Life Itself (2014) Review

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America’s most influential film critic is treated with great humility in this window into the final days of his life. His determination and love for film are felt whole-heartedly in this fitting tribute from Steve James who ensures Robert Ebert gets one last ‘Thumbs Up.’

Rarely do you come across a young journalistic prodigy like Robert Ebert, you find musical prodigies, and artistic ones but rarely could you say that someone was born to write film reviews, but Ebert certainly was, from publishing his own newspaper at the age of 8, to becoming one of the youngest film critics at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was thrilling to read, a natural talent with the empathy and understanding to entertain and inform millions with only the nib of his pen.

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He also brought what are now known as classic films to our attention such as Bonnie and Clyde and Raging bull with his television appearances along side Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. The argumentative and sometimes explosive show coined the phrase “Thumbs Up!, Thumbs Down!,” and is now considered a milestone for all movie critics.

 

This life affirming documentary explores Siskel and Ebert’s rivalry, from the early hatred of each other, to a brotherly friendship that thrived on competition, each man trying to crush the other with their opinions. Early in the documentary we see Ebert struggle with drink and feeling the need to entertain his drinking buddies attempting to be a ‘Chicago Man.’ This Ebert is intimidating, a Pulitzer prize winning tour de force, people didn’t dare cross him. But James counter balances this image of Ebert with the final days of his life. We see a man battling with thyroid cancer, having his entire lower jaw removed, but remaining ever optimistic, driven and full of joy. He is what as known as a late bloomer, meeting his wife Chaz at the age of 50 and immersing himself in the loving relationship with her family. His wife Chaz is what Ebert calls the best of humanity, she is an unmovable rock, as stubborn as Ebert himself but full of positivity for his life and work.

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James also covers his later love for the Internet, where he reinvented himself as a blogger and shared his cinematic memories. Ebert saw the Internet not as a negative force for film criticism but as something that had re-ignited the passionate arguments he and Siskel had once shared. Ebert’s voice remained as decisive and thought provoking as ever, even when his body had failed him, he continued to write. This documentary is great for any true cinephile, Ebert lived a life film lovers could only dream of and through his words we shared some of that with him. I left this film truly uplifted, with Ebert’s opening monologue playing in my mind over and over…

“I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

Written by

Will Harper

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