Life Itself (2014)

Life ItselfChicago Sun-Times’ film critic Roger Ebert, born on June 18th, 1942, was perhaps best known for co-hosting At The Movies with longstanding foe-turned-friend Gene Siskel. Though his television work turned him into a national (and later international) celebrity, and conspired to make both he and Siskel synonymous with one another, he was also a remarkable individual in his own right. He has inspired filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, raised a family with wife Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith at a time when interracial marriages were still controversial, and spent the last few years of his life battling a pervasive thyroid cancer that cost him his lower jaw. He saw himself as a character in his own movie and refused to deny himself a third act, watching and reviewing films until the end.

How do you make a good film about a film critic? After all, it’s difficult to make a protagonist compelling when they spend most of their time sitting alone in the dark watching stories about other people — and doing so surely constitutes a pretty thankless task when you consider that a large portion of your prospective audience is likely to be other critics. But Roger Ebert is not your average film critic: he was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first to be granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and now he’s the first to be the subject of an Academy Award-shortlisted documentary film. Steve James’ Life Itself is an adaptation of Ebert’s own memoir — published in 2011 — and was released a year after the latter’s death.

Ebert certainly makes for a fascinating study, with his friends — though always respectful — refusing to eulogise him as either a saint or an unfortunate soul. He was a recovering alcoholic, prone to petty hatred, and unpredictable, not least when he served as screenwriter on Russ Meyer’s critically condemned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. James presses for answers on such questions of character, and Ebert’s responses are both honest and insightful. Naturally, Ebert’s death during production leaves some queries unanswered — perhaps most intriguingly his reasons of choosing Life Itself as a title, both for his memoir and the James’ film adaptation — but you still leave feeling that you have a better understanding of the man himself. Neither does James shy away from the illness that beset Ebert’s later life, and in addition to shedding light on a pop culture icon he also highlights a lesser known form of cancer; Ebert was adamant that they showed suction — an essential part of his daily routine –onscreen.

Of course, it’s difficult to do justice to a film critic without documenting at least some of the films covered over the course of their career, and James dedicates much of the second act to a selection of Ebert’s favourite films and most famous reviews. Ebert’s love of cinema is clear, whether from footage of on-air debates, anecdotal evidence about his time at Cannes or teaching film at the University of Chicago, or the memories offered by his friends and family — some of them more famous than others. It’s incredibly moving, particularly when his grandchildren reminisce about the films that he introduced them to and the reasons he gave for doing so. Even Herzog brings a tear to the eye. Like all the best documentaries Life Itself takes a relatively esoteric subject matter (not just film criticism, but one film critic in particular) and makes it interesting and essential to all. It is simply the story of human being, and that’s something that anyone should be able to relate to.

Whether you share Ebert’s tastes or not — heck, whether you love cinema or not — Life Itself is uplifting, upsetting and inspiring. How do you make a good film about a film critic? Just ask Steve James. This one gets two thumbs up from me.

5-Stars

 

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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