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Life Itself - Movie Review

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Life Itself - Movie Review


5 stars

Roger Ebert might have been robbed of his ability to talk but he was never robbed of his voice. That’s the point of director Steve James’ documentary about this recently passed true American icon. That and to make you cry. This touching portrait of a critic who spent just under half a century with the written word is the final testament to his endearing bravado. Full of candid interviews with the people who knew, loved, and hated him best, Life Itself is not to be missed.

I’m a sucker for Ebert’s work. I remember developing a love for movies and movie discourse while watching Ebert argue with his frenemy Gene Siskel on their many television programs. I was always bummed when I missed an episode. From appreciating scripts to lighting angles, I learned so much about filmmaking and film appreciation. In a lot of ways, Ebert was my film school. And, in the era of blogs and Facebook, look at me now, aping one of my idols as a film reviewer. To suggest that I was not affected by his passing would be a lie and if that makes me partial to this final testimony from a legend as he passes into the great unknown, then so be it.

Other than Pauline Kael, I can think of no other film critic that did more for films than Roger Ebert. Together with Siskel, they showed an appreciation for cinema that became a marketing strategy with their “Two Thumbs Up” approach to reviews. Sure, it was simple and a tad unfair but it worked and did so much to make movie-going a “for the people, by the people” event. Criticize the formula all you want. There’s no denying that the thumb method continues to work when passing judgment on a flick.

He married late in life and the marriage to a beautifully supportive woman, Chaz Ebert, will put a lump in your throat when you realize their love story was ended all too early by cancer. Ebert explains, though, how easier it is to face the end with her love and support. He was made all the stronger by her love and her fierce determination to not let him take the easy way out. It’s all documented here in this poignant and touching tribute to this Pulitzer Prize winning critic and author.

Born to be a newspaperman, Ebert’s life is remarkable detailed with recollections of the early years before he was an alcoholic and skirt-chasing womanizer. He was all of 15 years old when his publishing journey began. The interviews with his friends and former drinking buddies are hilarious with stories about how opinionated and full of himself he originally was. They are juxtaposed with himself “talking” candidly in 2013 about his life with Chaz and the difference is very telling of exactly what life unexpectedly does to a person in their own movie about their own life.  

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese frankly discusses how his career was helped with Ebert’s early praise and how – during the 1980’s – both Siskel and Ebert helped him with his own difficulties. Of course, the brotherly feud with Siskel gets a lot of attention as it must from this documentary; their relationship was one of love and jealousies and – because Siskel never revealed his brain tumor to Ebert – it was brought to a sudden and drastically final conclusion. While Ebert never shares his feelings on camera about Siskel, the other interviewees – including Siskel’s wife and Chaz do the talking for him.

Life Itself is a beautiful film. It does much for its subject but, as a documentary about another man’s life, it also contains a parting message about never living a day without graceful appreciation for everyone in it. Right there is the lump in the throat moment. James has assembled the movie for us.

Ebert would have given Steve James’ film two thumbs up.

Life Itself - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language.
120 mins
: Steve James
Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
: Documentary
The only thing Roger loved more than movies.
Memorable Movie Quote: "JThere are no strangers in family: I loved and am loved."
Magnolia Pictures
Official Site:
Release Date:
July 4, 2014
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: The life and career of the renowned film critic and social commentator, Roger Ebert..

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