Life Itself, Third Person and Venus in Fur all remind us why we needed Roger Ebert 

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Late in Steve James' documentary Life Itself, the director e-mails his subject — dying writer Roger Ebert — to ask why he chose that two-word phrase as the title of his autobiography. For the first time in their correspondence, Ebert demurs. "I can't," he answers.

This turned out to be hours before Ebert died. For a decade, he'd been hospitalized and operated on and rehabbed and operated on and rehabbed again, had narrowly escaped a grisly bleed-out when a vein burst after one surgery. But those other two words — I can't — marked the first time that illness muted him.

Life Itself, the movie (rather than Ebert's own vital document), offers a bracing, sometimes painful view of a man two-finger-typing against the dying of the light. One of the talking heads James has chosen to memorialize and explain Ebert says it bluntly, and it's true: Once a series of surgeries had robbed Ebert of his ability to speak (and to eat and drink), he wrote more and wrote better than ever before.

That's saying something because Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning lifer at his beloved Chicago Sun-Times, was among the most nimble, fluent writers of his time. His subject was movies, but the movies were life itself to him, and he used cinema and his mid-screening-room perch to tell us about our lives, too. Just 25 when he took over what was then a daily paper's ghetto — the movie-reviewing desk — he had already honed grammar-school precocity to collegiate cockiness and then fine-tuned those results to become a newspaperman. His style was artless and transparent, conversational but authoritative. And he seems never to have suffered a minute of writer's block.

James doesn't tell us, or doesn't let Ebert tell us, why a young reporter stayed with a very different job that he'd never asked for, and he doesn't really say much about his subject's early love of film. Ebert is a hero at his college paper, and then he's in the big city, and then he's told to do the job that would make him internationally famous. It's not an insignificant omission, given how much time James devotes to making the Ebert of the late 1960s and early '70s the star of journo-packed barrooms. In a city that can lay claim to producing more and better hard-boozing deadline writers than any other, Ebert was the duke of O'Rourke's. And then he quit drinking, and that's another story — one that James tells just as well.

Life Itself isn't a treatise on recovery, though, or on illness or marriage or film or friendship (as in Ebert's complex brotherhood with Gene Siskel, whom cancer also stole), though it gives time to each of these subjects. Where those subjects and Ebert converge is what James' documentary is finally about: telling the truth. Once Ebert decided not just to reveal his sickness but also to counterattack it with his writing, he lit a wide, generous corridor of the Internet where others could gather. In his last years, Ebert wrote about everything he knew, which was a lot. And that act itself, in all its stubborn, pain-denying bravery, defied the tics and crutches that a lesser, less honest writer might have been forgiven for using.

Speaking of unforgivable bullshit: Third Person opened quietly here last weekend. Oscar-burdened Paul Haggis wrote and directed, and Liam Neeson is its fulcrum. The actor, still big and handsome at 62 (roughly Haggis' age, too, and that's not the only reason you suspect that Neeson is a proxy for his boss here), plays some kind of successful writer struggling with some kind of block. I say "some kind" because the movies typically imagine authors as bloat-necked Hemingway types, but we eventually figure out that what Neeson has composed seems a lot like a batch of short stories. That's great, but midway through Third Person, you wish that he would whip out a couple of Glocks and go Taken on the other characters, the better to end this long, swanning movie and let you read some Alice Munro or take a nap or something.

Crash writer-director Haggis knows only one way to cast his pictures, so Neeson's name is buffered by select fellow nominees and winners: a calm Kim Basinger, Adrien Brody in Stella Artois mode, James Franco as a whole bag of dicks. Olivia Wilde has been instructed to make crazy eyes but acts anyway and is good. Neeson lumbers over, around and through his lines like a pro from another age, which doesn't do anybody much good. We may need him to stick to beating up Eurothugs and Arctic wildlife after all.

Look, can I just tell you the deal with Third Person? Because no way you're going to see this thing until it's on TNT or someone next to you on a plane is iPadding it. There, you've had time, so here it is: Neeson's writer has made up all of the other characters, so the peril and conflict they endure mean nothing, and Haggis literally makes them vanish from the screen so that there is no doubt of (a) Neeson's restored authorial prowess and (b) Haggis' desire to lay his angry-characters-intersecting-unexpectedly template atop, like, a Christopher Nolan Inception conceit. The artist and the inexorable power of imagination and the irresistible pull of narrative, you guys.

Meanwhile, Roman Polanski has, for the second time in recent years, made a cramped, sanguinary hotbox out of a salty Broadway success. Unlike Carnage, however, Venus in Fur works. And unlike Third Person, it conveys several notions at once about artistry, imagination and narrative — along with acting and character and direction.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's wife) plays Vanda, a hard-up actress who cons playwright and director Thomas (brilliantly shifty actor Mathieu Amalric) into an after-hours audition. Thomas' play is taken from the panting 19th-century S&M novel Venus in Furs. Actor and author are not so secretly dressing each other to be carved open and eaten; she is too eager, he too sure of his power. Or is it the other way around?

David Ives, adapting his play with Polanski, has rigged a torrid, funny showpiece for the two performers (and, really, for himself). It's boilerplate theatrics: intellectual brinksmanship and histrionic sexual tension. But Seigner and Amalric enrapture each other and so seduce us as well.

All involved overextend themselves at the end — the script somehow knows less than it is telling — but that only makes what has come before more unsettling. After a run of films whose certain technique froze the blood before it could be memorably chilled, Polanski here lets in just enough ugliness to restore the throb of his best work.



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