Movie review: Moving ‘Life Itself’ explores Ebert as critic, frenemy, husband

07/31/2014 10:00 AM

07/31/2014 5:36 PM

In “Life Itself,” a moving, intimate documentary that follows the great film critic Roger Ebert in his last months and gives context to his life and career, Ebert uses his famous “thumb’s up” sign often. He does it to indicate to his wife, Chaz, or to hospital or rehab-facility personnel that he’s all right.

As Ebert, physically weakened, missing much of his jaw and the ability to speak, eat or drink after years of battling cancer, lifts his thumb, one wonders if he recognizes how loaded with meaning the gesture has become. The answer becomes obvious soon enough, via the eloquent prose Ebert composes on his laptop while in the hospital: Of course he does.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times movie critic still was in full possession of his faculties – of that graceful intellect – during the months director Steve James filmed him, before Ebert died in April 2013. So there must have been a touch of irony to the thumb’s up gesture.

But only a touch. Ebert was foremost an enthusiast. As “Life Itself” – based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name and screening at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre – shows in lively scenes of his early professional life, Ebert was enthused about working at a rough-and-tumble Chicago newspaper. He also was enthused about drinking every night with rough-and-tumble Chicago newspapermen. Until he got sober in 1979.

Ebert championed young filmmakers, including James, whose 1994 high school basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” caught on because Ebert and TV co-host Gene Siskel promoted it on their show. Long before that, in 1969, Ebert called attention in print to a new filmmaker named Martin Scorsese (who executive produced “Life Itself” and is interviewed in it).

Ebert’s highly positive yet flaw-acknowledging review called Scorsese’s first film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” “a marvelous evocation of American city life, announcing the arrival of an important new director.”

Pretty prescient for a guy who was only 26 himself and still new to movie reviewing.

Though Ebert did not love every movie, he loved cinema, and the old movie palaces that showcased it – an affection he reiterates in “Life Itself.” So it’s easy to think Ebert would be pleased a film about him is showing at the Crest, Sacramento’s only fully intact movie palace. Ebert, though, might also like that viewers can rent “Life Itself” online.

Ebert embraced the Internet as he once had television. The Internet’s many-voices nature furthered Ebert’s democratic attitude toward appreciation of cinema, at its essence a populist art form. Whether on television or writing for the Sun-Times or his prolific blog, Ebert expressed what he thought and guided viewers or readers toward forming their own opinions. Everyone was in it together.

But these aspects of Ebert’s life and career, though covered well in the film, already were noted in obituaries and appreciations following his death. What the movie offers that most of those pieces did not is great insight into two vital figures in Ebert’s life – his wife, Chaz, and Siskel, the Chicago Tribune movie critic and Ebert’s on-screen sparring partner until Siskel died in 1999, after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Chaz is a bright light in “Life,” constantly by her husband’s side, encouraging him through his hospitalization and rehab period, keeping it together for him despite constant worry and emotional strain. Chaz, an attorney who Ebert married when he was 50, was a surprise second-act twist for a guy who had believed himself a forever bachelor.

Chaz brought with her a family – children from a previous marriage, and grandchildren who called Ebert “Grandpa Roger.” Lovely home-video footage shows the extended family on far-flung vacations.

The video with the kids offers Ebert at his gentlest. Behind-the-scenes footage of Ebert and Siskel as they shot promos for their show present Ebert at his prickliest and most caustic. The tension is thick as Ebert makes fun of Siskel’s delivery and Siskel makes cracks about Ebert’s weight. That they continue to look at the camera and not each other makes things seem all the more vicious.

Set insiders recall how the pair continued to argue about a movie after cameras stopped rolling. Though Siskel seemed the haughtier of the pair, his widow, Marlene Iglitzen, reveals Siskel always worried that Ebert, who showed in annual reports from the Cannes Film Festival that he was a highly capable and creative reporter as well as critic, would go off on his own.

Other behind-the-scenes footage shows Siskel and Ebert riffing, with blazing speed, about religion, both clearly excited to be in the presence of someone as smart as the other. And Siskel’s daughters were flower girls at Ebert’s wedding. “Life” reveals this partnership to be one of entertainment history’s most complex, up there with Martin and Lewis.

In the footage shot just before his death, Ebert communicates with his thumb, written notes and text-to-speech software. James also uses a voice actor to mimic Ebert’s speech and read passages from the memoir. The effect is unsettling. The voice sounds something like Ebert’s, but the delivery is folksier, evoking Tom Bodett in Motel 6 ads.

This is the only noteworthy flaw in a fine documentary. But there had to be something. What would a review of a film about Ebert be without a little criticism?

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