DVD Review – Life Itself (2014)

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life-itself-DVDIt’s very difficult to hear more than a few of Roger Ebert‘s words without his distinctive personality coming through. His straight talking, hometown wisdom style of writing frequently offered great insights into why a film did or didn’t work. Like all critics, he enjoyed slating a stinker, but it never tipped the balance into sheer cynicism. His passion for films always came through, something which I feel is a rarity in modern film writing.

Life Itself follows Roger Ebert’s last few weeks, when the critic was in and out of hospital with cancer related issues. It takes a warts-and-all documentary approach unflinchingly showing medical procedures, staging readings from his memoir, clips from some of his Siskel and Ebert reviews and talking head interviews with family and friends, including directors Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. It’s a great tribute to the man, but I’m not sure if it’s the best documentary about him. I’ll qualify that statement in a minute.

It’s genuinely moving to see Roger the patient, bundled up in a hospital bed, unable to eat and only able to speak via a computer. It’s tough stuff. Ebert never lost his fire though. He frequently tells jokes and continues to blog and review films throughout, which puts to shame all of my excuses for not putting fingers to keyboard. I was a regular reader of Ebert’s blog and had no idea of the extent of things the man was going through due to the sheer amount of content that was constantly uploaded. He did what he loved ’til he simply couldn’t any more and that’s both admirable and inspiring. He had a fantastic philosophy on life that he expressed eloquently and no matter what subject he wrote about, be it his famous reviews, his experiences in Cannes or taking long walks in London, it always had an inarguable quality and heart.

As for a history of the man, it’s slightly less of a success. It’s still a decent overview of his career and how he went from humble beginnings to a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Making a film about someone who sat down and wrote for a living isn’t particularly cinematic, so I understand why there isn’t more of that in there, but the film skims over his fame and only touches on how he and Gene Siskel changed mainstream criticism forever. I got the feeling that I wasn’t getting the full picture. There are endearing hints of his personality though. For example, his unapologetic love for mucky Russ Meyer films and his subsequent decision to collaborate with him on cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Gene Siskel’s widow recalls a time when Roger flagged down and took a cab in front of her, despite her being 8 months pregnant. I understand he was a great man and he’s really a hero of mine, but I wanted to hear more about him being pompous and full of himself. I wanted to hear more about him being a jerk, because that was the fiery, opinionated writer I’d grown to admire.

Life Itself is a great film. I went from tearing up one moment to being incredibly inspired the next. It’s a fitting tribute to the man, clearly made with a lot of love and respect. There will never be another one like Roger Ebert and that somehow makes me simultaneously sad and happy. Highly recommended.

Ben Browne

Genre:Documentary, Biography Distributor: Dogwoof Films DVD Release Date:23rd February 2015(UK) Rating: 15 Director: Steve James Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Steve James