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Roger Ebert was the reason many of us write about film. The patron saint of the everyman critic nonetheless always provided trenchant insight whenever he discussed a film, finding the words his more erudite colleagues couldn’t begin to summon. And when he loved a film, it was as if he loved it with all his spirit. You rushed to read an Ebert review because you knew he would give you a new reason to be enthusiastic about going to the movies, letting the lights dim, and just giving yourself to whatever you’re about to watch, highbrow or low.
It’s that sort of enthusiasm that filters through Life Itself, Steve James’ new documentary about the career of the world’s pre-eminent film critic and the story of his final days. The film is unsurprisingly powerful, given that James has been one of the leading voices in documentary filmmaking for a couple of decades now, with films like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters pushing the boundaries of the genre. Life Itself made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and now Magnolia (via Coming Soon) has picked up the picture’s distribution rights, and are planning a theatrical and VOD rollout.
Magnolia usually doesn’t go nationwide with its releases, so you’ll probably only get a chance to see the film on a big screen if you live in a major city this summer. But you will be able to order it OnDemand and see it in the comfort of your own home. Life Itself is also a CNN Films production, so by year’s end, the network will be the exclusive home to a television airing of the film. And if you don’t get a chance to see the film through those methods, you can always head to a local library and read Ebert’s memoir by the same name, which the film uses as a jumping-off point.
James' film expands on Ebert’s insight from that lovely tome, while adding deeply moving footage of Ebert’s final days in medical care. James had hoped to complete the film while Ebert was still alive, though his passing (only a day after his posting about beginning to take it easy professionally) adds a melancholy postscript that allows the film to be the lasting memory of one of cinema’s loudest and most incisive voices.
Ebert’s wife Chaz helped present the film at a screening in New York City on Monday, and while she felt once again overwhelmed by the film, she did share one bittersweet memory. Speaking a day after the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, she revealed that he was always Ebert’s choice to play him in a movie. Via THR:
"When we were at Sundance, I was talking to someone about that. I didn't see Phil at Sundance, but I was talking to someone, saying, 'You know he's here. I heard Roger would like [Hoffman] to play him in a movie, what do you think about that?' We were just talking about that last week, so…"
Was Hoffman the ideal choice? Sound off below.