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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Mostly Cloudy

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Life Itself is an honest, compelling tribute to Roger Ebert's life and work

What surprised me most about Life Itself? Seeing just how genuinely Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel must have disliked each other. The movie critics' bickering was part of their television shtick, of course, but in the documentary we see outtakes in which the two are fiercely, profanely hostile in their interactions. These scenes are hard to watch, and they're not the only ones. >More
 A nun-in-training meets a ruthless relative in Ida

Ida is about dislocation and shifting identity, and this explains all the arty camera setups. That's my interpretation, anyway. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal work in gorgeous black-and-white, and in the narrow Academy aspect ratio. >More
 Gia Coppola's Palo Alto is a shattering tale about reckless suburban high schoolers

It's a storied tradition, the teenagers-in-trouble movie. One of my favorites is 1983's WarGames, which dates back to my own adolescence and concerns a teenager in trouble for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The stakes aren't quite as high in Palo Alto, but it's an apocalyptic vision all the same. At chaotic parties, kids swig liquor, smoke weed and have sex. >More
 Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a truck driver plagued by bad decisions in the funny, gritty drama God's Pocket

God's Pocket is a little bit Mean Streets, a little bit Weekend at Bernie's. As in early Scorsese films, working-class men in a big city on the East Coast swear a lot and are casually violent. And as in Weekend at Bernie's... well, I'll let you discover that on your own. >More
 Finding Vivian Maier hails a street photographer who kept her work to herself

Bear with me on this for a minute. I've been musing on ailing country-music legend Glen Campbell, who has, I read the other day, been transferred to an Alzheimer's facility. In particular, I've been recalling his smash 1968 hit "Wichita Lineman," one of the great singles of his era. >More
 A woman pursues her late husband's doppelgänger in The Face of Love

In college I had not one but two campus doppelgängers, fellow students who looked a lot like me. One was a guy my then-girlfriend knew from high school. There was a funny moment in the dining hall when she ran up and all but threw her arms around him, thinking he was me. Awkward! I mention this by way of introducing the unsettling topic of doubles and doppelgängers. >More
 A murderer lurks in the tryst-filled bushes of Stranger by the Lake

There's no shortage of graphic violence on multiplex screens, but graphic sex is pretty rare. So it's remarkable when a work like the compelling French movie Stranger by the Lake comes along. It depicts sex with a frankness I've seldom encountered in mainstream films. There are Catherine Breillat films like Romance and... not many others. >More
 Better Living Through Chemistry sends up America's obsession with prescription drugs

Who knew Olivia Wilde was so funny? She's a comic delight in the uneven satire Better Living Through Chemistry, in which she plays a bored, pill-popping trophy wife. She delivers wisecracks with zeal and is hilariously frenetic in her many lovemaking scenes with Sam Rockwell. I know her best from her work in Tron: Legacy, which wasn't an actors' showcase. So her excellent turn in the new film is a welcome surprise. >More
 Omar's title character is both a lover and a fighter in occupied Palestine

A wronged man fights to clear his name. Is it a Hitchcock movie? A Western? No, it's the Oscar-nominated Omar, a really fine, claustrophobic thriller set in occupied Palestine. >More
 A Saudi girl schemes her way toward an off-limits bike in Wadjda

Wadjda is a sly kid, entrepreneurial, even conniving. She's like Tom Sawyer if he were a girl and could recite long passages of the Quran from memory. Played by Waad Mohammed, Wadjda is the title character of writer and director Haifaa Al-Mansour's fine debut feature, a family drama with some very funny moments. >More
 A writer loses his passion for lavish living in The Great Beauty

If I lived in Jep Gambardella's apartment, I would never leave. Jep is at the center of the seriocomic Italian film The Great Beauty, and his flat has a close-up view of the Colosseum in Rome. It's a stunning vista, and it reminds me that by way of comparison, one of the most interesting views I ever had from a Madison apartment was of the old Kohl's supermarket on East Washington Avenue. >More
 Documentaries shine the brightest among short films nominated for 2014 Oscars

I'll start with the good news. This year's five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are wonderful. They're screening next week at Sundance, and the shorts nominated in the animated and live-action categories are screening this week. >More
 Camille Claudel 1915 is a fascinating portrait of an institutionalized sculptor

She seems to be in the wrong place. She lives in an institution for people with severe mental and cognitive disabilities, but she looks to be competent and lucid. The nuns who work at the facility even give her special privileges. She cooks her own meals and dines alone. Sometimes she helps out with other patients. >More
 Inside Llewyn Davis follows a struggling singer through New York's early-'60s folk scene

What was happening musically in 1961? Elvis' explosive debut was in the past, the Beatles' explosive debut was in the future, and for two weeks that February, the number-one single in the land was...Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta." The pop scene was experiencing a lull. >More
 A Touch of Sin shares tales of violence from modern China

"China is still changing rapidly," writer and director Jia Zhangke observes in the production notes for A Touch of Sin. "Violence is increasing." That's the starting point for this remarkable, Palme d'Or-nominated anthology film, which tells four stories of contemporary China, all of them involving hideous brutality. >More
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