s a security expert, why can’t he get himself out, quips one character). The film’s occasionally witty dialogue never compromises its serious matter: it’s a dark film that’s often very violent with lots on its mind and even more to say.

The journey to the front is where Snowpiercer shows off. We go through a school (my favourite sequence, for its craziness), a spa, a water-treatment facility and a nightclub: exciting and ultraviolent action scenes, exquisite sets and production design, matched perfectly to realistic costumes and hair. It’s sci-fi, but it all feels and looks real and plausible.

Harvey Weinstein, whose TWC distributed Snowpiercer in North America, reportedly wanted 20 minutes cut from the 126-minute movie, but everything in Snowpiercer is necessary for background, context, history and exposition. Where the movie could have saved some minutes is in having fewer slow-motion sequences. I counted at least six that just didn’t fit with the look and feel I thought Snowpiercer was going for – blame Zack Snyder, I guess, for ruining slo-mo for me. As it stands, though, 2014 is shaping up to be a great year for serious, dark and cerebral science fiction, with Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes leading the pack.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Snowpiercer opens in Montreal July 18, screening exclusively at Cinéma du Parc in Montreal.

Film review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The most surprising thing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that Andy Serkis’s incredible motion-captured performance is only the third best thing about the Matt Reeves film.

Surprising because Serkis’s Caesar, an ape born of a chimp who received experimental Alzheimer’s medication, was the centrepiece of the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which successfully rebooted the series to critical and commercial success (a $481 million worldwide box-office haul in its run) and made Dawn inevitable.

The visual effects are king in Dawn. Really, without them, Serkis’s performance – and actors Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval and Judy Greer, whose work as apes was also motion-captured – would be inconceivable. The explosions, CG set pieces and the many scenes of destruction (that fire…) were all breathtaking. Then there’s the score by Michael Giacchino, an Oscar winner for Pixar’s Up score, that is so beautiful, exciting, stirring and at times haunting, it is the ultimate mood setter for the dark Dawn. It pulls you in from the opening credits and never lets go.

This eighth film in the Apes franchise (the first, starring Charlton Heston, was released in 1968 and is available on Netflix Canada) takes place 10 years after the events of Rise. The simian flu has wiped out much of the world’s human population. In Dawn, we follow a group of humans who’ve survived around San Francisco. They’ve never ventured outside the city, but they’re running out of fuel and the abandoned dam in the nearby forest may be their saving grace. The humans and apes are both hero and villain, and you sympathize with both groups.

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Film review: Begin Again

Begin Again Keira Knightley Mark Ruffalo

Like a great song, Begin Again is all about the build-up.

It’s a long road of meh, though, until the electrifying, invigorating, chill-inducing third act, which almost makes up for a choppy beginning and sometimes dull middle bit. Keira Knightley stars as Greta, a Londoner in New York with her beau, next-big-thing-in-music Dave Kohl (a surprising Adam Levine). She writes songs with him, sometimes for him, and they’re madly in love until she hears one of his new tunes and deduces that it’s about another woman. Disgruntled, she sings about loneliness at a dingy club later that night, where Dan (Mark Ruffalo, phenomenal as usual), drunk as a skunk, imagines Greta being backed by a pianist, violinist, cellist and drummer. It’s magic, he thinks and hopes.

Director John Carney is no stranger to movies about musicians, having helmed the Oscar-winning Once, like Begin Again only in that it features a male and female lead making music together. Begin Again, with its bigger budget and New York setting, is much glossier, its songs much more poppy and radio-ready. I preferred the songs in Begin Again, so much so that I was missing the music when the film veered into its sometimes trite dialogue. (Conversely, I thought Once was beautifully filmed, and felt authentic because it was authentic and shot for peanuts) When Dan suggests Greta work on her stage presence and let him put her in some better outfits, she naively retorts: “Music is for the ears, not the eyes … People want authenticity.” He asks: Do you have a Facebook page? MySpace? Come on. Some of the film felt like it was written by a dinosaur pretending to know what young folk think of the music industry. (Carney wrote the film’s screenplay. In another scene, Dan’s 14-year-old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) says her outfit is sexy because she got it from American Apparel.) “Maybe the kids are right. Maybe music should be free,” Dan says at a meeting at the record label he helped found. There, his partner’s million-dollar idea to saving the industry is having musicians record commentaries on albums.

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Emmy nominations: Nine biggest surprises

Emmys

One of the perks of living on the east coast is not having to wake up at ungodly hours for awards announcements.

This morning, at 8:30/5:30 PT, the nominations for the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced by Carson Daly and Mindy Kaling. You can check out the full list of nominations here.

There were the predictable nominations for HBO’s True Detective, and Breaking Bad‘s final season (the two shows will be up against each other in the drama series categories, making those especially contentious), and FX’s miniseries game is unmatched (FargoAmerican Horror Story are up for several awards). But there were still some unnerving oversights – and some pleasant surprises – by the Television Academy. Here are nine.

1. Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black

Universally praised for her work on BBC America’s Orphan Black, Canadian Tatiana Maslany did not get a nomination in the lead actress, drama, category. Instead, back-to-back winner Claire Danes (Homeland), newcomer Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Robin Wright (House of Cards) will vie for the award.

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28 TV shows and movies to watch on Netflix Canada this summer

It’s summer, so you’re wondering what to watch on Netflix, right?

We weren’t all made to withstand high heat and humidity, so if your idea of a Not-Bummer-Summer is spending it indoors, here are nine TV shows (six of which are returning soon!) and 19 movies you should add to your Netflix List this summer.

Hannibal – 26 episodes, approx. 44 min. each (full series so far)

Hannibal

Another Hannibal adaptation? Yeah. Another one, and quite possibly the best one ever. The NBC series is two seasons in, and gets more creepy and spooky every week. Bryan Fuller’s reboot is totally enthralling and engaging, with unforgettable performances by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, who portray the eponymous character and Will Graham, respectively. Laurence Fishburne also does his best work in years. The show’s also shined a light on two incredible Canadian actresses, Montrealer Caroline Dhavernas, as Dr. Alana Bloom, and Brampton’s Lara Jean Chorostecki, as the ruthless and conniving blogger Freddie Lounds. Hannibal returns to NBC/CityTV for Season Three in 2015. (Related: Hannibal, one of the best shows of 2013, is “sinister yet cheeky.”)

The Good Wife - 90 episodes, approx. 44 min. each (four seasons; Season 5 ended on CBS in May 2014)

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“That show’s for suburban white ladies.” – Me, before devouring the first season of CBS’s The Good Wife. Julianna Margulies’ performance anchors and elevates the show to much more than courtroom/law-firm drama. Though it goes the Boston Legal route around Seasons Three and Four (outrageous, ripped-from-the-headlines cases), the drama never falters. The rest of the cast is superb too, especially Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi (it also attracts some top-notch guest stars, like Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Nathan Lane, Carrie Preston, Dylan Baker, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Camp, Denis O’Hare and Scandal‘s Joe Morton, to name a few). I started watching The Good Wife shortly before Twitter erupted in shock over the surprising and shocking death of a main character. I quickly watched four-and-a-half seasons of TGW and finally got to the episode in question and my worst fears were quashed. This was not a show grasping for relevance or desperate to jolt its narrative; The Good Wife is a confident series, and an addictive one.

The Good Wife returns to CBS/Global for Season Six in September 2014.

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Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Free Montreal preview July 7

Guardians of the Galaxy

If you can’t wait until Aug. 1 for the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel is screening 17 minutes of never-before-seen footage from the film in select theatres across Canada and the United States on Monday, July 7, at 7 p.m. (that’s 7 p.m. on 7/7).

Tickets are free for the IMAX 3D screening, but you have to reserve yours (up to 2) at SeeItFirst.com. In Montreal, the screenings will take place at downtown’s Scotiabank Theatre and Guzzo’s Marché Central Megaplex 18. As of Wednesday evening, tickets were still available for both events.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars Chris Pratt, his abs, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Honsou, with the voices of Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper and Josh Brolin, among many others, and will be out on Aug. 1. It’s directed by James Gunn, who helmed indies like Slither and Super – but also directed a segment from Movie 43.

The first two trailers for Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy have about 25 million hits on YouTube.