Life Itself Review - A Fitting Tribute, A Sorrowful Goodbye and a Hell of a Ride

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"Life Itself," from Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, presents a lasting and loving tribute to Roger Ebert, spanning his life with unprecedented access to him, the memories of his lengthy career, high and lows of life and love that seemed to transcend understanding.

 

Directed by Steve James, "Life Itself" is a montage of days, times, seasons and events of those who made the collection of Roger Ebert's memories profoundly touching, endearing, tender and yes, agonizing including himself, his wife Chaz, their children, grand children, partners and friends.

Academy Award winning Director Martin Scorsese, long-time television co-host Gene Siskel, his wife Marlene, as well as other critics, Richard Corliss, Jonathan Rosenbaum, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, filmmakers Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, and Greg Nava all provide remembrances of the Roger Ebert they knew.

As "Life Itself" opens, Roger Ebert is in his hospital room, always, at this point recuperating from the last round or latest surgery as this chapter, a ending he knew, and spoke of, was coming, the plotline of course would have been different and yet, as a writer, he told the story as it played out.

 We don't receive the first news of the cancer until later in the film as Ebert explains an almost every patient story that begins with "I felt a lump." Ebert's was under his chin. The rest, of course, we do know, he went to the doctor, had a biopsy, received the results, was presented with a scenario, chose a course of care, conferred with his wife, all very neat, only it wasn't filled with the complications, or spread or the burst artery that almost killed him, which we find out as Ebert explains his story.

We fortunately meet Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, Roger's wife of 21 years. A force, she is always present and an amazing woman, as the film plays out she shares her first impression secrets which provide a nice, brief, respite from present day. Beautiful, she laughs, describing the nightmare that held a silver lining as both were Alcoholics and met in AA.

With that the director takes us back to the beginning, we meet a young Roger Ebert, born June 18, 1942, heavily influenced by a nation undergoing unparalleled changes. His parents, understanding his gift early, are seen in pictures beaming at the son at various milestones.

Ebert explains in email on screen visual-over he inherited his democratic beliefs from his father and his emotional depth from his mother who was heavily influenced by the depression.

Ebert attended University of Illinois at Urbana and was an editor during 1963, a unprecedented year of upheaval for him began with the 16th Street Church Bombing that killed four girls, followed by the assassination of JFK which plunged the nation into deep post traumatic stress.

Ebert seized both tragedies as explained with the writing voice of maturity he challenged the nation's leaders with his editorials and honing his voice, which every person stated was a mature even then, stepped out with bravery and courage. He retained the same qualities and carried over into every area of his life, with commentary on the current political situation, sufferings and American sicknesses.

We also meet Roger Ebert during the season that most will remember him for "At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert.

 Hard to believe the global fame that grew out of this homegrown PBS program would change the movie industry.

Ebert a Chicago Sun Times film critic and Siskel, a Chicago Tribune film critic soon became the definitive voices in movie reviewing. Their everyman approach, and from Chicago of all places, soon brought in the Midwestern population and caught the attention of the two largest markets, New York and LA.

"At the Movies," became the moviegoers' bible, along with Gene Siskel, the two, native Chicagoans became globally known for their banter, sometimes heated debate, verbal sparring over the like of titles that most of America wouldn't see.

Although when they said, at the movies, they included all the movies, the indie, doc and foreign films that mainstream often passed over could be awakened to new box office life through the simple rapier wit and biting sarcasm as the two rivals sparred. The behind the scenes, life for the two are also explored as neither believed the show needed the other.

Ebert remained true to himself which is seen throughout the film in both personal and professional choices. He married an African American and while that apparently is no big deal, his wife mentions he did a slight dance around the subject and still he remained true. Professionally, with as much admiration and respect for academy award winning director Martin Scorsese he skewered him on national television for his poor performance in "Color of Money" which included the talents of Paul Newman, Tom Cruise and name the women.

Scorsese is seen in the film as taking the criticism as bittersweet and explaining Ebert was never malicious in his reviews. Honest, yet never intentionally maligned name or reputation. Ebert didn't let Directors slide and called them out, as a friend would, if they slipped or performed below par or expectation. He remained true.

He remained true to himself and his desire to live have surgery that severely alerted his appearance. He moved forward and adjusted. And he remained true to his desire, without consultation, to die as he chose.

It's a little odd to review "Life Itself" as it is an insightful, documentary chronically the life and loves of someone who was as much a part of the modern Hollywood transition and history as the talent, dealmakers, studio players and Chiefs.

Born in the Midwest, I watched "At the Movies" religiously and once asked my mom, Pauline, if she though Siskel and Ebert liked each other, it was after a raucous bout of verbal exchanges that left me wondering more about the men then the films, she replied "it is for the show."

That subject is also reveled how life brings a beehive to you and until it produces honey it only stings. The men worked together and eventually stopped stinging each other and always produced gold.

"Life Itself" is no different. It is gold and should be in January.

See it and experience Ebert, an era and "Life Itself."

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