When you think about it, really think about it. When you live and breathe it. When you study it, write papers on it, review it, dedicate so much of your time to it. When it becomes so much a part of your life, your everything, beyond theory and hope. Movies and all they mean to us can imitate the lives we know, the lives we live ourselves, and the lives we’ve seen and read about in history in our lifetime. What you experience on screen can be moving and engaging because this happened – I am not talking about historic accuracy here, I am talking about the movies.
That feeling, that deep set of emotions, that simply rise to the surface as quivers or tears, was something along the lines of my experience within a matter of seconds of Life Itself. An incredibly warm, inviting, and painful documentary tribute to a great film critic. No, the great film critic. Those opening moments were instant reminders of what Roger Ebert represented. Entertainment. Chicago. Movies. Passion. And now loss. A legend of his field, doing what he was doing for longer than many of us have been on the planet.
And we are also invited to meet his friends, he family, his own critics, his fans. Seeing the strength of Ebert’s wife Chaz, or Martin Scorsese with a frog in his throat, all contribute honest and emotional views on the man and his work. As does the volatile relationship and deep friendship with the late Gene Siskel. Life Itself of course focusses on Roger Ebert, the man who loves the movies and loves writing, and his love was clear to see even in his final days when his illness slowly started to take him away. Squeezing all of this and more into the two-hour movie is never ever going to be long enough, but credit to Steve James and his team for doing so, with this heart-felt achievement about life and about movies.
Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing are two other names we hear a lot these days. They also had physical, social or mental obstacles, but would not allow barriers to squash their notions or their work. And they achieved great, great things. In fiction you still have a story to tell. And the stories on film of the accomplishments in cosmology and code-breaking respectively, against the odds I might add, have been anticipated and cherished almost side-by-side for months and months. In movies.
James Marsh has made documentaries prior to The Theory of Everything, and although that skill is sometimes apparent, but mostly useful, here, the narrative is purely cinematic. Focussing on Hawking’s relationship with Jane (who wrote the memoirs on which the film is based), his theoretical triumphs, and how he struggled, but defied time, with motor neuron disease. Morten Tyldum’s first English language film has similar themes of an English hero of sorts overcoming their circumstances. The Imitation Game though confronts not only Turing’s personal struggle, but also the impact on this can have by saving millions of lives during the war. Aside from the Enigma-cracking central story we are reminded of the ambush of war, with planes dropping bombs, people in air-raid shelters, and the ruins left afterwards.
Although both of these movies have been nailed down as Oscar contenders, not many are saying they are Best Picture winners. Comparisons then to conceivably inferior, over-glossed A Beautiful Mind, which won the big prize, might end there. Hawking / Nash and Jane / Alicia dolled up in evening wear and star-gazing is the most vivid comparison I can offer. The stirrings of love indeed, now more powerful as we gaze over Roger Ebert’s star on Hollywood Bouelvard, with others we have lost recently. I am certain Ebert would have given a much better social-relevant account and promisingly honest review of those two movies than I ever could.
We wonder how much he would have praised the central performances of Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch. Both are terrific without any doubt. Redmayne inhabits the Hawking we know. He expresses humor through his quips but also his face, in spite of the pain, and was reminiscent of Ebert himself, when without a voice is still full of life. Cumberbatch’s performance is extraordinary. The pinnacle coming when he has to portray a man who in the end can not cope with being punished for his homosexuality (a truly ludicrous page in the history of law and society) – in the final scenes he takes your breath away.
Men can suffer deeply then, but they can still conquer. Their stories are so mighty, these three movies are going to continue to digest with me for a long time. And the strong women by their side, not just someone’s wife or receptionist. Felicity Jones deserves all the plaudits she is getting, she matches Redmayne with the circumstances of her character, and is paramount as an actress to The Theory of Everything – this is almost her movie. And Keira Knightley is straight up brilliant in The Imitation Game, her character also able to wave of bouts sexism and prove a worthy contributor to the team of men.
Ebert told us about the buzz he still gets when seeing and writing about movies. We all all feel the power in that, he just conveyed it better. Not just the movies though, but life itself. His achievements are about how he expressed himself as well the success he had in the decades in the movie-reviews business. When Hawking (Redmayne) and Jane (Jones) watch on at their grown up kids, he says to look at what they made, and it gives so much perspective in an instant. The lives they created together. And Joan (Knightley) telling the down-trodden Turing (Cumberbatch) that the city she travelled through today would not exist were it not for him. The lives he saved. The lives they all impacted and made us appreciate a little bit more. The real people. The actors and the actresses. The film-makers and the film critics. The joy and the sadness. I mean, how can you not love the movies?