The incredible life story of influential and popular Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert is told in Life Itself, a documentary based on his best-selling 2011 memoir.
Directed by Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was enthusiastically championed by Ebert, Life Itself has footage and interviews with the critic during the final months before his death in 2013. He was suffering from cancer that had robbed him of his lower jaw and ability to speak, except through a computerized box. Despite his illness, Ebert harnessed the Internet and social networking platforms like Twitter to remain a vital voice, almost until he passed.
Friends, colleagues and family interviewed include his steadfast wife Chaz along with Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. It covers his early days as a Hollywood screenwriter with Russ Meyer on the cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There's also a look at his often-stormy relationship with his friend and chief rival, Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. Together, the pair hosted a popular movie-review show on TV, which popularized the phrase "two thumbs up".
Ultimately, it's a portrait for how Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, transcended his chosen field's rather stodgy public image to become an influential cultural voice who brought critical thought about movies to the masses.
After premieres at Cannes and Telluride – festivals Ebert regularly attended – critical reception is overwhelmingly positive, which is hardly surprising. Despite all the acclaim, Life Itself missed the cut when it came to Academy Award nominees for documentary feature, but I tend to think that's how Ebert himself would have preferred it, to give the spotlight to other films.
Part of SF Cinema's ongoing Doc Holiday series, Life Itself screens this weekend in a very limited release, at 5pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.
The Imitation Game – A war hero whose top-secret efforts saved countless lives but cost him dearly, Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematcian, cryptanalyst and computing pioneer who led British efforts during World War II to break the Nazis' Enigma code. He was also gay, and in return for his efforts, he was criminally prosecuted under the U.K.'s draconian indecency laws and chemically castrated. He's delicately portrayed in The Imitation Game by Benedict Cumberbatch, a Golden Globe and Oscar nominee. Fellow nominee Keira Knightly also stars, as Turing's confidant, the gender-barrier-breaking code-breaker Joan Clarke. Other stars include Matthew Goode, Charles Dance from Game of Thrones and Mark Strong. A nominee for eight Academy Awards, critical reception is generally positive. Rated 13+
Tracers – Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner shows off his muscles in this action drama. He's a New York bicycle messenger who is indebted to the mob. After a run-in with a beautiful but mysterious woman (Marie Avgeropoulos), he sees a possible way of pay off those debts when he's introduced to a crew of criminals who use the daring sport of parkour to pull off heists. Critical reception is unknown – this doesn't come out in the States until next month, so Bangkok viewers have a head start on letting the world know whether this is actually any good. Rated 15+
Project Almanac – Here we go with another fake “found footage” movie. This one chronicles the efforts of teenage friends to build a time machine to undo past mistakes. Well-meaning at first, they believe they are successful, but as they use their device for personal gain, they come to discover their actions have dire consequences. This is just coming out in the States this week, so critical reception is only just coming in. Rated 13+
Sean Sayong (เศียรสยอง , a.k.a. Under the Mask) – Thailand's revered and sacred classical masked dance – khon – provides the backdrop for this indie horror about a gang of miscreants who kidnap some party-goers and flee into a haunted forest that was once a center for dance training. There, they encounter a ghost dancer who dreamed of being the "khon yak" – the giant monster of masked-dance lore. Rated 18+
Gangnam Blues – Against the backdrop of the 1970s building boom that made Seoul’s luxurious Gangnam district what it is today, the relationship of two childhood friends is put to the test as gangsters and political powers vie for control of the lucrative real-estate market. Yoo Ha (Once Upon a Time in High School, A Dirty Carnival) directs and Lee Min-ho and Kim Rae-won star. It's currently topping the box-office in South Korea. It's in Korean with English and Thai subtitles at CentralWorld, Paragon and Esplanade Ratchada and dubbed elsewhere. Rated 18+
The Truth About Beauty – The obsession over cosmetic surgery is parodied in this Chinese romantic comedy. Recent college graduate Guo Jing (Bai Baihe) figures she lost her boyfriend and can’t find a job because she isn’t attractive enough. So she undergoes plastic surgery, then lands a job selling real estate and catches the eye of her boss (Ronald Cheng). Now her dilemma is what to do if her colleagues and friends discover her "ugly" past. In Mandarin with English and Thai subtitles at SFW Centralworld and House on RCA. Rated 15+
The Friese-Greene Club – Spanish surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's unsuccessful attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's sprawling sci-fi novel Dune is recounted in the cult-hit 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, screening tonight. Tomorrow is another documentary on a couple more cult-cinema figures, Werner Herzog and his frequent leading man, the volatile Klaus Kinski. Their stormy relationship is recounted in 1999's My Best Fiend. And the month closes out with one more look at our "strange future", the underappreciated 1985 neo-noir Trouble in Mind starring Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine and an excellent Devine, out of drag.For the February schedule, check the club's Facebook page. Shows are at 8pm. The FGC is down an alley next to the Queen's Park Imperial Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 22. There's just nine seats, so book them.
Japanese Film Festival – Officially opening on Friday with an invite-only gala screening, one of Bangkok's longest-running film fests has a handful of films that have Thai ties. Saudade, screening at 5pm on Saturday, deals with the migrant-worker community in Japan, where two laborers bond over their shared interest in Thai culture, and especially, Thai women. Other highlights include Sunday's The Kirishima Thing, a much-acclaimed drama about cliques in conflict at a high school, and a bleak drama, The Light Only Shines There, Japan's official submission to this year's Oscars. The fest runs until February 8 at Paragon Cineplex, where you can buy tickets for 100 baht. Please see my previous posting for full details.
Filmvirus Kawaii Luv Luv – In addition to the Japanese Film Festival, Filmvirus' Sunday afternoon double features of Japanese films continues – sort of. Up first is Max, Mon Amour, a 1986 French comedy by Japanese great Nagisa Oshima. Charlotte Rampling stars as a diplomat's wife who has entered into a shocking love affair with a chimpanzee. Next up is Yuki and Nina, a 2009 childhood drama in which a Japanese girl facing the divorce of her parents finds solace with her French best friend. The show starts at 12.30 on Sunday in the Pridi Banomyong Library at Thammasat University Tha Prachan, in the Rewat Buddhinan Room, floor U2, the basement. Dress appropriately, bring an ID and inform the desk worker you are there to see a movie. For details, call (02) 613-3529 or (02) 613-3530.
German Open Air Cinema – Cross-cultural connections and conflicts form the backdrop for Kaddish for a Friend, a 2012 drama in which a Palestinian boy moves into a mixed neighborhood in Berlin. Pressured by his peers, he breaks into the apartment of an upstairs neighbor, an elderly Jewish man, and the two must come to some sort of agreement if the boy is to learn anything about life. It screens at 7.30pm on Tuesday, February 3, at the Goethe-Institut of Sathorn Soi 1.
Alliance Française – "Lost illusions" is the theme for February, which kicks off with La folie Almayer (Almayer's Folly), a 2012 drama about a Dutchman risking all in his search for lost pirate treasure in Malaysia in the 1950s. It's adapted from Joseph Conrad's debut novel. Chantal Akerman directs and Stanislas Merhar stars. It's in French with English subtitles at 7pm on Wednesday, February 4 at the Alliance.
The Theory of Everything – Young English stage and screen actor Eddie Redmayne has emerged as the actor to beat this awards season after pulling down the Golden Globe and other prizes for his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking. Felicity Jones also stars in this biopic, which charts Hawking's life at university and his struggles in overcoming overwhelming disabilities stemming from rare early onset motor neurone disease. Critical reception is generally positive. This is in sneak previews from around 8 nightly before opening wider next week. Rated 13+