Life Itself

(Steve James, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Sundance Resort Screening Room, 1/23/14



Roger Ebert taught me how to love movies.  How could I possibly be objective about this one?  Ebert has influenced the course of my life more than almost anyone; ever since a thirteen-year-old version of me haphazardly picked up his 1993 movie guide at my grandparents’ house in Maryland – out of sheer boredom, more or less – I’ve understood that the movies are an art form worthy of study, discussion, obsession, and worship.  I wouldn’t have started coming out to Sundance if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I wouldn’t have started this blog if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I might well have never made a movie of my own if Roger Ebert hadn’t turned me on the medium in the first place.  That puts him up there in my pantheon of heroes with people like Jimmy Stewart, Tom Stoppard, and Steve Martin.  He’s that big for me.

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

I never spoke a word to Roger Ebert, and he never spoke a word to me.  The closest I ever came to him was using an adjacent urinal at the Eccles Theatre in January of 2000 – my very first year at Sundance.  It was a trivial, almost laughable moment, but it kind of meant a lot to me.  I was eighteen.

I’m thirty-two now; I’m out at Sundance for probably the twelfth time; and Ebert is still pushing me into new places.  Last night Mike and Robb and I drove deep into the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, and found ourselves for the first time at Sundance Resort Screening Room, where we took in Life Itself.  It’s a rich and beautiful movie, edited with uncanny insight and clarity.  It gives us an Ebert as stubborn and childish as he was warm, brave, and perceptive – an Ebert who fought ignorance, indifference, cancer, and Gene Siskel with the same unshakeable tenacity and unflagging humor.  The portrait of Siskel and Ebert’s friendship that emerges here is both caustically funny and deeply moving; it’s clear that they cared for each other a tremendous amount, and it’s equally clear that they never knew any way to express it other than by endlessly bickering onscreen and off.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to have had this chance to say goodbye to Roger Ebert.  He was a titan in the world of cinema, and he was a personal titan to me.  The world is a little poorer for his passing – but if this movie reminds us of anything, it’s that life is to be cherished.  Every last goddamn minute of it.



(Rory Kennedy, 2012)

with Mike Lavoie, Chelsea Salyer, and Carlee Briglia, Temple Theater, 1/26/12


A sweeping, emotional portrait of a family, an era, and an extraordinary woman.  Sometimes it amazes me that the United States survived the 1960’s; what’s even more amazing is that Ethel Kennedy got through them with so much of her humor and passion intact.  Ethel makes no apologies for taking an insider’s view of its subject; director Rory Kennedy, Ethel’s 11th child, is also the film’s narrator, and appears on camera interviewing her mother and her surviving siblings.  How else do you make a movie about your mother, if not by allowing it to be personal?  Ethel gives us a rare chance to take in the scope of a truly remarkable life.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

(Alison Klayman, 2012)

with Mike Lavoie, James Fauvell, Chelsea Salyer, and Carlee Briglia, Temple Theater, 1/26/12


Now here’s a guy worth making a documentary about!  Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is a charismatic and bracingly rebellious figure – one part sage, one part hooligan, as mischievous as he is passionate, and 100% charming.  Because he lives and works in Communist China, Ai Weiwei isn’t just a merry prankster; he’s a merry prankster whose antics constitute a heartfelt plea for freedom and justice.  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry celebrates art, humor, political resistance, and the wide-reaching power of electronic media.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Putin’s Kiss

(Lise Birk Pedersen, 2012)

with Mike Lavoie, Robb Stey, Chelsea Salyer, and Carlee Briglia, Prospector Theater, 1/25/12


This documentary about a member of Russia’s official “youth movement” who begins to question her devotion to the cause often feels more like a fiction film than a doc – and I don’t mean that as a compliment.  At times, we’re simply unsure what we’re watching: a staged conversation?  A recreation of a real conversation?  An actual conversation that seems fake only because the cameras are there?  The melodramatic music and freeze-frames aren’t helping matters; they make it seem like the filmmakers are forcing their story to be dramatic.  But the biggest problem is the movie’s main character, Masha Drokova, who’s just too much of a bland, affectless cipher to build a film around.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Pumping Iron

(George Butler and Robert Fiore, 1977)

with Dad, Mom, Caitlin, and Darcy, Lake House screening room, 8/30/11


Arnold Schwartzenegger has to be the most confident human being to walk the planet since, I don’t know, Hannibal.  He’s also canny and charismatic, self-aware, affable, and utterly ruthless.  It’s impossible not to like the guy, even as he expresses a cheerful willingness to backstab his friends and prey on the weak in order to win his sixth Mister Olympia title.  Pumping Iron makes you feel like a temporary insider in the world of competitive bodybuilding, but the freakshow element never entirely goes away.

Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 11:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Exit Through the Gift Shop

(Banksy, 2010)

alone, on DVD at 1681 3rd Ave., 1/27/11


Weirdly entrancing, cheeky, unpredictable, and thought-provoking, Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first documentary I’ve ever really loved.  Although Banksy swears up and down that the events of the film are genuine, many remain unconvinced — in essence, because it’s simply too good not to be fiction.  Certainly, the twists and turns of the story are suspiciously riveting — but then again, life can be like that.  Banksy, our master of ceremonies, comes off as clever, grounded, and self-aware; despite his shadowed face and distorted voice, he’s a deeply appealing presence.  And to his credit, he’s not afraid to make himself look stodgy, or to make the whole art world look ridiculous — which is exactly what the film’s denouement does.  There’s a perverse pleasure in watching anti-establishment figures like Banksy and Shepard Fairey turn snotty and defensive when confronted with the success of someone who doesn’t fit their notion of an artist.  Banksy, at least, acknowledges the irony: “I don’t think Thierry played by the rules, in some ways.  But then, there aren’t supposed to be any rules.”  He goes farther, coming dangerously close to an uncomfortable truth: “Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.”  An even more apt summation is provided by Banksy’s art dealer, Steve Lazarides: “I think … I think the joke is on … I don’t know who the joke’s on, really.  I don’t even know if there is a joke.”  The audience isn’t sure, either.  That’s half the fun.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 9:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Corman’s World

(Alex Stapleton, 2011)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Egyptian Theater, 1/21/11


Amiable documentary about that mild-mannered master of the B-movie, Roger Corman.  Before watching Corman’s World, I had no idea how deeply connected Corman was to a whole generation of American filmmakers — Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and so on.  The interview with Nicholson is the film’s highlight, vacillating between spirited ribbing and sentimental affection.  One thing the movie never quite makes clear: is Roger Corman any good as a director, or not?

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bobby Fischer Against the World

(Liz Garbus, 2011)

with Mike Lavoie, Library Center Theater, 1/21/11


The saddest thing about Bobby Fischer’s descent into bitterness and delusion, as chronicled in this film, is how bright and charming he was to begin with.  Interview footage of a young Fischer shows a man who is, yes, a singled-minded perfectionist, but with a sense of humor about himself and his peculiarities, his powerful ambition tempered by a bashful demeanor and a ready smile.  Gradually, this likable and brilliant young man disappears into a swamp of hateful paranoia.  What happened to Bobby Fischer?  Ultimately, Bobby Fischer Against the World can’t answer that question, but the film asks it in a lucid and heartbreaking way.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Project Nim

(James Marsh, 2011)

with Mike Lavoie, Egyptian Theater, 1/20/11


A bit long, a bit plodding, and a bit facile, but still a fascinating tale stylishly told.  Given how many humans and other animals suffer and die every day around the world, all the hand-wringing about one chimpanzee seems a little overblown –  but then again, that’s what human beings are like; we always inflate the importance of anecdotes.  I guess that’s why cinema exists in the first place.

Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  


Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 2010)

with Mike Lavoie, Rose Wagner Theatre, 1/23/10


A gripping, you-are-there portrait of American soldiers assigned to a dangerous outpost in remote Afghanistan. If you want a visceral sense of what it means to fight a war against an entrenched, near-invisible enemy, this is the film for you. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is how funny a film Restrepo manages to be. Amidst the loss, dread, violence, and tedium of their daily lives, the soldiers of OP Restrepo maintain a healthy sense of absurdity, camaraderie, and raucous good humor. The interview footage is surprising, too — startlingly intimate, often moving, and occasionally chilling. This is powerful stuff.

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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