Movie reviews: 'Life Itself,' 'Violette,' 'Planes: Fire & Rescue,' 'Sex Tape'

If you’‍re looking for a movie this weekend you can go big or go small. Go family-friendly or adults-only. Go English language or subtitled. A look at four of the movies opening today (see for “The Purge: Anarchy” which appeared Thursday) and also go to for Roman Polanski’‍s “Venus in Fur.”

‘Life Itself’

If it were a scene in a fictional movie, it would tease tears from the audience. A man, celebrated at a young age, married at an older one, disfigured but long not defeated by cancer, finally tells his dear wife:  “I am ready to go. I had a beautiful life and death is part of life. You must let me go.”

'Life Itself' movie trailer

The life and career of the renowned film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert.

'Violette' movie trailer

Violette Leduc, born a bastard at the beginning of last century, meets Simone de Beauvoir in the years after the war in St-Germain-des-Pr??s. Then begins an intense relationship between the two women that will last throughout their lives.

'Planes: Fire & Rescue' movie trailer

When Dusty learns that his engine is damaged and he may never race again, he joins forces with fire and rescue helicopter Blade Ranger and his team, The Smokejumpers, to battle a massive wildfire.

'Sex Tape' movie trailer

A married couple wake up to discover that the sex tape they made the evening before has gone missing, leading to a frantic search for its whereabouts.

And she reluctantly does, allowing Roger Ebert to serenely pass away. Chaz Ebert held her husband’‍s hand and others formed a circle around him, as Dave Brubeck music provided the soundtrack to the end of a remarkable life.

That scene is recounted — but, rightly, not filmed — in Steve James’ informative, touching and inspirational documentary about the Urbana, Ill., native who went from the youngest film critic in America to a Pulitzer Prize winner who also became famous for his thumbs up and down pronouncements on TV with sparring partner Gene Siskel and, later, the blog that became his voice.

Five months before Mr. Ebert’‍s death, Mr. James met with the critic and his wife and planned an ambitious schedule of filming. But the writer landed back in the hospital the next day.

Nevertheless, he paints a portrait thanks to Mr. Ebert’s memoir of the same name, archival photos and footage, questions the newspaperman answered by email, and interviews with Chaz, other family members, film directors and Chicago drinking buddies from the days before his last Scotch and soda in 1979. Mr. James (“Hoop Dreams”) also, with his subject’‍s approval, documented medical realities such as the torturous suctioning of Mr. Ebert’s windpipe.

“Life Itself” recounts the competition, animosity and ultimate affection between Siskel & Ebert (the order of the names decided by coin toss), explores how Mr. Ebert’‍s childhood and marriage shaped him, and why he was so celebrated.

He was a smart, insightful, influential, knowledgeable, clear and fast writer, and the two-hour documentary is must viewing for anyone who misses his passionate, reasoned reviews and understands the wonder he found in the dark under a screen the size of a billboard and the sound of a thousand people laughing at once. Or trying not to cry.  

R for brief sexual images/nudity and language. Opens today at the Regent Square Theater. 



It might be a little more convincing if someone other than Emmanuelle Devos were playing the long tormented feminist French writer Violette Leduc (1907-72) and lamenting her “ugly mug” and branding herself a “neurotic, crazy, washed-up old bag.” 

It’s a testament to her acting ability that she believes it, even if the audience will be distracted by the obvious disconnect (despite the lead’s dyed blond hair and fake nose) in director Martin Provost’‍s drama about the woman who felt unloved and unwanted from the time of her illegitimate birth. The story opens much later, during World War II, when Violette is trafficking in black-market foods and living with homosexual writer Maurice Sachs, who sneaks away after telling her to “spit out on paper everything that makes you so unbearable.” 

Her world changes when she encounters a novel by Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) — “a woman writing such a big book”— and then the celebrated author herself, another object of unrequited affection. De Beauvoir draws her into a circle of intellectuals and publishers, but Leduc is devastated when her work is not widely circulated, sold or recognized after she poured out her sexual secrets regarding women and men, disappointments and dreams, and addressed such taboo topics as abortion.

Leduc believed Simone’s promise that her talent would be recognized; it was, but not until late in her career and life. “Violette is divided into chapters and presumes some familiarity with the times and literary luminaries. It makes reference to characters or developments without following up, but there is no disputing the power of Ms. Devos’ performance whether scribbling furiously, turning hysterical as she insists, “I‘‍m being mutilated” or finally finding the peace that had eluded her for decades. 

In French with English subtitles. R in nature for nudity, sexuality and other subject matter. Opens today at the Manor in Squirrel Hill. 

‘‍Planes: Fires & Rescue’‍   2.5stars

If “Cars” was the Cadillac (or Lamborghini) of family entertainment or transportation, “Planes: Fire & Rescue” is the older model sedan you inherited from your great aunt that gets you to the Giant Eagle but not in any sort of memorable way. 

“Planes: Fire & Rescue,” a sequel to 2013’‍s “Planes,” returns the animated character of Dusty Crophopper (voice of Dane Cook), whose career as a world-famous racer takes an unexpected turn when his gear box starts to fail and sends him into a tailspin. The plane part was discontinued by the factory long ago, and he is warned that if he pushes himself too hard, as in a competition, he will crash. 

When it turns out his home of Propwash Junction needs a second firefighting vehicle to supplement the aging Mayday (voice of Hal Holbrook), a fire and rescue truck modeled after a 1940s Fordson Tender, Dusty volunteers for the job. He heads for Piston Peak National Park to learn the trade under the no-nonsense Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) and finds his mettle tested by massive wildfires endangering park visitors and residents, vehicles all. 

“Planes: Fire & Rescue” celebrates the aircraft that, like their human counterparts, rush toward or into the flames to safeguard the lives of others. Blade Ranger gets a bit of a backstory that’‍s fun but truncated, and the fires in a blend of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks are authentically rendered and suspenseful but with outcomes in line with the movie’‍s PG rating.

Dusty is humbled and learns about teamwork, sacrifice, following orders and even the history of crop dusters turned firefighters in this movie that skews younger than any other summer release, including “Maleficent” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The new characters, which naturally have spawned toys and related merchandise, aren’‍t particularly memorable or explored in much depth, especially when compared with “Cars.” That was Pixar, with its unbroken string of hits, and this is Disneytoon Studios.

“Planes: Fire & Rescue” will seem perfectly at home on DVD in a few months, but if you want to see it now, a drive-in or matinee would be a good fit, although I would skip the pricier 3-D. Just remember, that children need to wear the glasses throughout or risk looking at a screen that appears out of focus, which is no way to watch any movie.

PG for action and some peril. 

‘‍Sex Tape’‍ 2.5stars

“Sex Tape,” a comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, is shocking all right. Shockingly unfunny and tone deaf when it comes to lines or scenarios. For instance, would a father raise a wine glass at dinner and say to his newly engaged daughter, “Well, goodbye sex”?  

Ms. Diaz is Annie and Mr. Segel is Jay, lusty college sweethearts who have been married for a decade and have two children. Annie is a mommy blogger hoping to sell her blog to a huge toy company, and Jay works for a radio station that keeps him supplied with iPads. He loads them with playlists and generously passes the old ones to family, friends, acquaintances or even strangers. 

As they grow busier and more exhausted, sex falls by the wayside until one night when they are alone and in a celebratory mood. The couple embark on and document a marathon sex session.

Jay doesn’‍t delete the file as promised, and it’‍s off to the cloud and all those iPads, which sends the pair on a mad scramble. Except for a bizarre businessman played by Rob Lowe and some lines about “Lincoln” and a couple of basketball superstars, the writing largely falls flat.

The titillating title alone will draw adults, but “Sex Tape” isn’‍t terribly sexy or daring, although Ms. Diaz and a slimmed down Mr. Segel have some skin in the game. Not as much as in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and not as many laughs, either.

R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use. 

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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