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Movie review: 'Life Itself' a reverent, inspiring celebration of Roger Ebert

Life Itself

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Life, itself, is strangely funny sometimes. Life Itself, the documentary, to me is so much more.

"Life Itself."
"Life Itself."
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, 2014. Used with permission.

How funny and surreal, for example, that I am writing a movie review of a film whose subject is the legendary, influential and larger-than-life film critic, Roger Ebert. A man, whose syndicated TV show, "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies" was a staple of my childhood, whose occupation, I considered the ultimate dream job.

It's hard to fathom how far - and how completely transformed - film criticism has come since then. But Chicage Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert - along with Chicage Tribune critic Gene Siskel - was an important voice well before his syndicated movie review show, and as Life Itself points out, had been reviewing films for nearly half of the history of film's existence. He is the most famous and influential persona in perhaps all of modern criticism.

Just a few decades ago, the trademarked Siskel & Ebert "Two Thumbs Up!" label meant everything to a film. They absolutely made many films - and filmmakers - important and successful just by giving it a positive review. The 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, for example, went on to earn massive international success almost entirely because of the Siskel & Ebert backing it received. Its director, Steve James, is the director of Life Itself, a documentary that was to adapt Ebert's memoir of the same name, but became something else entirely when Roger fell ill during filming.

Roger Ebert, as you may know, had a swirl of health problems prior to his somewhat sudden death last April. First diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, he continued fighting even after the cancer spread to his jaw, which was removed, rendering him unable to eat, drink or even speak. He continued writing, his critical voice unwavering, despite only being able to communicate via the written word and with the help of a computerized voice system. In 2012, during the filming of this documentary, Ebert was admitted to the hospital with a hip fracture. Freakishly, the cause of the hairline fracture was due to new tumors in his lower body.

During his illness, Roger's writing became even better. Perhaps it was a skill that even at the top of his game, was an attribute neglected. Now, it had become his only outlet. He flourished.

Steve James weaves Ebert's health battles into the documentary: His struggles at home and in the hospital, his wife Chaz's efforts to keep him positive, his frustrations with his debilitating state. At one point, Roger urges James to include these harrowing scenes in the eventual documentary film that Ebert realizes he may never see. To not include them wouldn't be honest. The rest of the film tells Ebert's rise to fame at the Chicago Sun Times paper, his very real clash with Gene Siskel and his legacy. Mixed in are sound bites of those he touched, those that knew him best and other critics who have "made it" in large part to Siskel & Ebert blowing open the doors.

Steve James, of course, wasn't the only person whose career was made after receiving Siskel & Ebert's stamp of approval. Their were countless. In the movie, we hear from many of them, like Martin Scorsese, who attributes Siskel & Ebert's support as a reason for his eventual climb to legendary director status.

Traditionally put together from a technical standpoint, with talking heads, photos and bits of archived video, Life Itself is a reverent tribute to a special man. It's also inspiring, funny and sad.

Just two days before his death, Ebert posted what would become his final message to the world. He called it a "leave of presence" and spoke about how his website, RogerEbert.com, would be transforming in the months and years to come. Roger's entire life was about adapting and he never quit.

It was also touching that the film finds time to remember the late Gene Siskel. Gene died of brain cancer in 1999, just before the explosion of the internet and globalization. Unarguably, Ebert's "other half" is not given the level of admiration and attention in today's world, mostly because he was gone just prior to this new online era. Although his story is a peripheral to Roger's in the film, it is worthy to note that Ebert's success as a critic and a persona could not have reached its eventual level without the role that Gene Siskel played in it.

Watching outtakes and old footage of Siskel & Ebert in this doc, you will laugh at their brotherly banter and admire their sharp wit. It also made me remember just how much they are missed.

When I became a film critic in 2009 up until Ebert's death in 2013, I would write my reviews each week and then eagerly await Roger's review. He could say something in one sentence that would take me over a 1000 words to convey, doing it with more grace and panache than I could ever hope for. I didn't always agree with Ebert's reviews, but when he died, there was a void that to this day has not been filled. I often find myself wondering what Roger would have thought about a film, how he would have so masterfully constructed his take on it.

I inevitably wonder what Roger would have thought of the film based on his life, Life Itself. I know that, unlike this review, his would have approached it from a neutral point of observation, without bias. He would have found the film's flaws and exposed them. For me, I find it impossible to properly criticize a film that idolizes its subject as much as I do.

Life Itself may not be perfect, but it is compelling, insightful and most of all, personal. I'd like to believe that is exactly what Roger would have wanted it to be.

Genre: Documentary, Biography

Run Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, Rated R

Featuring: Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, A.O. Scott

Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Head Games)

Available now on Video On Demand.

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time