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Life Itself (2014)
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by Greg Ursic

"A must-see tribute for the superstar of movie critics!"
5 stars

Soon after we got cable in the mid-seventies, one of the first new stations I turned to was PBS: two guys – one chubby with glasses, the other skinny with a bushy moustache – were arguing about a movie. As a budding cinephile I was instantly hooked, beginning a tradition that would last for years. I realized very quickly that I tended to side with Roger Ebert, as he always seemed to take into account the audience a movie was intended for when rendering his verdict, which made perfect sense to me. He would eventually become as recognizable and powerful as the stars of the movies he reviewed, and yet I knew almost nothing about him. Thankfully director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) fills in the gaps.

Taking its name from Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir, Life Itself[/b[ the doc follows Ebert as he battles cancer and shows that despite the fact that it robbed him of his ability to speak, he still had a lot to say .

James makes excellent use of a treasure trove of archival material, highlighting Ebert’s varied and successful career as a reporter, screen writer, author and critic. But this isn't a dry recounting of his CV, there is a slew of fascinating interviews that run the gamut from famous directors like Herzog and Scorsese, to fellow critics and old drinking buddies. From these we glean some interesting tidbits like the fact that that Ebert essentially fell into his vocation (he didn't even apply for the job as critic when it came vacant) and that he spent most of his nights at the local watering hole throwing back drinks with abandon and indulging his notoriously poor choice in women (both of which ended when he decided to sober up).

James also highlights Ebert’s ongoing efforts to champion unknown writers and directors, his human rights work and the countless hours spent educating others about film so they could share in his passion and makes use of "voicematch" expert Steve Stanton (who sounds exactly like Ebert right down to the varying intonations) to read snippets from the memoir which provide a homey touch. These components alone make for a stirring homage. Thankfully James and his subject strive to deliver more.

When James approached him, Ebert was clear that he did not want to present a sanitized version of his life or his condition; ever the director, he urges James to get a close up of his feeding tube being suctioned out by a nurse and despite the fact that is obviously in pain, he gives a thumbs up and soldiers on. James also tackles Ebert’s self-acknowledged weaknesses; the narcissism, hyper-competitiveness, and arrogance that pervaded his career, leading one interviewee to note “He’s nice, but not that nice.” These qualities were exacerbated by his tempestuous decades long partnership with Gene Siskel as evidenced by some amazingly bitchy outtakes (dispelling any notion that their hissy fits were staged for ratings). But even though they shared a difficult relationship, there was a strange interdependency there and they clearly drove one another. The most profound relationship however is the one Ebert shares with his wife Chaz: having married late in life (and gaining an extended family) lead to some serious self-introspection and their interactions – which range from tenderness to anger - provide the film with a genuine emotional core.

Even if you have no idea who Roger Ebert is, Life Itself stands as a magnificent character study of a man who was larger than life and yet very down to earth; his invitation to let viewers share in his triumphs, foibles and ultimate struggle is a privilege.

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originally posted: 03/03/15 18:18:22
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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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