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LIFE ITSELF (review)

life_itself_ver2LIFE ITSELF
Directed by Steve James
 

Roger Ebert: In the past 25 years, I have probably seen 10,000 movies and reviewed 6,000 of them. I have forgotten most of them, I hope. But I remember those worth remembering and they are on the same shelf in my mind.

I met Roger Ebert once at a book signing for his memoir, LIFE ITSELF. I had seen him at TIFF screenings prior to this but on this occasion, I was able to thank him for everything he did to shape the field of film criticism, making it possible for people like me to share my voice. With dozens of other people waiting to meet him in line, it was an inconsequential moment for him, but one I will carry with me for some time to come. I cried when I read that Roger Ebert had died last year. He was an intelligent, charismatic, influential figure and, judging from the immense outpouring of emotion that flooded social media in the days following his death, he clearly meant a great deal to a great many people.

Writing a review about a movie about Roger Ebert’s life is a reasonably daunting task. I want to do the man justice and honour his legacy with my words, words that could never be strung together as brilliantly as he would have written them. This task is made infinitely easier because director, Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, a film Ebert loved very much), has made a wonderful film. LIFE ITSELF serves as a tribute to this great man and mind while it simultaneously captures just how precious and how meaningful life itself can actually be. Had it not been made precisely when it was though, it would have been a very different film.

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Filming for LIFE ITSELF was interrupted immediately as Ebert was admitted to the hospital the day it was supposed to begin. Being as dedicated to the art of filmmaking as he was, Ebert insisted that filming proceed as scheduled, as the film would be inauthentic otherwise. At this point, December 2012, Ebert has a hairline fracture in his hip, and must undergo surgery and weeks of rehab afterwards. The film then cuts back and forth between his present day struggles and highlights from his life and career. Of course, the audience knows that this is the beginning of the end for Ebert, and that knowledge adds a level of importance to everything else we learn about his life.

James is fair in his portrayal of Ebert, which in fact stems from Ebert himself choosing to be honest about his life in his book. We learn some about his Chicago roots but much more time is spent focusing on his career at the Chicago Sun Times and his evolution as a film critic. Fans of Ebert’s work will be delighted by how candid the film is, as it goes into great detail about his time working with Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel, on their television program, highlighting both the good and bad times between the two esteemed colleagues. Fellow film critics, like Time’s Richard Corliss and the New York Times’ A. O. Scott, weigh in on Ebert’s contribution to film criticism, what he did to advance it and what he did to popularize it. James even highlights certain reviews from Ebert’s career to remind people what an incredible writer he was and why he deserved his Pulitzer.

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LIFE ITSELF also explores Ebert’s struggle with alcoholism, his first fight with cancer, which led to the loss of his lower jaw, and subsequently, his voice, as well as his shift to blog writing in 2008, which allowed him to find his voice again and develop it in a whole new way. By his side through all of this is Ebert’s wife, Chaz Ebert, and we are also made privy to their love story, as well as the difficulties they faced as an interracial couple. Chaz’s presence in the film is one of immense support and becomes truly heartbreaking when we learn, as the same time as they learn, that Ebert’s cancer has returned and that he likely doesn’t have long to live. Witnessing this intimate moment feels somewhat wrong, like we have no business being in the room with them. Again though, Ebert had decided that the film had to continue as he would not want to be associated with any film that would retreat when faced with true strife. Ebert passed away just a few days later, on April 4, 2013.

Being there to literally watch this incredible man fade away in his final moments is devastating for those who admired him. Juxtaposed against all of his accomplishments though, including how he championed year after year for new film talent, it is also vastly inspiring. He never gave up on wanting to give back until his final hours. His last blog post, in which he thanked everyone for their support over the years, came the day before he died, almost as if he knew it was time. He lived a purposeful, uncompromising life and even though he never got to see the finished version of LIFE ITSELF, in many ways, he directed every minute of it.

Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

4.5 sheep

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