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'Life Itself' review: A celebration of Roger Ebert and cinema

Life Itself documentary

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Opening Independence Day, July 4th, is a wonderful Valentine to the acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert titled, “Life Itself.” Chronicling Ebert’s life, this illuminating and inspirational documentary started production with interviews of Ebert, his wife Chaz, and his friends and colleagues during what would turn out to be Ebert’s last months of life (although no one knew that at the time). Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, just months before the film was finished.

NEW YORK - JUNE 14: Film critc Roger Ebert and wife Chaz Ebert attend the 14th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on June 14, 2010 in New York City.
NEW YORK - JUNE 14: Film critc Roger Ebert and wife Chaz Ebert attend the 14th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on June 14, 2010 in New York City.
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Directed by Steve James, the documentary director of the acclaimed “Hoop Dreams,” a film that Roger Ebert championed, “Life Itself” does an entertaining and thorough job at examining Ebert’s rise as a journalist to become a world renowned film critic (Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism). But the film also doesn’t shy away from some of the bumpier moments of Ebert’s life that deal with alcoholism and inflated egos.

Using as a template Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, James looks to Ebert’s past through photos, television footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as filmmakers and critics, who are honest in their appraisal of what Ebert meant to the world of film criticism since his start at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. But it’s also a documentary about Ebert in later years. Having been diagnosed with cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands in 2002, Ebert eventually had to have his jaw removed and lost the ability to speak or eat or chew food. It’s a sobering picture of Ebert in the hospital, and yet it’s also one that’s inspiring.

Much of the latter day interviews with Ebert are filmed at the hospital (he had gone to the hospital because of a fractured hip). Although physically down, James immediately captures Ebert’s quick wit, intelligence, and zest for life. Talking through computer software, and penning movie reviews while branding his work via social media, Ebert remained very active in the film world. Likewise, his relationship with his wife Chaz is one filled with love, trust and support. His extended stepfamily is equally full of praise. It’s apparent in his later years that this family enjoyed being together, and loved learning about film from the master, as step-granddaughter Raven Evans alludes.

Also entertaining are the comments from fellow writers and directors. There is a terrific sequence about Ebert, this “great film critic” having written “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (it has to do with “boobs”). Also directors like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Ava DuVernay weigh in on what’s it’s like to get a glowing review from Ebert, or how it hurts be on the receiving end of one that’s bad.

Naturally, the film visits the period of Ebert’s life where he co-hosted with his competitor (maybe even his enemy) Gene Siskel, the popular television shows, “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies.” Cast because both men wrote for competing newspapers (Siskel wrote for the Chicago Tribune), the two argued their opinions about current movies on-camera, coining the popular “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” phrases. But off-camera their snide remarks and jealousies loomed just as large. But Ebert was knocked cold when Siskel died, and in a moving interview, Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen sheds some recent light on the Ebert/Siskel relationship.

“Life Itself” is an amazing journey through Roger Ebert’s life and how he helped audiences discuss and think about their relationship with film in a more critical manner. But above all, “Life Itself” champions Ebert’s love and devotion for the cinema, and consequently elevates our own viewing pleasure of this and others movies as well.

“Life Itself” is 118 minutes, Rated R (for language) and opens in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theatre on July 4.