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July 10, 2014

Movie review: 'Life Itself' is a fitting tribute to Roger Ebert

An unvarnished look at one of the most influential voices in American culture, "Life Itself" provides a moving intimate portrait of Roger Ebert.

In the hands of peerless filmmaker Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), this documentary is deeply heartfelt, warm and witty.

The Chicago-based director (and SIU-Carbondale alum) was allowed to film Ebert as cancer ravaged his body, but never his spirit.

From this vantage point, James profiled a remarkably accomplished Urbana hometowner whose courage will serve as an inspiration for the ages.

With his feet firmly planted in the Midwest, Ebert carved out a long distinguished newspaper career at the Chicago Sun-Times, earning a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He then achieved greater worldwide fame by teaming up with rival critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune for a television show talking about films.

Before the internet, "Siskel & Ebert At the Movies" was a weekly must-see for anyone who loved movies..

His influence on generations of moviegoers is undeniable. He championed authentic works, discovering little gems that would have been slayed by big-budget blockbusters had he not singled them out.

He steered people away from the ridiculous and pointed them toward the treasures he knew would be more enthralling and satisfying.

And he did it with a singular, distinctive, honest and sincere voice.

The film, adapted from Ebert's same-titled memoir, is a thorough account of Ebert the man, warts and all. Because of that approach, James endears his subject matter to us.

An unabashed admirer, I learned a great deal from him, not just as a journalist, but how he lived his life. This film gets extremely up close and personal, and you find out about the remarkable woman, Chaz, whom he met in AA and married.

Always compelling and well-constructed, "Life Itself" is not just one of the year's best documentaries, but one of the best films of the year, period.

Thumb's raised up, way up.

It's playing at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis and Video on Demand.

4 stars out of 4

Director: Steve James

Documentary on Roger Ebert

Not Rated


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