Filmmaker Steve James chronicles the life of film critic Roger Ebert, especially his career highlights, his battle with alcohol, and his sometimes ruthless rivalry with fellow critic Gene Siskel.
|Cast:||Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert|
|Directed by:||Steve James|
|Produced by:||Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch|
FILM REVIEW: LIFE ITSELF
By Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers critic
3 1/2 stars
The fine, fond Roger Ebert documentary "Life Itself" is finally in a theater in Chicago, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, starting opening in limited release Friday. It's also available from July 4 onward on iTunes and various video-on-demand formats. On July 11, the film opens in Highland Park. We all have our preferences, but a traditional movie house really is the best place to embrace director Steve James' internationally beloved subject. Ebert's mellifluous intellect and opinions drove so much curiosity, so much traffic, over so many maniacally prolific decades of writing and broadcast work, to so many big screens.
This is the way to complete the circle.
The film premiered six months ago at the Sundance Film Festival, in tandem with online streaming links made available to its nearly 1,700 Indiegogo crowd-funding backers. Then "Life Itself," its title taken from the late Ebert's 2011 memoir, appeared here and there for special screenings at, among other places, the downstate Illinois film festival known as Ebertfest. In May it played the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown out of competition with James and Ebert's widow, champion and business partner Chaz Ebert in attendance.
The version shown at Cannes included four new minutes of footage not seen at the Sundance premiere, highlighting Ebert's long-term relationship, before and during his sobriety, with the world's most famous and influential film gathering. The added bits in this new and final edition of "Life Itself" is more than mere travelogue. James takes the time to set up why Roger loved Cannes so much. One reasons was extremely simple: There, for a couple of weeks, he could rule the roost as a solo act, away from his television partner, Gene Siskel, the Tribune's counterpart to the Sun-Times' Ebert.
James, who previously triumphed with "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters," among others, could have settled for well-meaning hagiography or a feature-length pitch for sainthood. Many of Ebert's far-flung fans and admirers, along with the thousands of Chicagoans who called him friend even if they didn't know him, may have preferred it that way. It's a relief to report "Life Itself" is better than that. It's a clear-eyed portrait of a complicated, Falstaffian figure. The film may be tactful to a fault, but James avoids the hometown-hero "attaboy!" attitude some feared might come of such a project, especially so soon after the 70-year-old film critic's death in April 2013.
Anybody who read Ebert will come to the film with some carry-on baggage. (Disclosure: I filled in for Roger, opposite his "At the Movies" co-host Richard Roeper, for part of his long illness. Later, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and I hosted the final season of the Disney-produced show.) "Life Itself" executive producer Martin Scorsese is an old pal of Ebert's; as a young Sun-Times film critic, Ebert championed Scorsese's 1967 feature "I Call First," later retitled "Who's That Knocking at My Door." On camera, Scorsese recalls carrying a tattered copy of the Ebert review in his wallet as he traveled through Europe, contemplating his cinematic future. He also mentions the time Ebert and Siskel hosted a Toronto International Film Festival tribute to Scorsese, which came at a career low ebb for the director in the '80s and helped, he says, give him the confidence to get back on track.
James himself benefited greatly from Ebert's rallying support on "Hoop Dreams," among other Kartemquin Films milestones. Early on in "Life Itself," narrator James speaks in voice-over just after revealing himself, at Ebert's command, in the mirror, holding a video camera. "Although Roger had supported my films over the years," James says, "this film was the first chance to really get to know him."
The filmmaker was granted considerable access to Ebert's last grueling months in late 2012 and 2013, spent in large part at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Years earlier, in 2006, Ebert lost the ability to speak along with much of his lower jaw, as thyroid cancer waged war on America's most trusted pundit (according to one poll). Calmly, James shows us some of what the Eberts endured, in the way of feeding tubes and treadmill rehab following a hip fracture, as Chaz and company helped keep Roger alive another month, another week, another day.
"Life Itself" has the sense not to shield us from the realities of what Ebert went through. There are testy moments caught between Roger and Chaz, in one case over the painful navigation of a few critical steps from the car to the garage stairs in the Eberts' Lincoln Park townhouse.
Rehab footage notwithstanding, "Life Itself" mostly follows the lead and the contours of Ebert's autobiography, portions of which are read in voice-over by an uncannily Ebert-like Stephen Stanton. There's considerable and rosy reminiscence about Ebert's childhood, though James barely touches on the subject of Ebert's alcoholic, rage-fueled mother. A good deal of "Life Itself" concerns Ebert's own drinking, up until 1979, when he stopped altogether. During the booze years, says friend and saloonkeeper Bruce Elliot, Roger's social life pre-Chaz included ladies for hire, "gold diggers, opportunists or psychos. ... He had the worst taste in women of any man I've ever known." Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan notes that part of Ebert's success among the local journalism legends was as clear as a glass about to be filled with whiskey: "He could tell a good story in a saloon."
The glimpses of Ebert in those years match the picture of the precocious, inordinately talented college journalist who edited the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois in the early '60s and wrote, beautifully, of JFK's assassination and the civil rights-era carnage in the South. Ebert described himself at that age as "tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat." All that helped enormously on TV years later. Viewers, and Ebert's ever-expanding pool of readers, came to know the passionate film advocate behind the stylized version of himself.
Many of the myths surrounding Ebert and Siskel's chemistry and multimillion-dollar success rely on the same received wisdom: They fought, but they loved each other. "Life Itself" hears from plenty of folks, including the widows of both men, confirming that story to varying degrees. But James drills down, astutely, to remind us just how much jealousy and animosity fueled their partnership. Richard Corliss of Time magazine says that the appeal of the show, up until Siskel's death in 1999, could be described in a sentence. It was, he says, "a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater."
"Life Itself" is hampered by Joshua Abrams' tonally indecisive musical score, reliant on bland jazz and blues licks going nowhere in particular. (Musical scoring has proven to be a nagging Kartemquin bugaboo.) I wish the film made more room for aesthetic debate. Valuably, Chicago-based critic Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks to what he sees as the TV show's marginalization of independent and foreign work, while Ebert pal and "El Norte" director Gregory Nava counters with a fervent defense of Ebert's mainstream-indie advocacy. Later, Nava asks: Why can't more critics be like Ebert and get to know directors as friends? Time's Corliss answers that sticky, conflict-laden question one way; Ebert answered it another.
Wherever one stands on these issues, this is a big-hearted, absorbing documentary. The film benefits from its revisions and additions, plus a couple of snips. As for the Motion Picture Association of America's bone-headed decision to send "Life Itself" into the wider world with an R rating, for a handful of f-words and a smidgen of footage from the Ebert-scripted Russ Meyer exploitation lark "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," well...I can guess what Ebert would've thought of that.
MPAA rating: R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language)
Running time: 1:55.
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