Saturday, August 2, 2014

Life Itself

Starring: Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, William Nack
Director: Steve James
Running Time: 2 hours
Rating: R

In his memoir Life Itself, Roger Ebert writes, "I was born inside the movie of my own life. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me." The thought of reviewing a documentary about the greatest film critic ever is a bit daunting. To be honest, I had never really read any of Ebert's reviews until his recent venture into the blogging world, when I became mesmerized by "the great one's" thoughts on film throughout cinematic history. The film "Life Itself" is based on Ebert's memoir, and gives us a peek into the personal side of this very public figure's life.

The editing of this film is fantastic - we see glimpses of Ebert's childhood and his early years at the Chicago Sun-Times as a journalist, before being fortuitously assigned to the movie desk. Fast forward to Ebert today, in a rehab facility, getting physical therapy after fracturing his hip. And just a few years prior, he underwent several jaw surgeries due to thyroid and salivary gland cancer. Although he could no longer speak during the making of this film (since 2007 he used a computerized voice system to speak), his attitude was unbelievably positive and his humor and sarcasm sharp as ever.

The "Siskel and Ebert" TV show years didn't paint either of them in the best light. The two were like mortal enemies who didn't respect each other's opinions, and in fact cared more about convincing the other to change his opinion than talking about a movie to the viewers. Over time, their relationship developed into a brotherly love, but the friction between these two kept the ratings high for so long, and their professional partnership ultimately defined their legacy.

Stories about Ebert are told from colleagues, writers and directors like the other "great one," Martin Scorsese; filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whom I met at the RiverRun International Film Festival; A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times; and Richard Corliss, film critic for Time Magazine. These tales signify that he was clearly a respected and accomplished writer, winning a Pulitzer and all, but they talk about him as if he were gauche, a bit of a curmudgeon - until he met wife Chaz. The strength this woman has (she marched with Dr. MLK!) and the love she had for Ebert is so admirable. You will be hard-pressed not to tear up during the scenes she shares with him towards the end.

His blog and endeavors in the world of social media was his self-proclaimed "final chapter." Harnessing his energy into this project kept him motivated and going strong for as long as he did. Ebert said, "When you're doing something you're good at, you get in the zone. It sort of pushes troubles to the back of your mind." If you have any interest in film, I can't recommend seeing this movie enough. It is an honest and genuine narrative. Ebert's story of perseverance and hard work is an empowering one.

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