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Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9

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In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of all of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray is the beach locale during summertime; from all six of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women; and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know that he’s done this kind of thing much better elsewhere. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferable to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the sunny Dinard locations as appealing as one could hope for.

Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 6.9

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

I recently and belatedly caught up, via video on demand, to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

  • John Charet

    I thought both films were very good (I gave both of them * * * 1/2 out of
    * * * * stars). I understand your problems with Life Itself (no filmmaker can do justice to Ebert’s autobiography of the same name). Nevertheless, the sheer earnestness of the documentary is so powerful in reminding us about every single side of Ebert that it is hard to have a below average opinion of it. In other news recently, two new photos have been posted online from Tim Burton’s new film Big Eyes (being released on Christmas Day). The film is a biopic on female artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) who was the real genius behind those drawings of saucer eyed children during the late 1950’s and not her husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). The reason I bring this up is because even though you are not a super big fan of Tim Burton, you will be pleased to hear that this is the second time he has not worked with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (his last film was the animated Frankenweenie) and the screenplay is penned by the same guys who wrote Ed Wood, which was Tim Burton’s very best film for a lot of people. Regards:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      I certainly enjoyed LIFE ITSELF but I think its attempt to show us, in your own words, “every single side of Ebert” is precisely what limited it. I think it would’ve been stronger if James’s focus had been a little narrower.

      I gave up on Tim Burton a while ago (don’t think I’ve seen a film of his since the 90s) but this new one does sound like maybe he’s not on autopilot or repeating himself. I’ll wait for the reviews, including yours, before I decide to see it. 😉

  • Jeremy Freeman

    Well it seems that we both had different opinions on Life Itself. I can see where you are coming from with your assessment of it though. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about another way it should have been shot or edited to come back up to a higher standard in your eyes.
    Been trying to watch all the films I can before school starts, of course in one of my classes the first week we’re discussing Citizen Kane. Twice in a summer that shall be fun 🙂
    Jeremy.

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