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Review: Life Itself – Thumbs up

Posted by on July 8, 2014 – 10:00 am

Life ItselfI’m sure that while he is sitting comfortably in that big luxury cinema in the sky, the world’s most popular and well known film critic, Roger Ebert, is thoroughly enjoying the surprising twist of having the documentary film about his life, Life Itself, critiqued by the generations of movie fans he inspired to review films.

There is no doubt that you would never have read the words written here in my humble little film commentary were it not for the inspiration of the late Roger Ebert and his longtime partner, Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. As I mentioned at Ebert’s passing in 2013, for a country kid who lived thirty-plus miles from the nearest theater, those two geeky men made it seem “not crazy” to take movies seriously – and for that I’m forever grateful.

Despite my admiration for this movie’s subject matter, Life Itself is simply an awesome documentary movie on its own, directed by one of Ebert’s favorite filmmakers, Steve James. In fact Ebert named James’ movie, Hoop Dreams, the “best of the year” back in 1994, and I’m certain that James’ genuine affection for the critic helped to make his story the heartwarming and life-affirming tale that it is.

Life ItselfBased on his 2011 memoir of the same name, Life Itself covers Ebert’s childhood to his early career as a news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and his rise to becoming one of the most prominent, popular and respected film critics in the world. But a good portion of the film focuses on the man’s tragic later life and an end he faced with admirable courage and grace.

Thyroid cancer seriously disfigured Ebert and after having his lower jaw removed it also took away his ability to eat normally and to speak. Nevertheless, his unwavering intestinal fortitude kept him communicating with fans via his online blog, and in person through text to speech technology. While some may find the bold footage of the man in his latter days to be uncomfortably disturbing, no one can deny it is inspirational.

The movie is full of interviews with friends, family members and filmmakers like Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart), and Martin Scorsese (Good Fellas), who credits Siskel & Ebert with pulling him out of a drug induced slump in the 1980s.

Life ItselfAn Ebert “sound-a-like” (Stephen Stanton) narrates parts of the film, reading text written by Roger – which is a little odd at first, though not necessarily a distraction. There is also some fun footage of Ebert’s involvement with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the 1970 Russ Meyer film that is considered both one of the best cult films of all time and one of the worst films of time – depending on which camp you fall into.

Even though Roger Ebert would fearlessly face the backlash he’d sometimes receive from a filmmaker who had been scathed in one of his reviews, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that the man would be as courageous as he was facing his imminent and horrifyingly painful death.

Life Itself is a testament to great filmmaking and a great life, and there’s no doubt that Roger Ebert would have loved this film and would have given it his signature “thumbs up”, even if it wasn’t about him. Grade: 8/10

“Life Itself” is currently playing at the Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale.

Photos © 2014 Magnolia Pictures