Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland
Markus Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
With the title taken from Roger Ebert’s own memoirs, this two hour documentary (which unfortunately feels longer) is a tribute in three parts. The first hour recounts Ebert’s early years, which involve his maturation in the world of journalism, his rise to fame as the critically acclaimed film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, his receiving of the Pulitzer Prize and his bout with alcoholism. This is followed by 30 minutes where director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) turns all focus towards Ebert’s “radioactive” yet fascinating rivalry/relationship with Gene Siskel; the film critic of the Chicago Tribune. And finally, the third act documents, with unflinching Werner Herzog-esque realism, the death of the most famous American film critic who ever lived.
The latter half of “Life Itself” sees hard to watch, tearjerker, Oscar bait sequences, as well as a much more honest look at Ebert as a flawed individual; even if we do from time to time get unavoidable deified remembrances from friends or family members. It’s just a shame that the first hour, I’m sorry to say, was dull and lifeless on nearly all levels (soundtrack included).
Final Thought: I am a film critic, and Mr. Ebert was obviously a journalist whom I’d pretty much idolized on television for the better part of my youth. That said, “Life Itself” isn’t the great documentary critics are almost willing it to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still recommending this film, it’s still a good documentary, but in my opinion the mark of a great documentary is one which makes audiences care about a subject/subject matter which they either knew little about or initially had little interest in. Again, I am a film critic and thus was extremely interested in the overall story; not necessarily caring about the way James told the story. And once “Life Itself” gets into the second hour, I would challenge anyone not to find the subject matter extremely riveting. But going into this, if you didn’t know who Roger Ebert was or don’t really care about film criticism, then, due to some initial paint by numbers direction (and I’m not going to sugarcoat this) you may fall asleep far before you get to anything compelling.
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