Monday, July 7, 2014

Life Itself Review - 3½ Stars

Not long ago, Roger Ebert published his autobiography “Life Itself” in which he tells the story of his childhood in downstate Illinois, his discovery of journalism at the University of Illinois, and his great break going to work first as a reporter than as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.  That position won him the Pulitzer Prize and got him a chair on a public television movie review show which he shared with his fellow critic and newspaper rival Gene Siskel.  The two didn’t like each other.  They wrote for competing newspapers.  They had deeper differences that came out in sometimes nasty exchanges.  Viewers loved it, because Siskel’s bickering with Ebert sounded familiar—like friends or couples talking after a movie.  The show went national and two stars were born.  Steve James, the Chicago documentarian whose films include “Hoop Dreams”, began this work as Roger Ebert entered rehab for an ankle fracture.  Ebert would go home only for a few days and spent the rest of his life in treatment.  James’ story balances the life of a man who loved movies, who found his calling early, who used his voice to help new and struggling filmmakers with the story of a man at the end of his life struggling with his disease and the medical procedures dealing with it.  Ebert began his career a heavy drinker, ultimately declaring himself an alcoholic.  Single until the age of 50, he found his soul mate at an A.A. meeting and ultimately mellowed, even finding accommodation with Siskel, who died first of a brain tumor in 1999.  Ironically Siskel feared Ebert would leave their partnership and go out on his own.  Ironic because once Siskel died, the two-man review show never recaptured the Siskel-Ebert chemistry.  Cancer took Ebert’s lower jaw and silenced his voice.  But Ebert looked to the future, embracing technology.  He found a voice synthesizer which allowed him to speak.  And his website showcased some of Ebert’s finest writing during his dying years.  “Life Itself” sometimes gets overpowered by the scenes of Ebert’s hospitalization and decline.  But it captures a grand life filled with passion and love and change and growth.  Anyone who loves movies should watch this tribute to the greatest and most powerful critic of our time.  Does it deliver what it promises?  Roger Ebert remembered in all his humanity.  Is it entertaining?  A fascinating life.  Is it worth the price of admission?  For everyone who loves movies.