1994, Siskel & Ebert helped launch Hoop
Dreams towards its Sundance success with an unprecedented early review that
aired during the first weekend of the festival.
Twenty years later, Sundance regular Steve James returns again with a
documentary tribute to his frequent champion, Roger Ebert. An affectionate
profile produced with the cooperation of the Chicago Sun-Times critic during his final days, James’ Life Itself, which screens
today as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
its oddly uncinematic title from Ebert’s memoir, Life focuses on Ebert, but his longtime co-host Gene Siskel
naturally figures significantly throughout the film. Frankly, many viewers may
well feel like the two critics should have had equal billing, but perhaps Ebert
finally got one over on Siskel in that respect.
the editor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student newspaper,
Ebert was not shy about expressing his left-of-center opinions. It would also
help him fit in at the Sun-Times upon
graduation. Like many entry level
journalists, Ebert started out doing utility infield work at the paper, such as
death notices and crime reports. When
the movie critic resigned, he was assigned the beat rather off-handedly,
because it was not considered a high profile gig. Pre-Kael newspaper film criticism often used
generic bylines to accommodate multiple anonymous contributors. Of course, Ebert and his Pulitzer Prize for
criticism would help change matters.
devotes a fair amount of time to Ebert’s cub journalist years (which are
reasonably interesting) and resolutely faces up to his naughty collaborations
with sexploitation pioneer Russ Meyer (that are downright fascinating). He also
intersperses the biographic business with footage of Ebert’s slow decline
during the early months of 2013.
most viewers will be interested first and foremost in his years co-hosting
movie review programs with Siskel. While James does not skimp on clips from the
various incarnations of their show and prominently features the reminiscences
of Siskel’s widow, their contentious partnership arguably could have been even
higher in the mix. After all, it is through their television appearances that
most viewers would have come to know Ebert.
fact, it is a wistfully nostalgic experience watching them argue and dispense
thumbs. Life indeed reminds us what a
comfortable presence S&E were on our idiot boxes. The influence they
exercised over movie-going tastes and preferences will probably never be
James handles the scenes of the failing Ebert with tremendous sympathy, but
they threaten to overwhelm the celebration of his life with uncomfortable hospital
scenes. We come to understand why Ebert wanted to be so forthcoming about his
health, but all the details do not have to be on-screen.
If you are wondering, Ebert’s in/famous North review did not make the cut. Maybe it will be on the DVD. Regardless, it is rather nice to see a movie
that considers film criticism a worthy endeavor. Recommended for those who can
never get enough movie nostalgia, Life Itself
screens again tonight (1/25) in Salt Lake, as this year’s Sundance Film
Festival comes to a close.
Labels: Documentary, Roger Ebert, Steve James, Sundance '14