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Blu-ray Review: Life Itself

THE FILM

“I was born inside the movie of my life…
I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”
– Roger Ebert.

When you were a child, someone once told you that your opinion had value. Maybe it was a parent, grandparent, teacher, or whoever. They placed a hand on your shoulder and told you, softly, that your opinion was no more or less important than that of anyone else – that the things you said and shared had merit, and added value to the world, and to society.

That’s…not altogether true. Granted, that’s not a bad starting off point for someone still in their crucial formative years, but it’s a half truth. It’s not the whole story. But as a prerequisite to defining yourself as a human being, it’s an uncontroversial first “lesson” to learn that won’t really challenge you in any negative way – at least not at first.

Here’s the thing, though: eventually, that wears off. The idea of “my opinion matters” starts to fade along with other such inane things we’re told as children, like we can be whatever we want to be so long as we set our minds to it, or it’s what’s on the inside that counts. It’s a sad harsh truth we all eventually learn and come to terms with – not everyone who wants to be something and tries to obtain it will succeed, and it’s a lot easier to become a movie star if you look like Olivia Wilde or the dude from “True Blood” who is always naked. What you have to learn, along with every person who is told that their opinion, and what they think about something, has merit, is that it’s up to you to earn the right to say what you have to say, and to know what it is you’re talking about. One must always argue with veracity, but more importantly, with knowledge about which you’re speaking – and this extends to all facets of life.

For so long there has been a rift between the film critic and the general movie-going audience, and this rift is ever increasing. It’s sadly easy to forget, as the world is inundated with more and more films about CGI robots and mundane Tyler Perry melodramas, that there are actually filmmakers out there more interested in making art, and it’s the art that drives the film critic – that propels him or her, and offers he or she the chance to celebrate, or condemn, the very film that is driving this emotional response. The proof is right in front of you with Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score versus its Audience Score – two figures that hardly ever fall in line with each other.

Roger Ebert’s legendary life and role in the film world cannot and will not ever be overstated. For a long time as one half of “Siskel & Ebert At the Movies,” and then for another long time riding solo after Mr. Siskel’s death, Roger Ebert has been the voice of reason – of clear, concise, fair, objective view on film and the film medium. This was a tough position to maintain, as he inadvertently and unfairly became the face of the film criticism idea. He became the representation of the man booing from the back row – of the man who was trying to tell everyone else how and what to think. Some filmmakers came to revere him, and others to loathe and even fear him. Ebert’s voice was the one of authority – it was the one even the layperson knew. If Ebert labeled your movie a dud, it hurt, because he appealed to everyone – professional and not alike. And if he gave your film a  thumbs-down, it was time to pack up and leave.

When it comes to art – or at least, things masquerading on the extreme fringe of the art definition – there is such a thing as right or wrong. Liking a film is not the same thing as that film being good. (Trust me, I can rattle off a hundred film titles right now that I cherish, none of which I would ever describe as “good.”) There’s an extreme difference between saying “2001: A Space Odyssey is a piece of shit” and “I didn’t really care for 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Such a distinction cannot be taught – the knowledge to know the difference is inherent in the person, and it’s a concept that can truly mystify the individual who does not contain it. And this is where we, again, come back to Roger Ebert. He had the passion, the knowledge, and the analytical mind to judge what was playing out in front of him with fairness and objectivity as it pertained to its genre. He had the skill of incite, reason, and at times could even be hysterical. (Read his review for Jack Frost if you doubt that last part.)

Steve James’ celebrated documentary on the life of Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert is a warm tribute to the man, his life, and his legacy. Interviews with those who knew him professionally and personally (including filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog) help to paint a picture of a man whom many only knew from his byline, his brief pull-quotes splashed across movie posters and home video releases, and, if he (and the reader) were lucky, his reviews. Bolstering this profile is the narration by vocal impressionist Stephen Stanton, whose take on Roger Ebert is so uncannily spot-on that I had to match the publication year of Ebert’s original memoir on which this documentary is based against when Ebert lost the use of his voice to determine if the filmmakers were perhaps depending on a self-recorded audio-book in order to preserve his voice.

As the most objective documentaries do, the more sensitive aspects of Ebert’s life are discussed: his alcoholism, his thoughts of suicide, his oil-and-vinegar relationship with longtime colleague Gene Siskel, extremely revealing footage of the medical procedures he was forced to undergo following the removal of his jaw, and finally, his creative association with Russ Meyer, which had “haunted” him for all the years since writing the screenplay for Beyond the Valley Dolls, a cheap sexploitation flick that was inevitably name-dropped whenever the critic was called out for criticizing a film someone else apparently held in high esteem.

Although Life Itself is automatically going to appeal to film enthusiasts, for it would be them who have the deepest appreciation of the construction and criticism of film, it’s the audience to whom this documentary wouldn’t necessarily appeal that should seek it out. What they’ll be witnessing is not just a two-hour documentary about a film critic’s career, but a touching celebration of 71 years of one man’s life – a man who just happened to review films for a living.

THE PICTURE

Documentaries aren’t exactly the genre of film to be best exploited by the capabilities of the blu-ray format. It’s rare, difficult, and even unnecessary to develop a “pallet” – a look for your film, complete with eye-popping visuals, when the filmmaker’s goal is to present a non-biased view of his or her subject. And because Life Itself‘s content is based on sit-down interviews, still photographs, and archive footage, it has less of a chance on providing a stellar, high-definition presentation. However, having said that, the image being presented here is still excellent.  Steve James has assembled a remarkable visual display of one man’s life, and Magnolia Entertainment should be commended for using a 50GB capacity disc to house this documentary in order to achieve the absolute best image clarity. (Bigger and wealthier studios have taken to using 25GB as a means of corner-cutting, and at times this can have a detrimental effect on the image being presented, so the decision to go bigger is appreciated. Memo to those bigger studios: Yeah, we notice stuff like this.)

THE SOUND

That narration is seriously uncanny, and it sounds excellent on this audio track. Again, what we have here is a mere collection of voices, narration, and background music – nothing that’s going to be considered a THX experience – but all are presented cleanly here. Like the image being presented, this is the product of a recent production, so the audio is of the highest quality. There is nothing of concern worth noting.

THE SUPPLEMENTS

Supplements include an interview with Director Steve James, deleted scenes, the featurettes “AXS TV: A look at Life Itself” and “Sundance Tribute,” and a theatrical trailer.

TECH SPECS

Video Resolution/Code: c1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (50GB Disc)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio Formats: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Subtitles/Captions: English SDH, Spanish, and French

OVERALL

If the world were playing out on a stage under the guise of a Greek tragedy, a film critic losing his ability to speak would be a predictable and ultimate irony, but thankfully the world is not a stage, and what potentially could have halted one of the greatest voices in film criticism instead proved to be nothing more than a hurdle. Roger Ebert may have suffered the loss of his voice, but it in no way put a dent for the love he had for unwrapping and celebrating the inner-workings of the film before him, or of life itself. Fans of the critic, the film medium, or stories of human inspiration will find a lot to love in this tidy little blu-ray package. Life Itself comes highly highly recommended.

ABOUT MAGNOLIA PICTURES

Magnolia Pictures is the theatrical and home entertainment distribution arm of the Wagner/Cuban Companies, a vertically-integrated group of media properties co-owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban that also includes the Landmark Theatres chain and AXS TV. Learn more at their website.

Buy Life Itself now (release date February 17).

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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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