Wednesday, July 9, 2014


At the start of the uplifting and momentous documentary "Life Itself," the voice of Roger Ebert gives a speech: "For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." This journey, for our generation's most famous and beloved film critic, is a life lived through cinema. And even though in 2006 his voice was taken from him, it did not silence him from doing what he loved: delivering cinematic and cultural commentary with great passion and honesty. And he did it for years to come. From director Steve James (known for 1994's "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert loved), the film recounts Ebert's journey and, most fittingly, it's largely told in the critic's own words.

The film traces back to December 2012, documenting the final months of Ebert's life, when James visited him and wife Chaz in the Chicago hospital where he was staying after multiple surgeries. He was at the tail-end of a battle against thyroid cancer that had taken his lower jaw, leaving a limp flap of skin where his chin used to be. There is no shying away from close-ups of Ebert's rather grisly physical state, including an unflinching moment where he's fed through suction; he cringes in pain at the procedure before giving the nurse a thumbs up. Ebert was deeply involved with this film's creation, aiding to the desire for full transparency and wanting to tell his life story with the utmost truth. This involves revealing the return of his cancer against Chaz's wishes and the not-revealed-until-now fact that he met Chaz in AA after battling depression and alcoholism.

Taken from excerpts of his memoir of the same name, the film takes a look back at his career as a steadfast newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, his writing of the screenplay "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the impact his words had on filmmakers' lives such as a young Martin Scorsese and, of course, his show "At the Movies" with longtime partner Gene Siskel which created the infamous two thumbs up review system.

Especially here in this relationship, Ebert is painted as stubborn, egotistical and sometimes downright harsh. And yet that's who he was, and this surprisingly unsentimental portrayal does the famed film critic justice by showing exactly the man he was; and not to say he wasn't heartwarming and generous. He was that, too, just not maybe toward Siskel -- until an appreciation for each other grew late in the game. And how devastated Ebert was when Siskel's death came as a shock after he had decided not to share the news of his illness.

"Life Itself" is a lovely film and critical viewing not only for admirers of Roger Ebert but for anyone who considers themselves a lover of cinema. It's an absorbing and life-affirming documentary that touches on everything from the power of writing, the necessity of film criticism, the pain of illness and death and, finally, the nature of love and living life to the fullest down to the very last moment.

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