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Life Itself - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Life Itself
Directing: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

What can I possibly say about Life Itself that isn't riddled with bias? What can any film critic say, professional or otherwise, for that matter? This is a man widely respected, to some extent even revered, in his field. And writing a review of a movie about a real-life movie reviewer is obviously a tricky prospect: this movie has a Metascore of 87 at MetaCritic.com ("universal acclaim") and a TomatoMeter rating of 96% at RottenTomatoes.com -- all aggregating fawning pieces by Roger Ebert's colleagues in his own industry.

The user ratings on both sites (80% on Rotten Tomatoes and 81 on MetaCritic) offer some small insight into this: regular viewers are slightly less impressed than the reviewers, although they are generally impressed nonetheless. This is the bottom line for me personally: I honestly couldn't say how much any average reader of this particular review I am writing right now might like Life Itself. If you're interested in the film to begin with, then you'll probably enjoy it. If you loved Robert Ebert as I (and countless others) did, then you'll love it.

This is as intimate a portrait of a truly fascinating man as one could possibly hope for, something director Steve James collaborated with Ebert on before his death, which is made clear pretty early on in the film. One can assume Ebert had great faith in James on this project, given his rave review of Hoop Dreams in 1994 ("A film like "Hoop Dreams" is what the movies are for.") and three- or four-star reviews of all his other films.

You can see how objectivity is a challenge here. James makes a point to highlight Roger Ebert's arguable conflicts of interests over the years, at least briefly, in this documentary. Bizarrely, Ebert wrote the script to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls -- itself not a particularly great movie. He often interviewed actors. He became friends with several. But whether or not the friendships clouded his judgment, they never prevented him from giving pointedly bad reviews of films by friends like Martin Scorsese or Werner Herzog -- both of whom show up here to speak of their undying fondness for this man.

And how can any genuine film lover, at least one of the more populist variety, not be fond of him? Of course there were the naysayers. When Ebert panned David Lynch's Lost Highway in 1997, one of his negative pull quotes was used alongside other mainstream movie critics along with the heading, "More reasons to see Lost Highway." But the truth is, Roger Ebert championed a broad swatch of films of all types, both domestic and international, that would never have seen what success they had without him. He was a man to be reckoned with.

So, of course, was his longtime professional partner and frenemy, Gene Siskel, without whom no doubt Roger Ebert would never have gotten as famous as he did. Life Itself, as with the fantastic 2011 memoir with which it shares its name, spends a large amount of time examining this relationship, which unfortunately ended upon Siskel's sudden death in 1999. Siskel opted not to tell but just a few people in his life, hiding his illness not just from Ebert but from his own children, until the moment of death. Ebert was so wounded by this that he vowed to go the other direction: he would never keep anything a secret -- hence the memoir, and now, this movie.

But Life Itself the film, as with the book, also covers Ebert's story from his earliest career days as a Chicago Sun-Times when he basically fell into movie reviewing, until the very end of his life and slightly beyond. We see much of his beloved wife, Chaz, who stayed by his side through his years of cancer in the 2000s. Ebert even invites the cameras into his hospital rooms, where we see his lower jaw so disfigured -- with no lower jawbone, his chin and lower lip just hand like some kind of skin-sheet -- that it's a little bit horrifying to look at. But Roger Ebert wants us to see it.

This succession of hospital visits and surgeries ultimately robbed Roger Ebert of his voice and thus his ability to continue any kind of broadcasting work. So, he turned to the blog that became the final, "big finale" chapter of his life. I was one of the many who knew of Roger Ebert and read his reviews occasionally, but then became a voracious reader of most of his output once he was discovered on Twitter and other social media. The man found a new voice and a new audience, and I would be lying if I said his work did not significantly influence my own approach to writing movie reviews. And far from that making me unique, that makes me but a grain of sand in a universe of admirers.

I can't help but to love this movie, as I loved the man, and Life Itself is a truly thoughtful and lovingly crafted tribute. At nearly two hours in length, people with only a passing interest in the man may find it over-long. I'm not sure such people should bother with it. But for those of us who love movies, and were thus inspired by Roger Ebert's passion that transcended his many imperfections, this movie is a genuine treat. A little bittersweet maybe, but a treat nonetheless.

Roger Ebert sits closer to the front of the theatre, whereas Gene Siskel, without whom Roger would be nowhere near as famous, sits in his own favorite back seat.

Overall: A-
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