Thursday, January 15, 2015
**** out of ****
During the last days of film critic Roger Ebert's life, his family, friends, colleagues and some of the film industry's most prominent figures all contributed to making his legacy known. Documentarian Steve James, whose film, Hoop Dreams, Ebert championed, made sure that this film would do the man justice.
Based on Ebert's widely praised autobiography (written shortly after a surgery for salivary cancer took away his ability to speak), Life Itself follows around Ebert and his loving wife Chaz in and out of a Chicago Hospital, while undergoing exhaustive treatments and surgeries. Ebert bravely allows himself to be captured in a very vulnerably uncomfortable state. Without a jaw or the ability to walk due to a fractured hip, we see him enduring a great amount of pain when nurses tend to his many needs. During free time, he communicates using his computer's keyboard with an electronic voice program.
Passages of Ebert's book are read, while archival photos are shown. We are treated to anecdotes by filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris -and film critics, like A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, who discuss their professional interactions with Roger.
The highlight material, however, is found in the best-of moments between Ebert and his departed At The Movies co-star Gene Siskel, which reminds us of a time when film criticism was passionate and had a strong following. Their arguments were incredible.
The real heart of the film is in Ebert's relationship with his wife and step-children whose role was a source of great joy in his personal life, for which, until they entered, was lonely and insecure.
I saw this film last summer, and skipped reviewing it, because it gave me more motivation than ever, to move on to another movie and write a review. As I conveyed in this blog, after Ebert's passing, he was a great support in my life as a film fan, reaffirming my fondness for under-appreciated films (Joe Versus the Volcano), pointing me towards great films I would have otherwise ignored (Out of Sight); stopped me from gathering friends to see a highly anticipated dud (Snake Eyes); and explained his point of view fairly even when I didn't agree with his stance on a film (Team America: World Police).
In an age of internet consensus, there is a flood of snarky commentators spouting off fallacies with little care for what makes a movie work. In movie conversations, I still regularly encounter people who think that the star is the source of the movie's value.
Here is a movie where the protagonist is an old, jawless, bedridden man and it's one of 2014's best.