Daily Streaming Guide: March 22nd Edition

Today’s edition of my Daily Streaming Guide centers on two captivating documentaries, which are both available for viewing via Hulu:

The 2014 doc Life Itself is about the life and death of renowned film critic Roger Ebert. From his wilder days in Chicago to becoming sober to his famed partnership with fellow reviewer Gene Siskel, the pic is an all encompassing look at the legendary Pulitzer Prize winning writer. The most touching moments involve his debilitating cancer battle that ended his life in 2013. Emotionally resonant and often funny, Life Itself is a great watch even for people who weren’t tremendously influenced by his work (like me).

2018’s Three Identical Strangers can be filed under the heading “truth is stranger than fiction”. That phrase plays throughout the tale of identical triplets who didn’t know of one another’s existence until they were 19. The less you know about it going in, the better. Just know that you’ll be entertained and consistently surprised.

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

Oscar Watch: Life Itself

The film festival season always gives us plenty of Best Picture contenders and potential recipients for the acting categories and elsewhere. There’s also those movies that debut and completely eliminate themselves from contention due to poor reviews. At Toronto, that definitely appears to be the case with Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself (not to be confused with the terrific documentary about Roger Ebert).

Fogelman is most known for creating the hit NBC tearjerker series “This Is Us”. For his second feature film (after the barely noticed Al Pacino led Danny Collins), he’s assembled a cast including Oscar Isaac, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Simply put, critical reaction here has been bad, saying it’s manipulative and corny. Bottom line: Life Itself has taken itself out of any awards talk.

The film opens September 21. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

My Love of Movies Part II: The Blog’s Second Anniversary

This week, Bill Murray spent an hour on Howard Stern’s radio show. Hearing these two true comedic icons shoot the breeze was an absolute pleasure. Filmmakers who try to recruit the indispensible Murray to even be in their movies have a tough time getting through to him. The actor is notorious for not having a manager or publicist or checking his cell phone (which he told Howard he has because his children only text and don’t answer calls).

At one point, the conversation turned to the late, brilliant film critic Roger Ebert and Murray told a fantastic anecdote about him. Earlier in his career, Murray was not known at all for dramatic work and Roger criticized him, stating that he should stick to comedy only. Years later, when Murray saw Ebert at an event, he quoted a famous critic for making that statement. Ebert didn’t know who would make such a claim since Murray was obviously a wonderful actor in any forum. Murray reminded Roger that it was him that said it years ago. As the actor recounted, Ebert gave him a look like, “Boy, was I wrong!” The Ebert conversation ended with Murray stating his love for the critic and Howard agreed. Bill Murray’s main point: Roger Ebert loved movies.

You see that deep affection for the world of cinema in the documentary Life Itself, which recounted Roger’s career and the last few months of his life. I’ve talked about it on the blog before when reviewing that documentary and in my post on the sad day that Roger died. My general feeling is this: you can tell when a person who writes about movies loves them and when they don’t. Let me make an important distinction – I’m not talking about loving a movie that you give four stars to and not liking a movie you award with two stars. I’m speaking of being able to determine whether or not a writer truly loves the craft they’re writing about. Roger Ebert did. Many more do. Other critics and bloggers seem to revel in trashing movies far too often, at least for my taste.

When I read a critic’s work or their blogs, I want to feel like they have a deep appreciation for the subject they spend so much time writing about. Frankly, it’s the main thing I strive to achieve on my blog – which will celebrate its 2nd anniversary officially on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve written my share of negative reviews. So does every other critic and blogger on planet Earth. Many pictures, simply, don’t measure up to expectations, are a rehash of previous material, are badly paced, etc…

Yet here’s my philosophy when it comes to writing about movies – every time those theater lights go down or (more often) I hit play on the Blu Ray or On Demand, I hope that I’m going to like what I see. I hope to have that satisfactory or even profound film watching experience that us lovers of cinema seek out again and again and again and again. I’ve had it recently with that Ebert documentary. I had it when Little Groot danced to the Jackson 5 in Guardians of the Galaxy. I had it watching the delicious twists and turns of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. I had it watching Leo DiCaprio on speaker phone suckering in a client in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. I had it watching Tom Hanks remind me that he’s one of the most astonishing actors in the world during the last five minutes of Captain Phillips.

And that was all in the last year! Now let’s go to just last night when I reviewed Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. I’m a fan of his work – both “Family Guy” and 2012’s Ted. I found his sophomore directorial effort to be pretty darn disappointing. Guess what? I loved writing my review of that just as much as writing a highly positive post – the kinds I recently wrote for Her or Fruitvale Station. 

Now here’s the irony: two years ago when I began this little venture, I stated that I wouldn’t write movie reviews on the blog. Boy, was I wrong! Just like I’ve been wrong about many of my box office predictions that remain the most read entries on this site. For every time I nail a prediction (or close to nail) on The Equalizer or Gone Girl, I grossly underestimate the potential of Annabelle or grossly overestimate the performance of the Sin City sequel.

I’ve now been writing movie reviews for about 23 years since I was a preteen. It took my snap decision to start the blog to rediscover my love for that exercise. Yet the movie reviews are just one part of that aforementioned love of movies. There’s plenty more posts – whether box office related or Oscar prediction related. Hell, I’ve even found myself posting about music and TV more often than I could have imagined.

In the two years since the blog began and much to the assistance of WordPress, I’ve been able to discover other movie bloggers. They may have different writing styles than myself, but they have one thing in common: they love movies too. Joe Giuliano, who predicts box office results with freakish accuracy. Thy Critic Man, Daniel Prinn and Justine B, whose reviews are a joy to read. Trevor and Jason from boxofficeace.com and their fine podcast… I just wish they did it every week! And there’s many more.

As I said on my year anniversary of the site, I sincerely cannot thank you enough for reading this site. I would love writing this blog regardless, but it means a heckuva lot more knowing that eyeballs actually see it. I appreciate each and every one of the thousands of blog views and readers in 142 countries (!) who’ve read some of my 777 (!) posts. For those who take their time to check my box office predictions or read my Oscar forecast or peruse my reviews and so forth, I can tell you what I strive for everyday on this wonderful hobby of mine. The goal is for the reader to come away with this general feeling – that guy loves movies and writing about them. And if I’ve been able to direct you in the path of something great that you haven’t seen, that’s a feeling I cherish.

Back to the beginning:

Bill Murray. Roger Ebert.

For movie lovers like me and you, think about the joy that someone like Bill Murray has brought into your lives. Caddyshack. Ghostbusters. Groundhog Day. Lost in Translation and so forth. I’ll have that feeling of excitement soon when St. Vincent premieres. Maybe it’ll be great. Or maybe not, but I love anticipating finding out and I’ll love writing about it.

For movie writers and bloggers like me and some of you, think about how Roger Ebert’s work may have influenced you. I know damn well he influenced me. He helped teach me how to put that indescribable affection for this world of movies into words. Don’t get me wrong – I am no Roger Ebert and never will be. I’m just trying my best to put my perspective on movies before the reader and hope you enjoy it.

The thing about movies is this – as I described in an earlier post, it’s a Never Ending Story. There’s always more to discover. There’s always something new to write about. There’s always the joy of revisiting older titles and or rediscovering something about a favorite that you hadn’t noticed before. There’s always box office predictions to make for this blogger. There’s always Oscar predictions as the race takes shape.

And there is always, always, always the love that I hold for the subject I choose to write about and the joy that those making and writing about movies give to us, the audience. Whether it’s Bill Murray in front of the camera or Roger Ebert at that typewriter.

Mr. Ebert might be gone, but his words are here for us to enjoy forever. In the last year, we’ve been saddened to learn that Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman are gone. Yet their work will live on for us to savor – from Truman Capote to a British nanny to a cult religious leader to a therapist telling his pupil that “It’s not his fault” to the Big Lebowski’s socially awkward assistant to that inspirational teacher telling his students to “Seize The Day!” For us movie lovers, the medium gives us these special moments and performances and memories to seize on those days when we might need it.

And I’ll close by saying that it’s a real pleasure to write about it.

Life Itself Movie Review

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

These words are written by Roger Ebert in the latter stages of his life when cancer has robbed him of the ability to speak. His outlet to his legions of readers and admirers comes in the form of his extensive blog. Ebert, unlike many of his old school critic colleagues, was quick to embrace the Internet and how it could reach so many people.

And indeed – Steve James’s powerful new documentary Life Itself, based loosely on Roger’s memoir, shows how many people Roger reached through a career that spanned nearly half a century. It is impossible for me to write a proper “review” of this doc without admitting the profound effect that Roger Ebert has had on me personally. As a kid when I first realized how much movies meant to me and how much I loved watching them and talking about them and writing about them, it was Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s TV program that assisted in serving as that catalyst. As a teen, I would pour over Ebert’s yearly edition of his film reviews that came out every year and read them cover to cover. This would, of course, become a weekly occurrence after the Internet became an everyday fact of life for most of us. When I began penning movie reviews weekly for my hometown newspaper in Northwest Ohio, I was trying to write like Roger Ebert and probably failing. I’ll be damned if I didn’t love doing it though.

Life Itself goes well beyond documenting Roger’s considerable talents when it came to film criticism, but it thankfully spends a decent portion of its running time celebrating it. When the Siskel and Ebert program became a phenomenon, there were fellow critics (especially on the coasts) that believed the duo had somehow bastardized the art form with their “Thumbs Up” rating and brief reviews on the show. You don’t hear that often anymore because, well, it’s  a ridiculous and high-minded notion that misses the central point. Roger Ebert’s style of writing was conversational and made you feel like you were hearing a very intelligent discussion on whatever feature he was opining about. When one reads a film review and you feel like the critic is talking down to the reader, that’s a failure of writing. Ebert and Siskel understood that. Most importantly, Roger Ebert loved movies. And he went out of his way to celebrate and promote filmmakers who he believed in. By way of his reviews and TV program, this helped promote Scorsese and Spike Lee and Gregory Nava and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and countless others. It exposed audiences to movies and movie makers who they might not otherwise have known about.

One such person that Ebert unquestionably exposed to a much bigger audience was Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was named by Siskel and Ebert as their favorite picture in a year when Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were also released. James does an amazing job returning the favor with Life Itself.

When James and Ebert sought out to make this documentary, they didn’t know that its subject would soon pass away. The cancer that Ebert suffered ravaged his face, his voice, and body. The picture doesn’t hold back from showing some uncomfortable scenes of Ebert at the hospital undergoing treatments you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet we also see the unwavering dedication of his wife of twenty years, Chaz. Life Itself is as much a love story as anything else and theirs is a strong one that truly shows “the sickness and in health” portion of their vows.

James does an incredible job of jamming a lot of information about Ebert’s life into two hours. We hear of his childhood, his alcoholism, Chicago newspaper politics, the national celebrity that he and Gene gained, his Pulitzer prize, his writing of the screenplay to the 1960s Russ Meyer sex flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There’s much about the complicated and often extremely antagonistic relationship between Siskel and Ebert. Life Itself is able to show all these aspects of Ebert in a fast-paced, always fascinating way. And it doesn’t hold its subject up as a saint by any means. Especially in the early portions of his rise to prominence, Ebert could be difficult and arrogant and the picture doesn’t shy away from that.

We are witnesses to Ebert’s last months in this world and it’s not always easy going, but his bravery and Chaz’s when facing these times are emotional and inspirational. Ebert makes it clear that besides his beloved family, it’s his work that gets him through these horrendously difficult times. It is that work of Ebert that inspired not only so many writers, but even the people he was writing about. There is a lovely passage in the doc where Martin Scorsese explains how Roger assisted him in getting back on his game after a rough patch in his life.

Even if you don’t have the distant connection through similar interests that I have with Ebert, Life Itself is worth seeking out. It’s a masterfully done documentary that is worthy of the man it covers. For me – it provided a final and often funny and often touching and uplifting last chance to see a person who, in many ways, is the reason I’m typing these words right now.

**** (out of four)