Variety is the spice of life in a misunderstood modern metropolis for the deep-thinking but soft-spoken subject of a new documentary. Director Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold (B-) traces the impact and resonance of Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold as he illuminates the cultural underbelly of the city by way of its salmagundi of cuisines. It’s quickly apparent how delicacies doled out to tastebuds and tummies can awaken intellectual quandaries ranging from what immigration or the race riots have done to shape pockets of diverse populations to how exotic cooking traditions should be re-examined in the face of extinction of certain animals used for food. While this iconoclast’s superb ideas and writing crackle with energy and authenticity, the man himself is only rarely a compelling cinematic subject; and Gabbert’s hit-or-miss vision undercuts the would-be savory storytelling. Grand in its filming of mariachi bands and taco stands and bustling Korean kitchens that inspire pop-up congregations but just as often lost in the mêlée of long car rides, editorial meetings or disconnected encounters, it’s hard to fathom why the loving film craft sometimes pulses and just as often sputters. While it’s notable that the populist critic who finds wonders in strip-malls and the underlying humanity in the oddest of edibles has sketched out his own map to the stars of the everyday dinner table, the film could use a bit more verve. Still it’s a loving and enjoyable tribute. Much as Life Itself demonstrated the power of Roger Ebert’s pen to raise unexpected voices into the multiplex mainstream, the City Jonathan Gold conjures wielding chopsticks, forks and folklore is its own utopian umami.
Steve James’ documentary about the life and times of populist film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself (A), is a fascinating glimpse at an improbable hero who shape shifts from newspaperman to TV personality to blogger, all the while espousing a singular passion for cinema and for living. The filmmakers showcase the ailing journalist in his final days but capture his jubilant and life-affirming spirit. The journey successfully introduces us to his resilient wife Chaz, who helps personify his boundary breaking social consciousness, and explores his relationship with famed filmmaker Martin Scorsese and film critic rival turned best friend Gene Siskel. Little-known supporting cast members including the bar denizens with whom he cavorted and even the dog who used to accompany the reviewer on his “dog of the week” movie segment provide hearty appearances. The film is a touching tribute to a man who helped several generations access the mode of cinema as a potentially life-changing medium. Criss-crossing through history, testimony and even snippets of some of the movies he loved, the film is a marvelous memoir come to life. It’s an inspiring documentary for people who appreciate the big picture.