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New films: A Fantastic Week in Filmdom.

The author having (perhaps) a little too much fun during a great week at the movies. iPhone photo by Paul Le.
The author having (perhaps) a little too much fun during a great week at the movies. iPhone photo by Paul Le.

I can’t remember the last time I saw and wrote about three films in a single week, which I held in such collective high regard and for such different reasons. And they come together for me in a manner that is helped by memories of film critic Roger Ebert, with one of the three being a film based on his life and work (with special screening information at the end of this column). So here are three connected accounts of three otherwise unconnected films, one that made me laugh and giggle, and two that made me cry.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn

I can’t presume to know what Roger Ebert would have thought of “Guardians of the Galaxy” but much of my own response comes from a place and an opinion that I know he and I shared: That films are an art form that should be judged in the context of their genre and intended audience. He had famous disagreements with long time reviewing partner Gene Siskel on this point, one of which can be seen in “Life Itself” (see below). And “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a phenomenal, fun riding, summery popcorn bonanza.

As with so many other recent films, it’s based on comic books of which I have virtually no knowledge and yet I never felt at a disadvantage of any kind for my personal ignorance. This is a story and an adventure that stands on its own, capable of being enjoyed on a first unenlightened viewing. And for all that Ebert liked to dissect films at great length, he was also a populist fan of accessible films.

Here, a small human boy is abducted by space pirates and grows to become an intergalactic treasure hunter of sorts. That is, until he’s joined under unfortunate circumstances by several other ne’er do wells, with what turns out to be a common interest in stopping an evil leader. The outcome of which has almost the right tone to exist in some corner of an expanded “Star Wars” universe.

For me, going in and knowing relatively little about the film, I knew enough to realize that much of its merits were likely to hinge on the success of one character: Rocket, a talking, gun wielding, super smart, part cyborg, space raccoon. Not a sentence I write very often and not a character that let me down. This is the kind of film where that idea and that depiction work and work perfectly. He’s blasting and we’re having a blast watching.

There are little flaws along the way – some bad makeup here or there, a few seemingly inconsistent details – but it’s so much fun that nothing really seems to matter that much. For a moment you’re a kid again, watching earlier generations of whichever films you grew up on. Is it the “best” film I’ve seen this year? – It’s not even the best film I’ve seen in the last week. Is it the most upbeat fun I’ve had for several weeks at the movies? – Yes, at least since “Godzilla.”

 

Boyhood
Directed by Richard Linklater

Several years ago, director Richard Linklater had what seemed like a crazy, or crazily ambitious idea for a film. What if he told a story about a boy growing up into a young man, using one actor and shot over the necessary number of years, rather than shooting conventionally with a series of actors playing the one character at different ages? The result is the wonderful and engaging “Boyhood.”

Much has been said and written about this film, especially regarding the central performance by Ellar Coltrane as Mason, who we see go from small boy to tall, mature and philosophical man, from elementary school to college. And it’s a performance worthy of positive commentary but there’s so much more about the film and other performances that help carry it through that same span of time. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as his separated parents, and especially Lorelei Linklater in the pivotal but less showy role as his sister Samantha. Which barely scratches the surface of the performances, with many others who, while they might not play out across quite the whole timeframe, come in and out of the picture just as characters come in and out of our own lives.

There’s a sense of building authenticity in that regard, as everything starts to feel increasingly real. At least some of which was allowed to develop as the child/adolescent actors developed as the film was also developing. Looks, interests and attitudes were incorporated into the film as cast and crew came together year after year to add content and advance the story. But at its core, this is a character study – a look at what influences a person becoming who they are as a young adult. Mason lives through a turbulent childhood, with multiple family and living circumstances adding to his growing independence.

Which brings me back to Roger Ebert and the documentary about his life that I watched the day after watching “Boyhood.” At one point there’s a sequence from Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and memories came flooding back of that film and a sudden realization of a connection between the films, both of which happen to feature childhoods in Texas. I’m not a big fan of Malick’s work and there’s much in “The Tree of Life” that reminds me of what I dislike about several of his other films. But at its core there’s also this extraordinary depiction of childhood and the way that we draw parts of ourselves from our parents as we grow. I thought at the time that that film might have captured childhood, in its own way, better than any film I had seen before and now I feel that “Boyhood” has one-upped it.

It’s also very unusual for me to ever reach the end of a film and feel the desire to rewatch it immediately. I’m not generally a fan of multiple viewings at all. But at the end of “Boyhood,” having watched Mason, and also Ellar Coltrane himself, grow up before my eyes, I wanted to go back and revisit the moments along the way. It wasn’t a desire to gain clarity regarding any of those moments, the film is really quite beautifully simple in many ways. It was more of a sense of nostalgia and a desire to reminisce – as though I was the empty nest parent watching a door close behind my kid and immediately reaching for the family album amid a rush of tears. And that’s a powerful sense of connection to have with a film.

 

Life Itself – SPECIAL SCREENINGS (see information below)
Directed by Steve James

I cried even more at another kind of reminiscence, this time about the life and career of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic and author Roger Ebert. It’s a long film that sometimes feels its own mass, but at the same time I’m glad that given whatever was cut out of the film, that what remains is all there.

The film is based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name and much of the content will be familiar to many who followed his columns, or his television show with arch-rival author turned good friend Gene Siskel, who also succumbed to cancer. But there’s much that was new to me – about his carousing days and his struggles with alcohol, his time editing his college newspaper, and his family life. It’s a film that celebrates the man without idolizing him.

Ebert was a champion of film, in all its forms, and a remarkably powerful voice on the subject. Perhaps at times a little too powerful as when, in my own opinion, he helped push “Crash” towards the Academy Awards finishing line. But I also found myself sharing a similar range of film appreciation, with Ebert being as much a fan of Russ Meyer as Martin Scorsese. It’s an interesting tribute to realize that the documentary itself is Executive Produced by Scorsese, who Ebert noticed very early in his career, almost resurrected at a low point in his life, and was willing to criticize loudly when Ebert felt he had lowered his standards – all of which is depicted in the film.

Similarly, the film is directed by Steve James whose earlier documentary “Hoop Dreams” was championed by Ebert. And there is testimony in the film from other filmmakers who credit much of their success or their own breaks to Ebert.

At the other end of the scale, there are brilliantly awkward moments, especially those between Siskel and Ebert in their antagonistic days. And one in the form of Ebert, alongside Siskel, explaining how much he disliked “iThree Amigos!” while appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and fellow guest Chevy Chase, co-writer and co-star of “iThree Amigos!”

As Ebert’s cancer progressed and he lost his ability to speak, which had represented not just much of his identity but his livelihood, he became a strong adopter of web based media and blogging. But years earlier he had maintained his own film column and answered many of the questions thrown at him by his readers. This is seen in the film, through reminiscences by those involved but it’s also something that I experienced myself. For example, after 1999’s “Chill Factor,” one of the films that sprung up in the aftermath of “Speed,” I realized that Ebert had misinterpreted a plot point. This wasn’t a difference of opinion, this was a simple misread of the story. So I decided to test his answer column and told him – whereupon he very graciously admitted his error and thanked me for explaining the detail he had missed. And it was that exchange and conversation about films that he relished, whether with a total stranger like me or his long-time collaborator Siskel who, as the film details, knew how to push his buttons quite mercilessly.

But at the heart of the film is the great love between Ebert and his wife Chaz, and the great respect from friends and colleagues. It’s a passionate film about a passionate man who fell in love with movies and wrote and published about them until, literally, the day before he dies. We should all be so lucky to find something that gives such meaning to our lives and which lasts a lifetime.

“Life Itself” is playing twice only at the Crest Theatre: On Saturday, August 2nd at 7pm and on Sunday, August 3rd at 2pm.

 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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