Life Itself (2014) Movie Review “Thumbs Up!”

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I think most modern film critics have in some way been inspired by Roger Ebert. His writing was by far better than anyone else’s in film criticism. He helped cement film criticism as an art form and “Siskel and Ebert” still is an extremely entertaining show to watch. Going back and rereading a lot of his reviews always gives me a little inspiration to keep improving. It’s a fool’s goal to try to be as good as him because simply you can’t be. Sure I don’t always agree with his opinions but still always respected them. After his passing, it left a hole in the film community. Now when new films come out we can only guess if Roger Ebert would give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

I had no idea that director Steve James of “Hoop Dreams” was working on a documentary based around his life. Of course with any star or public figure’s passing there is bound to be many of “by the numbers” documentaries and VH1 specials. Even though from the trailer this documentary looked well made, I still had my doubts and thought this could be a shameless cash in of a public figure’s passing. Would Roger Ebert like this? I have no idea, but I know from my end it would be thumbs up! This is a heartfelt and well informed documentary that has unprecedented access to the life of Ebert. The pacing is sometimes a bit off and the subject matter may or may not reach across to people that aren’t already interested in the topic. Nonetheless this is an excellent documentary that if anyone is interested in the world of film or interested in a man that loved life, they should check this out.

life-itself

As many of you could have guessed, and perhaps this doesn’t bear repeating, “Life Itself” is a documentary on the life of Chicago Sun Times Movie Critic Roger Ebert. From his earliest writing days to his final hours, Roger Ebert had his demons and critics of his own but this documentary shows his love of the movies and the way he came to love Life.

It’s a common mistake for documentary filmmakers to be very cold and distant and told by some monotonous narrator that informs everyone of every fact and piece of trivia in a linear order. That type of documentary would include a group of interviewee’s that are very serious, with their stone cold eyes and college level professional smiles that are devoid of any personality. Many don’t realize you can have a voice in a documentary. Director Steve James brings that voice. Aside from the fact that this is well informed, it has a personality. The commentary is colorful and brings some wonderful interviewee’s that also bring a sense of heart and some much needed humor.

As I’ve said before this film is really well informed. There are a lot of things I didn’t know about Roger Ebert myself: his trouble with alcoholism, his rivalry with Gene Siskel, and even his screenplay with Russ Myer “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. This aims to give a lot of information that the average viewer wouldn’t know.

Life Itself

The surprising aspect of this documentary is the unprecedented access James had to Ebert. He was allowed to film Roger Ebert while he was in the hospital after a hip injury. This filming led up to what would be his final hours. These scenes added a lot of depth. To not only hear about how Ebert handled those days but to see and hear how optimistic he was. In high spirits, his good nature provided many touching scenes between him and his wife Chaz Ebert.

With Ebert’s current condition while making this documentary, it makes it difficult to get an in depth interview about his life. To compensate for that, James takes direct quotes from Ebert’s memoir, “Life Itself”. It is a unique way to fill the void and provide the voice for someone who can’t speak anyone.

The documentary does have a few problems. The pacing does move a little quick in the beginning, and has a tendency to get slower and speed up again. Also I would have like to hear about how Ebert chose Richard Roeper to co-host his show after Gene Siskel’s death. Although I think people who are not interested in this documentary’s topic can find enjoyment in it, but may not have the same reach that documentaries like “Blackfish” or “Super Size Me” had.

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This is the documentary that the man Roger Ebert deserves. It may not be quite perfect but it’s pretty close to it. It has a unique voice that isn’t boring nor monotone. As an aspiring film pundit, film critic, film reviewer, or however you choose to phrase this profession, this provides even more inspiration for anyone that is interested in this line of work.

Final Score

8.5/10

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