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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Life Itself (Blu-ray)
Life Itself (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // February 17, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by William Harrison | posted February 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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THE FILM:

Click an image to view Blu-ray screenshot with 1080p resolution.

Steve James crafts another powerful, warts-and-all documentary, this time about longtime Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert. The Hoop Dreams director pulls from Ebert's own memoir, and, fittingly, Martin Scorsese is an executive producer. Deep into production before Ebert's final bout with cancer, Life Itself is a triumphant portrait of an influential journalist and brave look at a man facing his own mortality. The two-hour documentary does not gloss over Ebert's flaws, nor does it wallow in them. What comes through most of all is the pure, limitless love Ebert had for film and the joy he got when sharing that passion with others.

Ebert began his work as a critic by writing in his own local paper, The Washington Street Times, and freelanced in high school before serving as editor in chief of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's The Daily Illini. Fellow writers recall - and Ebert acknowledges - an early arrogance that eventually gave way to talent and dedication. Life Itself offers humorous anecdotes about Ebert's early boozing and womanizing, and Ebert chimes in to reveal that his behavior often masked sadness and discontent. Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times' Sunday magazine before becoming the youngest national film critic in history in a post at the paper that he held until his death. This is the Ebert most know, along with his television personality made famous alongside Gene Siskel in their various television programs.

The film is a mix of history and current events; the latter consisting of Ebert's grueling struggle to kick thyroid and salivary gland cancer. He appears here in the hospital and rehab, the tolls of his surgeries worn clearly on his face. Ebert's wife, Chaz, stands beside him throughout, and offers kind, candid, no-BS commentary. In another life, this film might have signaled a triumphant return to full-time writing for Ebert - it's most poignant scenes find the critic apologizing to James for his lack of energy and inability to give a good interview. There is something so raw about Ebert speaking through a voice box to a national audience. All pretense has been stripped away. Despite the pain and constant setbacks, Ebert continued publishing reviews and blog entries until his death on April 4, 2013.

James is a master of weaving together the past and present, and exhibits a skillful understanding of what topics and events to explore. The film lifts many passages from Ebert's memoir, and I did a double take when the critic's familiar voice delivered the narration. Although Ebert lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak and eat to cancer, his voice lives on through Stephen Stanton, a vocal impressionist who nails the critic's Chicago cadence. Interview participants include the filmmakers, Chaz Ebert, family friends, and Ebert's grandchildren, as well as Siskel's wife, Marlene Iglitzen, and directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay. Each provides intimate memories of Ebert and the time they shared both inside and outside of the theater.

This documentary reminded me how important Ebert's work was and continues to be. The man wrote well, but always addressed a wide audience. He insisted on avoiding the stuffy, holier-than-thou critiques in vogue at the time. The film's most hilarious moment comes from Chicago radio personality Rick Kogan: "Fuck Pauline Kael!" he announces about the famous critic whose style was the antithesis of Ebert's. The documentary playfully reveals the longtime rivalry between Ebert and Siskel that eventually morphed into a deep, understated respect between the two. That their personalities clashed is probably the reason their shows did so well. Ebert acknowledges that the "Two Thumbs Up" routine is not serious film criticism, but reveals that most viewers simply wanted to know whether or not a film was any good.

Strangely absent from the proceedings is Richard Roeper, who replaced Siskel at Ebert's side after his death. He is hardly mentioned, and no reason is given for his lack of input. This is a small quibble in an otherwise fascinating documentary. Life Itself is both enlightening and entertaining. There is ample humor, and the film is poignant without ever becoming cloying. I enjoyed this film immensely, and it is a fitting tribute to the beloved critic. Two thumbs way up!

THE BLU-RAY:

PICTURE:

The 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is solid. There is, of course, a great discrepancy between the newly shot, HD interview footage and the SD archival footage. There is plenty of fine-object detail and texture in the interview footage and related shots. There is some minor noise but no big issues with banding or aliasing.

SOUND:

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is similarly competent, with no glaring problems to report. Dialogue is clear and without distortion, and the score is appropriately integrated. There's some light ambient surround action, too. English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are included.

EXTRAS:

Extras are fairly sparse: There are some Deleted Scenes (22:35/HD), a short Sundance Tribute (6:54/HD); an Interview with Director Steve James (10:41/HD); AXS TV: A Look at Life Itself (2:22/HD); and the Trailer (2:22/HD).

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Steve James adapts longtime Chicago film critic Roger Ebert's memoir into an excellent documentary that is a fitting tribute to the man. A strong mix of past and present, Life Itself is also a brave look at a man facing his end without losing his joy for life, family and film. Two Thumbs Up.


Additional screenshots:

William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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