Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Movie Review: Life Itself

Life Itself
Directed by: Steve James.

In the five years since I started the blog, I have never been secretive about the influence that Roger Ebert has had on me – as someone who writes movie reviews, and even as someone who loves movies. He was the first – and for many years, pretty much the only – movie critic I read. As an aspiring cinephile, Roger Ebert’s reviews – in the form of his Video Yearbooks – were a massive influence – and I rented so many of the movies that made me fall in love with the art form because of Roger Ebert. I hardly ever get that upset when famous people die – but Ebert’s death in 2013 affected me greatly for weeks on end after I found out. I finally decided to pick up his wonderful book – Life Itself – about his life and career. It is a wonderful book – about movies, yes, but also about, well, life. Steve James’ documentary covers much of – although not all of – the same material – but also different stuff as well – namely the end of Ebert’s life. They started filming just a few months before Ebert’s death – and the result is a heartbreaking, inspiring, funny, sad, brilliant documentary.\

The film jumps around in time a little bit – mixing a standard film biography, full of well-chosen archival footage and interviews with Ebert’s friends and family – with scenes of Ebert in the late stages of his life – mostly in the hospital. He seems in good spirits – as does his wife Chaz – as both seem optimistic that this latest treatment will work, and Ebert, who had already lost his ability to speak, eat and drink – will survive for a little bit longer. He is determined to keep working – he loves attending movies, loves writing about movies, and loves his blog – and his readers. He’s already had a long career, and no one would have blamed him for retiring – but for Ebert his work, and his wife, were the reason he kept going. He doesn’t fear death, but as long as he’s alive, he was going to keep working.
The movie is an excellent portrait of Ebert’s life and career. Everything you could want is covered here – not much about his childhood, but a lot about his early years, as the editor of the student paper in university, to how he became a film a critic, a lot about his partnership and friendship with Gene Siskel (and nothing about Richard Roeper), his years as an alcoholic, he recovery, his late marriage to Chaz – who became his whole world – and finally his illness and death. All of it is covered with intelligence, humor and charm. I’m not going to argue that the film is innovative cinematically – James sticks to the standard documentary forum – but it’s a wholly entertaining package – and provides enough information not covered in Ebert’s book that you’ll learn some new things about the man.

But none of this explains why I think Life Itself is a brilliant, even somewhat profound movie. That is harder to explain – but let me try anyway. The film is a reminder of why we go to the movies, why we love them – and why they matter. Ebert loved movies – and he never lost that love. With many critics, eventually you sense that they’ve lost that love that got them into the business in the first place – that they’ve grown cynical and dismiss everything. Ebert never got to that point. Right up until the end, he clearly loved movies – was clearly moved by them – and clearly poured that passion into his reviews. Watching the film, that love comes through, and is infectious. Few movies have the power to transport me back to the time that I fell in love with the movie – but this is one of them. For much of the movie, I had a smile plastered on my face.

The parts I didn’t have a smile on my face, I was on the verge of tears. As Ebert was in the final months of his life, his relationship with Chaz, his attempts at rehab, and mostly his attitude towards death and dying was inspiring. I was reminded of one of my favorite movies – and the movie Ebert said would be the first one he would watch if he was told he was dying – Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru – where a bureaucrat is determined to do one worthwhile thing before he dies. Both films are about death, but not in a depressing way, but in an inspiring one,

Even if that still sounds depressing, let me assure you that Life Itself is a treasure trove of entertaining moments – from some of the great clips from Siskel & Ebert – and interviews with filmmakers who inspired Ebert – and were in turn inspired by him – Martin Scorsese, who credits a tribute at TIFF from Siskel &   Ebert for getting him through a tough time in his life, to Errol Morris who credits their love of Gates of Heaven – and their undying support of it for his entire career, to Werner Herzog who calls him a soldier of cinema to relative newcomer Ramin Bahrani, who Ebert supported tirelessly. Steve James himself is another director on that list – Siskel & Ebert`s love of Hoop Dreams helped his career immensely.

Life Itself is a funny, sad, entertaining documentary about a lot things from cinema to death to, of course, life. It is a great documentary – even if you didn’t love Roger Ebert. But if you love movies, how the hell could you not love Roger Ebert.

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