Rated: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: July 4, 2014 Released by: Magnolia Pictures
Exemplary, even wrenching documentary from the maker of Hoop Dreams does justice to storied Chicago-based film critic Roger Ebert who died last year after a long bout with cancer and was primarily employed for the Sun Times. Here's a man who spoke his mind and wrote many novels and essays and still had his share of naysayers.
Steve James's Life Itself reveals the gritty, very thorough professional student reporter who initially didn't give a positive review to some films like Bonnie & Clyde in his early days and has been a champion of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee at least when it came to prolific films like Good Fellas and Do The Right Thing (celebrating its 25th anniversary). In recent years he had high praise for cinematic excellence from films like Crash, Juno, Million Dollar Baby and even Ben Affleck's terrific, taut drama around the Iranian hostage crisis, Argo.
Ebert battled alcoholism through his early days and scripted Beyond The Valley of the Dolls in the late 1960s as he easily whizzed through his early journalism years and later became very savvy on-line with his own self-titled website which still flourishes from input from colleagues, admirers and close friends like Richard Roeper and Christy Lemire, among others. As well as loving wife Chaz who provided much professional and personal support over the years after their fruitful bond later in life which helps this cinema verite reach a rather affecting denouement.
James is able to let the viewer into the more troubling aspects of Ebert's last decade where he learned proficiently to speak through computers as part of his jaw was removed and its hard to watch the cleansing of orifices to keep him breathing. He could have just used clips to explain the highlights and milestones of an amazing most famous man (he won the Pulitzer Prize) of a little thought of profession but gets a lot of mileage from talking heads.
The outspoken critic did so much for the patenting of the Thumbs up/down trademark through his lasting partnership with rival Tribune critic Gene Siskel as much was made of their physical disparity and clashing styles which worked for an evolution of a lasting movie review program which even flourished for a while after Siskel's untimely passing (at 53) and through Ebert's illnesses which accelerated through thyroid cancer.
The instances with Ebert and Siskel are probably most memorable for what is rather spry and incisive and quietly a tribute to a portly finally thinned down debilitated man who persevered with the times and the love of a medium where everybody thinks they are a critic. Even those unknowing of Ebert will realize after watching such a recreation of the influence he's bestowed on so many gives Life Itself a resonant dramatic arc surely able to keep its two thumbs all the higher from an all encompassing portrait.