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Life Itself (2014)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Life Is Beautiful"
5 stars

Anyone looking here for a cool, reasonable and completely objective review of "Life Itself" is hereby advised to search for one elsewhere. Under normal circumstances, I try to approach most every review that way but in this case, not only have I not done that here, I am not sure that I even know how I could possibly write such a thing in the first place. The film is, of course, the eagerly anticipated documentary from Steve James (the director of "Hoop Dreams") chronicling the life of the late, great Roger Ebert from his humble beginnings to his position as arguably the most famous, influential and beloved film critic in the history of the profession to his long, brave and public struggle with cancer that ended sadly with his passing in 2013.

Even if I only knew the man solely from his work as a critic, it would be impossible to look at the film dispassionately because his influence on me, not to mention countless other moviegoers over the years, was incalculable--through his work, I was able to develop both my appreciation for cinema as a genuine art form and my ability to convey my thoughts on the subject through my writings in a theoretically entertaining and informative manner. Through his work in print, on television and on the Internet, he expanded our knowledge film in a manner that was smart, funny and incisive without ever getting bogged down in overly academic minutia or shallow gossip and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that practically every film critic to appear in his wake has been influenced by him in one way or another.

However, I was lucky enough to know him not just as the guy in the Chicago Sun-Times and on television. When I was eight years old, I wrote him a letter on my little typewriter (something about the possibility for rating films for violent content in the wake of fights erupting in theaters during the release of Walter Hill's controversial action classic "The Warriors") and he responded with a nice note and free movie passes to boot. When I managed to stumble into my lifelong dream of being a real film critic, I was lucky to do it in the same city as him and therefore got the chance to see many of the most notable films of the last two decades in the same screening room as him. Just be able to be in that room and listen in as he talked about movies and the issues of the day or as he cracked any number of astonishingly awful jokes proved to be a more valuable education in regards to my chosen career than any class I ever took during my formal education.

That would have been enough but he would always have a kind word for myself and my work over the years. Later on, he would have me appear on stage or on panels at his beloved Overlooked Film Festival that he held every year in Urbana at the amazing Virginia Theatre--one year, I was asked to be one of the people to discuss "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the demented cult classic that he wrote for sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer, a move that I compare to being invited to a party at Bob Dylan's house and being asked to lead a discussion about "Like a Rolling Stone." Later on, when it became apparent that he would need to reduce his review workload, he asked me if I would serve as a contributor to, a position that I continue to proudly hold. For God's sake, the guy even dedicated one of his numerous books to me--fittingly, it was one of his collections of reviews of supremely awful movies that brought out some of his most inspired writing--and while I am no expert in such matters, I think it goes without saying that if the subject of a film has actually dedicated a book to you, it is impossible to even pretend to have some pretense of objectivity.

Luckily, the film itself, based on Ebert's acclaimed memoir of the same name, is such a richly fascinating work that even those who only know him through his work will be moved and entertained by it in equal measures. Through interviews with friends, colleagues, old drinking buddies and some of the countless filmmakers whose careers he helped nurture by exposing their efforts to a wider audience (to cite only the most famous example, he gave the first major positive review to "I Call First ," the debut film from a newcomer by the name of Martin Scorsese that would later be renamed "Who's That Knocking On My Door?"), we watch his story unfold from its unassuming beginnings as an aspiring journalist in Urbana, Illinois (as a child, he wrote and delivered his own neighborhood newsletter) to his arrival in the greatest city on Earth where, a few months after being hired by the Chicago Sun-Times, he was given the job of being the paper's film critic in 1967.

This was a fortuitous bit of timing as film criticism was just beginning to be taken seriously in America at this moment and Ebert's unique combination of erudite analysis and plain-spoken writing style proved to be enormously popular with readers and, within a few years, would earn him the first Pulitzer Prize given for film criticism. In another bit of luck and good timing, he and rival local film critic Gene Siskel were hired to host a film review program for the local PBS affiliate. While the two looked like the least TV-friendly duo in the history of broadcasting, the two clicked with viewers who sparked to their mutual antagonism and their shared love of film and with the age of syndication just coming into its heyday, the show became a hit and they became cultural icons of their own via a partnership that lasted until Siskel's passing in 1999.

This stuff is all fairly well-known but rather than focus exclusively on the fun and familiar, "Life Itself" also delves into lesser-known and somewhat darker areas as well. For example, it shows that Ebert possessed what could be gently regarded as a somewhat highly developed sense of self which could theoretically come across as slightly off-putting to those who didn't know him that well--then again, I suppose you can't really criticize someone for coming across as a know-it-all when it often seemed as if he did actually know it all. Then there is the matter of his alcoholism. As the film painfully illustrates, Ebert used to hit the local watering holes hard until it became evident that what he was doing was less about having fun than simply trying to maintain and that was when he finally gave it up and joined AA. Ironically, even that dark aspect of his life would prove to have a silver lining because it was during an AA meeting that he met lawyer Chaz Hammelsmith , whom he would marry in 1992 and who would be both his wife and business partner for the rest of his life. (Although Ebert first revealed his alcoholism in a column a few years earlier, the circumstances of how he met Chaz had never been fully disclosed until this film.)

Then there were his health problems, which he never shied away from dealing with publicly (perhaps in response to Siskel's highly secretive attitude towards his own bout with cancer, which resulted in his not knowing how sick his partner was until his passing) and which the film explores in sometimes excruciatingly painful detail. He was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands in 2002 and while the treatment was deemed successful at the time, they would recur during the years and would eventually lead to the removal of his lower jaw. During one hospital stay for treatment, he was about to go home when his carotid artery burst and he nearly bled to death. Even as production of the film began, his body betrayed him once again with via a fractured hip and we watch as he endures painful rehabilitation sessions and other brutal medical procedures with a indomitable grace that would seem to be too good to be true if it wasn't unfolding right before our eyes.

Some of this might be tough for some viewers to take and I must confess to being somewhat apprehensive at first at the notion of watching one of my heroes slowly dying before my eyes but "Life Itself" never becomes the queasily exploitative film that it might have become in other hands. James, whose "Hoop Dreams" was another famous example of an obscure film that would become a popular favorite after Ebert & Siskel publicly championed it, is an unusually empathic filmmakers and knows how to deal with potentially uncomfortable material in ways that are smart and respectful to both the subject and the audience. He is also lucky to have, in Ebert, a subject who is willing to let himself be seen at his physical worst as long as his more important attributes--his wit, intellect and narrative voice--are still able to flourish.

In this regard, the most shocking and heartbreaking moment of the film is not the sight of him having fluid suctioned from a hole in his throat or any of the physical results of his health battles--it is the moment when he admits that he just doesn't have it in him any more to answer any of James' e-mail queries. For someone who never hesitated to share a story or anecdote at a moment's notice, this admission was an unmistakeable sign that the end was finally near. And yet, when the end came, it was more or less on his terms and felt less like a sad ending and more like the culmination of an extraordinary life. Consider that when friends and colleagues sat down to write about his passing, the pieces that emerged didn't so much mourn his passing as they did celebrate the ways in which he touched their lives.

In looking back over what I have written, I see that I have pretty much failed to deal with "Life Itself" in the way that I would any other film. If I was going to put on my critic hat, my only complaint might be that there are certain aspects that I wish could have been dealt with in more detail (and might have had it not been for the unanticipated events). I would have liked to have known more about "Who Killed Bambi?," the 1977 film that he wrote for Russ Meyer as a vehicle for the Sex Pistols that collapsed after a couple of days of production, the identity of the film that he and local talk show host Oprah Winfrey saw on their "date" that later saw him illustrate to her how taking a syndication deal for her show similar to his would be advantageous, and about his beloved Ebertfest. (A sequence focusing on the latter was deleted from the final cut, though it played as a prelude when the film showed at Ebertfest this year.) Other than that, all I can say is that "Life Itself" is an extraordinary film about an equally extraordinary man and even though I have continued to miss him every day since his passing, watching him here only makes me miss him all the more. Oh yeah, after watching this film, I guarantee that you will never listen to Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" the same way again.

Author's Note: The MPAA, whose often inexplicable rating system was denounced by Ebert many times over the years, have seen fit to give "Life Itself" an "R" rating. As far as I can tell, this is due entirely to a couple of judicious uses of the "F" word (one deployment, in regards to Pauline Kael, perhaps the only critic to rival Ebert in terms of fame and influence, results in arguably the film's biggest laugh line) and a deeply disturbing photo of Gene Siskel cavorting at the Playboy Mansion wearing a mustache so bizarre-looking that it actually steals focus away from the half-naked babes next to him. Other than that, there is nothing about this film that would be unsuitable for teenagers to see.

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originally posted: 07/04/14 02:26:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2014 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Docs Festival For more in the 2014 AFI Docs Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/13/15 jokerass meh 1 stars
4/12/15 sjskskdk lol 1 stars
3/05/15 Charles Tatum The direction lifts it above the normal docu 4 stars
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  04-Jul-2014 (R)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2015


  DVD: 17-Feb-2015

Directed by
  Steve James

Written by

  Roger Ebert

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