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This undated photo released by Magnolia Pictures shows film critics Gene Siskel, (left) and Roger Ebert used in the documentary ‘Life Itself.’ (AP)
Depp’s Bulger biopic to be released September’15 Thumbs up for Ebert docu ‘Life’

If Roger Ebert had never written a film review or dramatically articulated his thumb, he would have still been a man to admire. Steve James’ new documentary on the late critic has plenty on Ebert’s Chicago rise to Pulitzer-winning reporter, his unique position as the world’s most famous film critic and his robustly populist cinephilia. But what comes through most in “Life Itself,” a film named after Ebert’s 2011 memoir, is his great, open-minded vigor.

His undying movie love. His passionate embrace of the Internet late in life. His bravery in the face of cancer. His championing of overlooked filmmakers. His generous support of younger critics. Ebert’s voice grew only stronger after he lost it. His life seemed to only swell in integrity with age. For someone who made a living in criticism, he was an unusually positive force, largely free of the cynicism that often plagues the profession.

Capturing that is the essence of “Life Itself,” which, at its best, has the glow of a wake in an old Chicago bar, the kind Ebert used to haunt with regularity and the kind some of his old newspaper pals speak from in the documentary. Before giving up drinking, Ebert lived as fast as he wrote. James has often documented Windy City tales, including “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” ó films Ebert hailed. “Hoop Dreams,” Ebert wrote with typical directness, “is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

Ebert was defined, perhaps, by that eagerness to see outside himself. In a taped speech at the start of the documentary, he calls the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Of course, he wasn’t a saint. Ebert could be snippy and egotistical, particularly when prodded by his “At the Movies” co-host, Gene Siskel. Some of the most entertaining clips in “Life Itself” are familiar videos that have long been on YouTube of the two bickering in outtakes.

Ebert’s voluminous reviews and simple, up-or-down judgments, too, were sometimes derided as “junk food,” as Time’s Richard Corliss once levied. Either way, most writers today would gladly welcome a return to the days when any single critic held such sway, regardless of its nutritional value. Time, in the end, has been kind to Ebert’s achievement. Corliss sounds regretful in the documentary, and director Werner Herzog’s label of Ebert ó “a soldier of cinema” ó has won out. James began the documentary before Ebert’s passing at the age of 70 in April 2013. So the film is full of footage of Ebert battling his cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and conspiring with his longtime wife, Chaz, to sneak out of the hospital to go to the movies. He even sneaks information on his medical status to James that he shields from Chaz. (She, it should be noted, is in many ways the hero of the film: an astoundingly steadfast companion to her husband through his pain.)

Despite surgeries that removed his lower jaw and left him unable to speak, Ebert kept typing away up to the end. He died a day after announcing his retirement. Shortly before his death, he wrote of his life, “You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.” Thumbs up to that. “Life Itself,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for brief sexual images/nudity and language.” Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger biopic may not have a title yet, but it has a release date. Warner Bros. Pictures Domestic Distribution will release the film to theaters on Friday, September 18, 2015. The film, which is currently known as “Black Mass,” is the story of the notorious Boston gangster, played by Depp. Depp is flanked in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch as his brother Massachusetts Senator Billy Bulger, Joel Edgerton as Whitey’s associate FBI Agent John Connolly, Jesse Plemons as his right-hand Kevin Weeks, Sienna Miller as girlfriend Catherine Greig, and James Russo as FBI Agent Scott Garriola, one of the men who took Bulger down. The drama, produced by Brett Granstaff, John Lesher, Patrick McCormick, and Tyler Thompson, also stars Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple, Jeremy Strong, Julianne Nicholson and W. Earl Brown. Cross Creek Pictures, Grisbi Productions, Infinitum Nihil, and Ridgerock Entertainment Group produced the Warner Bros. release.

“Pretty Little Liars” star Ashley Benson has joined the cast of Sony’s Adam Sandler action-comedy “Pixels,” TheWrap has learned. Kevin James, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage co-star alongside Michelle Monaghan and Brian Cox. “Pixels” is based on Patrick Jean’s buzzed-about short film, which depicted popular 1980s video game characters attacking New York City. The feature follows aliens who misinterpret video-feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war against them and attack Earth, using the games as models for their various assaults.

President Will Cooper (James) has to call on his childhood best friend, ‘80s video game champion Sam Brenner (Sandler), to lead a team of old-school arcaders (Dinklage and Gad) to defeat the aliens and save the planet. Monaghan plays the team’s weapons specialist. Benson will play Lady Lisa, a beautiful warrior from the fictional ‘80s video game Dojo Quest. Chris Columbus is directing the big-budget 2015 summer tentpole, which was written by Tim Herlihy and Tim Dowling, based on a story by Herlihy.

Sandler and Columbus are producing with Mark Radcliffe and Allen Covert, while the executive producers Barry Bernardi, Michael Barnathan, Jack Giarraputo, Heather Parry, Steve Koren, Benjamin Darras, Johnny Alves, Matias Boucard, Seth Gordon and Ben Waisbren, as well as Herlihy and Jean.
Production is currently under way, as the film is slated to invade theaters on May 15, 2015. After starring on “Days of Our Lives” and “Eastwick,” Benson landed the star-making role of Hanna Marin on the hit CW series “Pretty Little Liars.” On the big screen, she most recently starred alongside Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and James Franco in Harmony Korine’s indie hit “Spring Breakers.” Benson is represented by WME, LBI Entertainment and attorney Dave Feldman. (Agencies)

By Jake Colle

By: Jake Colle

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