Life Itself (2014)
Critics Consensus: Rich in detail and warmly affectionate, Life Itself offers a joyful yet poignant tribute to a critical cinematic legacy.
Critics Consensus: Rich in detail and warmly affectionate, Life Itself offers a joyful yet poignant tribute to a critical cinematic legacy.
Movie InfoAcclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive producers Martin Scorsese (The Departed) and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) present LIFE ITSELF, a documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert - a story that is by turns personal, funny, painful, and transcendent. Based on his bestselling memoir of the same name, LIFE ITSELF, explores the legacy of Roger Ebert's life, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun-Times to becoming one of the most influential cultural voices in America. (C) Magnolia … More
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Critic Reviews for Life Itself
No less than James's capital punishment documentary At the Death House Door, this asks us to think long and hard about what it means to die with dignity.
That [Siskel and Ebert] weren't very nice to each other might be the too-easy takeaway of outtakes of their on-set interactions. James allows that relationship to be more complicated and vital.
It also makes clear that Ebert didn't want to partake in a movie that sweetened who he was. He'd be proud to know that the movie of his life is sugar-free.
A tribute and historical perspective on the man behind a pop-cultural phenomenon.
This movie is never maudlin or sentimental. It shows us a man who, whatever his flaws, seemed to live his life in exactly the right way.
Life Itself reminds you how unpredictable Ebert's tastes: He loved Benji the Hunted and tore Scarface and Blue Velvet apart.
Behind-the-scenes sequences are delightful, but film is disappointing in its focus on his last days.
Ebert once said: 'For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.' This documentary might be Exhibit A in an argument in support of Ebert's definition.
Life Itself is at its most compelling when it tackles Siskel and Ebert's contentious professional marriage. Their rivalry is a fascinating stew of insecurity, resentment, respect, and co-dependence.
A lively thumbs up documentary on America's most popular, intelligent and influential modern-day movie critic.
For fans of the late critic, Life Itself will succeed as a warm reminder.
A moving, intimate documentary that follows the great film critic Roger Ebert in his last months and gives context to his life and career.
Ebert's passing wasn't fortunate. But he was a shrewd film critic, and it's not a stretch to say he'd consider it a dramatic and thematic boon for the film itself.
A film about a generous and open soul that is itself generous and open.
There will never be another Roger Ebert. The man's voice will be heard for generations to come and Life Itself brings that concept to life as it shows just how influential Ebert has been to the world of cinema.
Plato says that "the unexamined life is not worth living," and this touching documentary makes a powerful statement about a rich life lived at the movies, examining life.
Life Itself makes a good case for a larger-than-life human who left us all a little richer for his presence.
Life Itself is a film about living and dying well. It measures up to Ebert's definition of cinema's best possibility -- "a machine that generates empathy" -- and reveals, by the end, a man who became fully worthy of that ideal.
Siskel's widow recalls he kept his condition a secret to spare his kids and James drives home the devastation of the unexpected loss for Ebert, who vowed that, should anything like that happen to him, he'd hide nothing. Sadly, something did.
A smart and moving tribute to an irreplaceable critic and a singular human being.
It is a great profile of, and tribute to, the man credited with democratizing movie criticism -- and, by extension, cinema itself -- in America. But it's also much more.
Audience Reviews for Life Itself
In the final days of Roger Ebert's life, director Steve James followed him as he suffered, but remained strong and hopeful, reflecting on his family, this love, and the movies. His story is so well-told here that inspiration will jump off the screen at you. Yes, it is a very hard film to watch at times, due to his condition, but he was able to accept it and keep on going until his final breath. If his life was going to be reflected on by any documentary out there, no one will be able to do it better than this. I do not have anything to complain about here, because it is such an incredible story told in a beautiful way that I would feel ashamed for making a forced comment. I will say that he may have deserved a few more moments away from the camera towards the end than were given to him, but he did not seem to mind. "Life Itself" is a lot to take in, but it is worth every second of your time.More
Roger Ebert is probably the most famous film critic of all time. This is a documentary about his life, and the final year of his life. I didn't know much about him, other than he reviewed movies. I knew my parents called him an "idiot" and to never listen to critics(which I still don't). I used to watch his show with Siskel from time to time, but it was never something that I had to watch. It's interesting how those two genuinely didn't like each other. Some of the outtake footage in this movie is hilarious and an eye opening look at their relationship.I think the most fascinating thing about this film is him battling cancer. It's very hard and uncomfortable to watch. I've been around my fair share of people who have had to battle that terrible disease, but some of the footage of Ebert is heartbreaking. It's sad to see what became of him, but it's also amazing to see how well he battle against it. Very interesting film, especially for someone like me who loves movies and love writing/talking about them. I may not have ever been inspired by him, but it's safe to say without someone like him, I probably wouldn't be able to post this right now. Great flick about a very interesting and unique person.More
I would not be a film critic or even as ardent a lover of movies if it weren't for Roger Ebert and his towering influence on generations of curious cinephiles. Every film review is likely going to touch upon their own personal relationship with Siskel and Ebert and this one will be no different (full disclosure: I contributed online to make sure this documentary would reach completion. You can find my name last in the end credits "thanks" section. The perks of being a Z-kid). When I was young, I would sneak into my parents' room and wake them up, eager to watch not cartoons but the latest episode of Siskel and Ebert's take on new releases. For me, Roger and Gene opened an entire new world for me, and hearing their spirited discussions over the latest Hollywood blockbuster or indie experiment would stimulate my imagination. Therefore, Life Itself, a documentary chronicling the life and death of Roger, including those difficult final months of his fight against cancer, is a tremendously emotional and personal experience for me. Even now it's hard for me to write this review as I have a wealth of feelings churning. It's like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire. It's fitting that Roger become a part of the movies himself with a documentary that's one of the year's best and most poignant films.
This was never meant to be a film about Roger's death. It was intended to be an adaptation of his 2011 memoir, the titular Life Itself. Filmmaker Steve James, best known as the director of Hoop Dreams (Roger's #1 film for 1994), tackles the essential biography bits we'd expect tracing the cradle-to-grave approach. What makes this film more interesting is that it too follows Ebert's own perspective he utilized in his memoir. Rather than writing from the point of view of being in the moment, Ebert acknowledges his age and looks back on the past not as it's happening but as an older man reflecting upon his life. The thoughts are not so linear, the consideration more meditative, thoughtful, and overalls thankful. This is a man looking back and taking stock of his life, grateful for the people that have elevated his experiences. The framing device of the movie happens to be Roger's last five months of life, going in and out of the hospital and adjusting to the ever-mounting hurdles of his deteriorating health. It can be downright shocking and horrifying to watch this Ebert, his jaw hanging loose like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Never has the man looked more vulnerable and so mortal. It's not how you wish to remember him, and Roger is without vanity as he wants the cameras to have access to his day-to-day reality no matter the hardships. As the months pass and Roger's communication starts fading, everyone has to come to terms with the inevitable, and the viewer is right there too, bidding goodbye with Roger's grieving family.
While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it's a celebration of the man's life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Can you picture Ebert as a skirt-chasing Chicago Sun-Times reporter? How about as a guy who would get drunk and hang from the rafters, causing scenes? Many likely don't know that Ebert has one screenwriting credit for Russ Meyer's 1970 camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a job Ebert likely took on so he could, in his words, "get laid." There's even a lengthy bit over their populist film critiques and whether the famous "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" model was helpful or harmful to film criticism. Life Itself does a fitting job tracing the roots of the man, with each chapter of his life given due development and consideration. I could have watched a four-hour documentary on the man's life, but I'm not the general public.
The film is defined by two central relationships: Roger and Gene and Roger and his wife, Chaz. The first is the most famous. We track their initial growing pains taking the leap adapting their styles to the realm of TV. Gene was a natural, Roger less so, which only made Ebert more furious (photos of "ladies man" Siskel gallivanting with Hugh Hefner are a hoot). The impact of their advocacy cannot be overstated. There are plenty of filmmakers that got their big break thanks to special consideration and publicity from these two. No matter the medium, these were the most famous critics of the twentieth century, opening up the world of movies to a new and hungry and appreciative audience. As enjoyable as it is to watch Siskel and Ebert in agreement, there was a special pleasure in watching them disagree because of the unleashed intensity. They really felt like they could convert the other person through sheer force of will. Their egos were both massive and Siskel knew exactly which buttons to push to set his cohort into aggravation. We see TV clips and unused rehearsal video and you feel like they might start a fistfight at any moment. And then that ire and ego forged into a deep admiration and love for one another, a love that Ebert reflects more tenderly of in the years since Siskel's death in 1999. Gene didn't want his loved ones to watch the clock, waiting for him to expire, and so he told nobody of his terminal brain tumor until the end. Roger was always wounded by this and vowed to be as open as possible if he suffered severe health setbacks.
The other relationship we get to witness come to a close right before our tear-stricken eyes. Roger met Chaz in AA, a fact she says she's never publicly admitted before. He was over 50 when he married. He accepted her children as his own, whisking the family on faraway vacations and sharing his love of cinema with his stepchildren and grandchildren. Ebert credits Chaz with nothing less than saving his life, asserting he'd have drank himself to death without her. It's a love story that forces us to watch the heartbreaking finale, namely Chaz coming to grips with the reality of losing her husband, of letting the love of her life go, something so profound. We're right with her, wanting to fight on, try the next surgery, always hopeful, though in our circumstances we have the dread of foreknowledge. Then again perhaps Chaz and those close to the Eberts suspected as much as well, especially as his health faded so quickly in the spring of 2013. Just watching her talk about Roger in the past tense, you watch the ripples of pain reverberate through this woman. She's the unexpected heart of the movie and one of many torchbearers when it comes to the legacy of Roger.
Ultimately, Life Itself is a love story. It's a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It's a love story between a man and a woman. It's also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it's our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger's passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies.
Nate's Grade: A
Life Itself features Ebert's love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There's an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger's love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.
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