Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Life Itself

by Adam Riske
Life Itself is a movie I appreciate more with each passing month.

I’ve seen the new Roger Ebert documentary multiple times and I never grow tired of it. I keep feeling drawn back to it. It’s comfort food. In terms of recent documentaries focused on an individual, it easily trumps Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, The Punk Singer, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon and That Guy Dick Miller. Life Itself manages the tricky balancing act of justifiably praising its subject and commending his influence without devolving into hero worship.

On the first viewing, part of me wanted the fan doc -- a puff piece that would be fun to revisit. Now I’m glad that Life Itself is the movie that it is. It feels comparable to a non-depressing wake for this icon of film criticism and a seemingly brilliant, complex and flawed man. The best compliment I can give Life Itself is that it captures the spirit of Ebert’s columns, reviews and blogs, where you feel as if he’s talking directly to you. Ebert called the movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and by the end of Life Itself you will no doubt feel that you understand Roger Ebert, the celebrity and the man.
Much of the credit for capturing that quality goes to director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), who, in a masterstroke, included a sound-alike actor of Roger Ebert (Stephen Stanton) to read passages from the memoir in which this documentary is based on and improved upon.

Life Itself chronicles Ebert’s life and achievements as a newspaperman, his time as a film critic championing filmmakers such as Errol Morris, Gregory Nava and Ramin Bahrani, his struggles with alcoholism, his stint as a screenwriter for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, his competitive relationship with Gene Siskel (Richard Corliss described Siskel & Ebert as “a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater”), their reception from other film critics, his relationship with his wife Chaz, and grandchildren late in life and his declining health and ultimate passing. This richly detailed documentary nimbly moves from topic to topic.

The documentary stitches in scenes of the last four months of Ebert’s life, mostly in a hospital, with the more entertaining material from earlier when he was in good health. The hospital sequences are tough to watch at times – Ebert was in obvious frustration, pain and discomfort – but it makes for great drama, a fact that Ebert and Steve James both seem to know. As it stands today, Life Itself is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about facing death and even more so about love and friendship in the face of death.

The best material in the movie is about death and our reaction to it. At its most positive, the doc reveals that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert saved none other than Martin Scorsese from his own low point with a tribute to the filmmaker in Toronto during the 1980s. Scorsese tearfully confesses how much that meant to him and how it showed that there were people out there who believed in him. At its most negative is the private manner in which Siskel handled his own death that didn’t allow for Ebert to say goodbye to his colleague and friend (the movie can also be seen as a tribute to and providing insight into Siskel as much as Ebert). In reaction to that, Ebert faced his own death in a public manner, his writing getting deeper in his blog as it became his outlet for expressing himself.

Though I’m making it sound heavy, I want to stress that Life Itself is also greatly entertaining.
The sequence detailing the competitive relationship between Siskel & Ebert is extremely funny and features some choice outtakes. So is the sequence where wet noodle critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss extoll the vulgarization of film criticism via Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs -- because those thumbs don’t thumb through magazines like Film Comment. Have you ever read Film Comment or New City? OMG. You could read 500 words and still have no fucking clue what they’re talking about. Those magazines are balls if you don’t like balls.

I’ll wrap by saying that this movie moved me greatly and has made me a better movie critic. Roger Ebert’s legacy lives on at Roger Ebert.com and I am glad for that, though I wonder if there are too many writers on that site; I seriously don’t know who to follow since there’s so many.
Ebert doesn’t feel gone to me. I never met the man personally, so I don’t feel the loss others feel. I see him as my movie buddy whose essays I can read before the first time I watch The Red Shoes or Amarcord. Roger Ebert left a legacy in his writing and that’s something I often think about for myself. I may never marry and have a family and if I don’t, I want my writing to live on. That’s why I work so hard on it. Roger Ebert knew this feeling, I’m sure; otherwise, he wouldn’t have had the drive and work ethic he did. As such, I feel as if he and I had a meaningful friendship.

Ebert once said that a great movie is one you can’t stand the thought of never being able to see again. Life Itself is a great movie.

Note: My only misgiving about Life Itself is that it does not feature Ebert’s longtime reviewing partner, Richard Roeper. As a fan of Roeper, I wish Steve James found a way to include his input and insights into Roger Ebert personally and professionally. In a Q&A at Ebert Fest following a screening of Life Itself, James said the exclusion of Roeper was because you can’t put everything in. Once they edited the documentary, they realized there was a connection between Gene Siskel’s death and how Ebert handled his illness. As a result, James felt the inclusion of Roeper would have disrupted that arc. Roeper was said to have understood even though he wanted to be in the documentary.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting writeup. Unfortunately. I only started reading his reviews after he passed. He's definitely a man I want to learn more about. Is this on Netflix?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's on VOD and in theaters right now. It should be on Blu-Ray and Netflix I'm assuming later in the year.

      Delete
  2. I love that this was done by Steve James, the Hoop Dreams guy, whose aforementioned documentary Siskel and Ebert championed so much back in the day. That seems appropriate. I'm even happier that this seems to be a documentary of great quality itself. I don't watch a whole lot of documentaries, but this is on my must-see list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've seen a whole bunch of documentaries this year - Life Itself and Jodorowsky's Dune are my favorites.

      Delete
  3. Caught this on the big screen over the holiday weekend along with "Edge of Tomorrow." Terrific documentary that left me moved, sad, elated, entertained, spellbound and the galaxy of emotions one goes to the movies to experience. I can live with the exclusion of Roeper from the documentary given that Ebert's life and body of work was so vast that stuff had to be excluded for time reasons (including Scorsese and other celebrities co-hosting the show and James' own "Hoop Dreams" connection to the Siskel & Ebert show), and "Life Itself" at almost two hours is already pretty packed. Hopefully a home video release will include deleted scenes/extras with some choice stuff. The segment that moved me the most was the clip of Ebert's longtime friend reading excerpts from "The Great Gatsby" near a lake, it brought me to tears.

    When I moved to the States in '89 as a non-English speaking young punk "Siskel & Ebert" was one of the first TV shows I happened to catch that made me realize movies could be discussed and appreciated as art. The first movie I went to see in a theater in the States, "Roger & Me," was because of how enthusiastic and hard these guys pushed it. I barely understood it (was studying English at the time) but got enough out of it to appreciate it, and the rest is history. The more your passion for movies dominates your life the more you'll get from "Life Itself," whether you read, watched or liked Ebert's work or not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment! Great stuff. I go back and forth on the Gatsby portion. Maybe it's just me being dense but are they trying to equate Ebert to Gatsby? If so, couldn't you do that with almost anyone who grew out of humble beginnings and became a big deal in their field?

      Delete
  4. Excellent write-up Adam. I've seen Life Itself several times since Sundance, and every viewing leaves me physically and emotionally drained. Steve James has crafted an incredibly moving documentary that truly captures the remarkable human spirit of Roger Ebert's life. I must say I'm on the fence with the exclusion of Roeper. I am not a fan of Roeper, but he probably should have been included in some capacity. I will say that there should have been more Pauline Kael material. The "Fuck Pauline Kael" joke always kills with each screening, but it feels like her impact on Roger is shortchanged.

    For all you F-Heads wanting to see it, Life Itself should be opening wider this coming week and should eventually be playing in nearly every market throughout the U.S. this summer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Ross. I was surprised how re-watchable it is. I've seen it 4 times and could easily watch it again right now.

      Delete
  5. Great review and tribute, Adam - I really missed out on appreciating Ebert while he was alive but I've been going back and reading his reviews for just about everything I've watched lately (most recently the first two Rocky movies - he watched Rocky II with Muhammad Ali!) and we're pretty sympatico. And his reviews are just such great reads period - I can see why he's such an inspiration to you and other F'ers I'm sure - he takes his job seriously without being stuffy.

    Looking forward to watching this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment calls out something that is often mentioned about Ebert which is how educational he was but in such a relatable manner. I've learned so much about movies just from his writing and other pointers he's given aspiring critics in videos you can find online. Things like digressing freely or stating your emotional reactions (did you laugh, did you cry) etc. Siskel and Ebert were invaluable to appreciating movies.

      Delete
  6. I recommended to friends and family of mine that they watch/record "Life Itself" tonight when CNN showed it in primetime. The first showing ended about 24 minutes ago (saw it streaming on CNN's website, they're repeating it again) and I've already gotten three phone calls from friends and relatives saying it's the most moving and touching thing they had ever seen and thanking me for recommending it to them. I told them not to thank me, just to pass along the word and get others to watch "Life Itself" when it ends up streaming or CNN repeats it.

    Lots of people are going to get exposed to this documentary now, and for once I'm glad a news channel took time off reporting about missing airplanes and political news to share with the world Roger and Chazz's story.

    ReplyDelete