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People call January a dumping ground for movies. This is the time of year that a lot of crappy dramas and a lot of mindless horror flicks get released. That doesn't mean January has to be a slog, though. For careful planners, January can be the best movie month of the year! All you have to do is devote your time to catching up on all those wonderful things from last year that slipped through the cracks. Those films that have been languishing on your to-watch list? Now is the perfect time to strike! It's not like you have to worry about missing much in the theaters.

Availability always has to be taken into consideration, so when I noticed that one of my to-watch movies was going to be aired on CNN, I instantly commandeered my boyfriend's DVR. That movie is Steve James' 2014 documentary, Life Itself, which explores the life and career of recently-deceased film critic Roger Ebert. I know this blog basically just comprises blurbs that can barely even be considered reviews, but it should still be fairly clear why someone like me would be a huge fan of Ebert's work.

Still, it'd be incredibly easy to make a really boring movie about a famous film critic, even one who suffered from cancer, and happily, James nimbly avoids this. One of the bigger sins biopics tend to commit is trying to wedge in too much of the subject's life. While Life Itself does range from Ebert's childhood to his death, it's intelligent enough to focus on the aspects of his life and career that the audience would naturally be more interested in. It's cool that he first found success at his college paper, that he won a Pulitzer for film criticism, and that he wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but that's not the meat of Ebert's story, and James makes the correct choice to gloss over them pretty quickly in favor of more thorough background on things like Ebert's marriage, his illness, and of course, his relationship with Gene Siskel.

Siskel and Ebert captured lightning in a bottle, but it was far from a smooth working relationship. Each felt the other was superfluous, and kind of an ass to boot. There's some terrific footage of the two of them carping at each other, not only as part of their television show, but in outtakes as well. Each tries to outdo the other, and they often come off as an old, bickering married couple. It's pretty engrossing. But rubbernecking at awkwardness and arguments is not what this movie rests on.

Life Itself does not lionize nor glamorize Roger Ebert. It talks about his alcoholism. It talks about his narcissism. It talks about his stubbornness. He and his wife Chaz speak with utter frankness about his cancer, his treatments, and their marriage. The movie is a lot like Ebert's writing: Clear, impassioned, straightforward, and blunt without being unnecessarily harsh. He would have loved it. And so did I.

Life Itself: A


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