Life Itself - Documentary about Roger Ebert

Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams). In limited theater release and VoD on July 4th. Based on his memoir.

Neat, since I remember Ebert putting Hoop Dreams at the top of a list of favorite movies at one point.

Losing Roger Ebert felt like losing CGM & losing a good friend both at once.

He was the first “movie geek” in the media (that I’m aware of anyway). I think I first knew I could trust his opinion when he gave “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” a good review after Gene Siskel chose it as one of his least favorite movies.

CGM? 5

Oh! Sorry, Computer Games Magazine.

Ah, no apology necessary. I should have remembered that acronym myself, since I wrote for them and spent many hours on the their forums before they shut down. For some reason, though, I thought you meant a person, and I couldn’t think of anyone who fit.

I was once accused of having written for CGM by someone on QT3. That counts, right? (I had comments published!)

I do regret never having interacted with Ebert on his blog. He actually responded to comments quite frequently, as down to earth as Tom & friends are here.

Way back in like 1993 I bought a book named “Email Addresses Of The Rich And Famous”, and it included Roger Ebert’s email address.

I was always a fan, so I emailed him a question. I was sure he would never write back, but just in case, I asked him if he had ever recognized the fact that the first 15 minutes of “Coogan’s Bluff” and the first 15 minutes of “Harry, Cherry and Raquel” were almost identical.

He wrote back almost instantly and told me this (paraphrased): “the comparison never crossed his mind, but to really enjoy movies you should watch them for ‘context’ 'and ‘style’ because even though the scenes might have been similar, recognizing those two things would help you understand that while two movies might appeared similar, one might be better than another.”

A personalized lesson in film criticism from the man himself.

The trailer made me a little weepy. Herzog is great.

I always appreciated his general skepticism as well, he was one of the few rationalist voices in the media. Plus, I have an entry in his encyclopedia!

Frederick Marx, one of the producers of Hoop Dreams, is also from Champaign-Urbana (or at least went to my old high school there), Ebert’s hometown.

Honestly, while I always loved Ebert’s reviews, his blog posts where he talked about growing up in Urbana, especially when he talked about his parents, were the columns of his that affected me the most. He did an excellent job of capturing the place, and it was really interesting to me to see how much his hometown changed between the 1950s (when he was growing up there) and the 1980s/1990s (when I was growing up there).

Sniff Awl.

I talked to Ebert a couple of times about games over the years, first when he got in touch to ask if there were any games he could play against Gene Siskel for some piece, and then later when I asked if he’d ever be interested in reviewing “movie”-style games. He said they interested him, but that they ultimately took too long to play. (Edit: And by “over the years,” I should clarify “in the mid-90s or so.”)

I just saw this, and while I do think the book is better, being fuller & written by Ebert himself, there are some positively delightful bits from behind the scenes of Siskel & Ebert. And let’s face it, that part of his life lends itself to film.

I would have seen this anyway, because Roger Ebert’s writing was an important piece of my life, but those bits alone make it worthwhile.

Otherwise, the film is rather pedestrian as a documentary. It does its job adequately, which is perfectly sufficient when the man himself is so interesting a subject. This is not a great documentary, but a competent one about a great person. I teared up a bit, and not owing to any emotional manipulation on the part of the movie.

Also, I feel awkwardly guilty giving Ebert’s documentary a “merely competent” review.

Don’t feel bad, that is a nice concise review and helpful to the readers. I think Ebert would approve. It sounds like a perfect Netflix (or hopefully Amazon prime) movie. It is cool many on the forum had interaction with him.

I’d say it was far more than merely competent. I thought it was compelling, funny, revealing, and ultimately gut-wrenching. I had a growing lump in my throat for the last 30 minutes or so of the film.

Besides telling his life story, the film works as a portrait of the relationships surrounding our Roger in the final stage of his life.

Chaz is amazing. She seems guarded and private yet I think she really honors Roger’s commitment to the documentary by giving numerous candid interviews. I really appreciated when she acknowledged that all their emotional turmoil was something everyone goes through when faced with similar circumstances. Yep. And thanks for the shout out!

Werner Herzog is both absurdly comical and deeply moving at the same time.

I guess I chalk that up to the man himself. When I say “merely” competent, I mean that it is absolutely, fully competent doing what it does. I also mean that it is not an extraordinary work of documentary filmmaking the way Planet Earth or 56 Up have been.

It was probably the discussion of the Up films in the movie itself that primed me to compare it to such undertakings. I hope I haven’t turned anyone off of seeing this by giving a falsely negative impression. If we were talking biopics instead of documentaries, this would be the Milk of its class: worthwhile because of the extraordinary life it explores, not because it breaks out of the typical mold.

Heads up! This will be airing on CNN Sun Jan 4 9PM Eastern.