Life Itself

Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.

A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:

“In the particular is contained the universal”

This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.

Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.

Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.

He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)

There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.

Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.

However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.

It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.

Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.

The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.

For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.

> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK
> RogerEbert.com

DVD & Blu-ray Picks: November 2014

DVD and Blu-ray Picks for November 2014

DVD & BLU-RAY PICKS

  • The Killing Fields (StudioCanal) Blu-ray / 30th Anniversary Edition
  • Chef (Lionsgate UK) Blu-ray / Normal
  • The Wizard of Oz (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray (75th Anniversary Edition)
  • Mad Men: Season 7 – Part 1 (Lionsgate UK) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Blue Velvet (High Fliers Video Distribution) Blu-ray / Special Edition (includes 52 minutes of lost footage)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox Home Ent.) Blu-ray / Normal
  • The Lion King (Walt Disney) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Castles in the Sky (Dazzler) Blu-ray / Normal
  • The Usual Suspects (MGM Home Entertainment) Blu-ray / Steel Book
  • Stanley Kubrick Collection (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / Ultimate Collector’s Edition
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Second Sight) Blu-ray / Steel Book
  • Spirited Away (StudioCanal) Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play
  • Playtime (StudioCanal) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox Home Ent.) Blu-ray / Normal
  • The Thief of Bagdad (Eureka) Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play
  • Spione (Eureka) Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (Walt Disney Studios Home Ent.) Blu-ray / Normal
  • Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Warner Home Video) Blu-ray / 30th Anniversary Edition
  • The Postal Service: Everything Will Change (Sub Pop) Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play

> DVD & Blu-ray Picks for October 2014
> The Best DVD and Blu-rays of 2013

Interstellar

A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)