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'Life Itself' review: Roger Ebert's swan song

Life Itself


"Life Itself" begins its theatrical run in Houston at Sundance Cinemas starting today.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, used with permission.
The official theatrical poster for "Life Itself."
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, used with permission.

As far as film criticism goes, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were and still are the two most well-known film critics out there. Most critics working today give credit to Ebert for inspiring them to pursue what they love. "Life Itself" is not only a biographical documentary and retelling of Roger Ebert's past, but also a visual and auditory diary that records the final months of his life.

The film tends to take excerpts from Ebert's memoir Life Itself and constructs a 120-minute documentary around it including interviews with friends, family, other film critics, producers, and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. Ebert's health issues during filming are not masked or hidden away in any form. Filming picks up in December of 2012 where Roger Ebert entered the hospital for a hip fracture and it's revealed that the thyroid cancer has returned.

Roger Ebert had worked in the newspaper industry all of his life. He says that he could always write even though he flunked French five times. It's interesting to note that he was able to write a finished, well thought out review in half an hour, which is fairly fast. "Life Itself" feels like a documentary that is just trying to portray the facts without trying to sway the viewer in one way or another on a certain issue. Roger Ebert seems like he was a very stubborn man who was extremely opinionated and massively talented. This is his story in his own words.

The documentary spends a lot of time narrating Ebert's home of Chicago; his social habits, where he spent most of his time, and how people hung on every word when he'd tell a story. His career as a writer was always remarkable. At the age of 21, he was the editor of his college newspaper. During the time of JFK's death, Ebert unbelievably stopped the presses and was respected for it. At the time it was awarded to him, Roger Ebert was the only film critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize.

While watching "Life Itself," you can't help but notice how open Roger Ebert was about everything in his life. He was a serious drinker at one time and would often be up all night drinking. He found solace in AA meetings. When thyroid cancer left him unable to eat or speak, he found comfort in his blog and his writing became known for being better than it had ever been in the past.

Ebert was known for being a single man on his way to the top. He was a fan of Russ Meyer films because of their inclusion of nude women and even wrote the screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." The film illustrates how important Chaz, Ebert's wife, was in his lifetime especially during that bumpy road once Ebert became unwell.

"Life Itself" obviously spends a lot of time on "Siskel & Ebert," as well. The film's nationwide success is a huge point of interest as was the bitter rivalry between the critics which eventually became a mutual form of respect for one another. One of the most interesting facts to take away from this section of the film is that Gene Siskel was adopted by Hue Hefner's clan at the Mansion.

The film does an excellent job of keeping your interest from beginning to end, but it's also somewhat bothersome at times. It's difficult to watch Ebert in the condition that he's in during the film, but witnessing his struggle and ability to be in good spirits during such a rough period is admirable.

Seeing the way Siskel and Ebert reenacted with one another for such an extended period of time is what's so hard to swallow. Their rivalry wasn't a secret, but seeing two grown individuals act like children and throw tantrums solely because the person they share a televised relationship with has a different opinion about something they're so passionate about is extremely immature.

That sense of entitlement, self-worth, and the unyielding argument that someone's thoughts and impressions are the only correct ones are elements of film criticism that come with the territory but are also aspects I've never understood and have tried to steer away from. You get to see movies for free sooner than the general public and, if you're big enough, you get to travel the world in order to sit down and tell people what you think of what they've spent so much time on the past few months or years. Your point of view is suddenly important and it makes an impact no matter how big or small your audience is. What's the point of being at each others throats for something like that? It sounds like something to be extremely grateful for where mutual respect can get you further than a long-lasting blood feud.

There will never be another Roger Ebert. The man's voice will be heard for generations to come and "Life Itself" brings that concept to life as it shows just how influential Ebert has been to the world of cinema. The film has this heart wrenching side to it that touches on reminiscing about better times while being broken and how memories seem more special since they're in the past. "Life Itself" ignites a spectrum of feelings within its audience, but the important thing is that it makes you feel something, which is all any film could ask for.