Life Itself Review

Posted: July 22, 2014 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

I can count on one hand the number of documentaries I’ve seen throughout my film-watching life. By extension, I confess to having no real idea about how to properly review one, so I’m going to do as best a job as I can without becoming long-winded, so bear with me. It’s not that I have anything against documentaries as a genre, just that I tend to wait and seek out the ones whose subjects hold a particular interest for me. So obviously, I was always going to be gravitated towards Life Itself, a documentary by Steve James based on the memoir of the same name by Roger Ebert, who was perhaps the most influential voice of film criticism for me back when I was really becoming passionate about movies, and I imagine the same is true for many other people who feel just as passionate about the subject. If so, then this is a must-see. The bottom line is, Life Itself is terrific. As a documentary, it’s insightful, engaging and as entertaining as any great narrative piece. As a film in general, it’s funny, sad, heartbreaking, moving and bursting with care and compassion.

The film, of course, is all about legendary film critic Roger Ebert. It opens in the final stretch of his life, well after his jaw had been removed due to complications from thyroid cancer, and then weaves in and out between that and the events leading up to all that. I mentioned the documentary being insightful, and it was particularly so for me when focusing on both the early years of his life and the early years of his career working for the Chicago Sun-Times — a stretch of his life that had been virtually unknown to me until now, but even if you already are familiar with this information about him, Steve James keeps the pacing and flow of information moving at a good pace during this section, so that you neither feel too bombarded with facts nor feel as if you’re being lectured to. After that, things move onto what I consider to be the movie’s most interesting stretch: the years having to do with the birth of the show which would eventually become Siskel & Ebert At The Movies, the years where the show was at its height of popularity and the time Ebert spent going to report on the Cannes Film Festival. This section includes lots of behind-the-scenes facts and trivia which fascinated me while at the same time, like the rest of the film, paints a vivid portrait of what kind of man Roger Ebert was both in front of and away from the camera. The mark of any documentary worth its salt, from my perspective, is if it manages to have you walk away knowledgeable of its subject while also making you feel as if you’ve experienced something rather than just watching it. On that front, Life Itself most definitely succeeds.

Now, in talking about this film, it’s nearly impossible for me not to briefly talk about what Roger Ebert meant to me personally as a film fan. I first “discovered” Ebert in my early high school years, first through the Ebert & Roeper TV show (as a sidenote, Richard Roeper is curiously nowhere to be found or even mentioned in this movie), and then through his written reviews. Naturally, through his approach to film criticism, he taught me and so many others that if you have an opinion about any film, then it’s your duty to put it out there. I’d say I owe a lot to Ebert where the way in which I think about and discuss films is concerned, and by extension, I’ve always felt a certain connection to him as a critic.

I think it’s for that reason why the third act of Life Itself, which focuses exclusively on Ebert’s health issues in his last few years, specifically the months leading up to his death in April 2013, works so well for me. Hearing about someone’s waning health and deteriorating condition is one thing, but actually seeing it is quite another. Do I think this portion of the film gets overly manipulative? No, I don’t, because I think there’s very clearly a matter-of-fact way in which Steve James presents all of this. This is how Ebert spent his final days, and there’s really no way of sugarcoating any of it or presenting it in such a way where the pure sadness of it all is glossed over. James confronts the tragedy with unflinching frankness, but also with a deep level of emotionality that undoubtedly makes that final stretch difficult to watch on more than one occasion. But truthfully, that was always going to be a hard part to watch, especially if you were and still are a fan of Roger Ebert. Ultimately, though, the parting message of Life Itself isn’t so much, “Let’s mourn the loss of this great man,” but instead, “Let’s continue to celebrate everything that Roger did and remember the impact that he had.” It’s the right message for this film to go out on.

As a Roger Ebert fan, I couldn’t be happier with how Life Itself turned out. While he may be gone from us, this film just reiterates that even in death, Roger’s spirit and influence will always find ways to live on, and to coin his and Gene Siskel’s trademark endorsement, it gets a BIG “Thumbs Up.”


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