Like Ficarra and Requa’s 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, Focus begins promisingly and bops along enjoyably for a while, only to run out of steam…
Why did I choose this review?
Growing up, my parents had a copy of one of Ebert's books and it was through reading that book, age 9, 10, 11, that I encountered for the first time strange and mysterious names such as "Werner Herzog" and "Fellini", names that I stored in my memory bank to check out later when I was old enough. I have many favorites, many reviews that led me to films I had never seen before that I now count as all-time favorites. I also cherish his commentary tracks, the "Casablanca" one in particular. His words during the dueling anthems scene, and also how he falls silent to watch the scene play out, are emotional, despite the fact he has seen the scene hundreds of times. H.L. Mencken wrote that the one quality every good critic should have is a "capacity for gusto". There are critics who hide behind a wall of lofty analysis, and you wonder if they ever respond to anything in a purely enthusiastic way. Ebert was a tremendous writer, of course, but more than anything he had a "capacity for gusto".
But My Favorite Roger? This one gets personal. I met Michael Gilio while we were doing a production of "Killer Joe" in Ithaca. He played Mike, I played Sharla. It was a great show, and we became fast friends (to this day). At the time, he was working on a screenplay. We were young and ambitious and we spurred each other on in our pursuits. Years passed. And Michael ended up directing, and starring in a film that he wrote. It was called "Kwik Stop". All of us who love Michael were so excited, and also not at all surprised. If you knew Michael, you knew he did what he said he was going to do. "Kwik Stop" played the festival circuit, and won some important awards. And, best of all, Roger Ebert championed it. His review of "Kwik Stop" was a high watermark moment for our group of friends. We read it over and over again. Ebert's review is insightful and poignant. For example:
"Mike takes Didi to a diner for a meal, where a waitress named Ruthie (Karin Anglin) greets them with a strangely skewed attitude. Watch the way Gilio introduces mystery into the scene and then resolves it, getting humor out of both the mystery and the solution. The diner scene suggests strangeness deep in Mike's character: He doesn't need to go to Los Angeles since he stars in his own drama, and doubles back to be sure he hasn't lost his audience."
If you've seen "Kwik Stop" (and you should), then you know that that moment cracks open the underbelly of the film, the psychological underpinnings of these strange and lonely characters. "Kwik Stop" is filled with references to other films, and yet it is its own thing. It is a road movie that never quite gets on the road. Michael has an excellent ear for dialogue, and an excellent eye as a director. He's also a terrific actor. Ebert recognized all of that and called it out. All of this for a film that hadn't even gotten distribution!
Ebert loved the film so much that he chose it to play at his "Overlooked Film Festival" (which eventually morphed into Ebert Fest). He wanted the film to be celebrated, he wanted the film to be seen. Eventually, it did get a short run at Facets in Chicago, and Ebert did a QA afterwards onstage with Michael. To say that this was exciting is to understate the event so much as to make it meaningless. It is in such moments that an artist's life work is validated. It is in such moments that an artist can find the strength to go on, even if your beautiful little film does not receive the distribution it deserves. Ebert had a huge impact on Michael's life, and his sense of himself. In darker moments, he will always have the memory that his film, representative of so many dreams and representative of what he was about, was recognized and cherished by Roger Ebert. Ebert did that so for many small films.
Ebert recognized the beauty in "Kwik Stop", he recognized the talent of its director/writer/star, and he made it his business, he made it his mission, to tell the rest of the world about it. You change lives with such actions. You alter destinies. Ebert had a lot of power. He used it well.
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