Monthly Archives: July 2014

After 85 Years, A Little List.

The Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. in Rochester, has planned a six-day celebration of its 85th birthday with a hand-picked screening schedule of eight films, each representing a different decade. The retrospective, which begins Friday, Aug. 8, includes a broad collection of undeniably classic films including Annie Hall (1997), Fargo (1996) and Citizen Kane (1941). (You can find the whole list here.) To be sure, these films fit within the theater’s mission to showcase thought-provoking, independent-minded cinema.

And yet … is it me, or does their list not really feel like it belongs to The Little? When I think of that mighty community resource I think of other landmark movies – perhaps not as timeless as Orson Welles’ masterpiece, but features that startled us and set the pace for a generation of filmgoers. In keeping with the Little’s alternative status, here’s my utterly subjective list of movies that would make up my own Little Theatre retrospective. Your art-house mileage may vary:

  • Smithereens(1982) – The debut feature from director Susan Seidelman (who went on to make Desperately Seeking Susan and She-Devil) is a true early indie, the low-budget story of a punk-music devotee who gives up everything to embrace that subculture.
  • the-return-of-martin-guerreThe Return of Martin Guerre (1982) – This classic French identity-theft mystery (right), which would be remade 11 years later as the Civil War drama Somersby, starred Gérard Depardieu in his first role to find traction in America.
  • The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) – Loopy fun in this South African comedy (whose major U.S. exposure came with a 1986 re-release), which depicted the chaos resulting from a Coke bottle, thrown from an airplane, landing amid a modern-day Kalahari tribe.
  • Sex, Lies and Videotape(1989) – Steven Sodebergh’s debut film also served as a kinda-sorta kickoff to the independent film movement of the 1990s. It was also brave, subversive filmmaking in its own right.
  • crying game (blog)The Crying Game (1992) – There’s nothing like a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon, and Neil Jordan’s film (right) – about an IRA soldier who falls for the former paramour of a dead British soldier – had people talking for months.
  • Reservoir Dogs(1992) – Quentin Tarantino’s first film felt like a best-kept secret when it came to the Little in February 1993: Equal parts grim and reverent, with chaotic humor and a lived-in authenticity that spawned a generation of indie imitators.
  • Much Ado About Nothing(1993) – A list like this feels sacrilegious without Shakespeare, and Kenneth Branagh’s joyous, fun-filled adaptation was like sunshine on a cloudy day.
  • Pi (1996) – A gritty, trippy and exhilarating first feature from writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who somehow blended advanced mathematics with religion and philosophy, and still managed to end his film with a guy pointing a power drill at his own head.
  • Clerks(1994) – Another first film, this time from Kevin Smith, who has never come close to besting the anarchic vitality of his debut effort.
  • four-weddings-and-a-funeralFour Weddings and a Funeral(1994) – British comedies and the Little go together like chocolate and peanut butter. This one (right) charmed Little audiences — no matter what one may think of Andie MacDowell — and set a bar Hugh Grant wouldn’t clear again.
  • Lone Star(1996) – From writer/director John Sayles – whose on-screen “relationship” with the Little dated back as far as Return of the Secaucus Seven – came this modern-day Western mystery that was as thick, tart and satisfying as Texas BBQ.
  • Happiness(1998) – Savage, candid and illuminating drama from Todd Solondz: When an early role from a self-loving Philip Seymour Hoffman isn’t the most incendiary element in your movie, you’re onto something.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

“Lucy,” Reviewed: Behold the Power of the 99 Percent.

Lucy (blog)When you think “French filmmaker,” you probably don’t imagine Luc Besson. French filmmakers create lush, artistic masterpieces filmed at l’Heure Bleue and the ladies all smell like lavender and the craft services tables are laden with brie. Besson, by contrast, is deliriously vulgar: He likes car chases and gunfights and well-muscled heroes who overpower hordes of rampaging bad guys. More than anything, Besson likes strong women; and he’s never, ever boring.

Lucy (rated R), playing on three screens at my local multiplex thanks to a starring role by Scarlett Johansson, is less noteworthy for her contribution than for heralding Besson’s return to what he does best. As with La Femme Nikita (1990), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997), the film makes little to no sense, clinging to a vague idea of a plot as a way of delivering a sensual onscreen experience. It’s blessedly bonkers – at once a perfect summer popcorn flick and the antidote to same. Man, it’s good to have him back.

The film takes about 90 seconds to rev into overdrive: Lucy (Johansson), an American student living in Taiwan, is coerced by a boyfriend to walk across the street and deliver a briefcase to a guy in a hotel. (Note to American students living abroad: Don’t ever agree to do that.) Before you know it, she’s waking up with an incision in her abdomen and preparing, against her will, to transport a rather large packet of a rather mysterious substance across the border.

When the packet bursts inside her, all hell breaks loose. The drug is designed to do … something, but in Lucy’s system it literally expands her mind: Humans, we’re told, are using only 10 percent of our brains’ capacities, but Lucy is suddenly jump-started to double that, and then triple, and so on. With each boost of capacity she acquires new powers and special senses – total mastery of her own body is easy, but controlling other people and sensing electrical patterns in the air will take half an hour at least.

The drug also turns Lucy from a panicky, frantic human being in the film’s earliest scenes into, well, the Scarlett Johansson we all know and love. The actress is typically affectless to the point of roboticism, a trait that serves her well as Lucy transcends human emotion and becomes something akin to a Cray supercomputer with an hourglass figure. (She does deliver one marvelous monologue, as Lucy, who’s just beginning to realize what’s happening, calls her mother and sums up a lifetime of memories in a burst of hyper-informed emotion.)

As she seeks help from an American scholar (Morgan Freeman) who happens to be hanging out in Paris, Besson throws in a few car chases and fight scenes for old time’s sake; but he’s more interested in blowing our minds with visual representations of Lucy’s metaphysical journey. Edging closer and closer to fulfilling 100 percent of her brain’s capacity, Lucy the character and Lucy the film become something very close to CGI-enhanced improv. There’s a very strong suspicion that Besson is making things up as he goes along, but I promise that over the course of the film’s oh-so-brief 89-minute runtime, you won’t mind a bit.

(IMAGE: Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.)

“Snowpiercer” and the Lure of VOD.

SNOWPIERCER 4 (weinstein) (blog)An article over at Slate uses the recent adjustment of Snowpiercer’s nationwide distribution — initially in a few theaters, then widely expanded as a cable Video On Demand selection — as a springboard to discuss the fast-shifting tide away from brick-and-mortar movie theaters. It’s a good read on a subject that has been out there for a while already (I’ve written about it myself in past columns), but that seems to be evolving quickly.

Snowpiercer is a pretty good example of why this issue is important to moviegoers. It was made for a fairly large budget (nearly $40 million, according to Wikipedia), almost all of which can be seen onscreen in the form of a spectacular grimy-futuristic look — but its genre limitations will never endear it to a wide enough audience on the scale of, say, the latest Transformers movie. That puts the movie in a tough spot: It’s too expensive to easily recoup its money through a small-scale arthouse release schedule, but too niche a product to sustain a proper wide release.

Enter VOD, which has lost a lot of its negative stigma in the past couple of years. Every month cable-TV subscribers can browse a library of hundreds of films — some older titles, and plenty that were recently seen in theaters and are now jockeying for position on DVD/Blu-ray. But there’s also a regular and constantly updated selection of thought-provoking indie and arthouse films that haven’t made it to theaters yet; and when they are released theatrically, the odds of them making it to Rochester’s Little Theatre, let alone Movietime in Canandaigua, are slim to none.

Coupled with the rise in home-theater technology, this means that filmgoers no longer have to feel like they’re “settling” when they stay home to watch a movie. Epics still belong on the big screens, but for smaller, intimate works many film fanatics can often get much of what they want without leaving the house.

This presents a major challenge for theaters, and an existential question for cinephiles: What does it mean to watch a movie? We’ll have to get to that question another day.

“Sex Tape,” Reviewed: For Better or for Worse.

Cameron Diaz;Jason SegelWhat does it say about Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape (rated R), billed as a racy sex comedy, that the funniest running joke involves Rob Lowe’s face painted into the scenes of classic moments in Disney animation? Lowe has a supporting role – more of an extended cameo, really – as Hank, the eccentric billionaire patriarch of a company that aims to buy the wholesome “mommy blog” written by Annie (Cameron Diaz), despite the fact that the only post we see her write addresses her fascination with her husband’s erections.

More on Hank in a minute – first, let’s focus on Annie and her husband Jay (Jason Segel). They met 10 years earlier in college and defined their relationship from day one on the frequency and intensity of their bow-chicka-wow-wow moments. Now married with two young children, they can barely stay awake long enough to shower, let alone enjoy a communal lather. One night Annie has the idea to spend the evening with Jay, filming themselves as they re-create every position from The Joy of Sex. Three hours later, all that expended energy has likely ruined the couch cushions, while creating a massive MP4 file on Jay’s iPad that will come back to haunt them.

One has to wonder whether Apple’s product placement executives knew what they were doing when they wrote a presumably hefty check in exchange for the repeated promotional references invoked by Jay and Annie in Sex Tape. Jay buys iPads in bulk for his job – he does something with a radio station that involves designing his own playlists and going to rock concerts – and gives the old ones away to friends, neighbors and mailmen when he’s done with them. He loves his iPads, but doesn’t know how to use them; and so when their marathon home video is accidentally synced to every iPad he’s ever owned, his solution is quaintly analog: They have to get the computers back.

The bulk of the film takes place over a long, long night, ending with Jay and Annie breaking into the server farm of the adult-movie website where their film has been uploaded. (Good thing the site was headquartered within a short drive of their home, I guess, and not, say, China.) There they meet a porn king played by a surprise guest star, who offers some sage advice about sex and marriage. First, though, they head to Hank’s house, for the film’s comic centerpiece: He got one of the iPads too, and while Jay looks around the guy’s mansion for it he spots commissioned pieces of Hank in The Lion King, Hank in Pinocchio, etc.. Meanwhile, clean-cut Hank is blasting thrash-metal tunes downstairs and offering Annie cocaine – it’s what friends do.

Sex Tape is a dirty comedy with a big heart, which would be great if director Kasdan knew how to knit those two ideas together. He doesn’t, and the result is weirdly disjointed – a self-conscious collection of F bombs and butt shots (generously distributed between both stars) interspersed with family homilies and the suburban-underworld shock comedy of older, better films like Adventures in Babysitting and After Hours. It lacks the raucous commitment to lunacy that distinguished Neighbors from earlier this summer, and it’s not sexy enough to titillate. For that brief sequence with Hank, everything works: Lowe takes charge with a blast of surreal, zany energy that injects the film with much-needed comic tension. But as I’ve said a million times, we can’t stay in Rob Lowe’s house forever.

(IMAGE: Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz in Sex Tape. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

Take Five: James Garner, RIP.

Like many people my age, I first discovered James Garner on television, playing ex-con private investigator Jim Rockford on “The Rockford Files” in the 1970s. Rockford was vulnerable but principled, brave but pragmatic. And while he lived in a trailer, it was a trailer in Malibu – a compromise many people could live with.

James Garner, who died today at age 86, had a lot in common with that TV character. Although he made dozens of films – often playing cowboys and military types, leveraging his strong jaw and matinee-idol looks – his big-screen career lacked the stickiness of film legends like Newman and Eastwood. But his unerring gift for comedy, and his easy comfort moving between television and film, made him a star nonetheless. Like the red meat he promoted in a famous series of TV commercials in the 1980s, Garner just had a way of making us feel good (assuming you like beef, that is).

Here are my five favorite of Garner’s big-screen performances, in chronological order:

Cash McCall (1960) – In this romantic throwaway, Garner played a self-assured tycoon – in today’s terms, think of him as Tony Stark without the high-tech armor – who juggles a merger while wooing a socialite (Natalie Wood).

The Great Escape (1963) – Garner and Steve McQueen lead a prodigious cast in this durable GIs-outwit-the-Nazis caper movie.

The Americanization of Emily (1964) – Much of Garner’s big-screen heyday happened to fall during the midcentury war years; here he plays a sybaritic WWII officer whose good fortune hits a roadblock when he falls for a British war widow (Julie Andrews) and is forced to face the realities of his situation.

victor victoria 2Victor/Victoria (1982) – Garner reteamed with Andrews for this old-school Hollywood classic from director Blake Edwards. She’s a woman pretending to be a male drag queen to foster a career in showbiz; he just wants to figure out why he’s attracted to “Victor.”

Murphy’s Romance (1986) – Garner’s last great performance, and his only Oscar nomination, came in this May/December romcom that paired him with Sally Field. Their slow progression from business acquaintances, to friends, to lovers represents the deliberate and patient pace that seemed to epitomize Garner’s career.

“The Purge: Anarchy,” Reviewed: Night of the Hunters.

The Purge Anarchy 2 (universal)A funny thing happened last summer: I watched a so-so movie and thought, I sure hope they make a sequel. That movie was The Purge, a wholly mediocre home-invasion thriller, unremarkable from dozens that have come before it except for one element: The bizarre, what-would-you-do premise of a near-future society that lets citizens “release the beast” for one night each year.

In The Purge‘s imagined America, unemployment and poverty rates are down and our culture has found relative peace and prosperity … except for (or because of) one annual 12-hour period in which law and order is suspended, hospitals and emergency services go dark, and people can do as they want to each other with impunity. Last summer’s film kicked off that scenario, only to waste it by spending all our time watching the well-heeled Sandin family fight off intruders who would circumvent their fancy security system. Boring! I wanted to see how such a night would affect the have-nots who can’t afford armored barricades. Show us the huddled masses already!

Sure enough, meet The Purge: Anarchy (rated R), a follow-up that gives the people (OK, me) what they want. It’s 2023, a year to the day after the last film, and America is gearing up again for its annual waking nightmare. Instead of the Sandins and their neighbors we focus on three stories: A young married couple (Kiele Sanchez and Zach Gilford) who have nowhere to hide when their car breaks down in downtown Los Angeles; a working-class mother and her teen daughter (Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul) who approach the night with perfectly reasonable unease; and a determined loner (Frank Grillo) who’s looking forward to Purge Night. He’s armed to the teeth, driving an armored muscle car, and out to settle a personal score on the one night he’s guaranteed to get away with it.

These diverse plotlines converge fairly early on, and as they’re running for their lives we draw a slightly richer glimpse of the impact of the Purge on society. You know that neighbor in your apartment building who keeps hitting on you? On Purge Night, he doesn’t have to take “no” for an answer. The financial district is a wasteland, as all the money has been moved to an undisclosed location. And then there’s the not-so-subtle implication that the Purge isn’t wiping out poverty – just poor people – and mysterious black trucks on the streets introduce the possibility of our government playing an active role in that policy.

Written and directed by James DeMonaco, the Purge movies are thematically inspired by earlier, better films: The first one reminded me quite a bit of the family-under-siege ideas expressed in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972); and there’s a real John Carpenter vibe to this sequel, especially the violent urban chaos of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and 1981’s Escape From New York. (DeMonaco wrote the screenplay for the 2005 remake of Precinct 13.) Freed of the household interiors of the first Purge, now he takes to the skies – looking down on the dimly lit streets, Google Maps-style, to observe the progress of our five heroes as they scurry through the maze of back alleys and burning auto wrecks.

It’s all sufficiently moody and effective on its own terms, but by the end of The Purge: Anarchy I’d seen enough of these annual nights of mayhem. Still, if Hollywood is listening I wouldn’t mind just one more sequel: Next year, give us a film that explores this society on the weeks before or after a Purge. The idea that individuals would take advantage of a free pass to do bad things is not surprising, but I’d be intrigued to see what that does to America the rest of the year. Do we treat our neighbors and co-workers better, or worse? Do we compartmentalize that night and pretend it never happened, or do we make notes all year about those who have done us wrong? This premise gives us an opportunity to look at our dark sides in cinema’s funhouse mirror. Don’t waste that opportunity on more scenes of violence for its own sake.

(IMAGE: A scene from The Purge: Anarchy. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.)

“Begin Again,” Reviewed: Only the Music Matters.

BEGIN AGAINNot nearly enough people are talking about Begin Again (rated R), a sweet, soulful movie from writer-director John Carney that combines the melancholy wistfulness of the filmmaker’s previous Once (2006) with the in-the-zone creative exuberance of this summer’s Chef. It’s always impossible to know how long a low-budget independent film will remain in local theaters, and while I expect Begin Again will have a long and healthy life on DVD and cable, there’s no reason not to start your love affair with this movie today.

Begin Again premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?, an awkward but fitting name for an elegant work. The film opens on Gretta (Keira Knightley), a lonely British expat living in New York City, reluctantly singing a song she’s written in a quiet lower-Manhattan nightclub; the only receptive ears in the audience belong to Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who’s smiling a little too broadly. He’s drunk and she’s despondent, but they’re instantly drawn together in an unlikely love affair – not with each other, but with that song, and what it represents.

After flipping back and forth in time to explain who they are and how they got here, we learn that Dan is a down-and-out music executive who’s just been excommunicated from the recording company he helped build. His tastes are no longer commercial enough for his now-former partner (rapper/actor Mos Def), and Dan’s frustrated idealism has alienated him from his wife and daughter (Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld) as well. Gretta, meanwhile, has problems of her own: She came to America as one-half of a singer-songwriter team led by her boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine), only to find herself out on the street when he’s seduced by the trappings of fame.

After hearing Gretta perform, Dan is inspired – and Carney gives us a glimpse into his mind by showing abandoned musical instruments playing themselves in accompaniment to her solo-guitar performance. He wants to get her signed immediately, but settles instead on a different idea: Pulling together a crazy-quilt collection of performers and recording an album on the streets of New York, complete with ambient noise and the breathless enthusiasm of music as life.

Gretta doesn’t trust Dan at first, but his amiable intensity wins her over and soon the two are bonding over their mutual love of music – hers, and everyone’s. Sharing a set of headphones as they wander through the streets of New York, they become so giddy over an old Stevie Wonder song that they impulsively sneak into a packed nightclub to dance with abandon with a crowd. The rest of the room is moving to one song, but they’re still wearing their headphones – and they couldn’t be happier.

Just as Jon Favreau did in Chef, Carney finds a way to jack us into the souls of these artists; it’s a thrill to be swept up into their passion for their work, and to look over their shoulder as they create something from nothing. In Carney’s Once, circumstances thwart romance between the music-loving couple, suffusing that film with hard-earned melancholy; but here we know the only important Dan-and-Gretta union is in their songs. Aided by two great performances – Ruffalo’s rumpled New Yorker and Knightley’s wounded-but-principled artist – Begin Again reminds us that, if a song can’t save your life, it can definitely make it better.

(IMAGE: Keira Knightley in Begin Again. Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company.)

The “When Harry Met Sally…” Legacy.

When Harry Met Sally (blog)

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… premiered in a handful of big cities (it would open wide a week later). Here are a few random thoughts on the legacy of this perfect romantic comedy.

  • WHMS was a landmark event for pretty much everyone involved. Billy Crystal, never anyone’s idea of a traditional leading man, had failed to make a big-screen impact until this film, but went on to make City Slickers, Forget Paris and Analyze This. Meg Ryan came of age here, and basically owned the 1990s in a variety of romcom and dramatic roles. Screenwriter Nora Ephron had enjoyed previous success as a writer, but nothing like this; she soon graduated to directing (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia). Harry Connick, Jr., had released two unremarkable albums prior to his appearance on the When Harry Met Sally… soundtrack (the album was essentially his third solo record), and after this became a major singing star with a sideline as an actor.
  • The only real exception to the above observation is director Rob Reiner himself, who had built a splendid career in the 1980s with respected hits like Stand By Me, The Sure Thing and The Princess Bride. WHMS was another feather in his cap, to be sure, and he followed it up with some more solid work (Misery, A Few Good Men, The American President), but every movie he’s directed since 1995 has underperformed at the box office and/or been very, very bad. He has a new film, And So It Goes, coming later this summer; fingers crossed.
  • Over at New York Magazine there’s an article discussing the mise-en-scène of When Harry Met Sally… It’s an analysis of how the lead characters are positioned relative to each other on screen in different scenes, and how that positioning corresponded to their feelings about each other at that moment in the story. It’s like auditing a class in film school; check it out.
  • Ephron’s script (famously punched up in the comedy department by Crystal) didn’t really have any catchphrases to speak of, but gave us a number of soon-to-be immortalized relationship concepts. The “high-maintenance” romantic partner, the transitional lover, the stigma of taking a partner to the airport: All from When Harry Met Sally….
  • The movie made wonderful use of its New York environs, so much so that it drew fire from some critics for being a watered-down version of a Woody Allen movie. But much as a I enjoy Allen’s oeuvre, I submit that no Allen movie ever made Manhattan more visually appealing than Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography did here.
  • The film was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America, for language. There are some relatively frank discussions about sex between Harry and Sally, though mostly involving euphemisms, and I guess at least one use of a really bad word. (Plus, you know, that scene in the deli.) Meanwhile, the film competed in its theatrical release with Licence to Kill, a James Bond movie, that was heralded for its dark themes and which concluded with a fight scene in which Bond set fire to a bad guy. That movie was rated PG-13. I’m just saying.

“Snowpiercer,” Reviewed: Super Train.


Let’s start by agreeing that Snowpiercer (rated R)one of the year’s most compelling and well-crafted pieces of filmed entertainment, is no documentary. When the premise is established that a man-made climate change “solution” goes wrong, accidentally turning our warming planet into a barren, frozen husk, Korean director Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host) isn’t inviting a debate about the science. Nor is he asking us to ponder the engineering wizardry of a prescient inventor who pro-actively creates a perpetual motion engine to power the Rattling Ark, a massive train that circles our icy globe, once a year, without stopping. Gifts like Bong’s film don’t come around often, and we shouldn’t worry about the “why”: Instead, try to kick back and enjoy the dizzying, dystopian ride.

The ecological-themed backdrop adds urgency to the story (as does the opening narration that explains the whole problem started on July 1, 2014 – gulp), but at its heart Snowpiercer isn’t too preoccupied with global warming. Much like the crazy-quilt cast of international actors populating the Rattling Ark, the director (who co-wrote the film with Kelly Masterson) has built a mash-up of genres: Quite a bit of near-future sci-fi, a dash of magic realism, some well-choreographed Asian-style action, and most of all class warfare that’s waged on every battlefield.

The train, you see, holds the planet’s entire surviving human population, and to keep things orderly a rigid caste system keeps the richest passengers toward the head of the locomotive while the poorest live in squalor in the tail. For the one-percenters up front it’s not a bad way to travel; but life in the way, way back is like living in a cattle car – a metaphor that holds up when the population is occasionally culled by visiting soldiers looking for a violinist, or a small child for reasons unknown.

This is a rich, complex setting for any film, let alone one whose primary antagonist-protagonist conflicts are staged with hatchets and automatic weapons. But that’s what makes Snowpiercer such a twisty, inviting pleasure. The narrative structure couldn’t be simpler: Curtis (a barely recognizable Chris Evans, light years away from his Captain America duties) and his band of Tail-inhabitant rebels must move to the Head of the train, one car at a time, to wrest control of the engine from Wilford (Ed Harris), their enigmatic “benefactor” who created the Ark. Getting there from here is at turns excruciatingly difficult – just ask the car full of black-masked assassins who aren’t inclined to let Curtis pass – and mind-bendingly surreal, as in the car whose sole inhabitant appears to be a sushi chef, ready with one freshly prepared nigiri per rebel.

Entering each new car plays like starting another chapter of a fascinating novel, one that satisfies in its self-contained moments while never losing sight of the story’s larger themes. When Curtis finally meets Wilford, he’s treated to a villainous monologue that answers questions we didn’t think to ask about his journey – but those revelations are less a “twist” in the usual Hollywood sense, and more a validation of the journey we’ve just taken: Like Curtis, we’ve earned the right to have those blanks filled in.

As Curtis, Evans contributes a performance of the same workmanlike quality that keeps on distinguishing him in low-budget and indie projects (Sunshine, Puncture) when he isn’t cashing big checks in comic-book movies. He’s appropriately haunted by the life he’s had to live on the Ark, and justifiably driven to do something – anything – that might change his fate. Harris, in what amounts to a cameo, is terrific, but the film’s not-so-secret weapon is Tilda Swinton as the savage administrative lackey who puts Curtis and his crew through their paces on Wilford’s behalf. She’s terrific in a role that forces her to switch allegiances as easily as she pops out those false teeth.

One last thing: By the end of Snowpiercer, the film takes on a startling resemblance to an early 1970s classic that I won’t reveal here, lest it give too much away. (I expect you’ll figure it out when you see it for yourself.) The two movies couldn’t be more different, and yet they play like opposite sides of the same coin. It’s just another sign of the timelessness of Bong’s film that it’s already earned itself a compare-and-contrast partner in cinema studies classes from now until doomsday.

(IMAGE: Chris Evans in Snowpiercer. Photo courtesy of Radius/The Weinstein Company.)

“Life Itself,” Reviewed: Thumbs Up.

life itself (magnolia)

Every review is inherently subjective, and any reviewer who pretends otherwise is full of … well, something other than passion for his work. I bring this up now because there’s no way I can pretend to be objective about Life Itself (rated R, now available on VOD), the biographical documentary about the life and career of the late film critic Roger Ebert. Most critics pay attention to other critics – it’s practically a prerequisite for learning how to approach the craft – and it would have been impossible to follow film criticism in the last 30 years without being affected in some way by Ebert, who revolutionized the form in good ways and bad.

I also met Ebert a few times, though he wouldn’t have remembered me; and I deeply admired his writing, if not his particular cinematic tastes. This hefty disclosure is my way of stating that my affection for Life Itself is tainted in all the best ways, and so when I say it’s probably one of the year’s best films, you’ll have to take it with an entire shaker of salt.

About 20 years ago Steve James made a small doc called Hoop Dreams, about inner-city kids who pinned their hopes for survival on their ability to play basketball. It was well regarded but little-seen at first, and it’s fair to say that Ebert (with his colleague and sparring partner Gene Siskel) was uniquely responsible for shifting the tide in that regard. More than a lot of critics, Ebert took on certain films (and filmmakers) as personal causes, and Hoop Dreams benefited from his tenacious advocacy. It’s fitting, then, that James would take on the task of adapting Ebert’s own bestselling memoir, Life Itself, a generation later. Hoop Dreams doesn’t figure into the Ebert doc, but the mutual trust and high regard between filmmaker and subject are obvious throughout the two-hour running time.

Narratively, the film is a pretty straightforward biopic, following Ebert’s early life in Illinois; his early maturation as a writer and editor of his college newspaper in the early 1960s; and his move after graduation to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was soon assigned the film critic’s job and where he stayed for the rest of his career. Interspersed throughout these flashbacks are scenes of the more recent past, as Ebert, supported by his wife and extended family, adapted to a series of profound medical challenges that ultimately claimed his life in April 2013.

It’s hard to be a good critic without being arrogant, and Life Itself doesn’t skimp on its portrayal of Ebert – with the apparent endorsement of its subject – as less than humble. As he evolved beyond the printed page into a television career as the co-host of a series of half-hour movie-review programs, he developed a peculiar relationship with Siskel, a competing critic for the Chicago Tribune. Neither man wanted to share the stage with the other, and both looked at the show – and the remarkable way its “Thumbs Up/Down” reductionism shackled them together while also popularizing film criticism like never before – as a blend of blessing and curse. Siskel died of cancer in 1999, but his widow appears in the film to offer his side of the story; and the doc includes outtakes from various episodes that showcase the comic bickering between the TV stars.

At turns funny and tragic, Life Itself finds and holds that precarious balance between illumination and affection. James found old Chicago barroom buddies of Ebert (from the days prior to his acknowledgment of his alcoholism, also addressed in the film), all of whom offer up tales of a bawdy, bespectacled raconteur who epitomized the twin stereotypes of old-school journalism and timeless Windy City boisterousness. Ebert played hard and he worked hard, and he was lucky enough to be paid to combine both practices during his trips to Cannes and in his steady diet of six movies a week. 70 is too young to die, but this film presents its subject as a man who lived a fortunate life – not just in terms of fame and wealth, but in discovering what he loved early and spending the rest of his years sharing that passion with anyone who would listen.

It’s one of the best films of the year. I hope you’ll seek it out.

(IMAGE: Roger Ebert in a scene from Life Itself. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Films.)