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November 14, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

Life Itself Dogwoof Documentary 3

If there was an award for the most difficult film of the year to review, it would definitely go to Life Itself. The idea of reviewing a film about the life of film critic Roger Ebert is both bemusing and intimidating. Who am I to criticise the most famous and influential critic within the history of film? If Life Itself tells us anything, it is that I am a rather inept critic.

Like many who love film, I have delved deep into the Roger Ebert archives and have solved many an argument on the weight of Roger’s judgment alone. No one has chronicled cinema, in all its forms – good or bad, joyful or sad, remembered or forgotten – more completely than Ebert himself. It is consequently difficult to be impartial when it comes to Life Itself, as a legacy of Roger within cinema is already so strong.

For those of you who lie outside the world of film criticism, Life Itself examines Roger Ebert’s rise to acclaim and fame, while also following his battle with illness in the last months of his life. He wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times for over forty years, he came to the attention of people across America with his television show At the Movies, and perhaps most notably came to a kind of international recognition in the final decade of his life with the Roger Ebert Blog.

Roger’s work on television means that there is a brilliant array of archive footage to show his transformation over the decades, as well as the occasional fashion faux-pas. Ebert’s long battle with cancer has been well documented, but the film manages to show the subtle details which gives the audience a more nuanced understanding of his struggles.

With Ebert being such a prominent figure within film, it would be easy to be undeservedly positive about the documentary. It is all the more pleasing then to say that Life Itself manages to be entertaining, insightful and emotive on its own grounds. It contains one of the most surprising sequences in all of cinema – a comic turn from Werner Herzog. Even though it documents the last months of Roger’s life in an honest and sometimes painful way, the documentary manages to be remarkably funny. It is this balance between entertainment and emotion that really carries the film.

Director Steve James is best known for the documentary Hoops Dreams, which Roger himself championed. Life Itself feels rather fitting, as it is being made by someone whose cinematic voice was heard due to Ebert’s work. The film deals with Roger as a person and does not elevate him to a mythic level. As a result the documentary is respectful and truthful, while giving incredible insight into the life that it represents.

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Life Itself may be based upon Roger Ebert’s autobiography but it would be unfair to call it merely the story of Roger Ebert. Fellow critic Gene Siskel and Ebert’s wife Chaz are more than worthy supporting acts, and bring new light to Ebert’s vast work. Siskel and Ebert may have been a paring that created tension and argument, but their matching of opposites meant that they were a truly unique combination.

On the surface Life Itself is an oddity of a film yet seems to have a transcendent quality. The idea of watching a feature length documentary about a film critic seems ridiculous but Roger Ebert as a character is large enough to fill the silver screen. I do not recommend Life Itself because I am a critic, but instead because I am a film fan. The story of Roger Ebert is also the story of film.

Life Itself
is released in UK cinemas on November 14th

You can find the trailer, more info and showtimes on the film’s official website

Wyndham Hacket Pain