Two thumbs way up for Roger Ebert documentary, LIFE ITSELF

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Rating: ★★★★

The clue’s in the title. Much, much more than a profile of the most famous film critic of all time, this moving and meaningful documentary really is about the stuff of life: Ambition, addiction, competition, obsession, love, death and the legacy we leave behind – big or small.

Roger Ebert’s was one of the biggest. He gave thumbs up to many movies and taught us how to think and feel differently about them while doing it. We all know the pulitzer prize-winning critic has long been the poet laureate of the movies, writing about the medium for half its lifespan (an unprecedented achievement), but it’s fascinating to also learn what a pirate he was. In his last days battling thyroid cancer and recovering his lost voice through typed words, it’s impossible to reconcile the compassion and wisdom of those inspirational blog posts on his site (some of the truest words he ever wrote) with the drunken egotist encountered at the beginning of the film.

And while his love-hate rivalry with TV co-host Gene Siskel was famously fierce, few would imagine it to be quite so bitterly complicated. Many of the featured outtakes from their weekly, movie review TV show, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert show the pair engaging in a kind of vicious, petty one-upmanship far beneath their more respectful, considered prose.

And that’s what this doc does best, really highlighting just how fine Ebert’s writing was. Seeing those words flash up alongside scenes from landmark films often feels like the last word. At their best, Ebert’s reviews transcended their own simple intentions, speaking about fictional characters and their actions in ways that caused readers to reflect on their own lives, and the choices in living them that make us who we are.

Life-enriching to just about anyone who sees it, and life-changing for anyone who has a passion for writing about film, Steve James (championed by Ebert since the beginning of his career with Hoop Dreams) has given Roger a deservedly dignified send-off. An honest account of one of the most honest men to ever write about the stuff of life in Hollywood dreams.

This writer grew on Ebert, and though it remained perceptive and beautifully considered right until the end, suspected his discerning opinion on films to have gone soft and senile since the new millennium. Perhaps Steve James’ biggest accomplishment on a personal level (and that’s exactly how Roger would have wanted it) was in making me want to re-read all the annual yearbooks that were a staple of countless Christmas lists, pore through hundreds of old reviews and discover him all over again. Two thumbs way up!

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on November 3, 2014
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