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Life Itself (Blu-ray Review)

6 Feb, 2015 By: John Latchem

Street 2/17/15
Box Office $0.81 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for brief sexual images/nudity and language.

The first few minutes of Life Itself jar the viewer to attention with some startling images of a man nearing the end of his life. Five months before his death in April 2013, famed film critic Roger Ebert returned to the hospital after another setback in a decade-long fight with cancer. Having already robbed him of his voice, the cancer spread to his hip, causing a fracture.

Yet it is here that director Steve James chooses to begin this remarkable and heartfelt tribute to Ebert’s life, a celebration of a man who embraced life through all its struggles, but didn’t fear death when it finally came. These are images rarely showcased publicly during Ebert’s past few years, after his cancer necessitated the removal of his lower jaw and radically altered the appearance of a man known to millions from nearly four decades on television.

His discomfort is obvious as a nurse cleans the tubes he needed to eat and breathe. Yet through it all, he puts on a brave face for the camera, cracking jokes with the help of a computerized voice synthesizer not unlike Stephen Hawking’s.

James was a natural choice to craft this adaptation of Ebert’s memoir, given that the director received a tremendous career boost after Ebert embraced his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. Ebert’s career was highlighted by stories such as James’, up-and-comers named Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Werner Herzog or Martin Scorsese whose early work was trumpeted by a fan who had the means to let his enthusiasm for the medium of film be heard. All are on hand to give testimonials on camera, and even Selma director Ana DuVarney turns up to recall a time she met him as a child outside the Oscars.

As much a celebration of filmmaking as it is film criticism, Life Itself uses passages from the book to frame the narrative, outlining three distinct phases of Ebert’s life. There are his early years growing up in Illinois, an awkward young man who developed a taste for journalism and eventually became the chief film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. There are the years of his most prolific work, as a television critic who became a household name thanks to an unlikely partnership with a rival Chicago critic named Gene Siskel. And then there are his later years, finally finding love with his wife, Chaz, before his illness forced a retreat from the spotlight and he turned more toward blogging and political commentary.

Since most people will remember him from “Siskel & Ebert,” it’s the scenes that focus on this period of Ebert’s career that are likely to resonate the most with viewers, and generate the most laughs. Though they were friends, they were highly competitive, and the film doesn’t hold back in showcasing how polar opposites the two men were. If the outtakes presented here are any indication, their constant behind-the-scenes sniping must have been a source of either frustration or amusement for their producers, though it’s not like they were shy about battling it out on the record, either. Their mutual love of film kept them together, with one interview subject aptly describing them as “Siamese twins joined at the rear end.”

Among the more insightful observations made is that Siskel’s unexpected death in 1999 after a brief bout with brain cancer likely inspired Ebert not to be as guarded about his own health issues, which helps explain the level of frankness on display once it’s clear the end is coming. There’s a remarkable moment when Ebert, having learned his latest prognosis, flatly proclaims he’ll likely be dead by the time the film is finished. Sadly, it’s a prediction that proved true, making this a vastly different film than what it could have been.

James discusses these experiences in a 10-minute interview on the Blu-ray, speaking directly to the camera as describes the process of making the film. The Blu-ray also contains about 22 minutes of great deleted scenes containing even more stories from friends and family, a few previews of the film and a brief tribute to Ebert that played at the Sundance Film Festival.

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