A life well lived

This is an invincible film about criticism and thus an invincible film about Roger Ebert. It is heavier than Ebert’s memoirs, from which Life Itself was born. They only share a title, mostly. Seeing Ebert, the strong-willed and opinionated super critic of the ages in his fragile late stages of life is empowering. He still saw movies and still wrote about them. It’s clear he loved them and in some way, they loved him back – the good ones anyway.

Life Itself forms characters, from his wife’s vibrancy to the old bar buddies during his hectic newspaper man days. Everyone who knew Ebert has a story to tell – positive, funny, or unique. They make Life Itself a joy.

His effect on film is incalculable. His desire to discover was insatiable. Much of this is made clear in his own words, spoken with an eerie replication of Ebert’s voice by Stephen Stanton. From indies at Cannes through to Scorsese, Life Itself builds a pioneer of criticism, a man known for thumbs yet essential in speaking for those who would be undermined by the studio systems or social standing.

From Cannes to through to Scorsese, Life Itself builds a pioneer of criticism

Ebert is shown as brave, not for the anguish of therapy (although that too), rather for his willingness to expose the details many would wish to remain private. Suction feeding tubes, we see as we can probably imagine, are unpleasant devices. Life Itself claws at the issue of race and relationships, although it only grazes many of Ebert’s fluent political stances.

Unlike the memoirs, Steve James’ film adaptation hones in on Siskel/Ebert rivalry. “He was an asshole, but he was my asshole,” Siskel stated, which seems enough to sum up their bickering, sometimes hilariously childish, feud. (Siskel’s name was first because of a coin toss after pride and credentials failed to find a winner) But, the film takes it further. It grows as their pairing did, from two openly egotistical film critics at two competing papers and into an inseparable duo. Their nearly adorable brawling is often the centerpiece. After all, it is what most came to see. Siskel is synonymous with Ebert, their legacies forever intertwined.

Most moving is the dramatic reality of it all. Ebert, knowing he was entering his own life’s third act, speaks with eloquence about death. His perspective on an inevitable conclusion prove impassioned. Thus, his last, simply expressed email responses to James’ inquiries are dishearteningly final.

If I may break for a moment, it is often incorrectly asked in my field of video game criticism who will be the Roger Ebert of the industry. The answer is simple: There never will be an equal, the same as there cannot be another in cinema. Life Itself shows us why. Ebert’s endearing passions, his loves, and unrelenting devotion to art – that on the screen and his own – will never be attributed to another person in the same way. His voice (peppered with seemingly endless knowledge of form) and exquisite prose spoke to everyone. If you read his work, you loved film the same as he did in that very instance. Maybe it stuck with you. I know it did with me. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Movie]

Life Itself Blu-ray screen shot 2

Life Itself culls from a variety of sources, stretching back to sketchy VHS footage of Ebert’s earliest public access footage to high quality photos and up to modern day digital. Interspersed are film clips, mostly pulled from DVD.

The peak is lively. James captures his subjects in vivid lighting, allowing the disc render scenes rich in fine detail. Sharpness is perfect. Even those scenes with Ebert inside hospital rooms confined to a bed are handled perfectly – no smaller handheld work here.

There is little done to fancy up the feature with the exception of Chicago. Those exteriors are vivid. Stills march across the screen to depict Ebert’s younger days in alluring fidelity. Resolution is extensive and Magnolia’s encode is up to par or better. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

Accompanied by soft blues and jazz, the bass lines are a hearty part of this DTS-HD mix. Each song thumps smoothly in the low-end, a beautiful musical score made better by this track. Highs are equally precise.

Impressive is the consistency which manages to stabilize those scenes shot live and the controlled interview segments. Anyone talking is well equalized. Credit to the sound team for this one. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]

Fifteen deleted scenes run 22-minutes, and a Sundance Tribute video which follows was made posthumously to honor Ebert’s contributions. A 10-minute interview with Steve James is next, with a promo for Life Itself marking the end of Magnolia’s release. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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