If you're a film lover of a certain age, odds are Roger Ebert played a pivotal role in shaping your view of the medium. Steve James' excellent documentary Life Itself explains why in meticulous detail, examining Ebert's ascent from young journalist to senior film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of At the Movies with Gene Siskel, the wildly popular television program that changed film criticism forever.
In print, on television and later online through his blog, Ebert provided a populist voice on cinema, which inevitably dovetailed into other subjects like politics, economics and social interaction. He spent his life championing independent directors (Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani) and expressing his disdain for what he thought were morally repugnant films (his pan of Blue Velvet remains a classic).
But Life Itself is about the man, not the legend. In 2006, Ebert lost the ability to speak after having surgery on his jaw to remove cancerous tissue. Most of James' documentary takes place in 2013, right before Ebert died on April 4. So we see him in the hospital, battling to stay positive, with his wife Chaz by his side, dictating notations to the camera with surprising pizzazz.
If Ebert's everlasting strength and spirit is on display in these candid, sometimes painful moments, his lasting impact on film history is felt in the interviews with filmmakers, friends and colleagues. Each shows a different side, providing the audience with a well-rounded picture of a person who had plenty of hidden demons. One conversation with Martin Scorsese illuminates Ebert's candor and compassion, while another with Werner Herzog displays his Herculean strength.
Despite ending with the sorrow felt by Ebert's death, Life Itself —which opens Friday, July 4, at Hillcrest Cinemas—prides itself on cherishing the joy of a life defined by positive accomplishments and formidable prose.
America : From the mastermind behind 2016: Obama's America comes another hyperbolic documentary that imagines a scenario where the United States lost the Revolutionary War and America did not come to exist.
Deliver Us From Evil : A New York City police officer (Eric Bana) and an unconventional Catholic priest (Edgar Ramirez) team up to solve a series of supernatural crimes terrorizing the city.
Earth to Echo : The found-footage film has finally found its way to the children's-sci-fi genre in this adventure about an alien who recruits a group of friends to help it return home. I'm sure E.T. is suing for copyright infringement.
Los Insolitos Peces Gatos ( The Amazing Catfish ): A young woman meets a sickly matriarch in the hospital, only to become close with her family after embarking on a road trip together. Screens through July 10 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Life Itself : A documentary portrait of Roger Ebert, legendary film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who revolutionized television with his popular review show with Gene Siskel.
Snowpiercer : In a frozen post-apocalyptic future (is there any other kind?), the only human survivors live aboard a high-speed train with distinct class boundaries and brutal restrictions. A revolt by the impoverished tail section threatens to shift the balance of power.
Tammy : Melissa McCarthy stars as a fast-food employee who hits the road with her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) after losing her job and leaving her husband.
Yves Saint Laurent : Biopic about the famed French fashion designer who battled addiction during his rise to fame in the late 1950s. Screens through July 10 at La Jolla Village Cinemas.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark : Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) races to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from the clutches of Nazi scum in Steven Spielberg's great action adventure. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 3, through Sunday, July 6, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Akira : This classic 1980s anime envisions a future where a biker-gang member is turned into a mind-bending psychopath who threatens Tokyo. Only a group of equally talented psychics can stop him. Screens at midnight on Saturday, July 5, at the Ken Cinema.
The Immigration Paradox : Director Lourdes Lee Vasquez spent seven years attempting to find out why immigrants risk their lives to immigrate to the United States. The results are shocking. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 6, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Beast Wishes : Bob and Kathy Burs have been labeled "the goodwill ambassadors of sci-fi and horror fandom," and this feature documentary explores why they love film so much. Screens at 9 p.m. Sunday, July 6, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Getting Back to Abnormal : A documentary about race, politics and culture in New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape forever. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 7, at the San Diego Public Library in East Village.
Margin Call : Drama that intimately scales the walls of Wall Street to look at the 24 hours leading up to the initial bubble burst that began the latest financial crisis. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at the Point Loma / Hervey Branch Library.
A Brony Tale : Watch how a Vancouver-based voice artist named Ashleigh Ball becomes an Internet phenomenon for a fan base of middle-aged men obsessed with My Little Pony . Screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at Hillcrest Cinemas.
Travis: A Soldier's Story : Documentary about U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who lost portions of both arms and legs in an IED attack during his third tour in Afghanistan. There'll be a post-screening Q&A with Mills and actor Gary Sinise, whose foundation is presenting the film. Screens at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at Coronado Village Theatre.
The Lorax : A grumpy creature helps a young boy win the affection of the girl of his dreams in this animated film based on the popular Dr. Seuss book. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 8, at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Point Loma's Liberty Station.
And So it Goes : Michael Douglas stars as a egomaniac Realtor who's suddenly tasked with taking care of his estranged grandchildren. Directed by Rob Reiner and co-starring Diane Keaton. Presented by the New York Film Critics Circle, with a taped Q&A projected after the movie, it screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Citizen Koch : Documents the trail of campaign funding behind the Tea Party's rise to power. Screens at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Half of a Yellow Sun : Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor ( 12 Years a Slave ) and Thandie Newton, this drama set in 1960s Nigeria follows two sisters as they watch a country become ravaged by civil war. Screens through July 3 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Korengal : Taking unused footage from his previous film, Restrepo , Sebastian Junger looks even deeper at the fighting men waging war in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
Third Person : A successful writer (Liam Neeson) going through a mid-life crisis begins writing his next book only to find his novel splitting off in different directions.
Transformers: Age of Extinction : Boom!
Under the Electric Sky : Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz take viewers behind the scenes of the Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest dance-music event in North America. Screens at AMC Mission Valley.
Violette : Emmanuelle Devos stars as a woman who befriends Simone de Beauvoir, inciting an intense relationship based on the quest for freedom.
Jersey Boys : Clint Eastwood adapts the popular Broadway play about the rise of musical group The Four Seasons.
Obvious Child : A sassy stand-up comedienne gets dumped by her loser boyfriend and then has a one-night stand with a stranger, which results in an unwanted pregnancy.
The Rover : In the Australian outback, ten years after society collapses, a determined nomad (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three men who stole his car. It co-stars Robert Pattinson ( Twilight ). Ends July 3 at Hillcrest Cinemas.
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon : Directed by actor Mike Myers and Beth Aala, this documentary goes inside the crazy life of Hollywood insider Shep Gordon.
Think Like a Man Too : Kevin Hart and Michael Ealy once again star in a mosaic of couples behaving badly, this time set in Las Vegas. It's a sequel to the 2012 comedy Think Like a Man .
22 Jump Street : Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill return for more violent shenanigans as undercover cops trying to expose a drug ring at a local college.
The Grand Seduction : Residents of a small harbor town try to woo a hot-shot young doctor with hopes of convincing him to relocate to their rural haven.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 : Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless encounter new challenges while trying to bring their species together in harmony.
The Signal : A group of young friends is lured into an isolated area by a computer genius, only to find out they're trapped in a waking nightmare.
Edge of Tomorrow : Tom Cruise dies a thousand times in order to find the right info about an alien attack that will destroy Earth. It co-stars a very buff Emily Blunt.
The Fault in Our Stars : In a dramedy starring Shailene Woodley ( Divergent ), from the writers of (500) Days of Summer , young love is tested when a cancer-stricken teenager falls for her witty foil despite her serious illness.
Words and Pictures : Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche star as rival teachers who spark a competition between their students involving the importance of photography and prose.
A Million Ways to Die in the West : Seth MacFarlane's follow-up to Ted is a star-studded satire that lays waste to the classic Western. There are sure to be a few penis jokes.
Ida : Anna, 18, is about to become a nun in 1960s Poland. But a family secret dating back to the days of Nazi occupation threatens her faith. It's directed by acclaimed filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski.
Maleficent : Angelina Jolie stars as the infamous sorceress who sets her sights on the nubile young Princess Aurora in this big-budget reboot of Sleeping Beauty .
Blended : Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore try to rekindle their box-office magic with this fish-out-of-water comedy about dumb Americans causing havoc while on vacation in Africa.
Fed Up : This documentary addresses America's obsession with food and how our obesity epidemic originated from corporate misconduct.
X-Men: Days of Future Past : The latest installment of the popular Marvel franchise finds Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) going back in time to recruit his colleagues' younger selves in order to save mankind from the evil Sentinels.
Belle : An illegitimate, mixed-race daughter (of a Navy admiral) being raised by aristocrats finds herself in a precarious social position in Victorian England.
Chef : Jon Favreau returns to comedy filmmaking with this story of a well-respected chef who opens a food truck after being fired by a posh restaurateur.
Godzilla : The gigantic mutant lizard is back and bigger than ever, ready to decimate a city near you.
Million Dollar Arm : On a mission to find the next baseball phenom in the unlikeliest of places, a sports agent (Jon Hamm) travels to India in hopes of convincing talented cricket players to play American baseball.
Neighbors : A newly relocated couple can't enjoy their beautiful new residence after a rowdy fraternity moves in next door. Every homeowner's worst nightmare comes true .
Fading Gigolo : A failed bookstore owner (Woody Allen) convinces his blue-collar friend (John Turturro) to start sleeping with wealthy women for money. Nothing could go wrong with this idea, right?
The Grand Budapest Hotel : Ralph Fiennes leads an all-star cast in director Wes Anderson's latest film, which takes place inside an elaborate European hotel populated by eccentric characters.
Journey to the South Pacific : Let the glorious scale of IMAX take you to the tropical islands of West Papua, where life under the sea is just as lush and vibrant as it is on shore. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Mysteries of the Unseen World : This amazing documentary uses high-speed and time-lapse photography to focus on things that are either too fast or two slow for the eye to see. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.