The film “The Legend of Billie Jean,” an enjoyable teenage rebellion movie from 1985, was released on Blu-ray this week. The movie stars Helen Slater, as a teenager trying to protect her brother from bullies and her self from a sleazy store owner who tries to rape her. I’ve always enjoyed the film, though critics thought it was lousy. So it goes. The Pat Benatar song “Invincible” was the theme for the film. I’m a big fan of Benatar, too, even though a lot of people I know don’t think she’s a real rock and roll icon. So, too, that goes. The song reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1985. I hope you like it.
The story of a man — his triumphs, failings, passions and weaknesses – is difficult to capture, but documentarian Steve James offers a remarkable survey course in the fantastic life of the late film critic Roger Ebert.
We meet Ebert near the end of his life, in 2012, when cancer that took his jaw and his ability to speak, eat or drink, advanced on his spinal column. He is in a Chicago hospital rehabilitating from a fractured hip.
He is, frankly, hard to watch at first. His lower jaw is gone. The skin remains. It hangs in an odd, clumsy loop of flesh from the top of his face. It wags when Ebert makes expressions, but, of course, no words come out.
The first thing one notes about Ebert is he is loved, by his wife, Chaz, and his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. The dote on him and delight at his quips delivered by typing messages into a computer and playing them in a mechanical voice similar in sound to that of Stephen Hawking, the great physics professor.
The movie takes us back to the beginning, to Ebert’s life in Urbana, Ill., where he read three newspapers a day and wrote, edited and printed a neighborhood newspaper when he was an elementary school student.
Ebert went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, became a towering and imposing editor of the campus newspaper. He landed his first and only job as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.
He joined with his rival, Gene Siskel, to produce a public TV show about movies called “At the Movies.” It was a hit coast to coast and their “thumbs up, thumbs down” routine brought film criticism out of the stuffy air of highbrow circles down to everyday people who stood in line and bought tickets.
The just wanted to know if somebody thought it was any good or not and Siskel and Ebert gave that to them. The best moments of the film come in showing the tenuous, adversarial and downright hostile attitude the two men had toward one another.
They sparred verbally and Ebert came off as pugnacious and petulant at times, but it is a credit to both Ebert and director James that those clips that show Ebert on less than his finest behavior are such an important part of the narrative.
The film is rich in newspaper lore, the stories of drunken Chicago newsmen stumbling from bar to bar, loudly telling stories about life in the Second City. Some of them were probably even true. Ebert became an alcoholic, but dried out and stayed that way for the rest of his life.
His mercurial nature mellowed when he married Chaz, where he found romance and an outlet for dormant paternal feelings toward Chaz’s children and grandchildren.
Ebert’s cancer stole his physical voice, but his voice as a writer only fell silent when he died.
I did not know Roger Ebert. I did not live in his beloved Chicago. But I read his reviews, even though sometimes I thought he was wrong or perhaps too high-falluting for me, a lover of action movies where things blow up and the good guys win.
But I loved him for his writing: his bare, straightforward prose that struck at the truth of the subject and read with such effortlessness that even now I find myself jealous of his beautiful mind and sweet style.
I left the film very sad, I must admit. Ebert died, of course, and I knew that going in. And I won’t bore you with cliches about his bravery in the face of the challenge. What I will say is that if I face terminal illness, I hope that I do it with his grace and attitude. He was realistic — he was dying and he knew it — but he treated his days as precious commodities and never turned away from the keyboard.
I was sad not so much because Ebert died. I was sad because he was a true titan of newspapers and there aren’t very many of those kind of people anymore. In the last year at my paragraph factory, we lost two of our very best titans.
The first was retired managing editor Rick Tapscott, the cigarette-smoking man from Missouri with the voice like Adam West and an attitude of a barroom brawler when it came to hunting the truth.
The second was another managing editor, our friend Randy Brubaker, who died of a heart attack just four months after his wife died. Brubaker was our big brother, the one we trusted, the gentleman newsman who fought the good fight for open government, good writing and decent humility.
They’re all gone now. And we’re less because of it. I suppose these recollections aren’t much in the way of a review of “Life Itself.” It’s a fine documentary. You should watch it.
Because good movies, and “Life Itself” is one, are like the good people from my life I mentioned above: If they make you feel something, you’re probably going to remember them.
6 P.M. THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR — COMEDY: Tired of the machinations of the mercurial and pompous poltergeist Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhare), Mrs. Muir (Hope Lange) calls in the Ghostbusters to trap the ghost of the 19th century sea captain. But will she find the smarmy advances of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) any less terrifying?
The song “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996. The song was in heavy rotation on college radio stations and MTV while I was in college. It had been so long since I had heard the song that when it popped up on the local alternative radio station last week, I thought it was a new cover. But I enjoyed 18 years ago, and I enjoy it today. I hope you do, too.