Friday, 11 July 2014

LIFE ITSELF - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Moving Doc on Ebert at TIFF Bell Lightbox & other Cdn venues via VSC

Roger Ebert to me as a very young man:
"Kid, you never, ever need to be ashamed admitting
to anyone how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

Reprobate Corner: Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert
Life Itself (2014) ****
Dir. Steve James

Review By Greg Klymkiw

What I loved most about Roger Ebert was not his film criticism. In 1988 I was promoting my first feature film as a producer and was afforded the happy opportunity to sit on a panel discussion at a film festival that was being moderated by my hero. Not Roger Ebert the film critic (though I always enjoyed his film reviews), but Roger Ebert the screenwriter. Yes! Screenwriter! Roger Ebert had penned one of my favourite movies of all time and I impatiently counted down every minute for the panel to end so I could corner him.

One of the most outrageous scenes in movie history
is Erica Gavin giving a blow job in her sleep,
sucking back on the cold metal of a handgun, which
provides the kind of cum shot that could
only come (so to speak) from Russ Meyer.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Written by the late, great film critic Roger Ebert.
Ebert's script for this insane 1970 cult classic was not only perfectly suited to its phenomenal director, but as such, still holds up as one of the most brilliantly daffy and irreverent pieces of screenwriting in any American film from its period. He'd written the script for none other than Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - a film so many had trashed for all the wrong reasons and one that only the most cultured cineastes could appreciate.

So upon cornering the great man, I stammered out a few words about his great script. I wasn't embarrassed to be admitting how much I loved Meyer's movie, but I was, frankly just plain nervous. I was in my 20s, dipping my toe into the film festival world for the first time and here before me was my idol. He smiled at me and said, "Kid, you never,ever need to be ashamed admitting to anyone how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." He took me out for a coffee and over the course of an hour we talked about Russ Meyer. He even told me all about the ghost writing he did on other Meyer pictures - mostly the insanely over-the-top manly-man dialogue Russ would put in the mouths of his studs.

This, for me, was a dream come true. Over the years, I'd run into Ebert on the film festival circuits. I'd usually never have to remind him who I was. I was the fat kid who loved Beyond the Valley of the Dolls more than life itself.

* * *

Steve James's documentary portrait of Ebert, taking the same title as the Great Man's memoirs Life Itself, is a beautiful, touching and heart wrenching portrait of a man that most anyone who loves movies worshipped and/or admired. Shot primarily during the last few months of Ebert's life, James focuses on Ebert's indomitable will to live. This brave, brilliant man who loved movies - perhaps not more than life itself, but who most certainly loved life for the myriad of blessings it afforded, including the movies, takes on an aura of saintliness that seems perfectly apt.

The last years of Ebert's life produced some of his best work as a writer. He embraced social media early on, and when he was stricken with cancer and then further assaulted by the horrendous surgery that butchered his lower jaw and took away his ability to speak with that distinctly mellifluous voice, Ebert wrote with a vengeance - on FaceBook, on his Blog, his marvellous, seemingly endless Tweets and, of course, the reviews. It's odd, but in those years, I'd always turn to Ebert's reviews soon after I saw a movie and wrote about it, just to see where his own head was at with the picture. I'm probably imagining things, but it seemed to me that he entered a far more philosophical phase - not just in his personal writings, but in his film criticism as well. In any event, I at least felt like Ebert had entered into a new phase as a writer and I'm grateful to have turned to his work first during this period.

I'm also grateful this film exists.

James has made a very solid and fine picture. He hits all the biographical points one would want - childhood, university newspaper, early years as a journalist, television star, his rivalry/friendship with Gene Siskel (almost unbearably moving in Siskel's final year) and marriage to his warm, wonderful Chazz, the love of his life. And yes, though I might have preferred an entire feature film about it, James does NOT ignore Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, though I'll admit a tiny shred of disappointment that Martin Scorsese doesn't quite wax more enthusiastically about the picture's considerable virtues and instead offers that the classic sex-and-violence-drenched satire/melodrama went over his head.

The film is superbly apportioned with a treasure trove of footage (including hilarious outs from "At the Movies"), film clips, archival footage, interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, friends, family and finally, the sad, harrowing and yet inspirational glimpse into Ebert's last years. The film also features narration taken directly from the text of Ebert's lovely book "Life Itself" read by a really terrific Ebert sound-alike voice actor.

Life Itself is a film of great humour, warmth and tears. And yes, I shed more than a few. You'd have to be inhuman not to.

Life Itself plays theatrically via Video Services Corp. (VSC) at the following venues:

Opens July 11
Toronto – TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W
Montreal – Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Avenue du Parc
Ottawa – Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank St

Opens July 13
Vancouver – RIO Theatre, 1660 East Broadway St.

Opens July 25
London – Hyland Cinema, 240 Wharncliffe Rd S
Waterloo – Princess Cinema, 6 Princess St. W
Victoria – The Vic, 808 Douglas St

Opens Sept 12
Winnipeg – Cinematheque – 100 Arthur St.