Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life Itself review

Often when a particularly good movie ends, I'll sit in the theater and watch the credits for a while. Not because I'm incredibly interested in the end credits or anything, but because I have just witnessed something wonderful and need some time to soak it in. I'll sit there in the movie theater thinking: Wow. Sometimes a film is so damn good I'll need a few minutes to realize that yes indeed, I did just witness that. Other times a film is so achingly beautiful I'll have to wait a while for my emotions to run their course. Sometimes a film reaches for great heights and achieves these heights that all I can do is sit and stare at the screen in awe. Steve James' newest documentary on the great movie critic Roger Ebert did all of the things I just mentioned. After the film finished, I was left looking at the screen in tears knowing full well that not only had I just watched a wonderful film, but I had watched the wonderful life of a wonderful man. Pretty much every modern film critic owes something to Roger Ebert. He was the jolly, movie loving grandfather to us all. Bestowing his film knowledge and general happiness to the world. This documentary perfectly captures that sentiment, but it does something else too. It radiates the absolute joy that was Ebert and his life, but it doesn't sugarcoat the gritty stuff either. Often a documentary on a famous person who has passed on will devolve into nothing but idolatry and hero worship. One of the worst movies of last year, Salinger, was a documentary on the life of J.D. Salinger. That awful film did nothing but bow down to the life and works of Mr. Salinger for the first half of the movie before poking at the possibilities of conspiracies in the man's life. Awful cinema. Life Itself does no such thing. It looks admirably at Roger, but it also shows that the guy could be (for lack of a better word) an asshole sometimes. It shows the sometimes comical fights he had with his friend, business associate, and rival Gene Siskel. It shows the detestable taste in women Ebert had before he met his wife Chaz. It shows the time in his life where he had a serious drinking problem. Those parts can make you cringe, but the movie wouldn't be honest if they didn't show these parts. Roger Ebert was no saint, and I'm sure he would've wanted us all to know that. In addition, director Steve James doesn't shy away from showing Roger as he was when he died: very, very sick with his entire lower jaw missing. He even goes as far as to show Ebert being fed through suction with a straw. It's sometimes grotesque and makes you want to look away, but it's brutally honest and this information needs to be in there. What really struck me about Life Itself is how heartfelt it was. So much so, that the ending drove me to tears. You'd have to be made of stone not to. I did not cry because the film was overtly sad. It is sad, but not overwhelmingly so. I cried because I was so taken by this one man's love, life, legacy, and just astounding awesomeness in general. The emotion and devotion of his wife, Chaz. The love of Roger expressed by hard faced German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The scenes with Ebert during some of his last moments. These alone are enough to bring anyone to tears. Pieced together in this wonderful film, they make for an emotional powerhouse. I have to give the director of this film, Steve James, a lot of credit. Making a documentary like this seems incredibly difficult. So much ground to cover (An entire lifetime, literally!) in about two hours. Yet, James does it with a smooth and assured hand. He makes it entertaining and funny and sad and happy and fantastic. I am gushing a bit now, but I don't care. This film is terrific. It's fitting really, that a lover of movies should go out with such a good one. Go see this film. Even if you aren't or weren't that into Ebert's work. Just as a cinemaphile one should see this. The few cameos by Martin Scorsese are reason enough. For a film focused around a dead man, Life Itself feels so incredibly alive. It's hopeful. Normally I would give a film a star rating at the end of my reviews. But it feels redundant to stick some star on a film like this. It's great, I don't need a star to convey this. Here's my consensus: Life Itself is so many different kinds of wonderful. A great tribute to Roger Ebert, and cinema in general. Happy Viewing to all. 
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