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Life Itself (2014)
Urbana, Illinois-born journalist and author Roger Ebert was the staff film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper from 1967 until he latterly succumbed to pervasive cancer in 2013 at 70 years old. Employing the more literary style and personalized writing structure of New Journalism in his published columns, as well as co-hosting a string of movie review TV programs with Gene Siskel beginning in 1975, Ebert arguably became one of America's most famous and influential movie geeks of his generation. He also became the fifth newspaper writer and first film critic awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975, founded the annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (aka Ebertfest) in 1999, and was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
In early 2014, a life-size "thumbs up" bronze statue of Roger Ebert created by local artist Rick Harney was unveiled outside Illinois' 93-year-old Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, the neighbouring sister city of Urbana and home of Ebertfest.
Life Itself is yet another example where there's a tendency by a film audience to allow being caught up in the emotion of wanting an actual event to be chronicled cloud any objectivity regarding how it's told on the big screen or why. Example: It would be extremely easy to turn my review of this documentary about Roger Ebert into gushy indulgent platitudes to Roger Ebert. No thanks. It was deeply sad when he died but I never knew Roger Ebert, except as a fan who regularly enjoyed watching the Siskel & Ebert shows, as well as catching Charles Champlin, Leonard Maltin, Liz Braun, Ottawa's Geoff Pevere and legions of other film critics and reviewers talk movies on American and Canadian TV over the years. Ebert had a hugely notable run, but this review isn't for or against or about Roger Ebert.
Director Steve James' film pretty well brings the gush, poorly, and instills an uneasy suspicion many hands meddled in this picture's making while still under an understandably heavy cloud of mourning the final curtain in what Ebert euphemistically referred to as his "leave of presence." A paying audience sees post-operative Ebert head-on, upbeat yet days from death after a dozen years of mutilating surgical mechanics ultimately prolonged little more than his hands' and mind's life. Obsessively, the camera stares at Ebert's limp and jawless face after periodically skimming memoir excerpts (voiced as Ebert by Stephen Stanton), brief highlight reels from Ebert's small screen stints and early talk show appearances, and peer confessionals that offer absolutely zero insight whenever given opportunities to do so beyond Ebert and Siskel's quaintly juvenile clash of egos. Scorsese and Herzog merely seem to be included because, well... for no reason other than they're freakin' Martin Scorsese and freakin' Werner Herzog. Who would deny them?
It's a jarring face. No, not Scorsese or Herzog's face. Roger Ebert's face. Unfortunately locked in a gobby gaping smile after more cancer surgery removed his lower jaw in 2006, Ebert's face here is akin to a cheap rubbery prosthetic from the set of The Elephant Man (1980). Never a beauty, nor prone to hide his afflictions from the public, this Ebert is still a tough front row view: Only halfway vaguely recognizable as being the face of He In The Balcony who supposedly eclipsed all others by verbally sparring with anyone about movies years ago. The scalpel also erased Ebert's trademark aw shucks voice, replaced here by laptop software emulating HAL's voice from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It's all just weird, morbid fluff bereft of solid context, leading no-where except it seems to an exploitive herding through the gift shop after the closing credits. Thumbs up for grieving, thanks for buying a ticket to needlessly see this man's parting indignities, be sure to buy the books and order the DVD on your way out, chumps.
Life Itself is a cruel, empty tease. Maybe that's the intentional resonating message of this film, but I doubt it. It's more all thumbs, no brains. A long good-bye that ineptly traces Ebert's 70 years filtered by grief, brand savvy and selective memory. It cites him starting out as a part-time cub sports reporter without offering basic specifics of how he got that fateful full-time post as the Sun-Times' film critic. His fairy godmother editor just handed it to him when the last critic retired. Only him. For no reason. Uh-huh. Was young Ebert a lousy sportswriter or a film savant? Considering you're told he later taught film at university, if Ebert ever studied it scholastically or by osmosis before or during those formative bullpen years, you'd never know from this screening. Why? Doesn't it matter? Of course it does. The movie then touches on Ebert notoriously screenwriting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) for director Russ Meyer, but fails to mention how that happened. Meyer just magically handed him the job out of the blue one day. Just him, just because. Riiight. Why?! The film never tells you.
That boring answering of obvious questions stuff that actually makes biographical documentaries interesting and worthwhile beyond - and despite of - all published material somehow doesn't apply here. Too bad. If there was ever a chance to make a potentially definitive movie about Roger Ebert for fans, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect this all-access big screen pass to be it? Apparently not. You're later told workaholic, former alcoholic Ebert had bad taste in women while he was single. However, it's common knowledge he once dated famed media mogul Oprah Winfrey and encouraged her budding TV career in the 1980s. Where's Oprah telling us that anecdote? Peers A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss show up, delicately mincing words as though they lost a bet. It's not enough. Where's the parade of other credible interviewees? Did Ebert's colleague Richard Roeper, co-host alum Harry Knowles or even lovable headline whore Rex Reed shun this flick or fall off the radar unapproached? Instead, you learn about Ebert's redesigned website. Subscribe and visit often.
To paraphrase the man, I hate, hate, hate that I hated this movie. As with other notably influential past and present film critics, a documentary about Roger Ebert should exist. Given far more time and distance, smarter direction and care, this documentary about Roger Ebert might have broken new ground - as he did in life. Instead, it buries a legacy by cashing in with a suspiciously cobbled, forgettable cinematic footnote barely worth the price of admission. Ebert, and fans, deserve a hell of a lot better. Reviewed 07/14, © Stephen Bourne, moviequips.ca.
Life Itself is rated 14A by the
Ontario Film Review Board, citing mild sexual references, coarse
language, nudity in a non-sexual context, partial or full nudity
in a brief sexual situation, illustrated or verbal references
to drugs, alcohol or tobacco, occasional upsetting or disturbing
scenes, embracing and kissing, implied sexual activity, tobacco
use, and restrained portrayals of non-graphic violence, and is
rated G by la Régie du Cinéma in Québec.
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