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'Life Itself': Five stars for Roger Ebert doc

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Longtime partners Siskel and Ebert during their widely syndicated heyday.
  • Longtime partners Siskel and Ebert during their widely syndicated heyday.

When Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert's movie-reviewing TV partner and rival for nearly 25 years, was forced to deal with a cancerous brain tumor he opted to do so in private. As a result, he didn't get to say goodbye to many of his friends and colleagues. Roger Ebert took a different approach.

I remember when I first saw a photo of Ebert after he lost his lower jaw to cancer. His eyes were wide, like he had just witnessed something terrifying, and the skin that covered the part of his face where his lower jaw had been now hung loosely, like a turkey's waddle. It was too hard to see someone I admired so much trapped in a fright mask, unable to eat, drink or speak, and I looked away.

After a few moments I looked back. This wasn't a paparazzi shot, this was a photo released with the permission of the man. This was Roger Ebert stating that he was still here, still part of the world. This is what he looked like and the rest of us had best get used to it.

Life Itself was intended to be a documentary adaptation of Ebert's 2011 memoir, but in the course of making the movie it became clear that Ebert would not live to see it finished. Filmmaker Steve James, whose career received a huge boost thanks to Siskel and Ebert championing his documentary Hoop Dreams, worked with Roger and Chaz Ebert to incorporate the realities of the "third act" of the writer's life. The result is fascinating, funny, heartbreaking and honest. We see Ebert being noble, brave and clever. We also see him behaving like a spoiled schoolboy.

The film includes outtakes of Siskel and Ebert doing promos for the show and sniping at each other, both of them determined to get the last word. I wish the film had included one of my favorite exchanges between the men. Ebert had just mentioned, for the umpteenth time, that he was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize when Siskel snapped, "That's because you were the first critic arrogant enough to believe he deserved one!"

Through the TV show, Siskel and Ebert made the world aware of countless small films and gifted filmmakers that likely would have otherwise gone overlooked (Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog appear to talk about the influence the critics had on their careers).

Life Itself provides a fair sampling from the Siskel and Ebert years, but there is much more to be covered. As a boy in Urbana, Illinois, Ebert wrote and published a neighborhood paper called the Washington Street News. At 21 he became the youngest film critic for a major newspaper in America, throwing himself into the role by hanging out at a celebrated bar, pounding drinks and on occasion being "tactless, egotistic, merciless and a showboat." Ebert joined AA in the '70s, where he met Chaz, who would become his wife. Thank goodness for Chaz, and for the unwavering support she provided her love during his third act.

Roger Ebert combined his sharp intellect with a down-to-earth writing style that made his essays on film and the state of the world relatable. The documentary reports he could write a well-thought-out review in 30 minutes. Life Itself is an exceptional look at this exceptional man. Wouldn't it have been interesting to read Ebert's assessment of the film?

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Related Film

Life Itself

Official Site: www.magpictures.com/lifeitself

Director: Steve James

Producer: Zak Piper, Steve James and Garrett Basch

Cast: Roger Ebert

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