Daily Streaming Guide: March 22nd Edition

Today’s edition of my Daily Streaming Guide centers on two captivating documentaries, which are both available for viewing via Hulu:

The 2014 doc Life Itself is about the life and death of renowned film critic Roger Ebert. From his wilder days in Chicago to becoming sober to his famed partnership with fellow reviewer Gene Siskel, the pic is an all encompassing look at the legendary Pulitzer Prize winning writer. The most touching moments involve his debilitating cancer battle that ended his life in 2013. Emotionally resonant and often funny, Life Itself is a great watch even for people who weren’t tremendously influenced by his work (like me).

2018’s Three Identical Strangers can be filed under the heading “truth is stranger than fiction”. That phrase plays throughout the tale of identical triplets who didn’t know of one another’s existence until they were 19. The less you know about it going in, the better. Just know that you’ll be entertained and consistently surprised.

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

Box Office Predictions: September 28-30

**Blogger’s Note (09/27/18): My estimates for Night School and Smallfoot has risen slightly to $31.6 million and $23 million respectively.

It could be a battle for the #1 spot at the box office as September closes with the Kevin Hart/Tiffany Haddish comedy Night School and the animated Warner Bros family pic Smallfoot debuting. We also have the Halloween theme park set horror flick Hell Fest opening. You can peruse my detailed individual prediction posts on the trio here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/18/night-school-box-office-prediction/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/18/smallfoot-box-office-prediction/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/20/hell-fest-box-office-prediction/

Before we get to the heavy hitters, the Pure Flix version of Little Women is also out Friday on a low 600 or so screens. I didn’t do a separate post for it and I’m not expecting much out of it. I’ll put its premiere at just $1.1 million.

Kevin Hart has shown his potency at the box office repeatedly with several openings north of $30 million. I don’t have Night School reaching quite that high, but my mid to late 20s estimate is enough to project it will top the lower to mid 20s gross of Smallfoot. 

Competition for Smallfoot will include the second weekend of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which performed on the higher end of expectations out of the gate. It should drop to third place with A Simple Favor in fourth.

The five-spot is where I expect Hell Fest to compete. Horror movies always have the capacity to outdo expectations, but I’m not seeing much fanfare for this one. My mid single digits prediction could put it in range with the fourth weekend of The Nun.

And with that, a top 6 take on the weekend ahead:

1. Night School

Predicted Gross: $31.6 million

2. Smallfoot

Predicted Gross: $23 million

3. The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Predicted Gross: $15.3 million

4. A Simple Favor

Predicted Gross: $7 million

5. Hell Fest

Predicted Gross: $5.6 million

6. The Nun

Predicted Gross: $5.5 million

Box Office Results (September 21-23)

As anticipated, The House with a Clock in Its Walls topped the charts with a solid $26.6 million (ahead of my $23.2 million take). The Jack Black family pic, as mentioned, hit the better end of estimates. Considering its reported $40 million budget, this should be a nice hit for Universal.

A Simple Favor elevated from third place to second place in its sophomore weekend with $10.2 million, in line with my $10.6 million projection. Its total stands at $32 million.

The Nun crossed the $100 million mark placing third with $9.9 million (ahead of my $8.4 million estimate). Only Annabelle of the Conjuring Cinematic Universe didn’t manage to join the century club and The Nun appears poised to be the franchise’s second largest earner behind The Conjuring.

The Predator dipped mightily in weekend #2 to fourth place with a 63% fall and $9.1 million (I said $10 million) for $40 million overall.

Crazy Rich Asians was fifth with $6.3 million (I went with $5.9 million) for $159 million overall.

The newcomers besides Clock all failed to connect with moviegoers. Michael Moore’s doc (despite significant publicity) was a flop. While Fahrenheit 9/11 took in nearly $24 million in its first weekend in the summer of 2004, 11/9 managed a paltry $3 million for 8th place. I predicted $5 million.

Life Itself couldn’t overcome overwhelmingly negative reviews and the drama from “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman was 11th with a putrid $2.1 million. I was a bit higher at $3.8 million.

I didn’t make a prediction on the blog for Assassination Nation (though I said $1.2 million on Fantasy Movie League), but it was another bad opening in 15th place with $1 million.

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

Box Office Predictions: September 21-23

The family fantasy film The House with a Clock in Its Walls looks to get its hands on the #1 spot at the box office this weekend as it opens alongside the Michael Moore political doc Fahrenheit 11/9 and ensemble drama Life Itself. If you missed my detailed prediction posts on that trio, you can find them here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/11/the-house-with-a-clock-in-its-walls-box-office-prediction/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/15/fahrenheit-11-9-box-office-prediction/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/15/life-itself-box-office-prediction/

My low to mid 20s forecast for Clock should be more than enough for it to top the charts. The rest of the top 5 could be a bit more interesting. The Predator had a so-so debut and I look for it to experience a pretty hefty drop. Same goes for The Nun in its third weekend. A Simple Favor, on the other hand, could experience a solid hold in its sophomore frame.

As for the newcomers, my measly $3.8 million projection for Life Itself leaves it outside the top 5 while Fahrenheit ($5 million estimate) could battle for Crazy Rich Asians for that five-spot. And with that, my take on the weekend ahead:

1. The House with a Clock In Its Walls

Predicted Gross: $23.2 million

2. A Simple Favor 

Predicted Gross: $10.6 million

3. The Predator

Predicted Gross: $10 million

4. The Nun

Predicted Gross: $8.4 million

5. Crazy Rich Asians

Predicted Gross: $5.9 million

Box Office Results (September 14-16)

The Predator opening in first place was never really in doubt, but its $24.6 million debut didn’t impress much. It came in a bit under my $27.4 million estimate. Mostly negative reviews didn’t help and I look for this to experience a decline of over 50% this coming weekend.

After posting a franchise best haul for the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, The Nun saw the largest second weekend drop (66%) to $18.2 million (I was a little higher at $19.8 million). The two-week tally stands at $85 million.

Returns were decent for A Simple Favor as it opened in third with $16 million (a bit under my $17.9 million prediction). I see it experiencing the best hold for next weekend and having a real chance at rising to second place (considering the potential dips for The Predator and The Nun).

White Boy Rick premiered in fourth place with an unremarkable $8.8 million, on pace with my $8.7 million estimate. The crime drama also suffered from mixed reviews and it couldn’t manage to get older moviegoers interested.

Crazy Rich Asians rounded out the top five with $8.6 million (I said $8.2 million) to bring its total to $149 million.

Finally, faith-based sequel Unbroken: Path to Redemption gained no traction with audiences earning just $2.2 million for 10th place (I said $2.5 million).

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

Life Itself Box Office Prediction

The ensemble drama Life Itself opens next weekend and it likely faces an uphill battle for eyeballs. Dan Fogelman, best known as creator of NBC’s hit series “This Is Us”, directs. The cast includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Life premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week to poor reviews and word of mouth. It stands at just 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and the marketing campaign has been lackluster.

Add all that up and this is looking like a major flop that could struggle to hit $5 million.

Life Itself opening weekend prediction: $3.8 million

For my The House with a Clock in Its Walls prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/11/the-house-with-a-clock-in-its-walls-box-office-prediction/

For my Fahrenheit 11/9 prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/09/15/fahrenheit-11-9-box-office-prediction/

Oscar Watch: Life Itself

The film festival season always gives us plenty of Best Picture contenders and potential recipients for the acting categories and elsewhere. There’s also those movies that debut and completely eliminate themselves from contention due to poor reviews. At Toronto, that definitely appears to be the case with Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself (not to be confused with the terrific documentary about Roger Ebert).

Fogelman is most known for creating the hit NBC tearjerker series “This Is Us”. For his second feature film (after the barely noticed Al Pacino led Danny Collins), he’s assembled a cast including Oscar Isaac, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Simply put, critical reaction here has been bad, saying it’s manipulative and corny. Bottom line: Life Itself has taken itself out of any awards talk.

The film opens September 21. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Todd’s Early 2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Picture

Over the past couple of days, you’ve seen my first round of Oscar predictions for the 2018 season. If you didn’t, here’s a reminder of my estimates for the four acting categories, Best Director, and the controversial new race Best Popular Film.

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/25/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-director/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/24/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-popular-film/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/24/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-actor/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/24/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-actress/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/23/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/08/23/todds-early-2018-oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/

Which brings me to Best Picture. For the biggest race of all, I’m listing 25 possibilities and these inaugural estimates selects 9 films being honored.

As previous posts have pointed out, the Film Festival season that begins in earnest next week with Venice and then Toronto. The feats will tremendously shape my weekly predictions. They start August 30.

For now, my initial take on Best Picture:

Todd’s Early Oscar Predictions: Best Picture

A Star Is Born

Beautiful Boy

BlacKkKlansman

Boy, Erased

First Man

If Beale Street Could Talk

Mary Queen of Scots

Peterloo

Roma

Other Possibilities:

A Quiet Place

At Eternity’s Gate

Backseat

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Black Panther

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Crazy Rich Asians

Destroyer

Eighth Grade

The Favourite

The Front Runner

Life Itself

Mary Poppins Returns

Old Man & The Gun

On the Basis of Sex

Widows

Todd’s Early 2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

And so it begins yet again!!

It’s an exciting time on the blog as Oscar prediction season is here. Readers of this here know that every Thursday starting very soon, I will be posting weekly Oscar predictions in the six major categories… wait, make that seven as I will now be including the new and controversial Most Popular Film race.

It begins today with Best Supporting Actress where I’m posting my first initial five predicted women and ten other possibilities. We will move on to Supporting Actor, the lead acting categories, Director, Most Popular Film, and Picture in short order.

A word of warning: these are very early predictions and they will unquestionably change. I like to do my first estimates before the film festival season approaches (beginning next week). Toronto and Venice and other fests will surely shape my predictions in a massive away. Expect lots of Oscar Watch posts in the next month concentrating on dozens of screened movies at the festivals.

Beginning next Thursday (August 30), I will begin my weekly posts listing 25 possibilities for Picture and 15 in the other major races. At that time, numerical rankings will come into play. In November, that will switch to 15 listings for Picture and 10 in ALL other categories honoring feature films.

Today it begins and here is my early bird look at Supporting Actress…

TODD’S EARLY PREDICTIONS: BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Claire Foy, First Man

Nicole Kidman, Boy, Erased

Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots

Sissy Spacek, Old Man & The Gun

Other Possibilities:

Amy Adams, Backseat

Kathy Bates, On the Basis of Sex

Annette Bening, Life Itself

Elizabeth Debicki, Widows

Julia Roberts, Ben is Back

Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy

Meryl Streep, Mary Poppins Returns

Tilda Swinton, Suspiria

Maura Tierney, Beautiful Boy

Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Look for Supporting Actor very soon!

 

Film Festival Season Approaches: The 2018 Hopefuls

We may be smack dab in the middle of the summer movie season, but Oscar season will be taking shape before we know it. This week, the organizers of the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals have unveiled lineups for the pictures that will be premiering at their events in a few weeks. Many of them are awards hopefuls.

To give you an idea of the importance of festivals when it comes to Oscar nominees, six of last year’s nine nominees premiered at some combination of Toronto, Venice, Telluride, New York, Sundance, or Cannes. Every Best Picture winner from this decade and beyond played at one of them. The last one that didn’t was The Departed back in 2006.

The months of September-December are the fertile ground for most nominated features. Last year, seven of the nine Picture nominees came out in that time frame. In 2016 – it was 8 out of 9.

Beginning in late August/early September, I will begin my weekly Oscar prediction columns. It works like this:

Late August/Early September – first posting of predictions in the categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress

Months of September and October – weekly Oscar predictions column post covering those 6 categories, as well as Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay. For Best Picture, I will be ranking possibilities numbered 1-25. For other categories, it will be numbered 1-15.

Months of November through announcement of nominations – weekly Oscar predictions column covering every category involving feature films. For Best Picture, I will be ranking possibilities numbered 1-15. For other categories, it will be numbered 1-10.

While these posts are a month away, today I bring you 25 fall awards hopefuls that I suspect I’ll be mentioning frequently. Most of these are premiering at the high-profile quartet of upcoming fests (Venice, Toronto, New York, Telluride). Some aren’t, but could certainly be added to Telluride or New York especially (as they’re more known for surprise screenings).

Let’s get to it!

A Star is Born

The third remake of the musical drama marks the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and features a potential showcase role for his costar Lady Gaga. Early word of mouth is already strong.

At Eternity’s Gate

He received a nomination for his supporting work last year for The Florida Project and Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh in what could be another awards bait role.

**NO TRAILER AT PRESS TIME

Backseat

Expect Adam McKay’s follow-up to The Big Short to receive plenty of attention. Christian Bale is Cheney with Amy Adams as wife Lynne and last year’s Supporting Actor winner Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.

**NO TRAILER AT PRESS TIME

Beautiful Boy

Steve Carell plays the father of a meth addict played by Timothee Chalamet, who was nominated last year for Call Me by Your Name.

Ben is Back

Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts headline this family drama that premieres at Toronto.

**NO TRAILER AT PRESS TIME

Bohemian Rhapsody

Despite some behind the scenes drama in its filming, all eyes will be on Rami Malek’s work as Queen front man Freddie Mercury.

Boy Erased

Perhaps an even larger showcase role for Lucas Hedges is this drama where he plays a homosexual sent to conversion camp. Joel Edgerton directs and costars along with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy received an Academy Award nomination with her breakthrough role in Bridesmaids. This drama about writer Lee Israel could muster attention for her yet again.

First Man

Director Damien Chazelle has seen both of his efforts (Whiplash, La La Land) nominated for Best Picture and he’s the youngest filmmaker to ever win Best Director. His third pic is a Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling. It opens the Venice Film Festival.

If Beale Street Could Talk

The follow-up to his Oscar winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins directs this drama set in 1970s Harlem.

July 22

United 93 and Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass brings his latest to Netflix and it focuses on the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway.

**NO TRAILER AT PRESS TIME

Life Itself

Premiering at Toronto, this ensemble drama includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Munn, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas.

Mary Poppins Returns

She’s already a contender for A Quiet Place and Emily Blunt could face competition from herself with Disney’s expected monster hit.

Mary Queen of Scots

They were both nominated for Best Actress last year and now Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie star in this historical drama about the title character and Queen Elizabeth I.

Old Man & The Gun

David Lowery directs Robert Redford in the true life tale of a prison escape artist. Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck costar.

On the Basis of Sex

The documentary RBG could get noticed by the Documentary branch, as could this biopic which casts Felicity Jones as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Peterloo

Acclaimed British director Mike Leigh returns with this historical 19th century drama.

Roma

This Mexican family drama is Alfonso Cuaron’s first directorial effort since his acclaimed Gravity.

Suspiria

Call Me by Your Name maker Luca Guadagnino shifts gears for this remake of the 1970s horror classic. Don’t be surprised if this receives attention in some technical categories.

The Favourite

The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos is behind this historical drama featuring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz.

The Front Runner

Jason Reitman directs this biopic of failed Presidential candidate Gary Hart with Hugh Jackman cast in the role.

**NO TRAILER AT PRESS TIME

The Sisters Brothers

John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal are among the cast in this Western from acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard.

Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell stars in this unique looking drama from Forrest Gump maker Robert Zemeckis.

Widows

It’s been five years between projects for Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. This heist thriller stars recent winner Viola Davis.

And there’s your very early preview of some titles to keep an eye on over the coming months. Those Oscar posts will start rolling out weekly in about a month! Stay tuned…

2014 Oscar Nominations Reaction

And they’re out!

The Oscar nominations for the 2014 movie year were released this morning. As readers of the blog know, I made my final predictions yesterday evening in the eight major categories. So how did I do?

Well… not too shabby as I see it. Of the 44 nominations predicted, I correctly got 38 which equates to 86% overall and perfect scores in three of the races. Let’s take a look at the categories one by one and, for the first time, I’ll offer my initial thoughts on what and who will win:

BEST PICTURE

As mentioned last night, I finally got on the Nightcrawler bandwagon. Frankly, I should have been thinking more about the American Sniper bandwagon. It’s the only movie that received a nod that I didn’t predict. There were eight nominees instead of my estimated nine, which meant my Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler calls were left off. So overall – 7 out of 9 on Best Picture.

Nominees

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

This appears to be a three film race between Boyhood, Birdman, and The Imitation Game with Boyhood appearing to have the edge. Selma was once thought to be in that mix, but today’s lack of nods in other categories render its chances virtually non-existent.

Current Predicted Winner: Boyhood

BEST DIRECTOR

Went 4 out of 5 here. Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher was only surprising because the picture itself wasn’t recognized. I included Ana DuVernay for Selma yet her exclusion isn’t that shocking since Selma has been losing steam.

Nominees

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

For the last two years, Oscar has split their Picture and Director winners. I could easily see a scenario where Boyhood takes top prize with Inarritu’s virtuoso work in Birdman victorious in this category. This is a tough call, but for now I’ll go with Linklater’s heralded and long gestating accomplishment in Boyhood.

Predicted Winner: Linklater

BEST ACTOR

4 for 5 again. This race had turned into a seven man showdown and two were going to be left out. They were David Oyelowo in Selma (who I predicted wouldn’t be nominated) and Jake Gyllenhall in Nightcrawler (I predicted he would). The Sniper love meant Bradley Cooper picked up his third consecutive nomination and he’s the one I left out.

Nominees

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

We’ll keep this short and sweet. Cumberbatch or Redmayne could spoil, but this is Keaton’s race to lose.

Predicted Winner: Keaton

BEST ACTRESS

5 for 5 here! I’ll pat myself on the back for including Marion Cotillard’s “surprise” nom for Two Days One Night. Some were surprised at Jennifer Aniston’s exclusion for Cake, but the film was so small and reviews so not solid that I wasn’t.

Nominees

Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Like the Best Actor race, we have a big front runner here and it’s Moore (a celebrated and often nominated actress who’s never won). It’s simply hard to imagine any of the other four topping her.

Predicted Winner: Moore

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

5 for 5 again!! Not much to add here as these five actors were the expected nominees and that’s how it panned out.

Nominees

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but again there’s a major front runner. J.K. Simmons has won most of the precursors. Only an extremely good night for Birdman and a Norton upset seems plausible… but not that plausible.

Predicted Winner: Simmons

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

4 for 5 here as Laura Dern’s work in Wild (which I’d predicted previously but took her off) was included and Jessica Chastain’s in A Most Violent Year was excluded.

Nominees

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

The broken record continues as Stone could reap the benefit of a Birdman love fest. However, Arquette seems to be in a solid position for gold.

Predicted Winner: Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

Perfection again – 5 for 5!!! ‘Nuff said…

Nominees

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

This would appear to be the race where Birdman has an ever so slight edge over Boyhood. If there’s a spoiler, it could be Grand Budapest.

Predicted Winner: Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay

4 for 5. The American Sniper props continued as I didn’t include it. That meant Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her book Gone Girl was left off… which was a bit of a surprise.

Nominees

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Here, The Imitation Game seems the most likely to win and it’ll likely represent its only victory in the main races.

Predicted Winner: The Imitation Game

As for surprises in the down ticket categories, there were a couple of big ones. In the Animated Feature category, The LEGO Movie was seen to many as a potential winner and it wasn’t even nominated. In the Documentary race, the Roger Ebert pic Life Itself was shockingly left out.

Please note that my current winner predictions are not my final ones and I will have a post up the weekend before the ceremony to make those picks in all categories.

Stay tuned!

 

Life Itself Movie Review

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

These words are written by Roger Ebert in the latter stages of his life when cancer has robbed him of the ability to speak. His outlet to his legions of readers and admirers comes in the form of his extensive blog. Ebert, unlike many of his old school critic colleagues, was quick to embrace the Internet and how it could reach so many people.

And indeed – Steve James’s powerful new documentary Life Itself, based loosely on Roger’s memoir, shows how many people Roger reached through a career that spanned nearly half a century. It is impossible for me to write a proper “review” of this doc without admitting the profound effect that Roger Ebert has had on me personally. As a kid when I first realized how much movies meant to me and how much I loved watching them and talking about them and writing about them, it was Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s TV program that assisted in serving as that catalyst. As a teen, I would pour over Ebert’s yearly edition of his film reviews that came out every year and read them cover to cover. This would, of course, become a weekly occurrence after the Internet became an everyday fact of life for most of us. When I began penning movie reviews weekly for my hometown newspaper in Northwest Ohio, I was trying to write like Roger Ebert and probably failing. I’ll be damned if I didn’t love doing it though.

Life Itself goes well beyond documenting Roger’s considerable talents when it came to film criticism, but it thankfully spends a decent portion of its running time celebrating it. When the Siskel and Ebert program became a phenomenon, there were fellow critics (especially on the coasts) that believed the duo had somehow bastardized the art form with their “Thumbs Up” rating and brief reviews on the show. You don’t hear that often anymore because, well, it’s  a ridiculous and high-minded notion that misses the central point. Roger Ebert’s style of writing was conversational and made you feel like you were hearing a very intelligent discussion on whatever feature he was opining about. When one reads a film review and you feel like the critic is talking down to the reader, that’s a failure of writing. Ebert and Siskel understood that. Most importantly, Roger Ebert loved movies. And he went out of his way to celebrate and promote filmmakers who he believed in. By way of his reviews and TV program, this helped promote Scorsese and Spike Lee and Gregory Nava and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and countless others. It exposed audiences to movies and movie makers who they might not otherwise have known about.

One such person that Ebert unquestionably exposed to a much bigger audience was Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was named by Siskel and Ebert as their favorite picture in a year when Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were also released. James does an amazing job returning the favor with Life Itself.

When James and Ebert sought out to make this documentary, they didn’t know that its subject would soon pass away. The cancer that Ebert suffered ravaged his face, his voice, and body. The picture doesn’t hold back from showing some uncomfortable scenes of Ebert at the hospital undergoing treatments you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet we also see the unwavering dedication of his wife of twenty years, Chaz. Life Itself is as much a love story as anything else and theirs is a strong one that truly shows “the sickness and in health” portion of their vows.

James does an incredible job of jamming a lot of information about Ebert’s life into two hours. We hear of his childhood, his alcoholism, Chicago newspaper politics, the national celebrity that he and Gene gained, his Pulitzer prize, his writing of the screenplay to the 1960s Russ Meyer sex flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There’s much about the complicated and often extremely antagonistic relationship between Siskel and Ebert. Life Itself is able to show all these aspects of Ebert in a fast-paced, always fascinating way. And it doesn’t hold its subject up as a saint by any means. Especially in the early portions of his rise to prominence, Ebert could be difficult and arrogant and the picture doesn’t shy away from that.

We are witnesses to Ebert’s last months in this world and it’s not always easy going, but his bravery and Chaz’s when facing these times are emotional and inspirational. Ebert makes it clear that besides his beloved family, it’s his work that gets him through these horrendously difficult times. It is that work of Ebert that inspired not only so many writers, but even the people he was writing about. There is a lovely passage in the doc where Martin Scorsese explains how Roger assisted him in getting back on his game after a rough patch in his life.

Even if you don’t have the distant connection through similar interests that I have with Ebert, Life Itself is worth seeking out. It’s a masterfully done documentary that is worthy of the man it covers. For me – it provided a final and often funny and often touching and uplifting last chance to see a person who, in many ways, is the reason I’m typing these words right now.

**** (out of four)