Life Itself Blu-ray Review
I’ve been writing about movies since 1977. As a 16 year old boy I made friends with Steve Otto, the film critic for the Tampa Times and a graduate of my high school. Steve was my first mentor. Over the years I’ve been happy to add both Stephen Hunter, former Pulitzer Prize winning film critic of the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, and Robert Butler, of the Kansas City Star as not only people whose work I tried to emulate but friends as well. But the person who most influenced me was the late Roger Ebert.
LIFE ITSELF, which takes its title from Ebert’s autobiography, gives a no-holds-barred look inside the life of the famed film critic of the Chicago Sun Times. From childhood Ebert loved to read and he loved to write about what he observed. Shortly after being hired as a cub reporter by the Sun Times, the paper’s film critic quit. The editor appointed Ebert to the position and the rest, as they say, is history.
LIFE ITSELF does its best to illustrate not only the effect the film industry had on Ebert, but the effect he, and his reviewing partner, Gene Siskel, had on the film industry. From his gigs with various school papers to his Pulitzer Prize (Ebert became the first writer to ever received the award for criticism – Stephen Hunter was the second); through his battles with alcohol, his finding love later in life with the beautiful Chaz and his terrible battle with cancer, the film leaves nothing out. This is Ebert, warts and all. There are a lot of voice-overs done by an Ebert sound-alike (due to his illness, Ebert had a portion of his jaw removed in 2006 and was only able to speak afterwards with the help of a computer) but there are also a lot of great film clips. Early episodes of the popular PBS show “Sneak Previews” are excerpted, as are some priceless promo outtakes which shows how much Ebert and Siskel really disliked each other in the early days of the show, their love and respect for each other grew as the show progressed. The film is so well crafted that I was stunned when it wasn’t nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this past year. And then it hit me. The director of LIFE ITSELF is Steve James, who in 1993 directed one of the best documentary films ever, HOOP DREAMS. When the film was passed over by the Documentary branch of the Academy (it did earn a nomination for Best Film Editing), Ebert very vocally expressed his displeasure at the slight. I’d hate to think that the feelings Ebert may have hurt two decades ago weren’t still pouting. If they are, shame on them!
In 1982, Universal released a horrible film titled SIX WEEKS, which starred Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore and dealt with a little girl who has leukemia and only has six weeks to live. It was HORRIBLE! In reviewing it, Ebert noted that he would like to set the film on fire and destroy it. As I worked in the theatre business at the time, I sent him the trailer for the film and encouraged him to torch it. Many years later, in an email exchange, he recalled receiving it and thanked me. Rest assured, I also made sure to thank him!
Video: Presented in a 1:78.1 aspect ratio, the film projects well considering some of the archived footage and photographs featured.
Audio: Available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the sound is clear and well mixed. Even some of the archival elements seem enhanced and come through clearly.
Deleted Scenes (22:22) – a hodge-podge of thirteen short clips that appear to be in rough form (color is off, etc) Entertaining but nothing missed.
Sundance Tribute (6:55): In June 2013, Roger Ebert posthumously received the Sundance Vanguard Award. Several filmmakers, including directors Gregory Nava and Errol Morris speak admirably of Ebert.
Interview with Director Steve James (10:41): “Life Itself” director Steve James interviews himself. Awkwardly.
AXS TV: A Look at “Life Itself” (2:22): Television promo for the film.