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FILM REVIEW: Life Itself

Categories: Celebrities, Movies

It feels slightly incestuous to praise the film documenting the life and death of Roger Ebert because he was a colleague in a way; one of the brothers and sisters who ply their trade in the dark, trying to transmute those flickering images into cumbersome words. And Roger, with that Midwestern ability to cut to the quick, made it look easy.

Roger Ebert was a critic whom I admired for his voice and perception, and I think he would have enjoyed the documentary. In fact, that seems to be the metric Steve James the director of gritty films such as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters - seems to have set for himself.

WWRD? What would Roger Do? Well, he wouldn't have shied away and covered up the sometimes sickening reality of his health struggles and neither did the director. The documentary is a fitting testimony to the power of film. The unblinking eye of the camera that shows us Life Itself, in all its horrible beauty.

The documentary by Steve James is not a hagiography, it does celebrate the wit and expansive mind of Roger Ebert. But it also focuses on the bumpy sides of his story: the alcoholic who held court at the local bar; the sometime radioactive relationship with his on-screen partner of many years Gene Siskel; plus the mid-life love story of his marriage to Chaz, his partner, supporter and friend.

Life Itself is also packed with titbits about the difference the mighty thumbs Siskel & Ebert made. Like, when the two critics hosted a reception for a young upcoming filmmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival. Martin Scorsese was the one being celebrated and it changed his life.

In a fitting way, the film is also a testament to the spirit of the man who lost his ability to talk, but never his voice. Splitting up the rise of Roger Ebert with his slow decline is a sobering technique that keeps this love letter from floating away. Indeed. some of the most difficult scenes to watch, such as a routine suction procedure, came at Roger's insistence.

Strangely, the only thing really missing from Life Itself is where Roger's love of film sprung from. We learn about Roger's romance with the newspaper business and how he basically inherited his movie column at the Chicago Sun Times. The film certainly captures the sometimes complicated relationship between Roger and the filmmakers he admired. For example, we see Martin Scorsese - an executive producer of the doc  wincing from a particular biting review. But there are too few glimpses into what it was about watching movies that plucked the chords of Ebert's soul.

Maybe Roger Ebert was too big to contain to such a tiny subject. As his health struggles intensified, he broadened his range, looking back and forward undaunted. As a film about the cinephile Life Itself may be short on insight but strong on inspiration. Roger is gone, but in some way bigger than ever.

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