Posts Tagged ‘Sundance 2014’

calvary

Calvary‘ starts on a jarring note. An off-screen parishioner in confession tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest when he was a child, and that he intends to kill Father James a week from Sunday in some sort of redirected vengeance against the church.

It’s hard to tell exactly how fazed Father James is by the threat, due to the incredible way that Gleeson registers and downplays emotion in the role. He tells his presumed attacker that he’ll think of something better to say by next Sunday, and then goes about visiting the various lost souls of his flock with a business-as-usual diligence.

Calvary is presented almost as a series of vignettes as James makes his rounds. Some are quite dramatic, like the couple injured in a car accident who require last rites, the prison visit to a convicted killer (About Time’s Domhnall Gleeson) and the longing conversations with Fiona (Kelly Reilly), James’ daughter from a pre-priesthood marriage. But others are filled with dark comedy: the complacent cuckold (Bridesmaid’s Chris O’Dowd) or Dylan Moran as a man so disillusioned by his wealth that he quite literally urinates on it.

These visits — some bizarre, some pleasant, some combative — are underscored by the weight that Father James is a man fighting, however nonchalantly it may appear, against a ticking clock. He knows the identity of his would-be killer but keeps this information from the audience, preserving an it-could-be-anyone tension as we’re introduced to more of the idiosyncratic characters that populate this small town in Ireland.

The setting is one of Calvary’s strengths, existing in a world apart from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life but steeped in and struggling to deal with a history of sexual crimes against children. It’s made clear that Father James is innocent of the horrors perpetuated by his peers, but he is still burdened by the communal weight of his institution.

These are people largely detached from the crimes of the Catholic Church, and while Calvary does not address those crimes directly, it presents us with the aftermath of a world where institutional trust is shattered.

The film has a lot to say, and achieves it best by having its protagonist leave much unsaid. But there’s also a sense that the filmmakers are reaching to string together themes that don’t quite coalesce.

The large cast also presents an inconsistent caliber of performances (the scenes with Reilly never quite hit the emotional punch they’re intended to) but everyone involved is lifted by the commanding presence of Gleeson as Father James.

When next Sunday arrives and our antagonist is revealed, their malice and anger is not easily reconciled with the interactions they’ve had earlier in the film. But the film’s final scenes, while likely to be divisive, are beautifully shot and written with the appropriate weight of questions that do not provide easy answers.

Viewers will likely come away with different reactions, but speaking broadly Calvary is a film that leaves an impression, not of any particular moment or line of dialogue, but a quiet and introspective mood that haunts you after you leave the theater.

Grade: B+

*Calvary opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 15.

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*Note: This review was originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Writer-director Joe Swanberg isn’t one to hit you over the head with plot. His films, of which there are many but particularly 2013’s “Drinking Buddies” and now “Happy Christmas,” tend to be more naturalistic portrayals of everyday drama and humor that come across as minimalist and largely improvisational.

In Happy Christmas, Swanberg reunites with Buddies’ Anna Kendrick to tell the story of Jeff and Kelly (himself and the perpetually underrated Melanie Lynskey), a young couple who take in Jeff’s sister Jenny (Kendrick) after her break up with a boyfriend. Jenny is a charming (it’s Anna Kendrick so, natch) albeit stunted and self-interested person who is acting out and prone to moments of immaturity, which makes Kelly nervous about her presence in the house.

But as the advent calendar on the mantel ticks off the days to Christmas the family bonds and Jenny’s presence prompts a series of small evolutions within Jeff and Kelly and their already-strong but novice marriage.

The film is filled with moments of simple delight, particularly in the form of Swanberg’s real-life infant son Jude, who steals every scene that he’s in. There are character arcs and conflict and resolution but the film is largely a peek into the life of three people who feel as real as any person you might pass on the street. It comes to an abrupt ending, making loose ends of otherwise minimal plot points, but provides a refreshing portrait of marriage and family without the cynicism or pandering of most similarly-themed films.

Grade: B

*‘Happy Christmas’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, August 1.

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*Note: Portions of this review were first published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

The always-enjoyable Philip Seymour Hoffman is deliciously sour in “A Most Wanted Man,”  but unfortunately he’s about the only intriguing part of this disappointingly lifeless adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller.

The story follows Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann, who heads up a covert anti-terrorist unit in Hamburg on the trail of a suspected terrorist who literally washes up on shore. Bachmann hopes the man can lead him upstream to bigger fish, but he’s under pressure from his superiors to act fast before any bombs go off.

A stellar supporting cast — including Rachel McAdams with a laughably bad German accent, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and an Underwood-esque Robin Wright — are largely wasted as the plot tip toes forward in an attempt at slow-burn tension that ultimately fizzles.

Le Carre’s work has been proven to be fertile ground for low-fi psychological spy games on the big screen with 2011’s excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But while A Most Wanted Man shares some of Tinker’s DNA, the former plays like going to the senior prom with the quarterback’s quiet, gangly, acne-faced little brother.

With it’s 93 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I appear to be in the minority in not recommending this film. While I respect the difference of opinions among my colleagues, I also wonder if the tragic passing of Hoffman has lifted AMWM in the eyes of critics out of respect for one of Hollywood’s most truly gifted and versatile performers.

Hoffman is superb, to be sure, but the remaining elements of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ result in a thriller that nearly lulls you to sleep.

Grade: C+

*‘A Most Wanted Man’ opens nationwide on Friday, July 25.

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*Note: This review was first published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

 

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff’s diretorial follow-up to “Garden State” was under scrutiny long before its premiere in Park City. The “Scrubs” actor drew the ire of many by asking his would-be audience for help through the fundraising website Kickstarter, with many feeling that it was inappropriate for an established star with Hollywood connections and several year’s worth of syndicated sitcom money in the bank to be asking regular folk to turn out their pockets.

But his fans jumped on board, and now the question is whether “Wish I Was Here” delivers their money’s worth.

WIWH, like Garden State before it, tells the story of a struggling actor (Braff) at a crossroads in life. In this case, Braff’s Aidan Bloom is a 30-something father of two who is in a professional rut. He hasn’t worked since “that dandruff commercial,” leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) to shoulder the bulk of the family’s financial burdens.

Aidan gets hit with another blow in the form of his ailing father (Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin) whose cancer has returned and spread throughout his body. Their relationship is strained, with Patinkin’s character incessantly voicing his disapproval of Aidan’s career choice, but more intact than that of Aidan’s brother (Josh Gad) who we presume has barely spoken to his father in years.

The movie is more mature than much of Braff’s earlier work, with a surprising amount of tenderness between Aidan and his two children (played by Looper’s Pierce Gagnon and White House Down’s Joey King). But there is a disconnect between the characters and the material that stands in the film’s way. Braff and Hudson have little, if any, chemistry onscreen and Gad has even less with Ashley Greene in a side-plot awkwardly inserted into the fray. There’s also a significant portion of the film devoted to religion that never quite materializes into something impactful.

In the end, Wish I Was Here is a pleasant film with a sufficiently emotional voice. But the movie likely will not live up to the expectations of Garden State fans who waited 10 years for Braff to get back behind the camera.

Grade: B

*Wish I Was Here opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 25.

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This is Part IV in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For Parts I, II and III click here, here and here.

Rudderless

After losing his son in a campus shooting, Sam (Billy Crudup) retreats into himself, taking up residence on a boat and ditching his career as a marketing exec to paint houses. But after coming across a box filled with his son’s amateur songwriting, Sam begins performing the music with a garage band that sees local success.

As the directorial debut of William H. Macy, “Rudderless” is a thoughtful tale of grief and the power of music. Crudup is excellent and his chemistry with Anton Yelchin, a bandmate who goads him into performing, is engaging even though Yelchin doesn’t seem like a perfect casting match for his character.

For a first-time feature, Macy displays a healthy restraint in doling out exposition (with the exception of a few clichéd and predictable events in act III) and a significant reveal is handled deftly, casting the entire film in a new light.

Grade: B+

They Came Together

Director David Wain’s latest ensemble satire is to romantic comedies what Scary Movie was to the horror genre. The story follows the romance of Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, she the small business owner and he the corporate robot poised to drive her out of business until their cross paths and they fall in love, with a supporting cast that includes Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Christopher Meloni, Jason Mantzoukas and cameos from just about every actor who has appeared in a critically acclaimed TV comedy over the last five years.

Wain’s comedic tone is ever-present, and the increasingly absurdist shenanigans are undeniably hilarious, but in gleefully dwelling in the tropes of a genre deemed “cheesy” and “lame” They Came Together can’t help but get a little bit of cheese on its own fingers. The framing structure, which sees Rudd and Poehler telling their “how did you meet” story on a double date sets the rules of the game early on but ultimately turns into the kind of repetitive joke that delivers diminishing returns.

In the end, They Came Together is a very funny film, but not a very good film.

*Watch a video of the Q&A with Wain, Rudd, Poehler and Max Greenfield here.

Grade: B

Frank

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician plinking away at his keyboard in a frustrated attempt to write a hit song. He feigns sincerity, but in his incessant appeals to social media and his inability to create even mainstream drudge it is clear that he is motivated by a pursuit of fame and not by any deeply-held artistic vision. In a bit of dumb luck, he crosses paths with a band fronted by Frank, a man whose face is perpetually obscured by a large paper-mâché head and for whom music is an end in itself.

Frank invites Jon into the band as keyboardist, whisking him away to a secluded cabin in Ireland to record the new album, despite a cold reception from the other members of the band, including Maggie Gylenhaal as a cold and volatile theremin player.

The film eventually strays from a story about a quirky Euro-band to one about mental illness and expression. But the central question of the movie, “Who is Frank and why does he wear the head?” is left largely unanswered even as the band collapses and Frank’s mental state deteriorates. One would assume that if you cast Michael Fassbender in your movie and spend the whole movie hiding his face that you’ve done it for a reason. Right?

Frank was a buzzy film at this year’s festival. But in this critic’s opinion, the movie is one that perhaps had grand things to say if you could just hear them from underneath a muffled mass of paper mâché.

Grade: B-

The Babadook

This Aussie horror, part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At Midnight category, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel’s dad died in a car crash the day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

But then a monster appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr. Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows, strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly unhinged.

While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a child’s book, is a strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the audience’s skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for something more sinister.

Grade: B+

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Nick Offerman: American Ham

Essentially a live-show of a comedy performance in New York, “American Ham” delivers 90 minutes of Nick Offerman’s signature dry humor on subjects ranging from romance and relationships to religion and politics to a disdain for vegetarianism and an appeal to the old-fashioned pleasures of the outdoors and hard work.

The routine, organized as Offerman’s 10 tips for living a happy life, is sweet yet irreverent, crude yet cultured, insightful yet familiar and quite funny. It also features Offerman performing a number of musical numbers and frequently mining his sex life with wife Megan Mullaly for comedic impact. Fans of stand-up should be pleased and newcomers will find an easy, albeit adult, entry to the medium.

Grade: B

*The Sundance Award winners were announced Saturday. Read my article on the ceremony here.

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Third in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For parts I and II click here and here.

Fed Up

Much has been said about America’s obesity epidemic: from the rising rates of obesity and diabetes among children to the growing health-care costs related to swelling waistlines. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, with her Let’s Move campaign that encourages children to stay active, has contributed to a national conversation on the need for diet exercise and the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which had the audacity to try to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables during school lunch (the horror!).

But the argument that Fed Up makes is that our national focus on fitness and activity fails to address the elephant in the room: the food industry that increasingly pitches high-sugar processed foods and a national diet that sets individuals up for failure.

Produced and narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up makes a well-articulated and at times alarming argument. It describes the biological science, the historical events and the private industry motivations that have combined into a sinister cocktail. It lambasts the “diet food” market, which shaves off marginal amounts of calories while maintaining the same – if not higher – sugar levels of their traditional counterparts. And it points a big, accusatory finger at soft drinks, labeling them as the cigarettes of the 21st century and suggesting that a warning label from the surgeon general on a bottle of Coke may be a necessary first step in demonizing the junk food industry.

Informative and empowering, Fed Up is the kind of documentary that sends you home considering what you’ve seen and checking the nutritional labels on your groceries.

Grade: A-

Song One

In a very “Once”-ian story of love and music, Anne Hathaway plays Fran, a Ph.D candidate who is summoned home to New York after her busker brother is hospitalized in a coma. In an attempt to wake him, Fran goes about rounding up mementos and sounds from his favorite spots in the city – pancakes from a diner, the sound of gulls by the river, etc – and in the process encounters her brother’s musical idol, an indie musician named James in town for a limited run of performances.

James soon joins Fran on her quest, resulting in a sort of scavenger hunt of Brooklyn music venues – and a killer soundtrack with performances by Sharon Van Etten and Johnny Flynn, who plays James – with the two growing closer at each step. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful  Mary Steenburgen, who plays Fran’s post-bohemian academic mother in an charming performance as a mother trying to maintaining high spirits in the face of grief.

“Song One,” which Hathaway also produced, is a charming film that is equal parts music showcase and emotional drama. The chemistry between Hathaway and Flynn isn’t exactly electric and its Hathaway that does most of the heavy lifting, but the winsome indie-vibe, backed by beautiful sights and sounds, makes the film a winner.

Grade: B+

Hits

For his directorial debut, Arrested Development’s David Cross (Dr. Tobias Fünke) has crafted a two-hour sketch comedy that assaults you with heavy-handed observations on hipsterism, millenials, conservatives and the internet culture. It is undeniably funny, but also scattershot, forced and inconsistent.

In the quiet hamlet of Liberty, New York, blue-collar municipal worker Dave has a beef with his local city government. There’s potholes everywhere, the roads don’t get plowed and a local restaurant took his favorite dish of the menu. These grievances are routinely filed at the City Council meeting, where Dave loyally arrives to take part in public comment, ranting and shouting and frequently having to be escorted from the premises.

His antics eventually gain him some internet notoriety as a collective of Brooklynite activists take up his cause. This causes Dave’s daughter some grief, as she is a fame-obsessed teenage girl desperate to go viral online like the Teen Moms she hate/loves.

“Hits” is peppered with a drop-in cast of likeable actors (Jason Rutter, Michael Cera, David Koechner, Matt Walsh and Amy Sedaris) who each deliver some genuine laughs. But the film is so busy trying to maintaining nonsensicality while still saying something about society that it makes for a hodgepodge that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Grade: B-

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Part II in a series of capsule reviews from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. For Part I, click here.

Young Ones

Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult star in “Young Ones,” a neo-western set in a dystopian future where prolonged drought has led to a regression of society and feudal states drawn along watershed lines. Shannon plays Ernest Holm who, together with his son Jerome, works a supply run and scrapes a living out of the dry earth. He locks antlers with Hoult’s Flem Lever, a motorcycle-riding hot shot who is after both Holm’s work and his daughter (played by Elle Fanning).

In “Young Ones,” director Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth) has envisioned and constructed a wholly-realized future, populated with new but familiar technologies, customs, economy and aesthetic. It is an impressive feat of world-building, providing a clear picture of the circumstances our characters live in without the burden of noxious exposition.

The story itself is also engaging, unfolding in three distinct chapters that focus on distinct characters. It blends a patchwork of disparate genres — post-apocalyptic, science fiction, coming-of-age — with an impressive clarity that allows the actors to shine.

Grade: B+

Ivory Tower

The central question in “Ivory Tower,” the latest film from “Page One: Inside the New York Times” director Andrew Rossi, is whether a college education is still worth the investment considering the spiraling costs that over the last 30 years have soared well in excess of inflation and essentially every other market good.

The cause of those rising costs are myriad — decreased state-level funding, ballooning administrative salaries, inter-institutional competition that drives new, bigger construction and facility enhancement — but on the other side of the wallet is a student who, statistically speaking, is less and less likely to complete their degree and if they do, they are burdened with 5- or 6-figure debts and a bleak job market that sees half of all recent graduates under- or unemployed.

Rossi does a remarkable job of illustrating the problem without getting bogged down in the quagmire, jumping nimbly through profiles of students and institutions, from the Ivy League to non-traditional schools in Death Valley. The film largely ignores technical education and the community college class, and is less successful at proposing a solution, perhaps because none has yet to present itself. MOOCs, the online super-courses and would-be saviors of higher education are shown to possess interesting possibilities, but the real-world application has so far seen mixed — if not largely negative — results.

But it is not the documentarian’s job to fix the problem, only to raise the questions that will hopefully be discussed by those in a position to change their behavior and advance toward a new result (in this case students, faculty, administrators and lawmakers). In that regard, Rossi succeeds at making a clear case that reform is needed and a film that would be beneficial viewing to anyone involved in education.

Grade: B+

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff’s diretorial follow-up to “Garden State” was under scrutiny long before its premiere in Park City. The “Scrubs” actor drew the ire of many by asking his would-be audience for help through the fundraising website Kickstarter, with many feeling that it was inappropriate for an established star with Hollywood connections and several year’s worth of syndicated sitcom money in the bank to be asking regular folk to turn out their pockets.

But his fans jumped on board, and now the question is whether “Wish I Was Here” delivers their money’s worth.

WIWH, like Garden State before it, tells the story of a struggling actor (Braff) at a crossroads in life. In this case, Braff’s Aidan Bloom is a 30-something father of two who is in a professional rut. He hasn’t worked since “that dandruff commercial,” leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) to shoulder the bulk of the family’s financial burdens.

Aidan gets hit with another blow in the form of his ailing father (Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin) whose cancer has returned and spread throughout his body. Their relationship is strained, with Patinkin’s character incessantly voicing his disapproval of Aidan’s career choice, but more intact than that of Aidan’s brother (Josh Gad) who we presume has barely spoken to his father in years.

The movie is more mature than much of Braff’s earlier work, with a surprising amount of tenderness between Braff and his two children (played by Looper’s Pierce Gagnon and White House Down’s Joey King). But there is a disconnect between the characters and the material that stands in the film’s way. Braff and Hudson have little chemistry onscreen and Gad has even less with Ashley Greene in a side-plot awkwardly inserted into the fray. There’s also a significant portion of the film devoted to religion that never quite materializes into something impactful.

In the end, Wish I Was Here is a pleasant film with a unique and sufficiently emotional voice. But the movie likely will not live up to the expectations of Garden State fans who waited 10 years for Braff to get back behind the camera.

Grade: B

Happy Christmas

Writer-director Joe Swanberg isn’t one to hit you over the head with plot. His films, of which there are many but particularly 2013’s “Drinking Buddies” and now “Happy Christmas,” tend to be more naturalistic portrayals of everyday drama and humor that come across as minimalist and largely improvisational.

In Happy Christmas, Swanberg reunites with Buddies’ Anna Kendrick to tell the story of Jeff and Kelly (himself and the perpetually underrated Melanie Lynskey), a young couple who take in Jeff’s sister Jenny (Kendrick) after her break up with a boyfriend. Jenny is a charming (it’s Anna Kendrick so, natch) but somewhat stunted and self-interested person who is acting out and prone to moments of immaturity, which makes Kelly nervous about her presence in the house.

But as the advent calendar on the mantel ticks off the days to Christmas the family bonds and Jenny’s presence prompts a series of small evolutions within Jeff and Kelly and their already-strong but novice marriage.

The film is filled with moments of simple delight, particularly in the form of Swanberg’s real-life son, who steals every scene that he’s in. There are character arcs and conflict and resolution but the film is largely a peek into the life of three people who feel as real as any person you might pass on the street. It comes to an abrupt ending, making loose ends of otherwise minimal plot points, but provides a refreshing portrait of marriage and family without the cynicism or pandering of most similarly-themed films.

Grade: B

Life After Beth

I almost didn’t see Life After Beth, thinking that my zombie cup runneth o’er considering the limited time I have at Sundance. But luckily a scheduling snafu found me in the theater for the comedy about a young man whose girlfriend dies but inexplicably rises from the dead.

Don’t let the above photo fool you, Life After Beth is not a zombie movie in the traditional sense and stays fresh by largely abandoning the trappings of the genre. In the film we follow Zach, played by Dane DeHaan (who is consistently fascinating to watch in whatever project he finds himself in), who is in mourning over the sudden death of his girlfriend Beth (Parks and Rec’s Aubrey Plaza) and is subsequently dumbfounded when he comes across her walking around her living room one night.

Her memory is hazy and her behavior is erratic, but Zach and Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are too thrilled to have more time with her to care. As time goes by, however, Beth begins to manifest even more troubling symptoms and it begins to appear like her miraculous resurrection may not have been an isolated incident.

Life After Beth stays light, winkingly playing off the expectations of a dead-are-rising Armageddon and years of zombie apocalypse fiction. Plaza, as the undead Beth, goes all in on her performance, committing to a high level of physical humor while growing ever more grotesque as the movie plays out.

The movie is irreverent and inventive, with just the right amount of shocks and gore to balance out the screwball humor. It’s a delicate tone to maintain but Life After Beth nails it, and in the process provides a story that will keep you chuckling long after you leave the theater.

Grade: A-

Life Itself

Roger Ebert — a man whose name is as associated with film as are Hitchcock, Fellini and Spielberg — was the premiere voice of film criticism in America and the first movie reviewer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he passed away after a yearslong fight with Thyroid cancer, leaving behind a legacy that will never, and truly can not, be matched.

In “Life Itself,” the documentary based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, filmmaker Steve James paints a comprehensive portrait of the man. With Ebert’s full collaboration — or rather, encouragement — James’ camera captures the struggles with alcoholism, the contentious relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, the ego, the poise, the drive, the romantic. We see Mr. Ebert’s final weeks in the hospital leading up to his death, expressive and jovial, cracking wise and energetically describing his favorite films as well as the low moments in physical therapy when the frustrations boil beneath his voicelessness.

At one point late in the film Mr. Ebert, speaking with the assistance of his computer, remarks that he does not fear death as it is a part of life and would have felt cheated if his time had come abruptly as a result of an accident, cheating his life out of its poetic arc.

“This is the third act and it is an experience,” Ebert says.

The film is a fitting tribute to a great and influential man, whose life was, in many ways, a tribute to the movies.

Grade: Two thumbs way, way up

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