July 23, 2014

Film: Two thumbs up

'Life Itself' pays tribute to Roger Ebert

One of my proudest accomplishments in college was nabbing the coveted film critic position at the daily student-run paper, The Post. For a year I reviewed two to three movies a week, and I even got paid for it. It was beer money, sure. But I felt like I was getting a taste of my dream job.

In high school, I was a film junkie and couldn’t wait to read Roger Ebert’s latest reviews. He was the epitome of what I wanted to become — a leading film critic and respected journalist. His job was to go to the movies and escape, and then critique that journey to his readers, which he did for 46 years until his death in 2013. “Life Itself,” which opens Friday at Village 8 Theatres, is a documentary about Ebert’s life, loves and renowned career.

Directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), the film was being shot during Ebert’s last few months. So not only is it Hollywood’s elite reflecting on a critic who could make or break the success of their films, but it’s also a candid conversation with a man knowingly approaching the end — the final credits. While Ebert lost the ability to speak because of cancer in and around his jaw, he kept up his reviews and social commentary for years after. Disease may have robbed him of his voice, but his passion for cinema and writing was channeled into his blog and authoring books.

The film examines Ebert’s early fervor for journalism — starting his own neighborhood newspaper as a teenager and becoming editor-in-chief of his college paper — and talks to many colleagues from his early years at the Chicago Sun-Times. They paint a picture of a somewhat headstrong man determined to be the best in his field. Eight years into reviewing films for the Sun-Times, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, an honor he held high over his partner-in-crime and competing critic, Gene Siskel.

“Life Itself” spends some time dissecting Siskel and Ebert’s tumultuous love-hate relationship that made their PBS show “Sneak Previews” so entertaining. Like two kids fighting on a playground, they always sought to one-up each other and would argue over everything from the gratuitous sex scenes in “Crash” to where they were going for lunch. The producers of the show describe their relationship as bickering brothers, and one quoted Ebert referring to Siskel as “an asshole — but he’s my asshole.”

The most candid moments in the film occur in the silence of a hospital room, as his wife Chaz sits with him as he scribbles messages on a notepad or types away on his laptop.

Ebert estimates he’s seen at least 10,000 films in his lifetime, 6,000 of which he reviewed and a majority of them long forgotten — “thank goodness,” he says. “Life Itself” ensures the memory of one of film’s biggest proponents will never be forgotten, even after the credits roll.