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Movie review: ‘Life Itself’

Life Itself

* * * * 

Director: Steve James

Cast: Roger Ebert

Rated: Unrated

Running time: 118 min.

Posted 4:00pm on Thursday, Jul. 03, 2014

When Roger Ebert died last August of complications from cancer, two directors he had long championed paid their respects. Martin Scorsese said that Ebert’s passing was “an incalculable loss for movie culture and for film criticism.” And Werner Herzog repeated his earlier estimation of the critic as “a good soldier of cinema.”

Both filmmakers elaborate on those sentiments in Steve James’ admiring documentary about Ebert, Life Itself. (The title is the same as that of the critic’s 2011 memoir, one of many books he wrote in addition to daily newspaper and online reviews.)

The film’s core is footage shot during the last four months of Ebert’s life, when he had lost most of his jaw and was unable to eat or speak. It’s hard to see him in this state, which makes his frequent cheerfulness and humor all the more remarkable.

These scenes — in which Ebert’s beloved wife, Chaz, plays a starring role — are supplemented with answers the critic provided to emailed questions posed by the director, plus archival footage tracing his days as a whip-smart child to his storied editorship of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois and his early career at the Chicago Sun-Times.

And, of course, in 1975 his life reached one of several peaks when he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Though illness finally destroyed his vocal cords, we hear Ebert in two forms: A synthesizer speaks the words he types on a computer screen, and we hear excerpts from his memoir, read by an actor.

James’ debut film, Hoop Dreams, was hailed by Ebert, and the director reckons that Life Itself is an expression of gratitude. On an even more emotional note, Scorsese recounts that it was Ebert’s and Siskel’s support that helped pull him out of a very dark period of addiction.

Friends and co-workers, filmmakers (like Errol Morris) and fellow critics attest to Ebert’s wit, critical acumen and talent as a raconteur.

But this is no whitewash. Ebert had a heavy-duty libido, which he indulged as a womanizer and as a scriptwriter ( Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) for sleazemeister Russ Meyer. Like many Chicago newsmen of the day, Ebert was a roisterer, spending many after-work hours at taverns. The film acknowledges his struggles with alcohol — he joined AA in 1979 and met Chaz at a meeting.

Much screen time is given to Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel, his thumbs-up-thumbs-down TV partner. Drastically different personalities, they were anything but bosom pals. It’s amusing to see them take potshots at each other in outtakes from their shows.

Siskel, at one time a member of Hugh Hefner’s entourage (who knew?), often fretted that Ebert might decide to go it alone. We hear stories of the two riding elevators together in total silence. But as the years (and decades) went by, they at least partly overcame their mutual antipathy.

It’s fascinating stuff, but secondary to Ebert’s genuine passion for the movies, which, if anything, grew toward the end of his life. He saw film as a great civilizing force, “a machine that generates empathy,” as he says in the film. If that idea appeals to you, see Life Itself.

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