News Column

Movie Reviews -- In the dark: "Life Itself"

July 11, 2014

By Michael Abatemarco, The Santa Fe New Mexican

July 11--Life Itself, documentary, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles

It seems touching that veteran documentary filmmaker Steve James should direct a movie based on Roger Ebert's life. Ebert, after all, championed James' first feature film,1994's Hoop Dreams, writing a rave review and, later, adding it to his Great Movies list. In Life Itself James takes us on an intimate and revealing journey into Ebert's past, his rise to become the most recognized film critic working in America, and the long battle with cancer that eventually ended his life. Ebert was a participant in the making of the film (he died while it was still in production), which makes Life Itself more interesting. James makes no attempt to paint Ebert as a saint -- this is no vanity project. It is a well-rounded portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful critic who could be stubborn and irascible at times, had a penchant for large-breasted women, and liked to drink. Ebert, sober since 1979, was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and broke his anonymity in a blog post in 2009.

Life Itself draws heavily on the critic's autobiography of the same name, detailing his early years as a journalist for the University of Illinois' student-run Daily Illini, his brief stint as screenwriter for Russ Meyer's titillating exploitation flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his long career as lead film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, a position he held until his death in 2013.

It's clear that his final years were fraught with difficulties. James films him during long hospital stays, along with stoic wife, Chaz, a former trial attorney who now runs Ebert Productions, is publisher of Ebert Digital, and continues to organize the annual Ebertfest film festival in Champaign, Illinois. Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and jaw cancer in 2006. After a seemingly successful operation on his jaw that year, his carotid artery burst as he was preparing to go home from the hospital. He nearly died. In the end, his lower jaw was removed entirely and he was left without the ability to eat, drink, or speak, fed by a feeding tube for the last few years of his life. But on camera, Ebert seems happy despite his medical issues. Entries on his popular blog, like his movie reviews, became prolific. He let his fingers do all the talking.

Gene Siskel, Ebert's longtime collaborator on the syndicated television shows Sneak Previews and Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, underwent his own battle with cancer when diagnosed with a brain tumor in the late 1990s. Siskel kept his medical condition a secret from his friend. Although hurt by this, Ebert planned to visit Siskel in his final days but never got the chance. Siskel died in 1999, just days before Ebert's visit. Those who miss the legendary banter that made their film critiques engaging to watch will find the behind-the-scenes footage from their shows satisfying and revealing. From the beginning, the pairing was an odd match. In their respective careers they were professional enemies. Siskel wrote reviews for the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times' biggest rival. On and off the set they needled and ribbed each other incessantly, engaging in a contentious game of one-upmanship. For viewers, the dynamic worked, and there are instances in James' documentary where Siskel and Ebert are on the verge of smiling while cracking wise at the other's expense. They had a shtick and they knew it. The shows were broadcast nationwide, and the memorable "thumbs up" the pair reserved for positive reviews became their trademark.

Initially, Los Angeles and New York didn't pick up Sneak Previews. Who were these two men from Chicago, and what qualified them to tell us about film? They had no connection to the Hollywood scene and New York already had Pauline Kael, a prominent reviewer for The New Yorker. But Ebert had mass appeal, plus the advantage of being a regular TV personality. He covered the Cannes Film Festival in depth each year, as well as other film festivals, eventually starting one of his own. He engaged with students on college campuses by doing shot-by-shot analyses of Vertigo and other films, revealing details ardent movie buffs and casual moviegoers might otherwise miss. "We'd find it even if it wasn't there," he jokes at one point.

Interspersed with the life story are numerous testimonials from filmmakers and critics who discuss the extent of Ebert's influence. Martin Scorsese, a close friend, recounts a moving story about his battle with drug addiction, a problem that almost derailed his career in the 1980s. It was only when Siskel and Ebert invited him to participate in a panel discussing Scorsese's work that the director realized the extent of his own influence. It was a life-changing experience that set him back on track to become one of the nation's top directors. We also hear from filmmakers Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Ramin Bahrani, all of whom benefited from Ebert's positive reviews. But the critic spared no punches if a film missed the mark, giving negative reviews to films by directors he usually liked, if they deserved it, as he did with Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986). Some seemed to take his more acerbic zingers in stride, seeing a negative review from Ebert as an indication to try harder next time.

Ebert loved films in every genre, writing eloquently about popular cinema and supporting more obscure efforts such as 1978's Gates of Heaven, a documentary about a pet cemetery in California and one of Ebert's personal favorites.

Life Itself is a profoundly moving tear-jerker of a documentary that does the job of depicting its subject about as well as can be expected. Ebert always maintained that it wasn't what a movie was about as much as how it was about it. That's what made a film good or bad. One wonders what Siskel and Ebert would have thought of Life Itself: I, for one, think they would give it two thumbs way up.


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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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