Movie review: Life Itself (2014)

There is something a bit unsettling about writing a movie review about a movie of a famous movie reviewer.

As a Chicagoland native, I grew up with Siskel and Ebert on TV reviewing movies each week. When I thought of movie reviewers, they were the only ones I thought of. I grew up and moved away for school. Siskel suddenly died from a brain cancer and it seemed like an era had ended. But Ebert kept going. Until he died from cancer almost exactly two years ago.

I was intrigued by a documentary celebrating his life. Filming started just five months before Roger died, though of course at the time, no one had any idea he would die then.

The documentary intertwines current shots and interviews with scenes and stories from his past. I learned about his youth, his preciousness with the school paper, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz. I was put off by the arrogance in his earlier years—a portrait of a young man too full of himself.

But I could begrudgingly admire his intellect and ability to write. In 1963, he wrote in the university paper of the church bombing in Birmingham: “‘The blood of these innocent children is on your hands,’ Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama. But that was not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.”

I came away from the documentary with the profound realization that he touched so many lives deeply. His presence was a great gift to his step-granddaughter who spoke of all that she had received through conversations about movies, about life, about anything and everything with him.

A filmmaker spoke of Roger going out of his way to see his film at Cannes…and later passing on a memento that had originated from Marilyn Monroe and passed through several hands—with instructions from Roger to also pass it along in the future to another aspiring filmmaker.

Another filmmaker spoke of the way that Roger understood her film. She thought that a white man could not understand the viewpoint, the thoughts, the situation of a black female filmmaker. She was not only surprised but moved by his comprehension.

Martin Scorsese spoke about how Siskel and Ebert helped him turn a corner in his life, at a time when he could have easily stopped short of going down the path of becoming a great filmmaker.

Life Itself is a chance to learn about Ebert’s life, relive some of the Siskel and Ebert moments, witness the love he was wrapped in by Chaz and family, and hear stories about his life.

Scorsese described Roger as helping others “appreciate cinema as an art form”. Life Itself helps you appreciate Roger Ebert—for his intellect, his love of cinema, and the ways that he touched and encouraged others around him.

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