‘Life Itself (2014)’- Throwback Review

Years after the death of famous film critic Roger Ebert, to tell his story is best well told through a documentary and not a feature film since fans are getting a glimpse into his life in the way we all expected it to be. If you’re like me and had this man as a major influence at some point in your life, giving Life Itself a chance might be helpful, including myself now and in the future. 

What’s the Story: Based on his 2011 memoir of the same name, the film recounts the surprising and entertaining life of renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, detailing his early days as a freewheeling bachelor and Pulitzer Prize winner, his famously contentious partnership with Gene Siskel, his altering marriage, and his brave and transcendent battle with cancer. 

Roger Ebert in Life Itself (2014)

Whenever you hear the words “film critic,” the first person that comes to mind instantly is Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He was the first professional critic I’ve ever remembered by name when I was a kid who changed the game with how he defined film criticism, which many didn’t enjoy. Back then when reading his reviews or from Entertainment Weekly, I didn’t know this was a job people do.  Life Itself was one of the few talked about documentaries of 2014, and it took me this long to watch it because him leaving this world was a bit too soon for me. With the help of director Steve James, the director of the critically acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, this is a great reminder of how he is as a person, even after his death. 

The best thing about documentaries like these is the facts you never knew about the subject in a way you wouldn’t expect them, a credit that I must give James for in getting what was needed to make this interest. While it doesn’t give us a lot of information about certain aspects of his life, he did what he could, even when it didn’t know he was going to die. Some of those things were that Bonnie and Clyde was one of his earliest reviews in 1967, or he was an alcoholic and gave it all up in 1979. Did you also know he wrote a 1970s movie called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls directed by Russ Meyer? This was the first time I’ve ever heard of it when watching the film. 

The footage that was used throughout was archival footage, old photos, and scenes where he’s in the hospital, as this was filmed during the last few months of his life, which made it feel more authentic. Then, you have interviews from filmmakers talking about him from executive producer Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Selma director Ava DuVernay about her directorial debut I Will Follow, how his review touched her. Following that was a post titled “A Photo of a Little Girl, And Memories of Two Beloved Aunts.”

None of this wouldn’t be shown if it weren’t for the help of Ebert himself and his wife Chaz Ebert, whom he married in 1992, and she was there beside him when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and salivary gland cancer, having to remove his lower jaw, leaving him with the disadvantage of not having the ability to speak, only using a speech program on his computer. Seeing him on camera when this was documented made me feel sad for him and wanted him to say something from his own mouth. But did his condition stop him from doing what he loved? Absolutely not, he used his blog to talk about films until his death.

His relationship with his co-host/ “rival” Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who died in 1999 due to brain cancer, was also one of the many subjects I was interested in them to touch on. I can easily describe their chemistry on the show as two people who are frenemies or brother-like figures who argue for a living with their “thumbs-up or- down” rating system. I always knew they didn’t get along with each other, at first, but most of us knew deep down they were good friends. Another fact many didn’t know about Siskel was that he used to hang out with Hugh Hefner before he became a critic? To this day, I occasionally still watched some of their old reviews of Sneak Previews/ Siskel & Ebert at the Movies online, just to hear their opinions, but just waiting to see how they would call each other out in thinking a certain movie is good or bad. 

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in Life Itself (2014)

When I visited Chicago in 2009, I saw “Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2009” inside a gift shop at the Willis Tower, and one of my parents bought it for me since I always wanted to read more of his reviews. If there was ever a chance to meet him, signing my book would’ve been the best thing ever. I didn’t know how to feel when I heard of his passing on April 4, 2013, at the age of 70. It was a sad day for film fans and colleagues everywhere. This came as a shock to me because I kept forgetting he was sick, and it’s always depressing to know it’s cancer-related. 

How did this affect me after watching this? I’m the person who’s willing to do the best he can in wanting to become a film critic like everybody else. Sometimes I have to wonder if it’s ever possible to ever achieve that dream. That’s not to say I want to win a Pulitzer Prize like him, but get the same respect as him when he was alive. Whenever I read some of his older reviews for anything like No Country for Old Men or The Dark Knight, it’s impressive how his style of writing is well thought-out. Even the ones I disagree with when he gives a movie I and others like under three stars, explains his reasons in a presentable way. From looking at my past reviews I’ve written in the past three-to-four years, I don’t think I’m good enough. It stated he can write a review in 30 minutes; it takes me about two-three hours since I like to work at my own pace. Given the chance to tell my sixteen-year-old self anything, I would tell him to get started in writing reviews in a chance to improve your writing skills. And yet, I can say this inspired me more to try my hardest in writing, and it shows that I want to follow in his and other well-known film critics’ footsteps in the film industry, just loving it.

How this wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars that year is insane, along with the other films that were snubbed hardcore the same year. Shame.
For someone who doesn’t take the time to watch a ton of documentaries, Life Itself is one of the most enjoyable ones in the genre about a subject that’s suited for me. Will this now be regarded as the greatest to ever come out? Not quite, but it’s safe to say it will still be fresh in my mind for a while to think about the legacy Roger Ebert brought to the world for several decades, even when he’s not the most perfect person. He’s a person to always look up to in the world of film that’s still a part of many today and took life into his own hands. To me, this gets two thumbs up.

Overall Grade: B+

Life Itself Movie Poster

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