[Documentary] Life Itself (2014)

life-itself-poster

I had the love/hate feels for Roger Ebert when I first started watching Siskel and Ebert on TV. Although I had been going to the show from early on in my life, I didn’t take an interest in film criticism until my teens. And, Siskel and Ebert’s show was something I would catch on the tube from time to time. Frankly, early on, I didn’t like Ebert much when he worked with Siskel. He was opinionated (a trait expected from a critic) however, it seemed like he liked to egg Siskel on into a heated argument every episode.

As I got older, I grew into the flavour Siskel and Ebert were aiming for – two duelling critics competing for airtime, each having something important to say. With time, I grew to respect the two, to the point that I shed a tear when Siskel passed away in 1999, and a waterfall when Ebert finally left this mortal coil in 2013. Since both have gone, big film critic shoes are asking to be filled.

Life Itself is a documentary that tells Roger Ebert’s story, from his beginnings growing up as an only child delivering newpapers, to becoming an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, and then a movie critic. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie), we are shown the last few months of Ebert’s life, as he is at the end stages of cancer. The disease had already claimed his jaw, and at the point of filming, he had suffered a fractured hip and was in hospital. I am not going to say this was an easy film to watch. Ebert didn’t look his best (to respectfully put that mildly), but a strength of character was there, and he would convey his feelings often via his MacBook Pro, a text-to-speech program and synthesized voice. He also gained strength from his lovely wife, Chaz, who herself questioned her bravery throughout this ordeal. Interviews with his closest allies and colleagues are given, including Gene Siskel’s wife, who tells of the real-life rivalry between Siskel and Ebert, who both worked for rival Chicago newspapers, were fiercely competative, but who deep-down grew to respect and love one another like brothers, even though this was not seen on camera.

Above all, my takeaway from the film was how much he loved his life and career. The love for his wife was absolutely palpable, and the feeling was definitely mutual, which created a very emotional and endearing documentary. Prepare to have a box of tissues nearby!

10/10

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16 comments

  1. I couldn’t believe how moved I was by this documentary. I’ve always been a big fan of Ebert’s writing and would more often than not agree with his reviews of films(even when I didn’t want to.)

    You are right, it was at times very hard to watch. But his lust for life and for writing was still there up until the very end. I think what was the most inspiring about Roger Ebert(and the movie tells this wonderfully) was that he was a soul adrift for so many years. In his early days he was arrogant and extremely opinionated(as critics should be). But until he quit drinking and met who would become the love of his life, his knowledge was sort of aimless. He was passionate about films, but not really living outside of them. Once he stopped drinking and got married it seems at least he had something outside of the cinema to be passionate about.

    After being diagnosed with cancer the first time, then losing his jaw to yet another cancer it seemed Roger Ebert’s humanity multiplied ten fold. His writing was not only engaging but inspiring(to me, anyways.) His love of cinema and the occasional peeks into his political and social views made him seem so much more in the now. Maybe looking at your mortality square in the eye like he had to the last few years of his life did that. I don’t know. All I know is that I was very much affected by him, his writing, his humanity, and his eventual passing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I watched this when it was on CNN a few months back. It was really good. It’s on Netflix now and my wife and I have both made jokes about how we’re never ever watching it again because it made us both too sad.

    Side note: Roger Ebert may have once called me an “intriguing Canadian fatass.” Sort of. A friend of mine was interviewing Ebert for his college paper and asked me what he should ask Ebert. I said I didn’t know, but “tell him you know a Canadian fatass who thinks he’s great.” My friend did so. Ebert said “now THAT’S intriguing!”

    Please keep in mind that said friend had a tendency to… prefer a good story to an accurate one, shall we say. Any or all of the above may be fiction. But I like to think it’s true.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Caught this on CNN as well a little while back. As with you, can’t recommend this enough. Was a fan back in the day although I don’t think I watched his show after Siskel died. Their appearances on the Tonight Show are classic.

    Strength of Character. You got that right. The trails he was put through in what would become his final years…holy. Strength of Character: Roger Ebert

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve spotted this on Netflix, but as I don’t know mich about him I’ve skipped past it. Sounds like pretty compelling viewing – even if I’m not familiar with Ebert.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very cool review, but I gotta say I’m unlikely to ever watch this. Not because I don’t like tear-jerkers, but because I just don’t care enough about film critics. I’m sorry he went through all those health problems, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Sarca! Wanted to drop by and read your review after Kevin mentioning it on Retro Fandango. Seems like this will be one for me to que up for sure. I’ll be surfing through your blog this week!
    -CC

    Liked by 1 person

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