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Film review: “Life Itself” captures Robert Ebert’s life and death

When film critic Roger Ebert first spoke to director Steve James (“The Interrupters” and “Hoop Dreams”) about making a “bio-documentary,” he complained, in passing, about a sore hip. Days later, he was admitted to the hospital — his cancer was back. Unfortunately, Ebert would die five months later, before he had a chance to see James’ film. Fortunately, “Life Itself” is remarkable and a beautiful tribute to a life lived deeply.

New performance piece “Patterns” re-examines love and memory

Written and realized by Amy Munz, “Patterns” is a one-woman performance piece that explores the many voices, personas and histories we contain within our “selves.” On an empty stage, surrounded on three sides by video projections, Munz portrays Arnot, a young woman trying to find the logic in her own narrative, the how of her recent love affair.

In other words, we enter the chaotic, sacred and imaginary landscape that is Arnot’s past tense. Munz plays five different characters, including Adela, a fervent teenager, reveling in her first kiss. A few seconds later, she is Abigail, chasing after her dog, intoxicated by the natural world. Windswept meadows, poppy seeds and cattails flit across the theater’s walls. Somewhere in the fluid boundaries between these personas, Arnot’s psychology and personality accumulate, however obliquely.

Into the woods: Redwood Grove Summer Concerts couple poetry and bluegrass

An hour’s drive and world away from Stanford’s campus, UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden is home to the weekly Redwood Grove Summer Concerts. Last Wednesday, local poets and musicians gathered at the garden’s amphitheater for the festival’s “Bards and Bluegrass” performance.
I arrived at the concert a couple minutes late. The trail into the woods was soft with leaves and needles. I imagined, for an instant, getting lost in the deep, cool shadow of the redwoods—but then, at a fork in the road, a mandolin sounded. I followed.
Jeff Ward has been playing the mandolin for the Whiskey Brothers for over fifteen years. The Brothers take pride in playing a diverse range of music, from traditional bluegrass to Romanian folk, to Western Swing, to Tex-Mex. Their songs will make you tap your foot or bob your head, but what’s most palpable—most moving—
is the delight these men take in their own voices. Their grins and dimples and happily superfluous jokes are contagious.
The group’s aesthetic is, go figure, alcohol-centric, so Jeff introduced the evening’s “Bards and Bluegrass” program in appropriate terms: “It’s like bourbon and pickle brine,” he said, “each one makes you want more of the other.” This analogy proved pitch-perfect. The Whiskey Brothers gave up the stage to an splendid-if-unlikely complement, a group of Bay Area-based poets.

The art of losing

Halfway out the door, I remember what I’ve forgotten: lunch. I circle back to the kitchen to fix myself a peanut butter sandwich. Tucked into a Ziploc bag in the front pocket of my backpack, my sandwich helps me feel a bit more prepared. There is comfort in looking like the morning person I’m not.…

“Obvious Child” makes romantic comedy out of controversial subject matter

Much of “Obvious Child” is well-trodden ground for a romantic comedy: it is, in short, the story of a twenty-something woman looking for love, mostly in vain. Donna (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring comedian, whose boyfriend dumps her for airing their dirty laundry (namely, her underwear) on stage. She loses her day job at the bookstore Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books and, after a drunken one-night stand, finds herself pregnant. What makes “Obvious Child” memorable, however, is its unapologetic portrayal of Donna’s abortion, which becomes the backbone for the movie’s plot and her budding romance with a Max (Jake Lacy), an earnest business school student.

Both hailed and derided as an “abortion comedy,” “Obvious Child” is disappointing because it is only an “abortion comedy.” Whatever chutzpah writer and director Gillian Robespierre summoned to take on political controversy did not translate into stylistic bravery. Instead, the film seems to cling to a progressive political argument because its story is otherwise unremarkable.

Sebastian Junger returns to the Korengal Valley in new documentary

Between May 2007 and July 2008, acclaimed journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington lived with Battle Company platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, widely considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Their courage bore fruit — “Restrepo,”a visceral and haunting portrayal of the hazards of counterinsurgency, changed the way Americans envisioned the war in Afghanistan. Tragically, shortly after the film was nominated for an Academy Award, Hetherington was killed during Libya’s civil war.

Today, Junger’s new documentary “Korengal” revisits the valley, delving deeper into the emotional reality of modern war.