“Life Itself”: Roger Ebert goes to the movies one last time


“Life Itself” has its Madison premiere at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St., as part of the UW-Cinematheque summer series. PG-13, 2:03, three and a half stars out of four. FREE!

“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” — Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a great film writer for many reasons, but one of them was that he wasn’t just a great film writer, just writing about movies when he was writing about movies. Read through his reviews, and you’ll find political arguments, philosophical musings, remembrances of his boyhood in Champaign-Urbana. He believed that the beauty and the power of a great movie didn’t stop at the concession stand, but extended out the front doors into — life itself.

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Sundance Film Festival: “Life Itself” says farewell to Roger Ebert


“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” — Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a great film writer for many reasons, but one of them was that he wasn’t just writing about movies when he was writing about movies. Read through his reviews, and you’ll find political arguments, philosophical musings, remembrances of his boyhood in Champaign-Urbana. He believed that the beauty and the power of a great movie didn’t stop at the concession stand, but extended out the front doors into — life itself.

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Michael Gilio’s little film “Kwik Stop” needed a champion, and got Roger Ebert


Of all the films playing in the UW-Cinematheque summer-long tribute to the late Roger Ebert, from “The Third Man” to “The Producers,” the one you’re most likely not to have heard of is “Kwik Stop.”

But Ebert wanted you to know it.

So, while the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic’s passing in April is an unfortunate occasion to revisit “Kwik Stop,” he would probably have liked the fact that the sparkling and surprising 2001 indie film is getting another shot on the big screen. The film will screen for free at 7 p.m. Friday at the Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St., with writer-director-star Michael Gilio talking about the film and Ebert’s impact on it.

For Gilio, now a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, it will be the first time he’s seen “Kwik Stop” on the big screen since Ebert screened it at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago in 2005.

“It’s going to be fun,” Gilio said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to talking about Ebert and remembering the whole thing.”

Ebert’s impact on Gilio’s appreciation for film came at an early age, growing up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and watching “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel on Saturday nights.

“I would read his movie book every year,” Gilio said. “I would read all the reviews and being kind of in rural Illinois, you didn’t have access to all these films. A lot of the introduction to film for me was just reading his reviews, and I would imagine the movie in my head when I would read them.”

As an actor and screenwriter, Gilio moved back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. For his first feature, “Kwik Stop,” he decided to film in his home city, using the convenience stores and motels and corner bars of working-class suburbs as his landscape.

The film kicks off in a way that makes the viewer think this will be a Calumet City update of “Breathless.” A teenager named Didi (Lara Williams) catches a sharp-eyed drifter named Mike (Gilio) stealing a tube of tartar-control toothpaste from a Kwik Stop. Mike brags that he’s heading to Hollywood to become a famous actor (in a car that seems like something out of a movie, with a cutout of Harvey Keitel in the rear-view mirror). Didi begs to go along.

But instead of being a road movie, or a crime movie, or a love story, “Kwik Stop” contains pieces of all of them, playing with genres before subverting expectations. Mike and Didi’s journey together goes to unexpected places, eventually involving Mike’s ex-girlfriend Ruthie (Karin Anglin, who may be at Friday’s screening) and a surly widower (Rich Komenich).

“Poignancy comes into the movie from an unexpected source,” Ebert wrote in his 2002 review. “Depths are revealed where we did not think to find them. The ending is like the last paragraph of a short story, redefining everything that went before.”

Looking back, Gilio says “Kwik Stop” was made in one era in American movies and released in another. When he began making the film, independent films were hot, and in addition to independent distribution houses like ThinkFilm or Newmarket, studios had their own thriving distribution arms like Warner Independent or Paramount Vantage.

“It was just a totally different age,” Gilio said.  “The narrative went if you could get a couple of dentists to contribute you could od a little movie on the cheap, and then you could break out at Sundance and get picked up by one of the independent companies, and you’d be on your way.”

By the time the film was released in 2001, that independent market had largely collapsed, and distribution sources dried up. Even “Kwik Stop” looked different than the other films it would play with at festivals, shot on Super 16 film rather than low-quality digital video.

“It was already a dinosaur,” he said. “Most of the films being shown were all on video. But this was before HD even, so the quality of the movies wasn’t that great, but everyone was shooting on the cheap. And our movie was still on film. It was a weird time. The movie premiered at a time when things were radically changing.”

It also didn’t help Gilio’s cause that “Kwik Stop” was so hard to identify, mixing comic and dramatic elements, following one character and then the next. It’s a hard film to sum up in a movie poster slogan.

“The things that I feel make the film special and unique were the very things that made the film difficult and challenging to get seen and marketed,” he said.

Luckily for Gilio, the film was accepted into the Chicago International Film Festival, and when Ebert got a private screening ahead of time, he loved the film. He began talking it up to other critics and film people, and Gilio began getting invited to more and more film festivals in the United States and Europe.


“He just became a huge champion for us,” he said. “He had such a large national and international voice that it brought a lot of attention to this little film that could.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for “Kwik Stop” to get a broad distribution deal. It had a small theatrical release, enough that Ebert could then write a formal review praising the film and Gilio. He invited it to play at his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, which Gilio says was one of the best professional experiences of his life. When Chicago’s Siskel Center asked Ebert to select one of his Overlooked films to play there, he chose “Kwik Stop.”

The film finally came out on DVD in 2005, and Charles Taylor wrote in Slate that the shabby treatment such a good film received in the industry underscored how much had gone wrong with the independent film scene.

Still, Gilio remains grateful to Ebert for his unwavering support of the film, and has fond memories of spending time with Ebert onstage and off, talking about movies.

“When he embraced the movie, it was a really big deal for me and my family,” Gilio said. “Just a very kind, generous guy who went well beyond. He was very passionate about film and about the little guy.”

UW Cinematheque’s summer series to honor the late Roger Ebert


Usually, the UW-Cinematheque on-campus film program schedules series around the work of a particular filmmaker, or from a certain country, or even a particular genre of film.

But this summer, the Cinematheque is building its main series around something different — a film critic.

That critic is, of course, the great Roger Ebert, who passed away in April. In addition to being the most famous writer about film on Earth, Ebert was a good friend to Madison, coming up for several Wisconsin Film Festivals; on his last visit, in 2006, he and film professor David Bordwell presented the film “Laura” in the UW-Cinematheque screening room at 4070 Vilas Hall.

So it’s fitting that the free summer Cinematheque series, which kicks off July 11, will feature “Roger Ebert: Great Movies, Overlooked Films and Guilty Pleasures.” Ebert loved movies, all kinds of movies, and the series gives audiences a taste of that, mixing established classics like “The Third Man” with lesser-known gems like Tarsem’s visually ravishing “The Fall” (July 26) and the sci-fi kung fu movie “Infra-Man.” (July 19). The series also includes Akira Kurosawa’s epic “Ran” (Aug. 2) and Russ Meyer’s less-than-epic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (Aug. 9), which Ebert wrote the screenplay for.

And, in a major coup for the campus series, the Cinematheque will present the only Madison screening of the much-anticipated new film from Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”). “To the Wonder,” starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, was the last movie that Ebert filed a review for before he passed away.

All the screenings are free and open to the public, and seating is first-come, first-serve. The Ebert series will be much longer than Cinematheque summer seasons of past years, stretching through the rest of the summer. In addition, Cinematheque programmer Jim Healy is showing many of the Ebert selections in the larger Marquee Theatre in Union South. The Ebert screenings will run Friday nights, with a special showing of “To the Wonder” on Saturday, July 13.

On Thursday nights, Cinematheque will show the films of French comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix, whose work is largely unknown outside France but very influential on the works of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Robert Bresson, among other filmmakers. Those films, all new 35mm prints, will all screen in the Cinematheque’s usual home at 4070 Vilas Hall.

The opening weekend shapes up like this:

Thursday, July 11, “Le Grand Amour” (UW Cinematheque) — Pierre Etaix’s 1969 comedy follows a married businessman tempted to stray by his beautiful young secretary.

Friday, July 12, “The Third Man” (Marquee Theater) — Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles star in this classic tale of intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Vienna.

Saturday, July 13, “To the Wonder” (Marquee Theater) — Terrence Malick uses rapturous imagery to tell the tale of a French woman (Kurylenko) who comes to live with her new lover (Affleck) back home in Oklahoma.

Visit cinema.wisc.edu for the full schedule.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: April 5 to 11, 2013


It’s a sad week for movie lovers with the passing of Roger Ebert. Over at the Capital Times, I reposted a 2003 interview I did with Ebert along with a few thoughts about his generosity and his passing. For some, going to see a movie might feel a little strange, especially without a review from Ebert to guide them. For others, what better way to say goodbye; after all, his last written words for us were “I’ll see you at the movies.”

All week

Jurassic Park 3D” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller gets a 3D upgrade for its 20th anniversary, but for me, what I still remember about that film was the sound, the roar of the T. rex or the sound of his footsteps growing closer. Definitely one to catch in the theater again.

Evil Dead” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Or “Cabin in the Woods” without the jokes. Folks who only know the “Evil Dead” movies from the jokey last two would be surprised to learn how unfunny and nasty Sam Raimi’s no-budget original was, and this remake seems to follow in those footsteps.

No” (Sundance) — The best movie out this week is Pablo Larrain’s highly entertaining film about an advertising executive (Gael Garcia Bernal) who devises a campaign to oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Inspiring, but wise about the power of television to sway public opinion. Read my full review here.

Ginger & Rosa” (Sundance) — Elle Fanning convincingly adopts a British accent for this tale of two teens in 1962 London whose friendship is tested both by maturity, and by the threat of nuclear war.

On the Road” (Sundance) — Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) was perhaps the logical choice to try and adapt Jack Kerouac’s stubbornly unfilmable novel for the big screen. Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund play his counterculture road-tripping heroes.


Lincoln” (6 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — I expected another “War Horse” from Steven Spielberg, a gauzy paean that was as much a monument as a movie. Instead, I found “Lincoln” to be incredibly engrossing and even suspenseful, about a man living at the intersection of myth and mortal, idealism and pragmatism, and trying to pull off an audacious political masterstroke. Free!

Mini Film Festival (6 p.m., Madison Public Library Pinney Branch) — Get your cinematic appetite whetted for next week’s Wisconsin Film Festival with some local films and filmmakers. Ben Reiser will present his feature “The Grapes of Madison,” and Marc Kornblatt will present a pair of his short films. Film festival managing director Christina Martin-Wright will also talk about the films and the upcoming festival. Free!

“Tchoupitoulas” (7 p.m., UW Cinematheque) — Fittingly following on the heels of two films by documentary filmmaker Shirley Clarke, this film blurs the line between narrative and documentary, following three young brothers who spend the night soaking up the sounds and sights of New Orleans after they miss the last ferry home to Mississippi. Free!

Footnote” (9:30 p.m., Union South) — The Coen Brothers must be kicking themselves for having not made this wry Israeli comedy, about rival Talmudic scholars who also happen to be father and son. When one gets an award meant for the other, chaos ensues. My full review is here. Free!

Pulp Fiction” (midnight, Union South) — Come on, it’s a midnight screening of “Pulp Fiction.” What else need be said? I will say that there are a few moviegoing experiences I remember vividly as experiences, and one of them was being packed into a sold-out theater on opening night for “Pulp Fiction” (I even remember where I was sitting — front row, left side) and coming out of that theater feeling like I had been pleasantly electrocuted. (“Django” gave me a similar rush.) Free!


Lincoln” (6 and 9:15 p.m., Union South) — See Friday listing

Navajo Joe” (7 p.m., UW Cinematheque) — Burt Reynolds (yes, Burt Reynolds) plays a Native American on a mission of vengeance in his only spaghetti Western, directed by the great Sergio Corbucci. Free!

Donnie Darko” (midnight, Union South) — Another quintessential midnight movie, Richard Kelly’s mindbending debut mixes time travel and ’80s angst for a strange and haunting sci-fi tale of fate and consequences. Free!


Ocean Waves” (2 p.m., UW Chazen) — I’m guessing the nicer weather won’t slow the crowds for the wildly popular Studio Ghibli series at Cinematheque at the Chazen. This weekend, it’s a tender coming-of-age story never seen on home video in America, about two school friends who find their bond tested by the arrival of a new transfer student. Free!

Lincoln” (3 p.m., Union South) — See Friday listing


No special screenings


Half the Sky — Part 2” (7 p.m., Union South) — Catch the second half of the full version of the PBS documentary, in which New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff joins some famous actresses in traveling to the third world and seeing how women and girls are fighting for change there. Free!


Trigger” (7  p.m., Union South) — This documentary looks squarely at gun violence — what really causes it, what the impact really is, and how it can be stopped. Filmmaker David Barnhart will be at the screening and will take part in a post-show panel discussion. Free!


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (8:30 p.m., Majestic Theatre) — The Majestic picks the best day of hooky ever for its latest Brew ‘n’ View. Admission is $5.

Wisconsin Film Festival — The eight-day festival kicks off at several on-campus venues tonight and then expands to Sundance for the weekend. Watch this space for lots of previews and reviews, and follow me on Twitter (@robt77) for even more.