Saturday, July 26, 2014


Rated : R

Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Director: Steve James
Genre: Documentary

Life Itself, the straight forward documentary about the life and times--and unfortunate death--of the world's most recognizable film critic, Roger Ebert, is difficult to watch. Well, about half of it is anyway. More on that in a moment.  

It's always good to learn something you didn't know before, and what we learn here, in most entertaining fashion, is the real skinny on the relationship between Ebert and his longtime partner in crime, Gene Siskel.  Siskel and Ebert was like an arranged marriage of two partners who initially seemed to hate each other, but later grew to respect, and yes, maybe even share a little love. 

The show, which introduced the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" into our common vernacular, had all the overtones of a sibling rivalry between two adolescents constantly sniping at each other. The funniest part of Life Itself is the outtakes of the two of them trying to get through the taping of a promo for the show, too raunchy to ever be broadcast on network television.     

But about half of the film, or so it seems-I wasn't counting minutes--shows Roger Ebert after his cancer surgeries. He was unable to speak, and there's no other way to honestly put this...he was grotesque looking. That he didn't mind being filmed in this condition showed that he wasn't going to let vanity get in the way of showing and telling his story exactly as it was, right up to the end. But after a while I just had to look away from the screen during the hospital segments.  

As we look back on the life of Roger Ebert, and his collaboration with Gene Siskel, it reinforces one undeniable truth about the movies--and that is that there are no good films, and there are no bad films.  It's all in the eye of the beholder. 

Grade:  B --


I'm in complete agreement with Tim about the discomfort induced by seeing Roger Ebert minus his jawbone. As cheerfully as he and his wife Chaz soldiered on, acting as if nothing was really amiss, I was eventually repulsed by the dangling skin that once housed his chin. Ebert wanted us to witness this. I think part of his motivation was due to the fact that Gene Siskel, who died at age 53 of a brain tumor, didn't tell anyone other than his wife about his condition. Including his partner. This hurt Roger Ebert immeasurably—thus he vowed never to be secretive about his own failing health.

But enough about the down side of Life Itself. Kudos go out to director Steve James for keeping this 2-hour documentary engrossing from start to finish. I loved the various film clips, interviews with people like Martin Scorcese and Werner Herzog. It was also interesting to see how much power film critics have over a movie's success or failure. From the very beginning of his life, Ebert was first and foremost a writer. A beautiful and gifted writer at that. Deserving of his Pulitzer Prize, he shared his love of the movies with us— made us think about what we liked and didn't like. Unfortunately, so much of this film was shot after the thyroid cancer had destroyed a good portion of his face that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. I wonder if Roger Ebert would give it a "Thumbs Up" if he were reviewing it?

Grade: C