By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 30, 2014 at 10:00AM
While a documentary on late film critic Roger Ebert might sound like a fans-only affair, “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James goes beyond the call of duty with this powerful look at the last four months of his life, culminating his death from cancer in early 2013. “Life Itself,” which pulls its title and focus from Ebert’s memoir, efficiently tracks the writer’s burgeoning success as an old-fashioned newspaper reporter, his influence on film culture through the mainstream popularity of “Siskel & Ebert,” and his willingness to constantly maintain his relevance under the evolution of media in the twenty-first century. James’ insightful portrait manages to position Ebert’s influence as both a natural manifestation of his passion for cinema and his ceaseless work ethic, while personalizing the narrative through intimate testimonies and remarkably candid footage from the writer’s hospital bed. While he lost his capacity to speak in his final years, Ebert found his voice in other ways, and “Life Itself” finds a credible emotional arc in the triumph of that last act in its subject’s life. While CNN produced the film and has broadcast rights, a theatrical distributor has yet to be announced. Having committed his life to the big screen, Ebert deserves to be seen on as many of them as possible.
"Listen Up Philip"
Employing voice-over narration and an episodic structure that recalls the chapters of a book, Alex Ross Perry’s third directorial effort marries the best of showing and telling,” wrote Emma Myers in her Indiewire review. "Its titular character is a cantankerous novelist played by a hirsute and well-styled Jason Schwartzman. Petty, self-obsessed, and fixated on a very recognizable form of success, Philip’s increasing solipsism is defined by his relationships with those around him. Importantly, the protagonist disappears for a sizeable chunk of the film’s mid section (a device Perry borrowed from William Gaddis’ novel, ‘Recognitions’) and we learn as much about him in absentia as we do from being in his overwhelming presence. A languorous yet methodical comedy, ‘Listen Up Phillip’ unfolds like a sociological proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity.” (Read the full review here.) With a cast that also includes “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, it’s easy to assume “Philip” will get out there, somehow, but lost in the conversation is its potential for broader appreciation — yes, it’s a movie about an asshole, but he’s weirdly lovable all the same, and it’s been a long time since American cinema received a movie willing to dance that delicate line. Schwartzman is an ideal access for point for a form of subversive literary humor that's simultaneously chic and unsettling, a combination bound to alienate some viewers even as others find it transcendent. In other words, it's a genuine conversation-starter.
Tim Sutton’s directorial debut “Pavilion” offered a stunning vision of alienated young with virtually no plot but tremendous visual prowess. “Memphis” is only slightly more narrative-based in its meandering but never less than fascinating portrait of Tennessee-based singer Willis Earl Beal, loosely playing himself while supplying the moody, bluesy soundtrack. While drifting from place to place, talking to old friends, lovers and a priest as he tries to reconcile his former successes with a world that has seemingly abandoned him, Beal remains a persistently insightful presence — and the film follows suit. Similar in tone to Matthew Porterfield’s breakout sophomore feature “Putty Hill,” Sutton’s second effort is filled with soul while foregrounding its inventive formalism. “Life is artifice,” Beal says in a television interview at the beginning. By retaining an otherworldly quality while also tapping into the nuances of everyday life, “Memphis” proves he’s right. Though it's something of an experimental film, with Beal's existing fan base, the movie may have broader appeal than it appears on the surface.
At first galvanizing in its depiction of survival amid dire circumstances, "The Overnighters" transforms into a devastating portrait of communal unrest. Jesse Moss' verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time. Though well-made throughout, "The Overnighters" builds from a warm, traditional portrait of the American dream in action to arrive at a shocking finale that redefines its focus. Far from simply giving its subject a hearty pat on the back, "The Overnighters" digs beneath the surface of the idealism he strives to embody and arrives at disturbing truths. Tackling a personal issue through lens of a much broader one, "The Overnighters" should speak to audiences that can relate to its characters' working class struggles -- as well as those just fascinated by them. Read the full review here.
"Return to Homs"
To anyone outside of Syria, the battle ranging on between President Bashar Al-Assad's armed forces and various rebel factions is mainly an abstraction. That makes director Talal Derki's "Return to Homs," which opened the 25th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam before winning Sundance’s world cinema documentary competition, something of a revelation: It portrays the struggle from the inside, from about as far from the filter of mainstream media as one can get, capturing tense shootouts and the extremes of revolutionary spirit in unnerving detail. Centered on a handful of fighters in the largely abandoned city of Homs, with footage smuggled out of the country, Derki's angry, fragmented portrait constitutes a lonely shout in the darkness. Read the full review here.