2014 Sundance Docs in Focus: LIFE ITSELF

life itselfThis week opens with the start of the second half of the Documentary Premieres section: Steve James pays tribute to the late Roger Ebert and to the love of movies in LIFE ITSELF.

Sundance Program Description:

The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize with other people… For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
— Roger Ebert

In 2013, we lost Roger Ebert—arguably the nation’s best-known and most influential movie critic. Based on his memoir of the same name, LIFE ITSELF recounts Ebert’s fascinating and flawed journey—from politicized school newspaperman, to Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, to Pulitzer Prize winner, to television household name, to the miracle of finding love at 50, and finally his “third act” as a major voice on the Internet when he could no longer physically speak.

Filmmaker Steve James masterfully uncovers the snags and strains hidden under Ebert’s prominence, including his battle with alcohol; his ongoing, sometimes ruthless, conflict with fellow critic Gene Siskel; and scorching debates among film critics about whether their television show reduced criticism to “consumer advice.” Ebert bridged high and low culture, defending film as a populist medium even as he championed films that challenged mainstream aesthetics and expectations. Insisting on bare honesty, Life Itself is as much a love letter to Ebert as it is an expression of Ebert’s own love—for his family, humanity in general, and, of course, the movies.

Some Background:
This is James’ sixth film to screen at Sundance, following THE INTERRUPTERS (2011), REEL PARADISE (2005), STEVIE (2003, cinematography award), PREFONTAINE (1997), and HOOP DREAMS (1994, audience award winner). The latter film is also screening at the festival this year, in a newly restored, high-def master as part of the From the Collection program. Joining James as producer are Zak Piper, who served as co-producer of James’ THE INTERRUPTERS and AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR; and Film Rites’ Garrett Basch, a Sundance alum as co-producer of WELCOME TO THE RILEYS (2010). Co-producers include Kartemquin Films’ Emily Hart, a Sundance alum as director of the short ON WITH THE WIND (1993) and researcher for THE INTERRUPTERS, as well as co-producer of DEATH HOUSE DOOR; and Josh Schollmeyer, author of ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY, an oral history of Siskel & Ebert, and an executive editor at Playboy. Executive producers include Martin Scorsese, whose Sundance credits include LYMELIFE (2009), THE BLUES (2003), RAIN (2002), YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), SEARCH AND DESTROY (1995), NAKED IN NEW YORK (1994), THE GRIFTERS (1991), and BOXCAR BERTHA (1985); Film Rites’ Steven Zaillian, executive producer of THE RILEYS, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and AMERICAN GANGSTER; Michael W Ferro Jr, CEO of the firm that publishes the Chicago Sun-Times; Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn, a Sundance alum as executive producer of THE INTERRUPTERS, STEVIE, and HOOP DREAMS, as well as producer/cinematographer of STEVIE; Justine Nagan, Kartemquin’s executive director and also an executive producer of THE INTERRUPTERS; Kat White; and Mark Mitten. CNN Films’ Vinnie Malhotra and Amy Entelis also serve as executive producers, serving in the same roles for fellow Sundance 2014 titles IVORY TOWER and WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERA V JAMES J BULGER. Editor David E Simpson has also been at Park City before, with WHEN BILLY BROKE HIS HEAD… AND OTHER TALES OF WONDER (1995, Freedom of Expression Award); as has cinematographer Dana Kupper, who shot STEVIE.

Why You Should Watch:
I previously profiled the doc here. Using Ebert’s memoir as a launching point, James adroitly chronicles the popular, if sometimes famously cantankerous, critic’s career, demonstrating how he, together with sparring partner Gene Siskel – represented here by his widow – popularized film criticism for the masses. Folded throughout the film is the story of Ebert’s more recent health issues, which ultimately claimed his life last year, how he adapted to his physical limitations to thrive online, and, most affectingly, his personal life with beloved wife Chaz and their children and grandchildren.

More Info:
For more on the film, visit its website and Facebook page. There’s still time to support James’ Indiegogo campaign for the project, with backers receiving a private link to stream the film simultaneous to its world premiere at the festival. As they become available, I’ll link to James’ Meet the Artist Sundance video profile and to his Indiewire filmmaker interview. For screening dates and times at Sundance, click the link in the first paragraph.

To experience the festival through the eyes of this year’s filmmakers, follow my Sundance filmmaker class of 2014 Twitter list.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Recommendations, Sundance

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