Review: ‘Life Itself’ 8.12.14

This was an unbeliveable documentary into the life and death of Roger Ebert. The man who one could say “invented” film criticism, or at least brought it to the masses. I had been waiting for this one for awhile now for a couple of different reasons. One, as a student of film, there’s not a more fascinating subject than that of Ebert. The guy lived for movies. His entire framework for how he viewed the world was imprinted by the thousands (I think they say in the movie 10,000) movies he saw in his lifetime, and that was particularly interesting to me. The second reason is I grew up as a kid watching both Siskel and Ebert and the movies as well as Ebert and Roeper and the movies. Each week tuning in excited to see which films they were going to be reviewing, the back-and-forth of opposing opinions (which I try to encourage with both of you), as well as the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” grading system which was his/their trademark. Lastly, being a big fan of Steve James, who I couldn’t possibly think of a better documentarian to cover the subject. Seeing as Ebert (as he did with a lot of filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese) put James on the international film community map with his glowing reviews of his 1994 ‘Hoop Dreams’ (and who eventually went on to provide the DVD commentary for). So I looked at it as the ultimate tribute/testament for James to be able to give that back.

As for the documentary itself…I liked so many different elements of it that it’s hard for me to sum up even in lengthy email format such as this one. I enjoyed learning about what I didn’t know, specifically how he got his job at the Chicago-Sun Times, his battle with alcoholism, and the fact that he stayed single until the age of 50, at which point he met the love of his life (and ultimate savior), Chaz. I also thought another plus of it was how they didn’t shy away from the end of Ebert’s life, which as Ebert even said “it wouldn’t be a real documentary if you didn’t show this part”. Which is unbelievably heartwrenching to watch him go through surgeries, to losing his jaw, to not being able to speak and who’s only way of communication was through gestures and speaking through a computer. Though whereas some people might fall into despair or depression, Ebert found ways to spin his unfortunate situation into a positive thing. Like starting a blog for example where at one point someone says he was doing some of his best writing on. This is a guy that was going to perservere and not hang the towel. Which I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for.
I also enjoyed the focus on his relationship with Gene Siskel, which was a very turmultuous one. These guys came from 2 different walks of life which greatly impacted the way in which they interacted with one another, especially when it came to film criticism. There’s some great archival footage of them between takes on their show bickering at one another. Yet for all of the ups and mostly downs in their relationship. It was obvious they had nothing but the utmost mutual respect and admiration for one another. That, and Siskel’s death had a very profound effect on the way in which Ebert faced his own adversity later in life.
The only omission in the film that knocked it down a point or 2 for me was no archival footage, not even a mention, of Richard Roeper. I thought about it and to me that would be like making a Michael Jordon documentary and totally exluding his foray into baseball. Why the decision to omit Roeper from the documentary entirely will always remain a mystery to me.
Still, a compelling, thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, emotional roller coaster of a ride, of one of the most important figures in the history of film, and one that is sure to pick up a nomination at next year’s Oscars for Best Documentary.
Grade: A

2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Life Itself’ 8.12.14

  1. A-. Yeah absolutely fantastic look at one of the most polarizing figures in cinema history. Steve James once again (fantastic documentarian by the way and I’ll admit I’m not the biggest documentarian film fan) does a wonderful job of piecing together Ebert’s life and love of film onscreen. Anyone with any appreciation for cinema as an art form must see this documentary because it speaks alot for the little guy much like me and you and everyone else who has always loved and enjoyed film. Here came a guy who rose to prominence as a critic for a form of art he never acted or directed in, he was a silent observer. Until his voice and love for film was so powerful captivated the movie going public and they stood on his every word, good for him. You could tell that this guy just lived breathed and died film, and obviously we both can relate in a big way. Love the part about the film where his wife Chaz says that he always had a bit of the macabre in his life. That totally relates to me for what I see on film as I personally feel the violence and emotinal tenacity in film strikes me more than anything. Thats why I’m a big fan of horror and the darker aspects of film, always will be. Yeah a little bit weird of no mention of Richard Roeper, not even a quick interview towards the end or something, but didnt really sway me that much. But he ill obviously be sorely missed in the film critic world and there will never be anyone like him again, maybe Jeff Kitson one day wouldnt that be something.

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    1. Nice response first off. I’m glad you can appreciate Steve James’ filmography as I do. The guy just keeps releasing one good documentary after the next. And proves why non-fiction filmmaking is just as good as fiction.

      I liked SO much about this documentary that its hard for me to express my love for it in a single response. I so enjoyed learning about Ebert’s life and the many trials and tribulations he went through. A lot of which it shed light on stuff I knew nothing about. His battle with his “Chicago” persona and alcoholism, his ability to churn out a film review while he was young working for the Chicago Sun-Times in I think they said “30 minutes” (it takes me about 1 and a half – 2 hours per review), his egotistical relationship with Gene Siskel, the heartbreak that he faced when Siskel died of a brain tumor (and said he would never hide it if he were to ever get a terminal illness) only to put himself on the cover of Esquire once they removed his bottom jaw, his love for the “auteur theory” (as I do – loving films just for the mere fact that they’re done by certain directors). I particularly like the scene where he argues his “thumbs down” grade as being better than the “thumps up” given to the “Benji” film (I think he says something like “Siskel, of course you can’t possibly compare a film about a dog to that of a Kubrick film”). Once again proving my point of genre and director. I could give “Gone Girl” a B- and “St.Vincent” a B+ and think “Gone Girl” is LEAGUES above being a better film than “St. Vincent”. Film reviewing and criticism is ALL relatively speaking and I think it showcased that part of it well. I also found the unflinching look at the later days of his life to be unbelievably poignant and moving. Him (which inspired me) to find his “voice” in his blog where they comment that he was doing some of the best reviewing of his career despite not being able to speak. That and the careers he influenced (I thought Scorcese’s contribution to the film to be integral). If Ebert said the new Scorcese film was a failure Scorcese himself felt like he had failed. THAT’s how influential his movie reviewing was to the film business. Lastly, I enjoyed his love and commitment to his wife Chaz, who really epitomizes the word of “soulmate”, as her love and family brought him true peace and blesssed his heart towards the end of his life. I could go on…and on…and on…as to why I think this documentary truly reflects everything that we call “life” and our passions, hurdles, and ups and downs, which drives us and forces us to be stronger human beings and more creative artistically.

      Already named as one of my top 5 documentaries of all time. It is an absolute TRAVESTY to not see it nominated this year, in a year where I thought it would and should be the documentary to win. Which upsets me but doesn’t take away from the fact that this is one of the best documentaries into one of, if not the most influential and fascinating subjects in the entire history of film.

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