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~Downstairs at the Savoy~

Life Itself

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Rated R; 118 minutes

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Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter (excerpted)

Steve James’ engrossing, unflinching, moving and comprehensive biographical documentary about his friend Roger Ebert derives its tart title from the late film critic’s 2011 memoir. But it could as easily have been called A Life in Full, for the three-dimensional portrait it provides of its subject, or even Goodbye to All That, due to the fact that the film was made during the final five months of Ebert’s life and that he well knew that it would not be complete until he died.

The most famous film critic the world has ever known and the only one to have become genuinely wealthy in the profession, due mostly to the television show he hosted with various partners over the years, Ebert was both celebrated and ridiculed for his “thumbs-up or -down” rating game and was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts. He also was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, published many books (some on subjects other than movies) and was a lifelong participant in the Boulder Conference on World Affairs.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer and eventually other afflictions in the mid-2000s, Ebert endured numerous operations and treatments over the last eight or so years of his life that left him without a lower jaw and unable to eat, drink or speak. For many, this would have marked the end and a willful retreat into respected privacy. For Ebert, it launched his extraordinary final flowering; he learned to “speak” via a synthesizer that vocalized what he quickly wrote on a computer, launched his blog and website that consolidated his life’s work and gave him a larger following than ever, and began writing with unprecedented fluency about a wider range of issues. More than one participant here suggests that when Ebert lost his ability to talk, he found his voice.

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~Downstairs at the Savoy~

Snowpiercer

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Rated R; 125 minutes

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Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly (excerpted)

Hollywood certainly isn't breaking a sweat to come up with new ideas. So when a cinematic vision as boldly original and weirdly idiosyncratic as Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer arrives amid all the wheezy sameness, attention must be paid.

Set in the near future, after an attempt to counteract global warming has backfired, the entire movie takes place on a hurtling art-deco locomotive that circumnavigates the globe at a rate of one revolution per year and holds all that remains of our population. Survivors are ruthlessly subdivided into warring classes in segregated compartments. The soot-covered 99 percent are penned in like steerage refugees in the tail of the train, where they subsist on gross, gelatinous protein blocks and are powerless when armed thugs confiscate their children. Closer to the front are the fat cats living in decadent comfort. They worship an Oz-like figure named Wilford who resides at the very head of the train and sets the Darwinian rules.

There's nothing particularly subtle about the film's environmentalism and class-warfare themes. But if you think that Bong, the mad genre stylist behind 2006's The Host, felt pressure to play it safe in his English-language debut, guess again. He seems to have built his bizarre bullet-train world with total unfettered freedom. Watching it, I was reminded of the first time I experienced The Matrix or District 9. Snowpiercer sucks you into its strange, brave new world so completely, it leaves you with the all too rare sensation that you've just witnessed something you've never seen before... and need to see again and again.

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