In addition to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and a number of classic Saturday morning cartoons, I pretty much grew up on the televised antics of Chicago-based film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They first caught my attention through their initial, national PBS series, Sneak Previews, during the summer of 1979 with their hilarious dissection of the dreadful disaster movie Meteor. While they often disagreed, sometimes vociferously, they were united in their “thumbs down” disdain on that occasion. The pair became household names as they reviewed together through a series of shows for over twenty years, until Siskel’s premature death in 1999 at the age of 53.
Ebert joined his former sparring partner in that great movie theater balcony in the sky just last year. He was 70 years old and, while Ebert had been battling cancer for a number of years, his death was no less expected. Not long before his passing, Ebert’s autobiography — both somewhat grandly and rather simply titled Life Itself — was published. Now, award-winning documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) has brought the critic’s tome, its title intact, to the big screen in select US cities starting today as well as to small screens via iTunes and OnDemand. The film is an obvious labor of love and likely payback to some degree for Ebert’s loud praise for Hoop Dreams back in 1994. Ebert famously took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to task when James’ film was denied a nomination for the Best Documentary Oscar, causing the Documentary branch to review its consideration policies.
One could accuse James of presenting a too-flattering picture of his subject. While a couple of even Ebert’s admirers describe him in Life Itself as “full of himself” and “a bit of a control freak,” there are many more gushing appraisals of the man including current New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s assessment of Ebert as “the definitive mainstream film critic in American letters.” There are mentions of Ebert’s bad taste in women prior to meeting Chaz, the woman who would become his wife relatively late in life, as well as his alcoholism (Ebert was in recovery since 1979, and Chaz reveals in the film that they first met one another at an AA meeting). Still, the documentary serves all in all as a glowing tribute.
At over two hours, Life Itself boasts lively, engaging editorial style but is also a tad overlong and redundant in spots. James devotes at least thirty minutes to the best-known aspect of Ebert’s life: his love-hate relationship with Siskel. Fans naturally wouldn’t want James to avoid this, and the revelation that Yale-educated philosophy major Siskel was a member of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s inner circle prior to his mainstream journalism career is truly startling, but it is largely ground already well-covered. The doc does feature some great, vintage footage from the pair’s various review shows, including their amusingly hostile debate over the 1987 kid-oriented movie, Benji the Hunted (I have to say I’m with the more complementary Ebert on that one).
James’ film is most revealing, at times excruciatingly so, of Ebert’s final hospital visits prior to his death in April, 2013. The director was at Ebert’s bedside along with Chaz much of the time. The critic puts up a good-natured fight against the ravages of cancer and endures considerable probing and pain with humor, but his physical decline is evident. There is also moving footage from the packed memorial service for Ebert that was held in Chicago.
“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says in this final testament to his life’s work. Life Itself certainly helps prove his thesis. I encourage all film fans, especially fellow and budding critics out there, to see it and/or read the autobiography.
Another somewhat excessively flattering but still recommended documentary now available on VOD from DirecTV Cinema for a limited time prior to its August theatrical release reveals the story behind a pop culture icon: Star Trek’s George Takei, aka Mr. (eventually Captain) Sulu. In To Be Takei, director Jennifer M. Kroot’s camera accompanies the actor as well as, frequently, his husband Brad as Takei recounts his upbringing, including time in a Japanese interment camp during World War II even though he was born in the US, his start in Hollywood as an English-language dubber on one of the original Godzilla movies, the Star Trek years and his more recent service as an out spokesman for LGBT marriage equality. Takei’s age shows at times in the film (he is now a less spry 77) but he is still sharp mentally, as his frequent Facebook postings attest. The doc is a must for Trekkies/Trekkers, younger Japanese Americans, and gays everywhere.
Life Itself: B+
To Be Takei: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.