Sunday, February 15, 2015
Video review: "Life Itself"
The death of Roger Ebert more or less coincided with the death of film criticism as a viable vocation, and perhaps that’s part of the reason so many of the stubborn stragglers – me included – have dubbed “Life Itself” the best documentary of 2014. He was our irascible champion, wielding unprecedented power and influence, who helped bring an unabashed love of movies into America’s living rooms.
The film, directed by Steve James based on Ebert’s own book of the same title, is much like the man’s writing style: clear-eyed, unpretentious and incisive. It ably covers the rote autobiographical aspects of this Chicago son, his meteoric rise to prominence as the movie reviewer for the Sun-Times, and his ascension to iconic status as the co-host of the various iterations of the TV show he shared with his partner/combatant, Gene Siskel.
But it also lays bare his complicated soul in unexpected ways. Ebert’s words are read by actor Stephen Stanton in an uncanny mimicry of the critic’s own voice. He talks about his struggles with alcoholism, egotism and professional jealousy.
“Life Itself” was made with the full cooperation of Ebert and his wife, Chaz, and James’ cameras follow the pair around during the final months of his life as Roger struggled with tremendous health issues, including his total loss of speech. The hospital scenes are emotionally tough to watch, as Ebert tries to carry on with his work and life despite crippling illness.
This film spotlights Ebert’s grace, but also his prodigious flaws, in a way that’s even-handed and illuminating. Few cinematic portraits of a famous person are so honest and indelible.
I think Roger would’ve loved this movie, but beyond that, I think you will, too.
Bonus features are merely OK. There are a handful of deleted scenes, an interview with director James, a tribute at the Sundance Film Festival and a television profile of the movie.