The Austin Chronicle

Sundance Review: 'Life Itself'

By Neha Aziz, January 28, 2014, 10:30am, Picture in Picture

As humans we don't know everything there is to know about our lives. However, there are some things that we can be certain of, and one of my certainties is my love affair with cinema. A lot of that is due to the great Roger Ebert.

On April 4, 2013 we lost the most remarkable figure in American film criticism. The documentary Life Itself is based on Ebert's book of the same name. It is abundantly clear that Ebert wasn't going to let his battle with cancer stop him from writing and educating us about the movies. Through clips, friends, and colleagues, we take a journey through the illustrious life of Roger Ebert.

All of the story elements in this documentary beautifully come together. Filming began just a few months before Ebert passed. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) focuses not only on career highs and lows but on Ebert's evolution as a whole; nothing is glossed over. We see how booze and his affinity for "choosing the wrong women" almost destroyed him. We learn how his relationship with rival Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel gracefully matured into a respected friendship. Most of their contact previous to that was two men with huge egos snipping at each other.

Ebert was a brilliant writer, but he did have a little slip-up, to put it nicely. In 1970 he co-wrote the screenplay to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which is now regarded as a cult classic, with Russ Meyer. Having Ebert's chums, including famed director Martin Scorsese recount the event was nothing short of amusing.

Perhaps the most tender moments of Life Itself come from Chaz Ebert. Watching their ever-enduring companionship unfold in front of my eyes was as wonderful as it was heart-wrenching. She revealed they met seeking help for alcohol addiction. A scene that was for me the epitome of melancholia was when Chaz disclosed when Ebert's illness was at its worst, he’d give her notes that read, “Kill me.” Even the most macho of the audience could not stifle a sniffle.

James made a moving film that was poetic, funny, and vivid – a film Ebert would have adored.

Every kid had their superhero of choice while growing up, but instead of a guy in a cape and tights, mine just happened to be a bespectacled man who loved movies.

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