MOVIE REVIEWS |
EDITORIALS | EVENTS |
EXAMINER.COM FILM ARTICLES
Thursday, July 10, 2014
A Man Of The World In A World Of The Movies
Roger Ebert on his travels in a
moment from "Life Itself", the documentary directed by Steve James.
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
A personal note: Like many I had the sincere pleasure of knowing
Roger Ebert personally, albeit for a short time. He and his wife Chaz
graciously selected me to be part of Roger's now-concluded PBS television show
"Ebert Presents At The Movies", on which I appeared as a contributing critic in
2011. I also wrote for Roger on his Chicago Sun-Times blog as one of his
Far-Flung Correspondents. Roger passed away on April 4, 2013.
"Life Itself" shines and fascinates with the openness, honesty, courage and
optimism its subject exuded. Documentary filmmaker Steve James, who
chronicled the ups and downs of a Chicago basketball-playing duo in his 1994
epic "Hoop Dreams", now 20 years later captures another Chicago institution in
Roger Ebert, the renowned U.S. film critic who became informally
known as the People's Critic during his illustrious 45-year career.
Based on Mr. Ebert's same-titled memoir, "Life Itself" takes us on an engaging
and moving journey through Roger's life, from his meteoric rise as a whip-smart,
mature 20-something in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom to prominence as its first
full-time film critic and the first Pulitzer Prize winner for film criticism, to the
relationships Roger developed as an unofficial Bard of Chicago holding court
with his Windy City bar tales and jokes. This is a thoroughly entertaining
"Life Itself", sometimes narrated by Mr. Ebert's pre-surgery voice and other
times by his computer-programmed voice, is an enjoyable, riveting ride through a
life well-lived, traveled and experienced, from his Urbana, Illinois childhood
to the ecstasies of his experiences with women, beer and song, to the days of
writing the "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" screenplay for director Russ Meyer,
to the tribulations of Roger's alcoholism, to the joys of reporting from the
Cannes Film Festival, to meeting and championing filmmakers known and unknown,
to his long fight with salivary cancer and multiple surgeries.
Among the funniest aspects of Mr. James' documentary is the loving and highly
contentious relationship between Roger and fellow film critic Gene Siskel, as
they first battled figuratively for the heart of Chicago then later for the
minds of nationwide moviegoers on their "At The Moves" and "Siskel & Ebert"
weekly movie review TV shows. Their caustic brotherly tussles were movie
adventures in their own right, and "Life Itself" achieves greater
heights when outtakes from their tete-a-tetes and jokes are shown and stories
recited, including by Gene's wife Marlene Iglitzen. The deep respect the
two critics had for each other is seen in anecdotes and comments following Mr.
Siskel's untimely death from a brain tumor in 1999. This sad event marks a
critical turn in Roger's own life, specifically in his public approach to living
life with the inevitability of death.
Roger's worldliness and self-deprecation are on display in Mr. James' film, as
well as his unassuming Midwestern film acumen and unwavering passion for movies,
but "Life Itself" isn't solely about Roger's adventures in a movie world he
embraced so abundantly. "Life Itself" is about the passion of living,
breathing and interacting with the world and
living beings and recalling the memories from experiencing them all. It is in this
context that "Life Itself" shines most brightly and comes alive most vividly.
We get candid and revealing insights from Roger's wife "the love of his life"
Chaz Ebert, and from Roger himself. We hear from Roger's family and
long-time Chicago friends, one of whom has choice words for famed film critic
Pauline Kael. Mr. James covers an extraordinary breadth of material in two
hours, executing it all efficiently and effortlessly. We inhabit the world
of an ever-curious film critic at his height as he discusses movies with a
fervor, humor and spiritual energy. "Life Itself" invites us to get
to know Roger as a person all over again, intimately, unmistakably, and,
sometimes, for the very first time.
Roger was a renaissance man, and everything about his work (including his nearly
two dozen books and thousands of film reviews) is at least touched upon, except
(to my mild disappointment) his cookbook The Pot And How To Use It.
I mention that specific book somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for Roger enjoyed food
and wrote about cooking and his competency in it, among other things.
"Life Itself" addresses film criticism, race (specifically the journey to
acceptance of Roger's family to Chaz as his spouse), Chicago classism
differences between the Sun-Times and Tribune newspapers, and almost ten years without speech -- Roger's, that is -- following a 2006 surgery that left
him unable to speak, eat or drink. It could be argued that in his life
Roger wrote more than he spoke, and Mr. James' documentary cites the influence
that the Internet and social media like Twitter had in expanding Roger's film
criticism platform worldwide and broadening his written voice to thousands of
film critics internationally who may not otherwise have been amplified.
"Life Itself" teaches us that appreciating life means embracing it one hundred
percent, including its unflattering moments, which we get an unblinking view of.
Roger fearlessly embraces death, a subject of fascination he makes no secret of
as he recovers from yet another surgery. That said, there's an eternal
sanguineness and realism about "Life Itself" that makes the film a
poignant, uplifting experience, and a sobering one. We are buoyed by
Roger's recovery process and saddened by its setbacks. "Life Itself" is as
calmly paced and clearly and cogently presented as one of Roger's movie reviews.
The film never condescends or pretends, nor does it lionize or exalt Roger
beyond the honest and down-to-earth person that he truly was.
Most of all, "Life Itself" celebrates Mr. Ebert's inspirational and unbreakable
spirit. His life was like a movie unto itself. More than Mr. James,
Roger is the documentary's clear-eyed authentic author. Roger knew his
life's beginning, its middle and its end better than anyone.
"Life Itself" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of
America for brief sexual images/nudity and language.
Its running time is one hour and 57 minutes.
COPYRIGHT 2014. POPCORNREEL.COM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
MOVIE REVIEWS |
EDITORIALS | EVENTS |
| PHOTOS |
EXAMINER.COM FILM ARTICLES