Life Itself (2014)

A young Roger Ebert is working hard.

Life-Itself

We all have different heroes for different aspects of our lives. For me, my father Rob Tiffany is my ultimate hero. He supports me and all of the decisions that I make in my life and for that I’m forever grateful. Leonardo DiCaprio is my hero in terms of acting, as I stride to come somewhat close to his acting ability. In terms of film criticism, my hero is Mike Ward of shouldiseeit.net, the man who got me started in all of this and one of the best friends that I could ask for. We frequent many screenings and are discussing and writing about film non-stop. His writing ability and understanding of film is outstanding and I could only hope to be like him someday. Thanks for everything to all of my heroes.

A young Roger Ebert is working hard.
A young Roger Ebert is working hard.

Roger Ebert was the most famous film critic there ever was and he practically changed the movie industry as we know it. The reason you go to reviews to decide on a movie is because of the impact that Ebert had. He was a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer for the Chicago Sun Times and his film reviews for the paper became the go-to reads if you were curious about a film. Taking his talents on the air, Roger Ebert and rival critic Gene Siskel were asked to co-host a show called At The Movies, where the two would discuss a film and possibly recommend it. This is all fairly common knowledge to anyone who knows the name Roger Ebert, but most people don’t know what he was really like.

For much of his middle years, Roger was an alcoholic and couldn’t go a day without a drink. His friends and family knew, but he was far too stubborn to listen to them. That stubbornness also shone through on the air, when he would argue with Siskel about the show and films. Roger wanted to do things himself, but somewhat gave that up when he found sobriety and the love of his life, Chaz. Roger and Chaz fell madly in love and stayed in love, even after all the hard times that they would come to face. In 2002, Roger Ebert was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer and Salivary Gland Cancer, eventually having his lower jaw removed completely. Death was inevitable for Roger, but he hung on as long as he could and took to the internet to review films instead. Through all the good and bad, Roger Ebert created an immaculate legacy for himself and is truly one of the greats that we will sorely miss.

Roger Ebert smiles, as he becomes the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Roger Ebert smiles, as he becomes the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Life Itself is a beautiful portrait of a man who inspired many and opened them up to a world of cinema beyond their wildest dreams. Roger Ebert was an inspiration to many and his critical exploration of film brought cinema greater recognition and his voice (whether real or with the aid of computers) helped many along his life. Ebert wasn’t without his flaws and demons that ruled a part of his life, but it’s how he dealt with them and the relationships he made in his life that kept him strong in times of absolute weakness.

While the film focuses primarily on Ebert’s final months in the hospital with his wife Chaz, we do get a great look at his early life and the road he traveled to becoming the most recognizable film critic of all time. As a boy, Ebert wrote all the time and sought out new writing positions wherever he was. It’s wonderful to hear friends and old colleagues reflect on his tremendous work ethic and listen to his work evolve over the decades. He was always an intelligent writer, but watching his opinions and writing style take shape over time is something I can only hope happens to me, as Ebert was a writer of the highest caliber. We get a look into his dealings with alcoholism and his sometimes suicidal tendencies. Fortunately for Ebert, the films were always an escape for a few hours and with the aid of friends and family, he was able to dispel his demons and lead a more healthy life. Roger knew we all saw cinema differently and that it affected us in different ways. I’m just glad it had an overwhelmingly positive effect on his life.

Roger and Chaz on their wedding day!
Roger and Chaz on their wedding day!

Director Steve James shows the good and bad of Ebert’s life in every form. We see all the good that Ebert brought with his film criticism, like practically putting Martin Scorsese on the map and championing his films and the films of many Independent directors. However, we also see his stubbornness and jealousy firsthand when he dealt with Siskel on their show. We witness Roger finding his voice on the internet after his heart-breaking surgery and we watch the impact that he has on online reviewing. His surgery and its repercussions aren’t just mentioned, as we see Roger go through excruciating pain in the hospital, operation after operation. His mental strength never waivers, but we see a fragile man in what may be the worst time in his life, but he never sees it that way and James’ captures Roger’s will for survival and his determination to stay strong for himself and the ones he loves. Those loved ones don’t stop at family and friends, because he wrote for all of us and cared for all of us, though we never knew each other.

This documentary is as much a look into Roger Ebert’s film criticism and struggles, as it is a look at the relationships that made him the person he was. At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert was a huge part of Roger’s life and the film really emphasizes the importance it had on Roger’s career. He and Siskel rarely agreed and would just as often get into intelligent debates, as they would divulge into childish banter. The two men were always competing and were at each other’s throats, but it’s the behind the scenes moments that we never saw, which really highlight an unseen brotherly bond that the two shared. They were each other’s Yin and Yang and without Gene in his life, Roger certainly felt down. Fortunately, he had Chaz in his life, a woman who would prove to be a loving wife and best friend to Roger, no matter what life through their way. They certainly faced adversity as a couple, but their love was stronger than all of that and in intimate moments, we see two people madly in love in the hospital, praying for just a little bit more time in each other’s company.

At the Movies, with Siskel & Ebert.
At the Movies, with Siskel & Ebert.

As a film critic, I may be biased to this film in a way, because I wouldn’t be doing this had Roger Ebert not made it a viable profession that’s taken so seriously. I often looked to his work for writing inspiration and At The Movies helped me when I wanted to start podcasting. For me, I always took away that he wasn’t trying to be overly critical, or looking too deep into movies. That was always Siskel, but Roger didn’t deny that he would do that sometimes when the right film came along. For me, especially being so young and reaching a younger audience, I try to view movies from the average movie goers eyes, but I can’t deny that I seek out art house films, foreign films, and documentaries that are a joy to examine and understand. There’s so much great film in the world and Roger Ebert was a huge part in unearthing it and bringing lesser known films and filmmakers to the forefront. His joy of sharing his enthusiasm and love of film is something we both share and his impact on my work will never be forgotten. Like most critics, Roger Ebert was an inspiration to me and I am thankful for what I get to do as a job, knowing that I wouldn’t have this wonderful opportunity without him.

Life Itself feels like a grand tribute to Roger Ebert, rather than a documentary, but it works in the context of this film. Unfortunately, he died during the filming and though it was a possibility, no one expected it to come as soon as it did. Seeing the tears in the eyes of Chaz and Roger’s family is profoundly moving and those moments are what really stick with you. We all know part of Roger Ebert’s life, but we get a far better look at it than ever before. I did find the film a tad bit long and I thought that there could have been a bit more focus on the filmmakers that Ebert helped out, but this film is otherwise a spectacular journey into the ups and downs of Ebert’s life. Whether you’re a movie person or not, we all enjoy people and Roger Ebert truly was a one-of-a-kind. May he Rest In Peace.

Life Itself Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9ud1HUHgug

4 STARS!!!!

4 / 5 stars     

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