Saturday, July 5, 2014

'Life Itself' review

Roger Ebert is a person who touched my life very deeply. I never met Ebert, but when I was just starting out as a film critic, I read his book "The Great Movies." The book is a collection of reviews that Ebert wrote in the late 90's and early 2000's and all are about movies that he found to be great pieces of art. That book both expanded my horizons as a moviegoer and as a critic. I learned many valuable things about writing from him, and after reading his work and the work of a few other critics, my reviews became longer and also more in-depth. His reviews taught me so much about the art of criticism. Ebert's book also introduced me to many great films. Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, Citizen Kane- the list goes on and on. I wouldn't be the same writer without Ebert. So it was with much excitement that I approached Life Itself, a new documentary about Ebert and his life. It makes me very happy to say that Life Itself is a terrific documentary filled with laughter and sadness, happiness and tragedy. It's simply a great film.

Life Itself is the life story of Ebert, but it's structured to flip back and forth between a traditional documentary with interviews and archive footage and a behind-the-scenes look at Ebert's final stages of life. Filmmaker Steve James was given access to Ebert during many tough times and does a great job of capturing the spirit of a man who went through so much yet still possessed such an optimistic attitude towards life. James shows the ups and the downs, but always goes to great lengths to show how open Ebert was and how badly he wanted people to see and understand what he went through. I believe that this is truly the documentary that Ebert wanted made about his life. It's not a glossy, sugar-coated film. Life Itself is a celebration of Ebert's life and all the great things he did, but it's also a film of great sadness and pain. The film is certainly hard to watch at times and it's even harder to watch if you felt a personal connection to Ebert. But during the film, I got the sense that that's how Ebert wanted people to see his life.

For example, one excruciating sequence shows suction, a procedure that Ebert had to have many times to remove fluid from his throat. It's an agonizing scene to watch and the procedure obviously caused Ebert a lot of pain. However, after the suction is done, Ebert seems happy that James got the footage. He wanted people to see that pain. He didn't want to hide anything. He wanted people to see every aspect of his life. Later in the film, Ebert has just been diagnosed with cancer again and his wife Chaz is hesitant to discuss his new condition. Ebert flat-out says the amount of time he has left to live. No hesitation. He just says it. And I respect that a lot. In a message to James in the film, he says something to extent of that he wouldn't want to be associated with a documentary that didn't tell the whole truth. And I believe that if Roger could see the film today, he would be happy with everything that Steve James did to tell his story with absolute, brutal honesty.

This film is more than just about how Ebert persevered in the later stages of his life. It's also an inspiring celebration of the great life that he lived, complete with interviews with Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay and behind-the-scenes footage of Ebert and his TV partner Gene Siskel going at it. The film tracks Ebert's life from his humble beginnings as a budding writer in Urbana, IL to his career at the Chicago Sun-Times to his stardom on TV. There are moments of humor and gravitas along with darker moments like Ebert's fight with alcoholism. Despite the occasionally dark subject matter and the tough approach to showing Ebert's final days, this is a funny, joyous piece of art that shows everything that is great about life.

The behind-the-scenes battles between Siskel and Ebert are uproarious. The two men did not always get along and this film makes that absolute clear. After a while though, these guys started to like each other and their chemistry was always palpable. But when they disagreed, they went at it. Watching them discuss and fight over classics like Scarface and Full Metal Jacket is quite amazing and then watching some of the backstage duels over who would say what line was also extraordinary.

This is also a technically brilliant documentary that is edited extremely well. Some films that are released shortly after the death of a famous figure can feel haphazardly structured. Not this one. Life Itself is brilliantly edited and James' directorial vision is very clear. The film also makes great use of music. The use of light jazz music complements the Chicago atmosphere well and also fits within the story being told (some of the music actually had a lot of meaning in Roger's life).

It's also odd to find a documentary that is so truthful about its subject when the subject is involved. I'm not just talking about Ebert's battle with cancer and how that is portrayed in the film or his alcoholism and how open he was about that. I'm talking about some of the things they mention about Ebert's personality. Most documentaries would just leave that stuff out. But in this film, it's all there, which I found to be quite interesting.

Few films can capture life and genuine human emotion well. A movie that captures both the joy and the tragedy of this crazy thing called life is rare. I've only seen so many movies in my lifetime that have done it and done it well. For me, a list of films that captures the human spirit would include Casablanca, Forrest Gump, and The Shawshank Redemption. Life Itself is another one of those films. This is a film of truth and brilliance. A sad but beautiful film about the life of a man who touched many people and improved the world that we live in today. Two thumbs up.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)


  1. Nice review. Both Ebert and Siskel died much to soon.

  2. My generation will never know a film critic like Roger Ebert again. He brought his noble trade to the people and made us all film critics by celebrating his love of movies at a level we could all understand.