Life Itself

"Very Good"

Life Itself Review


Fans of film journalism will love this documentary about the noted Chicago critic Roger Ebert, although the movie is just as much about his battle with the cancer that took his life in 2013. It's a lively, fast-paced doc, but even at two hours it feels oddly truncated as the two topics seem to fight for screen time. Fortunately both are potent: the story of Roger's love of cinema and the footage of his astoundingly cheerful refusal to let illness get him down.

Based around Roger's eponymous autobiography, the film quickly traces his background as a film lover who rose through the ranks at the Chicago Sun-Times to become an unusually resonant film reviewer, able to express opinions and even high-minded cinematic observations in ways that were never cynical or snobbish. He found national (and even global) fame through his TV programmes opposite rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel, which began in 1978 and standardised their "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" verdicts. At age 50, Roger met his wife Chaz at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and her children and grandchildren became his. In 2002, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent a series of surgeries that by 2006 made it impossible for him to speak. But he carried on writing reviews and making public appearances (speaking through his computer) until his death.

Filmmaker Steve James had startling access to Roger during the final year of his life, following him to hospitals and rehabilitation centres. Looking at his cancer-ravaged face is difficult at first, but Roger's smiling eyes and constant joking reinforces his optimistic, matter-of-fact approach to life. And he keeps reminding James that this documentary has to show everything, never flinching away from the truth. As a result, the film is a remarkably intimate look at how Roger and Chaz faced the illness and made difficult decisions along the way. This adds an emotional layer to the documentary that's remarkably moving, putting Roger's work into the context of his life and death.

Meanwhile, the film also tells the fascinating story of his love-hate relationship with Siskel, as the two locked horns continually while they struggled to balance a professional friendship with their strongly held opinions. Outtakes from their TV show are a highlight of this film, showing their catty interaction from an all-new angle, although there's also a sense that these men were like bickering brothers with a close bond up until Siskel's sudden death from a brain tumour in 1999. In some ways it might have been nice to see this film focus more closely on Roger Ebert's career (a few scenes beautifully playing his reviews over film clips make us want more), but clearly James' goal, in collusion with Ebert himself, was to show the bigger picture of the man's life.

 



Life Itself

Facts and Figures

Genre: Documentaries

Run time: 120 mins

In Theaters: Friday 4th July 2014

Box Office USA: $0.8M

Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures

Production compaines: Kartemquin Films, CNN Films, Film Rites

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 160 Rotten: 4

IMDB: 8.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: , Garrett Basch, Zak Piper

Starring: as Himself

Also starring:

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