Life Itself (Steve James, 2014). James tries to cram an entire life into two hours, which we know is difficult, considering the memoir on which it is based ran for around 450 pages. Of course, the film took a different direction when Ebert’s illnesses gradually led him to dying. He worked with James until the end, and while he never saw the movie, his presence isn’t just on screen, but behind the camera with James. The result is pretty straightforward (I can’t decide if that’s an appropriate approach, but it’s what we’ve got), lots of talking heads and still photos. Obviously, the more recent material dealing with Ebert’s physical problems is more immediate, and that lends the film a different angle than the usual straightforward bio-documentary. James covers all the high points … the Pulitzer, Russ Meyer, Siskel and Ebert, Chaz Ebert. He does a decent job of putting on screen how vital Ebert’s online presence was, although I don’t know that any film can get it exactly right … you’d have to check out the Twitter feed for that. There are two areas where I think the movie falls short, connected by a slim thread. First, we don’t get enough about exactly what made Roger Ebert’s work different from that of other critics. We are told he was a “populist”, but that’s a bit too vague. We are told that he was a Chicago kind of guy, which separated him from the critics on the coasts. Mostly, though, we’re told that his TV series with Gene Siskel was important and different. There is a brief section where a few critics offer a more negative view of the series, but mostly we get outtakes of the two stars bitching with each other. It broadens our feel for Ebert the person, but Ebert the person was also Ebert the critic. The second troublesome area might be introduced when Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan offers the guaranteed laugh-getter, “Fuck Pauline Kael!” It’s a confusing statement, given the many ways Kael and Ebert were kindred spirits in criticism. But it is also the only time a female critic is discussed in the movie. There are women, to be sure … Chaz more prominently, Gene Siskel’s wife, a few of the women who worked behind the scenes on the TV screen. But when it comes to discussing Ebert’s critical work, we get A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss … we get filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani and Gregory Nava (and Steve James himself). But the only female voice is that of director Ava DuVernay, who is indeed a welcome presence in the film. The result is that women in film criticism are relegated to one “Fuck her” quote, and DuVernay ends up standing in for every female filmmaker. None of this overwhelms the very real accomplishments of the movie, but Roger Ebert would insist that we face the work in an honest fashion. 8/10. A good companion film might be one of the many that Ebert championed over the years … Hoop Dreams is an obvious choice.
The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). This film comes highly praised by critics, and by viewers as well … it has grossed almost half a billion dollars. It’s easy to understand the praise … the animation is very good, the voice actors well-chosen, and some of the critique of capitalism is unusual for a kids’ movie, especially one that has commercial tie-in potential like this one. I think, though, that this is one of those occasional movies that gets praised for what it is not, as much as for what it is. It is not stupid. It doesn’t take the easy exploitation route. It was made with care. But ultimately, it’s still a loud-and-fast romp with plenty for the younger Lego fans and their parents (who will like the movie for different reasons), and not a lot more. It is no small thing to make an animated movie in 2014 that doesn’t feel cheap, and I don’t blame people who tell me this is a really great movie. But I don’t think they’ll be saying that ten years from now. 7/10.
Oranges and Sunshine (Jim Loach, 2010). 7/10.