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Entries in Steve James (3)

Monday
Jan272014

Sundance: 'Life Itself' Inspires and Entertains

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Life Itself".  

Is there any point in pretending I can be impartial in reviewing Steven James’ documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself? I, like no doubt a lot of critics, feel Ebert is in no small way responsible for the fact that I write about film. I purchased a copy of his Movie Home Companion around age 13 that I read and reread until it literally fell apart at the seams. In college I wrote him with a question about Memento and he mentioned me at the start of his review (no fooling), which remains one of the cooler things to ever happen to me. At a time when I was badly in need of encouragement he posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page and sent a Biblical torrent of traffic my way. 

So yeah, it would be a challenge not to pass this movie with flying colors simply because I miss the guy dearly and am happy to spend two hours in his company. Luckily Steve James has made a documentary that I can safely say I would recommend regardless of the subject, although for hardcore fans the abundance of new interviews and previously unseen archive material makes the film a must-see. Life Itself is straightforward, funny, well paced and surprisingly moving. 

For long stretches the doc most resembles the final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life with the movie inviting us to ponder what the film landscape would look like without Ebert's (and Siskel’s) influence. Filmmakers from Errol Morris to Ramin Bahrani to Werner Herzog testify how they would likely not have careers had Ebert not used his considerable influence to help them break through. In the film’s most memorable scene Martin Scorsese recounts how a career tribute from Roger and Gene helped pull him back from the brink of depression so bad he wanted to give up on films. Even the film itself is a gesture of gratitude since the director owes much of his success to the relentless championing Siskel and Ebert gave Hoop Dreams in 1994. 

Not that the film is a glowing hagiography of the man. Some of its most entertaining stretches delve into Ebert’s flaws: his massive ego, his alcoholism, his petulance when he couldn’t get his way with Siskel. Time is given over to those who feel that 'Siskel and Ebert' cheapened film criticism. Then there is the section recounting the bizarre circumstances that somehow led to Roger writing the Russ Meyer camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A.O. Scott's attempt at finding a delicate way to describe the appeal Roger saw in Russ Meyer’s oeuvre brought the house down at my screening.

James was filming right up until the end, and there is footage of Roger in early 2013 right after tumors were found along his spine and doctors gave him months to live. Like all great biopics Life Itself manages to be about something more than the simple recounting of events. It’s about living a life full enough that when the end comes you can face it with some semblance of the dignity and clarity Roger Ebert demonstrates here.

Grade: Probably an objective B/B+, but I can only review it from my own perspective and I had an A- experience.

Thursday
Jul112013

Emmy AND Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

The eligibility of documentaries for awardage from both that lusted after winged woman (Emmy) and the coveted naked man (Oscar) is a labyrinthine maze from which we would never exit were we to foolishly enter. In fact, someone needs to make a documentary about THAT to sort it all out. Documentaries leave strange crumbs all over both the big and small screens on their long walking journey through often complicated and extremely protacted "releases".

I bring this up because a portion of the Emmy nominations were announced today (like The Grammys there are hundreds of categories) in the non-fiction fields of news and documentary. I was surprised, for example, to see Semper Fi: Always Faithful, The Loving Story and We Were Here as nominees. You may recall they were all Oscar finalists (though not nominees) back in 2011 and now they're up for 2013 Emmys! Actual nominees from that Oscar year show up too, particularly those from the Best Documentary Short category. I thought we'd highlight a few categories in case you've seen any of these films. They might be familiar to you even if you spend more time in theaters than in front of your television. 

OUTSTANDING INFORMATIONAL PROGRAMMING - LONG FORM

OUTSTANDING HISTORICAL PROGRAMMING - LONG FORM

Awesome cinephile Vito Russo with fellow AIDS Activist Elizabeth Taylor

  • The Loving Story -HBO Documentary Films
  • Vito -HBO Documentary Films (read our interview with director Jeffrey Schwartz. Vito Russo wrote the groundbreaking book "The Celluloid Closet" which is all about the problems of LGBT presence in Hollywood films. That book and his AIDS activism are his legacy. This doc was also nominated for "Best Research")
  • Jesse Owens - American Experience PBS
  • We Were Here - Independent Lens PBS [Available on Netflix Instant Watch]
  • Nostalgia for the Light -POV PBS

And there are several other categories of non fiction programming too like "arts and cultural, science, and economic" . Finally, all the fields seem to unite under the umbrella category "Best Documentary" which has six nominations, all of them previous Oscar nominees or finalists except for Nostalgia for the Light, which nevertheless had a movie awards presence winning Best Documentary at the European Film Awards and winning a WGA nomination as well. That said I should note that this is no guarantee that how the docs aired on television is the same way they aired in cinema since documentaries can shape shift as they switch mediums and details of their stories continue to emerge. Some get much longer and are divvied up into segments for news programs. 

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Project NIM -HBO Documentary Films
  • Saving Face - HBO Documentary Films
  • The Loving Story - HBO Documentary Films
  • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom - HBO Documentary Films
  • Hell and Back Again - Independent Lens -PBS 
  • Nostalgia for the Light - POV PBS

Do you like docs and if so have you seen any of these films?

P.S. Of Note: 60 Minutes won a nomination for "Outstanding Interview" for their profile of Steven Spielberg during Lincoln's run. If winged Emmy is anything like naked Oscar, it won't win its category. 

P.P.S. The Emmy nominations most people talk about when they talk about Emmys are the ones that will be announced a week from today on July 18th. We'll talk about those soon!

 

Sunday
Nov112012

Interview: On 'Head Games' and Reshaping Oscar's Doc Branch with Steve James

Amir here. With an unusually large number of high profile contenders and a recent overhaul in the branch’s voting system, the documentary category is sure to be one of the exciting races at the Oscars this year. There are a few films firmly in the conversation already, but I recently caught up with a contender that has curiously slipped under the radar despite the talent involved.

Head Games, the newest from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) is based on a book by former WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski and takes on the issue of concussion in contact sports, a topic that is increasingly discussed among Football and Hockey enthusiasts in particular. James goes back to a more traditional structure in setting up his film with many talking head interviews and archival footage, but the end result is unexpectedly moving. Given the prevalence of these injuries in athletes, from kids who play Football or Soccer on a regular basis at school to the professionals of NFL and NHL, it’s a film that will be emotionally involving for a lot of people. I choked up a few times.

James’s history with the Oscars is well-known: despite universal critical acclaim, both aforementioned titles were snubbed by the Academy, not to mention his other powerful films. He was nominated in the editing category for Hoop Dreams, but it will be a big moment whenever he finally scores his first nomination for best documentary. On the occasion of the film’s qualifying release, I had the opportunity to chat with him about the film, his passion for sports, the Oscars, and the documentary branch’s new voting system.

 Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and now Head GamesINTERVIEW, OSCARS & EBERT AFTER THE JUMP

Click to read more ...