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May 25th, 2017

Max’s View

Life Itself
***1/2
Available on Netflix

Hollywood movies are more than just entertainment. They are an important part of our lives and our world.

They are a shared language for people who otherwise don’t have anything in common. Ever wonder why English is the go-to second language for people from Singapore to Sicily to Sao Paolo? It isn’t because Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine spoke English. It’s not because the Gettysburg Address was written in English. It’s because Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks speak English. It’s because “Titanic” is in English.

Movies are our culture’s most popular art form. There isn’t a living painter, sculptor or poet that half of America can name. But I can always talk about “The Empire Strikes Back” with a group of guys. Or “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” with a group of women. Or “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” with a group of fellow 30-something nerds.

At a bar or get-together with strangers, it would be obnoxious for me to bring up the fact that I like Rembrandt’s The Supper at Emmaus. But I’d probably be able to strike up a fun conversation about “Goodfellas.” And, you know what, I saw The Supper at Emmaus at the Philadelphia Art Museum a few years ago. “Goodfellas” is a little better. A little bit.

Movies helped me get through the darkest times in my life. In 2013, I wasn’t doing very well. My marriage was crumbling. My job was miserable. My health was worsening.

Then I saw “The Butler”, a film about a guy who watched his father get shot to death as a child and never had a good relationship with his son. This movie changed my whole perspective. I thought: “I have a steady job, a wonderful relationship with my dad, and I have successfully avoided having children of my own. What right do I have to be miserable? Life is all right.” I’ve pretty much been happy ever since.

“Life Itself” is a documentary about Roger Ebert – the most popular and influential film critic of all time.

Most of the movie is shot during Ebert’s last few months. Thyroid cancer had left him without a jaw. He couldn’t speak, eat, or breathe without a tube.

But illness didn’t rob him of his ability to watch new movies or to write his column. And, as he tells us using a speech program on his Macbook, that is enough to keep him busy and fulfilled.

For a documentary about a disfigured dying man, “Life Itself” is reasonably upbeat.

The film shows us his early years as a gregarious, hard-partying alcoholic newsman in 1970s Chicago.

He gave up drinking in 1979 – just about the time that his nationally syndicated TV show made him a celebrity. The documentary shows some cringe-inducing behind-the-scenes clips showing how nasty Siskel and Ebert were to each other when the cameras stopped rolling.

“Life Itself” shows that even during the darkest hours of his life, movies gave him solace and perspective.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Ebert learns that his cancer has returned and the doctors are giving him a few weeks to live. The news doesn’t seem to overwhelm him. “This is the third act of my life,” he types on his Macbook. “And I want to experience it.”

His final act on earth was to make sure that the documentary about him was an uplifting, feel-good film. Mission accomplished.

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