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Life Itself (R)
At the sofa-plex

07/24/14
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



 The original mainstream movie geek gets his due in Life Itself, a documentary about the life of film critic Roger Ebert.

Once upon a time, in the 1980s, before the Internet, serious discussion about movies and TV was not available by the bushel-full. No episode recaps, no Vulture examinations of individual scenes, no Slate Spoiler Special podcasts, no supercut of Michael Bayisms. You, the TV- and movie-obsessed kid living in middle America, had a very small selection of media where your (by which I mean my) interests were taken seriously but not so seriously that you (me) couldn’t understand the discussion. The movie review TV show helmed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel was one of those very important media offerings. Before I was even old enough to see rated-R movies, I watched their discussions about those movies. Before I ever got people to pay me for writing reviews, I learned how to consider a film by watching them do it. I remember imitating their style of film discussion — trying to separate what was truly problematic about a film from what I personally didn’t like — when I first tried writing reviews for my high school newspaper. And I am not alone — pretty much anybody who has written anything about TV or movies or, to some extent, anything in popular culture in the last 20-some years, has been affected in some way by the Siskel and Ebert blend of serious yet mainstream criticism.
Life Itself is a celebration of that. The movie, which shares the name of Ebert’s 2011 memoir, tells the story of not only Roger Ebert’s life and two great partnerships — friend/competitor Gene Siskel and wife Chaz — but his place in popular culture and the way we consume it. Despite being an old-school newspaper guy, he took to the Internet age and to social media remarkably well, using it as his outlet when his body started to fail him due to thyroid cancer and subsequent complications. As well as discussions of, say, the wild young Ebert, drinking and telling stories at the bar with fellow newspapermen, we get people like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay (a young filmmaker whose film I Will Follow got a wider audience in part because of Ebert’s notice) talking about Ebert’s impact on them as filmmakers. 
These interviews about Ebert, the professional, are woven together with interviews by people who knew Ebert, the person, such as  Chaz and Marlene Siskel, Gene’s widow. Narration from Ebert’s memoir is read with such near-perfect imitation (by Stephen Stanton) that I almost thought it was him (or some perfected version of that famed Ebert robot voice). The movie compiles the stories and interviews and musings on Ebert in a thoroughly enjoyable way. It’s not a linear march through time but a weaving through different aspects of Ebert’s past in a way that continues to circle back through the filmed moments of his final days. The result is more than just a good profile of an artist; it’s also a musing on life and death, on the ideas of mentorship and criticism and, of course, on the movies. A-
Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language. Directed by Steve James, Life Itself is an hour and 56 minutes long, distributed by Magnolia Pictures and  in theaters and available via Comcast OnDemand, AmazonVideo, Redbox Instant and iTunes. 
 
As seen in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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