Movie Review: Life Itself (2014) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “L” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “L” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies.

TitleLife Itself
Release Date: July 4, 2014
Director: Steve James
Production Company: Kartemquin Films
Summary/Review:

And now Blogging A to Z gets meta as a write a film review about a movie about a movie critic.  It’s interesting that Life Itself follows just after Koch, because Roger Ebert (and his “At the Movies” partner Gene Siskel) is like Ed Koch in that he was a popular culture presence of my childhood.  I’ve always liked Ebert’s movie reviews because he was consistent enough that I could tell when something he liked would be something I wouldn’t like (and vice versa).

The movie fills in the details of his life from his work on a college newspaper, joining the Chicago Sun-Times and rather arbitrarily being assigned to be film critic, his screenplay for the bizarre cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his struggles with alcoholism.  There’s a lot I didn’t know and Gene Siskel and the tv show don’t even appear until about 45 minutes in.

Turns out all those arguments Siskel & Ebert had on tv were rooted in a contentious relationship offscreen, albeit they would grow to have a mutual admiration.  There are some hilarious outtakes from “At the Movies” of the pair testily correcting one another. Later in the movie we learn about his marriage at the age of 50 to Chaz Hammelsmith, his reactions to Siskel’s death, his own challenges with cancer, and his transition into becoming a blogger when he can no longer speak. In addition to friends and family, directors Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese testify to Ebert’s role in bring attention to their films (and I’m tickled that I’m watching documentaries by the first three of those directors for the A to Z Challenge).

The frame of the movie shows Ebert going through rehabilitation in the months before his death due to the ongoing scourge of cancer. Ebert is insistent on the film showing the damage to his body, such as the complete removal of his lower jaw, and the treatment he goes through in the hospital. Part of Ebert’s desire for complete transparency regarding his health is due to the feeling of betrayal when Gene Siskel kept his own mortal illness a secret. Unable to speak, he frequently uses the thumbs up gesture to respond to his family and caregivers, ironic considering how connected he was to thumbs up/thumbs down as a film critic.

It’s heartbreaking that Roger Ebert watched over 10,000 movies in his lifetime, but never saw this one.  But I do believe that he’d be pleased that the movie was made on his terms and that it’s an affecting piece of motion picture arts.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Whether you came to know Roger Ebert through his tv show in the 1980s or his blog in the 2000s or you don’t even really know him at all, this is a human story that fleshes out a life that we only get glimpses of in the public eye.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch one or more movies from Ebert’s final list of all-time favorites:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
  • Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
  • The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
  • Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
  • Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2010)
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.  It is also available to Hulu subscribers.

Rating: ***