When Chaz Ebert said "I wish Roger could be here tonight" at the Sundance premiere of "Life Itself," she expressed a wish everyone in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival audience shared.
Everyone in attendance at the premiere Sunday probably wished Roger could have been there — because Roger would have loved this movie.
“Life Itself” (Documentary Premieres)
Roger Ebert was a multifaceted man — film critic, raconteur, cancer survivor, TV star, blogger and devoted husband — and it’s a joy to see that director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) captured so many of those facets in the documentary “Life Itself.”
Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name (which is quoted liberally here), the movie tells his life story from boyhood through his career with the Chicago Sun-Times and his tempestuous TV partnership with his rival Gene Siskel. James also captures Ebert late in life, as cancer and the attempts to fight it had left him unable to speak and, in the final months before his death last April, largely unable to walk.
James structures the movie in two halves: the first bouncing through Ebert’s career as if all his friends (who here include newspapermen, college buddies and filmmakers) were swapping stories, and the second spotlighting his health problems, the enduring love he had for his wife, Chaz, and his competitive but brotherly partnership he shared with Siskel. The result is a whole portrait, the good and the bad, of a man who loved movies and life in equal measure.
— Sean P. Means
“Life Itself” screens again at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival: Monday at 1 p.m. at the Redstone Cinema 2, Park City; Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Sundance Screening Room, Sundance resort; Friday at 9 a.m. at the Temple Theatre, Park City; and Saturday at 9:15 p.m. at the Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City.
Director Steve James said in a Q-and-A after the film that the longtime Chicago film critic wanted the movie — adapted from his 2011 memoir — to be a complete portrait. When the Eberts contacted friends about granting interviews to James, there was one rule: "Be candid."
Considering how often Ebert demanded the full story from the people he interviewed and reviewed, James said, "He couldn’t change the rules for himself. He had to allow full access."
Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said that Roger had written a note to give to James during editing, which read, "Show the man, not the icon."
The movie received a thumbs-up not only from Chaz, but from Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Roger’s longtime rival and TV partner, Gene Siskel, who died in 1999.
Iglitzen said she believed Siskel would have loved the movie, too, but "of course, he would have wanted a little more of himself in it."
The widows, who are as close as sisters (according to Chaz), engaged in a bit of pointed banter reminiscent of their husbands back in the day.
Chaz countered a comment made in the movie that Siskel was more elegant than Ebert.
"Gene was not more elegant than Roger," Chaz declared.
Iglitzen’s reply was tart, diplomatic, but smiling: "It’s your night, Chaz."
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