#14: Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James
Documentary
2h; R

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Anyone who writes about film owes a debt to the critic Roger Ebert- especially this guy- and all I can do is dream of achieving what Ebert did. It’s because of Ebert and a very small handful of others that film criticism is considered a respectable profession. This collection of trailblazers includes The New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael, Time‘s Richard Corliss and Ebert’s Siskel & Ebert co-star and Chicago Tribune writer Gene Siskel. Life Itself‘s title stems from Ebert’s memoir of the same name and while most films do not do their literary counterparts justice the documentary is more of a companion to the book and in a few areas it is an improvement.

The film blends readings of Ebert’s memoir with photos from throughout his life and career and footage from interviews, his various tv series and the last 5 months of his life. The improvements to the text come in the footage at home and in the hospital, usually with his wife Chaz. There are interviews with Chaz, Corliss, Siskel’s wife Marlene and a stable of notable filmmakers including Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani. Watching the physical impact that Ebert had on these legendary creators is more tear-jerkingly powerful than words can ever describe. Bahrani’s history with Ebert in particular is gobsmackingly cool.

Life Itself is about how to be a better human being.

In this version you get what everyone else thought of Roger Ebert and there is both good and bad. He is not treated as a holy figure of criticism and he is not misrepresented as a saint among heathens. Ebert is presented by James as a very flawed human being- one who recognizes his shortcomings both in the film and his memoir- and if the film has a real shortcoming it’s that it couldn’t be longer and filled with more, more, more. That James glides over Ebert’s early years just a bit is also a pro. It was the slowest part of the book for me to get through but then very few childhoods are terribly interesting.

In the film Ebert estimates that he has seen upwards of 10,000 films and written about 6,000 of them or so. He touched countless more lives in unique ways. Life Itself truly does justice to a man who loved movies and talking about them and to so many- especially this guy- he is a hero. Life Itself is about movies and writing and love and alcoholism and rivalries and politics and death and everything in between but above all it is about how to be a better human being. This kind of film is a rarity and certainly one that Ebert would have likely given two thumbs up and more if he had had them.

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