'Life Itself' recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert - a story that's by turns personal, wistful, funny, painful, and transcendent. The film explores the impact and legacy of Roger Ebert's life: from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism and his nearly quarter-century run with Gene Siskel on their review show, to becoming one of the country's most influential cultural voices, and finally to Roger's inspiring battles with cancer and the resulting physical disability - how he literally and symbolically put a new face on the disease and continued to be a cultural force despite it. Written by
The face on the movie poster was very recognizable: Roger Ebert, Pulitizer Prize winning film critic for the Chicago SunTimes, celebrated television reviewer, and one of the foremost advocates of film history. We remember his small stature, roundish face and horn-rimmed glasses from days past, his trademarked thumbs up or down denoting his movie ratings. We think back to his impassioned words of criticism, that impish grin (later be lost to bone cancer, along with his jaw and voice). This is his story, as told by one of his beloved documentary filmmaker, Steve James, in the gripping documentary, Life Itself.
The film chronicles Ebert's rise to fame in the sixties as an ambitious reporter to becoming a syndicated film personality (along with his fellow critic, Gene Siskel) on his highly popular programs, Sneak Previews, At the Movies, and finally Siskel & Ebert which brought him fame and fortune in the next decades. Included in this detailed documentary are his many successes in a solo career and his numerous best-selling books about movies.
But Life Itself is foremost a heart-wrenching love story about Roger and Chaz, his devoted wife, and their relationship and commitment. The film depicts this romance and never skirts the issues of Ebert's problematic life, from his bouts with alcoholism and his battle with cancer in his later years. This is a loving testament, an honest and absorbing tribute filled with interviews by other critics, close friends, and film directors who truly admired this man and his impact on their lives.
Beside the glowing testimony from film directors like Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog, who admit to Ebert's early impact on their budding careers, the film uses wonderful footage from the Siskel / Ebert television programs which have a nostalgic and entertaining quality sorely missing from today's mass media. The bantering and rivalry between these two critics not only communicates their passion and devotion to the art of film, but ultimately illustrates their far-reaching effect on the film industry.
Director James incorporates photographs, interviews, and archival footage to build his story of an irascible and flawed man whose love for the cinema gave him renewed purpose. He expertly transitions from before and after contrasting images of Ebert as the upbeat critic and crusader to a common man disfigured by disease which gives the moviegoer more empathy for its subject. The documentary follows Ebert's career as it gingerly jumps around from his early years to his final days. Strong voice-over work by Stephen Stanton gives the film an emotional tethering for those who remember Mr. Ebert's voice as the film continually uses his unspoken words from his best-selling autobiography to effectively tell his story. Just as candid is Chaz's honesty and eloquence about their troubled final months together. Her obvious love and tenderness is truly inspirational and only adds to the film's poignancy.
Life Itself also reveals the brutality of a disease that dramatically changed Mr. Ebert's life. In harrowing scenes, James unflinchingly shows the grueling regime of physical pain that became a daily occurrence for Mr. Ebert and the emotional hardship that his wife and family members endured. Unable to eat, drink, or speak, he relies on his computer to communicate and his love for Chaz to get his through the day. Ebert's courage to continue to live under these dire extremes in order to write his critiques is touching. The hospital and rehab scenes are sometimes unbearable to watch but never gratuitous and unwarranted. They are who he was, Ebert himself.
Life Itself is that way. A remarkable film about a remarkable life. As I'm sure Ebert would have said himself, "Thumbs way, way up!" GRADE: A-
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