Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: "Life Itself"

Director: Steve James
Runtime: 120 minutes

One of the annoying stereotypes about film critics is that we're out to get everyone. We hold a grudge of some sort, because none of us wanted to write and discuss films as an art form, as a commercial product, and/or as entertainment. Though I'm sure such types exist out there, this concept of critics as bitter, talent-less failures needs to be put to rest. As Steve James' wonderfully moving new documentary Life Itself shows, many critics are among the most passionate and informed movie-goers out there. 

However, it's very true that critics are hardly celebrities, even in an era where one can become a celebrity simply by activity on social media. If you were to ask someone to name a movie critic, it's a safe bet that they would default to one name, and one name only: Roger Ebert. Whatever your feelings on his opinions or his writing, it's hard to deny his status as the closest thing to a "star" film critic. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris helped make film criticism something of weight and value. Ebert, especially in his work opposite Gene Siskel, brought criticism out of its ivory tower and down to the masses. Life Itself about Roger Ebert, yet the man's ties to film criticism are so essential that the documentary is also about an important shift in one of the youngest fields of modern letters.

And though Mr. James, the director of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams, has fashioned Life Itself as a tribute to Mr. Ebert, he steers quite clear of hagiography. As one of the many interview subjects points out, Ebert was "nice, but not that nice." Though hardly a character assassination piece, Life Itself isn't afraid to delve into Ebert's difficulties in life (alcoholism) or his occasionally over-competitive personality. It's the sort of fair, yet still genuinely emotional, treatment that Ebert himself did his best to bring to his reviews. 

Even when touching on Ebert's health troubles that began around 2002, James avoids laying on the schmaltz. Despite the warts and all approach to Ebert's past, James' film is the sincere work of a true friend. Whether the film is touching on his testy relationship with Siskel, or the cancer that claimed his jaw, it remains, above all else, a tribute to one man's endless love for movies, and the ways in which they opened people up to the lives of others.  This even includes some of the people whose work Ebert wrote about. Directors Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese are among the big names who appear in the film (the latter helped produce), while Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay testify to Ebert's willingness to stick up for promising young filmmakers. And of course, his relationship with his wife Chaz is eye-opening for the vulnerability it brings to a figure who started his career as a good ole' boy, hard drinking journalist in Chicago. The man's tremendous spirit and elegance (not to mention his willingness to participate in James' film) couldn't be more apparent. In Mr. Ebert, James has captured the life of an individual, but also a perfect microcosm of an art form and a profession, and their relationships with the public.

So, the next time someone tries to tell you that critics are all bitter, washed up losers who want to do nothing but criticize, direct them to Life Itself. It is a look not just at a man's passion for his work, but his passion for living well (for himself, and also to enrich the lives of those around him). People's lives have their share of detours, disappointments, and tragedies, yet there are those rare figures able to push on through and still turn it into something beautiful. Multiple times, we hear interviewees mention Ebert's idea of "the movie that is [his] life." Fittingly, for such a dedicated critic, the movie that is Ebert's life turned out to be a damn good one. For all of the emotional and physical struggles, the finished product is a thing of beauty. 

Grade: A-

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