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Film Review: Roger Ebert in 'Life Itself'

Year: 2014
Director: Steve James
Country of Origin: USA
Rating: NR
Time: 115 mins

In this day and age where it seems like being a paid film critic is one of many dying breeds in this post-recession era, it is with honor to watch one the greatest professional film writer of our time, Roger Ebert's story come to life. In my quest on becoming a "serious" film critic, it only seemed natural to become knowledgable about the man who became the poster child of the art by listening to the audiotape of his memoir, "Life Itself: A Memoir." When the news broke out that a documentary adapted from his memoir was in the works, I was a bit skeptical till they announced Steve James' name attached to it. The revered documentarian behind the profoundly intimate works like Hoop Dreams (1994) and Stevie (2002) is no novice to capturing and telling a concise and powerful portrait of someone. Even if you are not big fan of Ebert, it is a great documentary to see a man who started from the bottom and became one of the most influential people in the world in Life Itself

The film starts out with Roger Ebert's last four months of his life in the hospital where he is being treated for thyroid cancer. It is shockingly refreshing being confronted by the stark image of the late Ebert with his jaw removed and loose skin dangling down rather than the gleefully pulp figure we are so used to seeing in the media (like picture above.) With quotes directly from his memoir, James was able to give a just adaptation to his memoir beginning with Ebert's humble beginnings in Urbana, Illinois to his alcoholic troubles to his infamous feud with Gene Siskel. As much as Life Itself is a biography of Ebert's life, it really is about the unspoken love and hate bond between Ebert and Siskel that gives the film more vibrancy and intimacy contrary to what Ebert presents their friendship as in his memoir. There are numerous clips of Siskel and Ebert bickering, teasing, and just provoking each other to unspeakable length like real-life siblings who know no boundaries. It is at this moment where Roger Ebert becomes more than a world-renown critic that we all know and more of a human who is just as stubborn, opinionated, and boisterous as we all are in our moments of heat.

It's heart-wrenchingly personal, downright laugh-out-loud funny, and spiritually transcendent. There are testimonials from Martin Scorsese (who executive produced the film), chief NYT Film Critic A.O. Scott, Documentarian Errol Morris, even Werner Herzog talks about Ebert's mark on the world of cinema along with much, much, more. The film is a real treat for all film lovers and general public alike. I had the privilege of watching the film at a pre-screening at Cinefamily with James and Ebert's wife Chaz Ebert in attendance. Even months after the initial screening, the inspiration dispelled by the documentary is still pungent and everlasting. The last paragraph of his memoir as well as his final blog post are words that are permanently engraved in my mind as he inscribed, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies." Yes, Ebert, yes, you will. 

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