LOST WEEKEND II: LIFE ITSELF

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I tried to start writing this review about twelve times over the past four days.  It’s hard to know where to begin, because it’s a film that reached me on so many personal levels; as a lover of films, a proponent of independent cinema, I feel …  No, that’s not how I’ll start this.

Life Itself is a documentary about the life and final days of Roger Ebert, celebrated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and erstwhile bon vivant.  Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), it shares its title with Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and while it covers a lot of the same ground as the book, the film also picks up where Ebert left off – dealing with, among other things, the ravages of the countless surgeries Ebert endured in order to bring the jigsaw puzzle of his face back to what it looked like on the box.

The film starts out with a nice in-depth look at the chubby cub reporter and altar boy who grew up wanting so badly to be a newsman that, as a young teen, he started his own newspaper, which he also delivered to the neighbors.  From there, he wrote for his college (University of Illinois at Urbana) newspaper.  He found himself buried in his doctoral work at the University of Chicago and the job he had taken as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to help pay for his doctorate, and decided to put his doctorate on hold in order to devote more attention to his work as a movie critic.

cbThroughout the documentary, we are shown Ebert in many versions throughout the ensuing years – partier, two-fisted drinker, pugnacious adversary, recovering alcoholic, sparring partner for Gene Siskel, husband, step-father, and finally cancer patient.  All of these pictures of Ebert are fleshed out through anecdotes and reminiscences from former colleagues, friends, family, and most notably, his wife Chaz.

Roger’s own reminiscences are provided through excerpts from his memoir.  One excellent device the director adopts is using Roger’s robotic synthesized voice during the real-time events of the movie, and employing “voicematch actor” Stephen Stanton for the narration.  Stanton was a brilliant find – a man capable of mimicking Ebert’s Midwest voice and cadence so perfectly, I initially wondered how the hell Ebert’s vocal chords were restored for these pieces of the film.

Ebert’s battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and the subsequent loss of his lower jaw (and, consequently, his ability to speak, eat, or drink) have already been fairly well-documented, but Ebert allows director James to force us to look at the startling exterior.  Seeing the 2013 version of Ebert’s face filling the screen for the first time in the theater left many of us reflexively gasping or unintentionally whispering a soft “oh my God” into our popcorn.  We are shown a brutally long shot of Roger’s throat being suctioned clean after a feeding, which appears to be agonizing for the patient.  After the technician has finished the procedure, which Ebert obviously must endure many times a day, we try to settle back into our seats, having found ourselves somehow clenching our entire bodies into fists.  Ebert looks through the camera at James, indicating that he is proud to have had a part in committing that torture to film.  Roger’s good friend Bill Nack noted that “Roger was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.”

caSeeing Ebert in this way, victim of the constant indignity of his boneless lower jaw lying agape, at times looking all the world like a startled puppet: it’s a good starting point for trying to allow the audience to more fully comprehend how much Ebert had suffered over the 12 years since his cancer was detected, and how, in spite of that, he was able to dedicate his time and efforts to mentoring young directors and young writers, all the while maintaining his wit and charm and love for his wife Chaz, and for life itself.

It’s a solid two hours, none of it wasted on fluff.  Because the time flies so quickly during the viewing, this viewer was hoping for more – there were still missing elements unfilled, Ebert’s relationship with Siskel’s “replacement” Roeper (who inexplicably never appears in the film) for just one example.  When it was over, I felt happy to hear many other pieces I never knew, and although I felt I had lost an old friend all over again, I felt I had enjoyed a celebration rather than a two-hour eulogy.  It’s a movie that I would highly recommend to any lover of cinema, and I would suggest that a perfect gift for a film lover would be the DVD of this documentary, packaged with the memoir.

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LOST WEEKEND II: LIFE ITSELF

Lost Weekend I: Maidentrip

Ever since I met my mother-in-law some sixteen plus years ago, she’s lived on a boat. She and her husband, and up until recently their cat, have called their boat home as they’ve spent some years now sailing the Caribbean and even attempted a world voyage. It’s not a lifestyle for everyone, but those who do venture into this world become part of a sailing community. It’s a community where you are welcomed no matter what port you enter as you make fast acquaintances since everyone can relate to your struggles with your boat, equipment, and sailing adventures.

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Lost Weekend I: Maidentrip

200 Films Bring KING GEORGES to the Big Screen! A Review.

I recently had the rare opportunity to see a movie in the middle of the week.  Okay, truth be told, I was bullied into going to the movie.  But one thing is certain, I am a good friend, and one of my best buddies was celebrating a milestone.  Well, a milestone of sorts, a milestone I was proud of at least, and a milestone that I was more than willing to attend.  Our little but well known film club was celebrating its 200th film.  And celebrate we did, with food, drinks, sweatbands, and the wonderfully intimate King Georges.

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200 Films Bring KING GEORGES to the Big Screen! A Review.

Confessions of a Music Doc Junkie

My name is Susan and I love music documentaries. Surprisingly, though, I’m not a music buff. I don’t subscribe to Rolling Stone or have an eclectic collection of vinyl. I don’t even subscribe to a music streaming service. (Gasp!) I may seem like an unlikely fan of this genre, but what I desperately love about music docs is that we, the audience, become privy to the conception of art. We see the passion, the hard work, and the process, which to me, is often more interesting than the final product. From 20 Feet From Stardom to The Wrecking Crew to The Winding Stream, we are introduced to the backstory of history-making music. We see the raw talent stripped of pretention and production. Take Me To The River, continues this tradition with a heartwarming and heartbreaking celebration of some of Memphis’ musical greats.

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Confessions of a Music Doc Junkie

Bad-Assery in Black Leather and Berets – A Review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution. You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation!” -Fred Hampton, Black Panther leader assassinated December 4th, 1969

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Bad-Assery in Black Leather and Berets – A Review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Everyone is Your Friend for 20 Minutes at the Record Store

In the late 1950’s Russ Solomon began selling used 45 records out of his father’s drug store in Sacremento, California. He purchased them for 3 cents and sold them for 10. And that 7 cent profit, my friends, was the beginning of what became Russ’s gift to the music world, Tower Records.

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Everyone is Your Friend for 20 Minutes at the Record Store

Hustle & Flow: A Review Of GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT

Rucker Park is pretty much synonymous with kick ass basketball. Dr. J, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant have all graced its courts. Once a year it hosts the top high school players in the country, and it is a huge event for the sport of basketball. Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot follows eight of the “Elite 24” players before and during the tournament at Rucker Park in the fall 2006. The audience is taken on a journey of high flying, flashy teenagers as they start their rise into fame. These kids are the perennial future of the NBA.

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Hustle & Flow: A Review Of GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT