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« We Can't Wait #9: Boyhood | Main | Sundance's 'Young Boys in Trouble' Sub-Genre: White Shadow, Hellion, Web Junkie »
Monday
Jan272014

Sundance: 'Life Itself' Inspires and Entertains

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Life Itself".  

Is there any point in pretending I can be impartial in reviewing Steven James’ documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself? I, like no doubt a lot of critics, feel Ebert is in no small way responsible for the fact that I write about film. I purchased a copy of his Movie Home Companion around age 13 that I read and reread until it literally fell apart at the seams. In college I wrote him with a question about Memento and he mentioned me at the start of his review (no fooling), which remains one of the cooler things to ever happen to me. At a time when I was badly in need of encouragement he posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page and sent a Biblical torrent of traffic my way. 

So yeah, it would be a challenge not to pass this movie with flying colors simply because I miss the guy dearly and am happy to spend two hours in his company. Luckily Steve James has made a documentary that I can safely say I would recommend regardless of the subject, although for hardcore fans the abundance of new interviews and previously unseen archive material makes the film a must-see. Life Itself is straightforward, funny, well paced and surprisingly moving. 

For long stretches the doc most resembles the final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life with the movie inviting us to ponder what the film landscape would look like without Ebert's (and Siskel’s) influence. Filmmakers from Errol Morris to Ramin Bahrani to Werner Herzog testify how they would likely not have careers had Ebert not used his considerable influence to help them break through. In the film’s most memorable scene Martin Scorsese recounts how a career tribute from Roger and Gene helped pull him back from the brink of depression so bad he wanted to give up on films. Even the film itself is a gesture of gratitude since the director owes much of his success to the relentless championing Siskel and Ebert gave Hoop Dreams in 1994. 

Not that the film is a glowing hagiography of the man. Some of its most entertaining stretches delve into Ebert’s flaws: his massive ego, his alcoholism, his petulance when he couldn’t get his way with Siskel. Time is given over to those who feel that 'Siskel and Ebert' cheapened film criticism. Then there is the section recounting the bizarre circumstances that somehow led to Roger writing the Russ Meyer camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A.O. Scott's attempt at finding a delicate way to describe the appeal Roger saw in Russ Meyer’s oeuvre brought the house down at my screening.

James was filming right up until the end, and there is footage of Roger in early 2013 right after tumors were found along his spine and doctors gave him months to live. Like all great biopics Life Itself manages to be about something more than the simple recounting of events. It’s about living a life full enough that when the end comes you can face it with some semblance of the dignity and clarity Roger Ebert demonstrates here.

Grade: Probably an objective B/B+, but I can only review it from my own perspective and I had an A- experience.

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Reader Comments (5)

Beautiful introduction to the review, Michael. I think I will have the same experience watching this as I'm one of the many who loved Ebert.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I am going to sob through this entire movie.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Siskel and Ebert were so important in my life growing up, they made me want to analyze films, fall in love with the art and craft of film making. This sounds like such a wonderful documentary and it's apt that it's by the same director of Hoop Dreams, I remember the championing of that documentary was so important to Ebert.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRami

This sounds great. Hoop Dreams is still one of the best docs I've ever seen. They captured moments of humanity that you rarely get from other directors. Really looking forward to this.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I get weepy just thinking about watching this movie. I fear for what the actual viewing experience will bring..

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

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