Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Tale of Two Heroes

If you love cinema and you did not yet see it, don't walk -- RUN! -- to experience "Life Itself," the new documentary about the late great movie critic Roger Ebert.

This film is a rare gem incorporating a compelling nonfiction biography, decades of film history (while creating some of its own), excellent storytelling and music, world travel, sly humor and medical drama, love stories (romantic and brotherly love for a pair of foes turned best friends), and several moments that bring a lump to the throats of its viewers.

Upon viewing "Life Itself" for a second time (I hadn't paid to see an in-theatre film twice since "The Social Network"), this blogger found not one but two endearing heroes on the big screen.

Of course, hero No. 1 is Roger Ebert. As noted in my tribute blog post when he died, his writing and reporting style inspired this blogger in many ways.

Like his excellent autobiography on which the film is based, "Life Itself" shares dozens of well-known details about the Illinois native who got started in small town Urbana and grew into role of Chicago icon.

The film is outstanding for reminding viewers of well-known Ebert achievements while revealing many new details about his decades-long career (well, particulars that were new to this writer), such as:

Spoiler Alert!

-- Ebert's heroic "Stop the Presses!" moment when a poorly laid-out newspaper ad inappropriately juxtaposed JFK's portrait with a smoking rifle only hours after the president's assassination.
-- The young newspaper editor Ebert taking to task fellow students, college administration and U.S.
culture in response to terrible racist violence during the Civil Rights Movement (another college era Ebert deed that impresses).
-- The special person Ebert met at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and how his choice to join A.A. inspired several of his closest friends to follow his lead.
-- Favorite Chicago hangouts that are among my favorite places to visit in The Windy City.
-- Passages from "The Great Gatsby" that Ebert enjoyed, and how the Leonard Cohen song "I'm Your Man" saved Ebert's life.
-- Details about Ebert's declining health (previously revealed in an Esquire cover story I read in an airport many years ago) and how he worked to overcome many of them.
-- The prestigious national newspaper that tried to entice Ebert to relocate (which he rebuffed because he was "not going to learn new streets!")
-- Ebert's (and his television partner Gene Siskel's) professional and personal influence on Martin Scorsese during four decades of the director's career.
-- The story of an accomplished filmmaker who, as a young girl, shook hands with Ebert on an awards show red carpet (and how they corresponded years later).

More than one scene or "reveal" moved me close to tears during "Life Itself," including moments David Brubeck's "Take Five" quite the same way after hearing Chaz's very personal story related to this tune.
with Scorsese, Werner Herzog (who dedicated one of his films to Ebert because "He reinforces my courage"), Siskel's widow, and with this film's No. 2 hero, Chaz Ebert, whose remarks about her husband's influence on family, friends and film, as well as his (and her) determination set a high bar for courage in the face of many challenges. She is one brave woman, a strong storyteller, and I will never listen to

Be sure to listen to Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" interview with Chaz and "Life Itself" director Steve James, who is to be commended for excellent work on this documentary (my hopes are for Oscar nomination).

One of the best lines of the film may go up on my office wall, as Roger Ebert explained his drive during the most challenging final years, stating he chose as often as possible to, "zero in on work [because it] makes me feel good, in the zone, [and] it pushes troubles to the back of [one's] mind."

You may chuckle as I did at the gift Ebert's stepdaughter presented him at Christmas, the in-flight prank Siskel played on Ebert, the body part at which "Siamese twins" Siskel & Ebert were conjoined, and how Siskel's name wound up first on the marquee (hint: not at all related to Gene's trips to the Playboy Mansion).

As noted early in this post, "Life Itself" also contains a film history-making little puzzle (figuratively and literally) that may go into cinema trivia books as a memorable object as iconic as the Maltese Falcon, "Rosebud" from Citizen Kane or a Hattori Hanzo sword from the "Kill Bill" series.

One of Ebert's colleagues described the critic's ability to view a film and in 30 minutes bang out a review for the every man, setting a new bar for this blogger (and I suspect other writers as well) to pursue or attain in everyday writing (it should not take me three weeks to post a review!). I am so glad blogging became a new voice for Ebert, who inspired so many. And it's pleasing to the senses the film "Life Itself" cleared the bar and sets some new ones for great documentary film making.

Photos via IMDB; wedding photo by Magnolia; Oriental Theatre photo by Nicholas Wolaver

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