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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Life Itself (2014)

* * * *

Director: Steve James

More often than not, critics are characterized as being the bane of a filmmaker's existence, the potential obstacle between a film and its audience. For that reason alone, Life Itself is a somewhat extraordinary film, celebrating as it does the life of film critic Roger Ebert. But Ebert wasn't just any film critic, nor was he really "just" a film critic. He was a wonderful writer and a champion of movies he felt deserved a bigger audience but were perhaps too small and/or obscure to find it on their own (one of the more famous examples is his embrace of Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams), and he was knowledgeable with respect to film history and insightful when it came to breaking a film down. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he wasn't even someone who grew up dreaming of becoming a film critic, but rather came into the occupation somewhat by chance as a result of joining the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times just as their regular film critic was leaving. That he would build his career up from those circumstances to become, arguably, the most famous film critic in North America and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot is only a small measure of his extraordinary talent, and but a small reason why he's deserving of such an affectionate and compelling tribute.

Using Ebert's biography of the same name as a template, Life Itself flows back and forth between the Ebert of its present day (the film was shot during what would be the last five months of Ebert's life) and the Ebert of the past, documenting his experiences growing up in Urbana, Illinois as the only child of parents who recognized and encouraged his talents early on. Though his desire was to go to Harvard, due to money constraints he attended the University of Illinois instead, where he became the editor of the student paper and achieved a degree of notoriety on campus for actually stopping the presses in order to remove an ad which under normal circumstances would have been fine, but which would have taken on negative connotations appearing next to a picture of JFK the day after his assassination. In 1967 he began writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and in 1975 became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize (in between he also collaborated with director Russ Meyer on the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and if you're wondering what drew Ebert to Meyer, the film sums it up succinctly: boobs). That same year, he also took his first foray into broadcasting with the weekly review show "Sneak Previews," an endeavor in which he would be joined by Gene Siskel three years later.

Watching the early footage of Siskel and Ebert in the first of what would be several iterations of the show that eventually became "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies," you can't help but think that it's a miracle that they attained that level of prominence because, my God, did they ever look ridiculous when they first started out together. This partnership would, of course, become defining for the way that the two critics often battled it out over the movies they were reviewing and for introducing the "thumbs up/thumbs down" rating, which earned them a place of particular prominence in pop culture, as well as a fair bit of criticism. During their time on the air, Siskel and Ebert would be accused of "dumbing down" the act of film criticism, a notion which Life Itself directly addresses and refutes by pointing out that the purpose of the show was not to offer in depth looks at the films (for that you could read the reviews of either critic), but to offer lively debate which spoke to the fact that film, like all art, is a subjective thing. The partnership between the two men could be a prickly one and Life Itself demonstrates as much through the use of outtakes in which the two snipe at each other while trying to film promos for their show, but there was another side to it as well, which is described in the film as being like a relationship between two brothers in which there was (eventually) genuine love and affection between them, but there was also a constant struggle for the upper hand and for dominance. It was a complex relationship that was neither one thing nor the other and the film manages to convey that in a very nuanced way.

But the relationship between Siskel and Ebert represents just one of the major threads of Life Itself, and the relationship to which the film ultimately belongs is the one between Ebert and his wife, Chaz, who emerges here as a person of seemingly infinite strength and patience. Life Itself is an intimate look at the final months of Ebert's life in which neither the filmmaker nor the subject shy away from showing the most difficult parts of the story, including invasive medical treatments and struggles during rehabilitation. There are a number of scenes in the film that are hard to watch, and Ebert and Chaz and their family should be commended for their bravery in opening the doors so wide in order to let the audience in, and in turn leaving themselves so few places to hide. Though the film is made with obvious affection, it is not a blindly mythologizing one and is willing to show its subject in less than flattering light at times in order to give a fuller picture of him as a human being. Ebert was an eloquent person for whom writing seemed to come effortlessly, but as revealed in the film he could also be pretentious and a bit full of himself; he was a man who ended up with a woman of grace and intelligence, but whose taste in women prior to that is noted to have been abysmal; he was a man who loved life but was not without moments of darkness when he could conceive of letting it go (moments that came both towards the end of his life and much earlier, before he became sober). He was, in other words, a person, a human being with qualities both good and bad and though the film has the unenviable task of condensing a life of 70 years down to a two hour film, it nevertheless manages to portray Ebert in all the fullness of his humanity.

Life Itself is an engaging and incredibly moving film, one which acts as a celebration of and eulogy for not only Roger Ebert, but for the era of film criticism which he represented. With print journalism having spent the last decade and a half being battered almost out of existence and with even some of the most well-known film critics having no permanent home and instead forced to freelance for various publications, there will probably never be another film critic who will enjoy the level of influence and prominence that Ebert had. There are other great critics out there, but none seems to inspire that level of admiration or loyalty. Speaking personally, Ebert was someone I read every week without fail and each review whether or not I had any outside interest in the film, and I've used his "Great Films" series as a guide to fill in the blanks in my own film knowledge. I can only speak officially for myself, but I suspect that this is a sentiment shared by at least a few others for whom Ebert was not just a writer they enjoyed reading, but also in his way an educator who opened up the world of film and made them feel invited to join the conversation. I haven't found a writer yet who can take his place, so in many ways Life Itself feels like the closing of a door, a final goodbye to someone who, though I never met him, was a major influence on me. If you weren't a fan of Ebert's writing, Life Itself might not have much of an impact on you, but being a fan, I never wanted this movie to end.


Helen said...

Thank you so much for this review of Life Itself. I'm not sure if I'll have the chance to see this film, but if it comes to a theater near me, I will make the attempt to go and see it. I've heard that it was good before, but you were the first person to say why it was good!

I was a fan of Roger's writing and so I am hoping to see this film. I don't know if he is famous enough here in Japan for them to bring the film here.

Norma Desmond said...

I hope you get a chance to see it. It's excellent and very moving.

Unknown said...

I loved this review, and really look forward to when the film becomes available in the UK. For years, Roger Ebert was the first critic I would look to for guidance and you just inspired me go back and re-read a bunch of his thoughts and reviews on his wiki-quotes page. Thanks.

I came across this blog while looking for Canadian film reviewers, and the next thing I knew I'd been reading for an hour. I can definitely see Roger's influence in the best possible way. Please do excuse me if it doesn’t seem appropriate, and feel free to delete this post, as it’s not actually a comment, but I couldn't find any 'Contact' Link, and coming to the end of the 'Life Itself' review, it seemed like an appropriate enough place to write this as part of a comment.

The micro-budget British feature film, ‘Common People’ was written and co-directed by one Canadian from Montreal (that’s me), Produced by another from Toronto, and features a Canadian hero in one of its story-lines. It’s going to be released on iTunes in Canada and the US on November 4th, and I’m hoping you might be able to help us spread the word in, “our home and native land.”

‘Common People’ was shot for £35,000 over twelve days, during “the wettest April since records began,” yet thanks to people like you, it received a nationwide release in the UK, and is now in consideration for British Academy Awards.

In spite of winning awards at various festivals in North American we couldn’t attract a distributor in the UK. They all said (including the Weinsteins, who wrote us a lovely rejection letter) that without any ‘marquee names’ it would be too expensive to market in the current climate. In the end, we managed to get a local cinema in London to agree to screen it once. After that first screening sold out, the cinema added another. And then another. And another. In the end, it went on to play to full houses for nine weeks during Oscar season. This prompted Picturehouse Cinemas (the only independent cinema chain left in the UK) to give ‘Common People’ a nationwide release in 17 cinemas on June 10th, the only time they’ve ever done so without a distributor attached.

Thanks to the extended run, it’s now also eligible to be nominated for British Academy Awards (we sent 6500 online screeners to some of the biggest names in the industry last week) something which just doesn’t happen to many micro-budget films these days.

With no PR team, or advertising budget (just two producers in a dark room, tweeting, Facebooking and writing emails like this) our success was entirely thanks to word of mouth from audiences and the many online critics and bloggers like yourself who championed the film.

Although I’m thrilled that it’s going to be released in Canada, I do fear that it will simply disappear into the great white void if we can’t get any coverage prior to its release. And so, I’m writing to you.

If you fancy watching it I’d be happy to send you a link to an online screener. If you fancy writing about, we’d be extremely grateful.

In the meantime, you can read story behind the film, and UK reviews in our press pack here: http://www.commonpeoplethemovie.com/presskit/cp-press-pack.pdf and see the trailer on our website at: http://www.commonpeoplethemovie.com

Right. I was also amused by your piece on Netflix recommendations. I've had Jack Reacher mouldering on my hard drive for ages now but I think I'll watch it tonight. Now, you see what you've done?

All the best,


Stewart Alexander
Common People Productions