Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ Gives Us One Last Thumbs Up

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To say that I was influenced by Roger Ebert growing up would be like saying that J. J. Abrams was influenced by Steven Spielberg. In other words, it is overtly obvious to anyone who knows me or my work. The reason I care so much about film criticism in the first place is 100% because of all the time I spent watching Siskel & Ebert with my father. It was one of our most important past times and I will forever miss it.

Still, the passing of this legend has lead to something great and ironically perfect. Out of his death, Roger has given the world one of the most intimate films ever made about the life of a celebrity, the best film ever made about film criticism,  the best documentary of the year, and one of the best films of 2014. This is exactly the send off he would have wanted.

As a matter of fact,  Roger was the one who asked for this film to be made in the first place and he requested the great Steve James to direct it. Steve was an obvious choice, given the fact that he owes his career to Roger and Gene for their constant pushing of his film ‘Hoop Dreams’. It was also no surprise to hear that the great Martin Scorsese was producing this film. He also owes much of his career to Roger and was a dear friend for over 30 years.

The thing that is surprising about this film is how deep, detailed, and intimate it is about every piece of Roger’s life. It doesn’t matter if the film is dealing with Roger’s alcoholism, his feuds with Gene Siskel, his care for filmmakers, or his real pain while having a tube stuck in his throat, it is all handled with the utmost detail. It would be almost impossible to get a more in depth look at a man’s life.

Much of the films running time is rightfully devoted to the time Roger spent on Siskel & Ebert. Especially the behind the scenes stuff that made it the most popular film program of its day and the most popular film criticism show of all time. However, the thing that people will find the most fascinating (and the most moving) has got to be the evolution of Roger’s relationship with Gene. It is well documented that the two did not get along at first, but the professional rivalry was like something out of a movie.

Which makes the evolution of their friendship so truly mesmerizing. There is a scene early on that shows the to of them bickering while creating a promo for the show. They are both total assholes to each other and it is clear that they loath the fact they have to be in the same room together. Then we fast forward many years to just shortly before Gene passed away. It is essentially the same thing, but now the to are playfully poking at each other. Instead of annoyance they show a warmth that seasoned lovers have for each other’s faults. It’s actually quite beautiful to watch.

What’s not so beautiful to watch, but equally important to this story, is the unprecedented access we get to the end of Roger’s life. A lot of time is spent with Roger getting poked at, suctioned, enduring grueling personal training sections, and expressing extreme frustration with what we would consider simple tasks. Some of this stuff is enough to make anyone shed a tear, but for those that knew Roger (or followed his work so long that they felt like they knew him), it will be almost unbearable.

That’s part of what makes it great though. This film never shies always from stuff just because it might be hard or might not make Roger look like the greatest guy. The movie is more interested in getting at the very corp of who Roger was and what he did for the world. Which is more than he can ever imagine.

So, if you were ever a fan of Roger Ebert than this movie is a don’t miss. Every worry that you could have has been washed away in a sea of brilliant directing and expert producing. Yet, even those who have never heard of Roger in their lives will enjoy it. The movie is such a masterful piece of storytelling, and Roger’s life is so interesting, that it just seems impossible that someone watching this will not find something to relate to. It is truly a film about the nature of life itself. Roger would have given it a thumbs up.

Nathan Ligon

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