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REVIEW: Life Itself (Steve James – 2014) [Sydney Film Festival]

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Charting the years of Roger Ebert’s life from college paper editor to one half of the defining popular television movie show in the U.S.A, Life Itself is a wholly beautiful portrait of an imperfect man and his legacy.

Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) began this project five months before Ebert’s death. Sitting beside a hospital bed with Roger’s wife Chaz (an amazing woman) discussing the trials of failed surgeries and near death gives great insight into the the bravery still bursting from this frail man.

Ebert appears an intimidatingly astute writer from an early age. From his work in college, to writing in the Chicago Sun-Times he seemed destined to be a news man. That is until, as was a more regular occurrence in the age of print media, he was assigned to the film review beat because their film critic was retiring.That began his enduring love affair with movies. His innate ability to speak with an accessible sophistication made his voice totally unique. James finds the fine line between concise and thorough as he assembles Ebert’s life in film splayed over thousands of reviews, hundreds of shows, several books and a plethora of blogs and interviews. What’s apparent is that prolific doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Admirers, critics and filmmakers seem to be lining up to speak of how Ebert touched their lives, not only on a professional level but a personal level; with titans like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris heaping praise upon his contribution to their art. James does balance the appreciation by demonstrating the darker, strained, early relationship with the man who he eventually came to love, Gene Siskel. Ebert’s success was largely influenced by his controlling tendencies and fierce competitive nature. In a less balanced time in his life he let these tendencies jeopardise his friendships. There are two key partnerships that define him, firstly it’s his critical partner Siskel, their collaboration has reached almost mythical territory, but what Life Itself even further demonstrates is the immeasurable impact that Chaz had on Roger’s life. After fifty years as a single man, wholly devoted to his love of films Chaz crashed into him like a wave of warmth and optimism. Throughout the film her devotion, good humour and love leaps off of the screen.

Roger Ebert loved cinema, Life Itself heaps adoration on him and his legacy.

[rating=4]

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Directed by: Steve James

P.S
On a personal note the conditions of this screening made Life Itself even more special. The film introduced by Ebert’s longtime friend and colleague David Stratton. Stratton confessed that he was doing something that he’d never done before and that was introducing a film that he hadn’t seen and was about to share it with us. The audience (including five of my fellow Australian critics) were extremely grateful.

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