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Sundance Review: Steve James' Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself'

Thompson on Hollywood By Joe Leydon | Thompson on Hollywood January 20, 2014 at 2:46PM

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I have just now been able to view a downstream of Life Itself – Steve James’ extraordinary documentary about the late, great Roger Ebert – at the same time the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Life Itself poster

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I have just now been able to view a downstream of Life Itself – Steve James’ extraordinary documentary about the late, great Roger Ebert – at the same time the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.


I promise to write about the movie in greater details further down the road, after I have had a chance to think about it more and, in all likelihood, view it again. But please indulge me as I share a few first impressions.

For openers: Roger and I were not bowling buddies, and I would be grossly overestimating the intimacy of our relationship if I said we were extremely close confidants. But our friendship was a long and mutually respectful one. (“I first met my old friend Joe Leydon when he was the film critic of the Houston Post,” he wrote in 2009. “When we see each other at the Toronto Film Festival, we are usually the oldest active critics in the room.”) And we were close enough for me to contact him when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years back, and for him to offer me not only sympathy and encouragement, but also a few good laughs as I underwent radiation treatments.

(Roger always had a great sense of humor – and often made himself the butt of his own jokes. At one point in Life Itself, you can hear him remembering his first reaction to a theater poster for Russ Meyer’s notorious Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! “The poster displayed improbably buxom women,” he says, “and I was inside in a flash.”

So when I say that Life Itself offered me a welcome opportunity to share quality time with an old friend, well, that’s only because it did. And for that, I am immensely grateful.

I am also am grateful for the honesty and balance of James’ film. And no, I am not talking just about the way Life Itself details Roger’s battle with alcoholism, or his sometimes petty, sometimes vitriolic disputes with fellow critic Gene Siskel. (One of the more fascinating things in the documentary is an outtake from a taping session where it appears the wordsmiths might eventually come to blows as first one, then the other, flubs a blurb for an upcoming show.) I am impressed by the way James faces head-on the long-standing, still-raging dispute over whether Ebert and Siskel somehow “cheapened” film criticism with their reliance on quick quips and flexible thumbs.

Read the rest of this review here.


This article is related to: Roger Ebert (1942-2013), Critics, Steve James, Sundance Film Festival, Festivals, Reviews, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.