REVIEW: Life Itself

10 07 2014

Life ItselfFilm critic Roger Ebert inspired many people and touched countless lives, ranging from saving Martin Scorsese from self-implosion to many much smaller-scale interactions.  One such example is a brief response to a blog comment he made to a then-sixteen year-old movie writer who had just decided to try his hand at scribbling down his opinions about film.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that writer was me, and I still count that sentence among the greatest compliments I have ever received.  (It still, to date, features underneath the name of my site in the header of my blog.)  It likely didn’t take him more than five seconds to write, but it may very well have provided the fuel to sustain the site beyond just dipping my toe in the uncharted waters of the blogosphere.

Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary on Ebert, provides the ultimate celebration of his life and work.  He gathers an eclectic group of friends and admirers, a tribute to just how wide-reaching Ebert’s influence and esteem truly was.  Anecodotes and commentary range from members of the critical establishment like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss to filmmakers who he befriended over the years, such as Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price“), and Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere“).

Life Itself

James uses Ebert’s biography (also titled “Life Itself”) as a springboard for his documentary, thankfully not as its foundation.  I took the time to read Ebert’s tome, and while it was not without its stunning sections, the book often meandered in self-indulgent directions on minor points.  James finds the most cinematic portions and puts them before us to tell the story of Ebert’s love affair with cinema, writing, his wife Chaz, and ultimately life itself.

We come to appreciate just how deep his passions were by James refusing to shy away from how grave Ebert’s illness really was.  “Life Itself” goes far beyond the notorious Esquire photo, showing us the struggles of communicating, getting nutrition through “suction,” and relearning to walk.  Yet through it all, Ebert remains committed to communing with film and his readers online.

That doesn’t mean that he’s made out to be some superhuman optimist, though.  James refuses to omit the hard truth that Ebert went through tremendous pain and was often not able to summon his indefatigable spirit.  “Life Itself” is all the more impactful for this unsparing glance at its subject and thus quite stirring.

It’s the kind of film I suspect Ebert himself would have given two thumbs up.  James doesn’t even take Ebert at face value, undermining some of his nice words with other interviews that expose reality far better than his account can.  We get to really see the dynamic between Siskel and Ebert as well as his true impact on the film community in a way that a memoir never could.  “Life Itself” takes its source material and improves on it, an accomplishment to be commended. It honors not just film criticism’s titan but cinema itself.  A-3halfstars



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