Cinema Reviews

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

Directors Interesting

The Future of Movies (1990)

The Future of Movies in 1990

Back in 1990 the late Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel hosted a TV special which featured directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese discussing the future of movies.

Spielberg and Lucas made headlines earlier this summer by predicting the implosion of Hollywood’s current economic model, but what did they feel 23 years ago?

The answer lies in this programme – recently discovered by Cinephilia and Beyond – where they not only discuss the future of movies but also their careers and a good deal else beside, including:

  • The possibility of a sequel to E.T. (1982)
  • Spielberg’s interest in a Howard Hughes project
  • Lucas on the Star Wars prequels
  • Scorsese on Goodfellas (1990) and commercial success
  • The sex scene in Don’t Look Now (1973)
  • HD television
  • Film preservation

You can watch the full programme here (along with the fast-forwarded ads):

> Find out about 1990 on film at Wikipedia


Ebert Kubrick Roundtable

In 1999 Roger Ebert hosted a special roundtable discussion on the films of Stanley Kubrick around the release of Eyes Wide Shut.

He was joined by fellow Chicago film critics Michael Wilmington, Ray Pride, Dann Gire and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

In the first part they discuss his career and in the second half they focus on Kubrick’s final film.

Although it only lasts twenty minutes, some of the comments are interesting, including:

  • The strange, contrasting words that often appear in his titles: Fear/Desire, Killer/Kiss, Strange/Love, Clockwork/Orange, Metal/Jacket, Wide/Shut.
  • The voyeuristic journey of Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut
  • The film’s closeness to the Arthur Schnitzler novella that inspired it

> Stanley Kubrick at Wikipedia
> Ebert Presents
> Roger Ebert on Twitter
> More at the Siskel and Ebert archives


Roger Ebert at TED 2011

TED have posted the video of Roger Ebert’s talk from March, where the film critic describes the attempts to remake his voice.

After losing his lower jaw (and nearly his life) to cancer in 2006, he also lost the ability to speak but has since managed to communicate with readers online and even had a Scottish company digitally reconstruct his voice from hours of his television shows.

With the help of the voice program on his Mac, his wife Chaz and friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, Ebert presents a powerful story, but also makes some profound points about the impact of technology and the Internet.

Among other things, we learn that:

> TED 2011
> Roger Ebert’s blog and Twitter
> Esquire profile from 2010


Ebert and Scorcese’s Best Films of the 1990s


In 1999 Roger Ebert and Martin Scorcese teamed up to discuss their favourite films of the 1990s and the above video shows their top 4 picks.

Ebert’s Top 10 of the 90s were:

  1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  3. Goodfellas (1990)
  4. Fargo (1996)
  5. Three Colors Trilogy (1992-94)
  6. Schindler’s List (1993)
  7. Breaking the Waves (1996)
  8. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
  9. Malcolm X (1992)
  10. JFK (1991)

Scorsese’s Top 10 of the 90s:

  1. Horse Thief (1986 – Scorsese explains why an 1980s film is in the list)
  2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
  3. A Borrowed Life (1994)
  4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
  5. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
  6. Breaking the Waves (1996)
  7. Bottle Rocket (1996)
  8. Crash (1996)
  9. Fargo (1996)
  10. Malcolm X (1992) / Heat (1995)

I’m down with a lot of these picks but it is interesting to note that the only films they both selected were Malcolm X, Fargo and Breaking the Waves.

But I guess a lot of people will be thinking ‘where can I buy Horse Thief on DVD’?

The answer is to get a Region 1 version from Amazon US.


Roger Ebert profile in Esquire

Film critic Roger Ebert was profiled recently in a terrific Esquire piece by Chris Jones.

It details how he has coped with cancer over the last few years and how it has – paradoxically – led to an explosion of writing on his blog.

Some of the highlights include:

His enjoyment of watching a screening of Broken Embraces:

It’s a quirky, complex, beautiful little film, and Ebert loves it. He radiates kid joy. Throughout the screening, he takes excited notes — references to other movies, snatches of dialogue, meditations on Almodóvar’s symbolism and his use of the color red. Ebert scribbles constantly, his pen digging into page after page, and then he tears the pages out of his notebook and drops them to the floor around him.

How his hands now do the talking, after losing his lower jaw and the ability to speak:

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other — unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

His narrow brush with death when his cancer resurfaced in 2006:

In 2006, the cancer surfaced yet again, this time in his jaw. A section of his lower jaw was removed; Ebert listened to Leonard Cohen. Two weeks later, he was in his hospital room packing his bags, the doctors and nurses paying one last visit, listening to a few last songs. That’s when his carotid artery, invisibly damaged by the earlier radiation and the most recent jaw surgery, burst. Blood began pouring out of Ebert’s mouth and formed a great pool on the polished floor. The doctors and nurses leapt up to stop the bleeding and barely saved his life. Had he made it out of his hospital room and been on his way home — had his artery waited just a few more songs to burst — Ebert would have bled to death on Lake Shore Drive.

How his online journal started in 2008:

At first, it’s just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart’s wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They’re followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert’s strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he’d rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn’t exist had he kept his other voice.

How writing is ‘saving’ him:

He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it’s more efficient and time is precious: “When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be”.

It is a powerful portrait filled with sadness at his condition and yet one can only admire Roger’s dedication to his craft.

In the midst of a terrible illness he is still being sustained by doing the thing he loves. A lesson for us all.

Read the profile in full here and check out his journal here.

News Random

Roger Ebert is now on Twitter

Ebert on Twitter

The Chicago Sun Times Pulitzer prize winning film critic is now on Twitter.

His username is @ebertchicago

[Link via Fimoculous]


Roger Ebert replies to a fan of ‘Disaster Movie’

Hot on the heels of questioning his own reviewsRoger Ebert has responded to a fan of Disaster Movie in the ‘Answer Man’ section of his website.

The question (which I’m guessing is reprinted verbatim) from S.J. Stanczak in Chicago read:

Q. Yo dude, u missed out on “Disaster Movie,” a hardcore laugh-ur-@zz-off movie! Y U not review this movie!? It was funny as #ell! Prolly the funniest movie of the summer! U never review these, wat up wit dat?

To which Ebert replied:

A. Hey, bro, I wuz buzier than $#i+, @d they never shoed it b4 hand. I peeped in the IMDb and saw it zoomed to #1 as the low$ie$t flic of all time, wit @ lame-@zz UZer Rating of 1.3. U liked it? Wat up wit dat?

 Stanczak is ownd.

> Roger Ebert’s site and blog
> Reviews of Disaster Movie at Metacritic


Roger Ebert on giving too many stars

Despite his (deserved) status as one of the most revered film critics around Roger Ebert does have something of a reputation of being too generous to films that don’t quite cut the mustard.

Interestingly, he has addressed this in an interesting blog post entitled “You give out too many stars”.

He writes:

That’s what some people tell me. Maybe I do.

I look myself up in Metacritic, which compiles statistics comparing critics, and I find: “On average, this critic grades 8.9 points higher than other critics (0-100 point scale).” Wow. What a pushover.

Part of my problem may be caused by conversion of the detested star rating system. I consider 2.5 stars to be thumbs down; they consider 62.5 to be favorable. But let’s not mince words: On average, I do grade higher than other critics.

Now why do I do that? And why, as some readers have observed, did I seem to grade lower in my first 10 or 15 years on the job?

I know the answer to that one. When I started, I considered 2.5 stars to be a perfectly acceptable rating for a film I rather liked in certain aspects.

Then I started doing the TV show, and ran into another wacky rating system, the binary thumbs. Up or down, which is it?

Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up–yes. Thumbs down–no.”

My gut feeling is that the star system for rating any artistic endeavour is flawed.

I know that a lot of people (amongst them many readers and editors) like it as it makes their choices easier, but my central problem is that it reduces everything to a simplistic maths equation.

Although in the past I have given marks out of ten and stars out of five to films when asked, I do so reluctantly.

My belief is that if someone can’t convince you of the merits of a particular film, book, play, album (or whatever) through the strength of their words alone, then they really shouldn’t be reviewing it in the first place.

There is also the added complication of whether to use marks out of four, five, ten or hundred. It seems to me that publications are pretty arbitrary on this, even though it has a massive effect on the final grade. 

But perhaps the worst thing about the star system is that it is applying maths to art. I don’t believe anyone (whether they be Andy Warhol, Michael Bay, Werner Herzog or Martin Scorcese) sets out to make a film to fit into a scientific formula – so why do we feel we have to grade them like one?

But back to Roger, he lists the reasons why he grades higher than the Metacritic average:

But forget ratings systems altogether. What inclines me to tilt in a more favorable direction?

I submit the following possibilities:

1. I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie…

On this I have a lot of sympathy with Roger, as I too always go to a film hoping it will be good. Why would you be doing a job like this if you didn’t?

That said, I’m often surprised at how often this isn’t the case – at times some critics and ‘media’ audiences I’ve been amongst almost seem to relish trashing a bad or average film more than actually celebrating a good or excellent one.   

in my line of work I am often stunned at the amount of people you meet who appear to actually dislike the act of going to the cinema and watching a film (even if this is their job!).

In the UK, where TV and Theatre appears to have a higher social and cultural standing than Film, there is still – in some influential quarters – a certain snobbishness about the medium.

This usually leads to a kind of pointless grumbling about ‘Hollywood trash’, even though Britain, Europe and the rest of the world have also contributed to the collective cesspool of bad films.  

But anyway, Roger’s second reason is:

2. Directors. There are some who make films I simply find myself vibrating with. I will have difficulty in not admiring a work by Bergman, Altman, Fellini, Herzog, Morris, Scorsese, Cox, Leigh, Ozu, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Keaton…and to borrow an observation from my previous entry, I haven’t even reached directors under 60.

This is undeniable. Although I’m not a fully paid up subscriber to the Auteur Theory, there is no doubt that this is a director’s medium.

Even if you don’t fully engage with a particular film, the stamp of the director  -and how it compares to his other work – is certainly a factor is passing judgement on it.    

His third rule:

3. I feel strongly about actors I admire, watching their ups and downs and struggles to work in a system that often sees them only as meat. Example. I opened my review of “The Women” this way: “What a pleasure this movie is, showcasing actresses I’ve admired for a long time, all at the top of their form. Yes, they’re older now, as are we all, but they look great, and know what they’re doing.”

Yes, I really believe that. I interviewed Candice Bergen for the first time in 1971. God, she was wonderful. I mean as a person. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she married Louis Malle, and was happy. Louis Malle was beautiful too, if you know what I mean, and a great filmmaker. She fell in love with both her head and her heart. I felt a particular pleasure in seeing her and that whole cast together.

Hmmm. Whilst I appreciate that audience members (be they experienced critics or young kids going to the cinema for the first time) form attachments to certain actors, one of the basic tenets of decent criticism is that you should be honest about their bad work as much as they best.

I am a huge admirer of Al Pacino, a screen icon who has performed brilliantly in the The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Insider.

But that doesn’t mean that I should cut any slack to a film like 88 Mins, which is one of his worst performances and, generally speaking, a laughable piece of crap.

To be fair though, that is primarily a problem with the writing and direction, for no actor can create a decent performance with a weak script. 

Rule 4:

4. Once the scent of blood is in the water, the sharks arrive. I like to write as if I’m on an empty sea. I don’t much care what others think. “The Women” scored an astonishingly low 28 score at Metacritic. “Sex and the City” scored 53. How could “The Women” be worse than SATC? See them both and tell me. I am never concerned about finding myself in the minority.

This is a fair enough – people should write their own feeling and not subscribe to critical ‘group-think’. But equally we shouldn’t go all contrarian and swim against the prevailing tide just to stand out.

Rule 5: 

5. I have sympathy for genres, film noir in particular. I am almost capable of liking a movie simply for its b&w noir photography. I like science fiction. Ed Harris has a new Western coming out named “Appaloosa.” I’ll like it more than the Metacritic average. You wait and see.

Although I understand Roger’s passion here – I think we all have genres we prefer – I really do think the quality of a film trumps whatever genre it is in.

For example romantic comedy has increasingly – and sadly – become a genre that signifies a badly written pile of rubbish aggressively marketed to a female audience.

But when judging it, we shouldn’t excuse because of it’s genre, rather we should explain why it is good, bad or average. In short, genres shouldn’t be an excuse. 

Rule 6:

6. In connection with my affinity for genres, in the early days of my career I said I rated a movie according to its “generic expectations,” whatever that meant. It might translate like this: “The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose.”

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d give four stars to the best possible chainsaw movie. In my mind, four stars and, for that matter, one star, are absolute, not relative. They move outside “generic expectations” and triumph or fail on their own.

As for rule 5, I think Roger is on sticky ground here. I understand that certain audience members have certain genre expectations (e.g. horror fans want to be scared or grossed out, comedy fans go to laugh) but I think that the individual voice of a critic is important.

Pauline Kael seemingly loved almost anything Brian De Palma directed whilst deriding Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen, but I think people read her New Yorker reviews because of that snobbish, whacky passion. 

In a similar vein I think readers love Roger for his generous attitude, wide ranging knowledge and deep passion for movies.

Trying to adjust your own critical personality along genre lines could be selling yourself a bit short.

Rule 7:

7. I have quoted countless times a sentence by the critic Robert Warshow (1917-1955), who wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”

If my admiration for a movie is inspired by populism, politics, personal experience, generic conventions or even lust, I must say so. I cannot walk out of a movie that engaged me and deny that it did. I must certainly never lower it from three to 2.5 so I can look better on the Metacritic scale.

This is a solid point. Any viewer of a movie with an opinion brings to it their own unique life experiences, so to artificially adjust or deny them is silly.

That said, the Metacritic average system points brings up an interesting issue. It is very rare that I disagree with films that get high (above 70) or low (below 40) scores.

Does this mean that critics tend to think alike? What would happen if we ran the Metacritic scores against the box office numbers? Or for that matter the IMDb 250?

How big a disparity would there be between the so-called experts and the paying audience?

Your thoughts are welcome.

> Roger’s original blog post at
> Metacritic and the individual scores for Roger
> Jeffrey Wells with his thoughts at Hollywood Elsewhere


Roger Ebert’s blog

Roger Ebert now has a blog.

It is called Roger Ebert’s Journal and he already has some posts up about fanzines begetting blogs and his early days as a teenage newshound.

You can subscribe to the feed here.

> More about Roger Ebert at Wikipedia
> His official website


A.O. Scott on Roger Ebert and film blogs

In an otherwise heartfelt and thoughtful tribute to Roger Ebert, who recently announced he is officially retiring from his TV show, A.O. Scott of the New York Times ponders the state of film criticism:

…if the future looked grim back in 1990 — when Entertainment Weekly’s letter grades and the proliferation of Siskel and Ebert knockoffs seemed to threaten the integrity of the critical enterprise — what must it look like now that the Internet is gobbling up all discourse?

Is the Internet really ‘gobbling up discourse?’ This sounds like a case of someone in a big media Ivory Tower imagining a horde of digital barbarians at his gate.

But – as I’ve argued before – surely the Internet is actaully enabling discourse?

He goes on:

If a star- or thumb-based rating system was the enemy of nuance and complex thought, what are we to make of the splattered fruit at or the numerical averages at

Are review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic a bad thing? Clearly it is stupid to merely reduce a film’s quality to a percentage or grade, but the benefit of these sites is that they introduce you to new writers and give you a greater awareness of the differences of opinion out there.

But wait, there is more:

If you spend time prowling the blogs, you may discover that the problem is not a shortage of criticism but a glut: an endless, sometimes bracing, sometimes vexing barrage of deep polemic, passionate analysis and fierce contention reflecting nearly every possible permutation of taste and sensibility.

Is this plurality of voices a worrying trend? It can make finding the good stuff harder, but do we really want a quasi-Soviet style system where a few big outlets set the ‘approved’ cultural agenda?

The use of the word ‘prowling’ (look up the definition) seems to imply that Tony was looking for bad blogs to justify his point.

But the real mistake here is not actually saying – or linking to – which ‘blogs’ he is referring to. It is as vague as saying you spend time reading ‘the newspapers’ or watching ‘the TV channels’.

Does he mean blogs like GreenCine Daily? Scanners? Hollywood Elsewhere? Spout Blog? Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule? The Hot Blog? Matt Zoeller Seitz? In Contention? Thompson on Hollywood? All of these are intelligent places for the discussion of films and far from the ‘angry-amateur’ media stereotype of the faceless ‘blogger’.

The irony here of course is that Tony and his colleague Manohla Dargis are usually two of the best film writers you can read on the web. They happen to work for the New York Times, which admittedly gives them a huge platform both in tradional print and online, but I think both could find an audience and make their mark online even if they weren’t employed by the Gray Lady.

Unlike some doom merchants I am actually optimistic about the state of quality film writing – considered and intelligent pieces will spark discussion and stand out amongst the cacophony of snap judgements, ill considered rants and fanboy droolings that can proliferate on certain sites.

A further irony is Roger Ebert has long been one of the most web savvy of film critics, making his reviews available on the web and responding to his readers questions about interesting aspects of movies.

That engagement with his audience is another reason why he is so highly regarded by his peers and readers.

> Full A.O. Scott article at the NY Times
> Roger Ebert’s website