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Life Itself

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
July 4, 2014 12:00 AM
3 Comments
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Photo Courtesy of Magnolia

Life Itself is more than a biography of a well-known film critic: it is the story of a born journalist who had a profound impact on popular culture, and then made an even greater contribution when he was robbed of his ability to speak. Roger Ebert was no ordinary critic, and in his final years he met every challenge hurled in his path—and proved to be an extraordinary human being. That’s what filmmaker Steve James has captured in his deeply moving documentary, which is about many things, including journalism, friendship, television, health, resourcefulness, social media, love…and life itself.

Ebert came from a working-class background and fell in love with writing at an early age: not just writing, but the world of newspapers. He had found his calling, and it was only after college that he wound up covering the movie beat for the Chicago Sun-Times. He became the first film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for his work—and that at age 23!

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

If you were around when Roger and his arch-rival, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, became TV celebrities—indeed, the most famous and influential critics in America—you will find the film particularly compelling and often hilarious. Theirs was a highly complex relationship, on and off the air. I won’t spoil the movie’s juicier tidbits, but suffice it to say that their bickering and personal insults were not contrived. Others tried to imitate them, to no avail; even Roger couldn’t reinvent the chemistry he had on camera with Gene Siskel. Who could have predicted that both their lives would be cut short?

As I indicated in my column the other day, the movie is also a love story: when Roger met his future wife Chaz his life changed for the better. They were great partners, in every sense of that term, and she helped him through a decade of health travails that would have tested Job himself.

Life Itself was the name of Ebert’s autobiography, and it’s a particularly apt title for a movie that deals, ultimately, with mortality. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s impossible to forget.

          

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3 Comments

  • Norm | July 4, 2014 6:24 PMReply

    Siskel & Ebert brought films out of the papers and into your home via an interesting Tv format which was engaging , intelligent and interesting . Ebert appeared more moderate in his tone, and Siskel more progressive , the chemistry played very well, but what was not lost was the discussion style that allowed then to cogently express their views, and isn't that the most important thing, the ability to discuss and reason...? Maltin does it also, but he is still looking for his Yang...Which begs the question as to why people who don't agree attack the Author instead of engaging the discussion...makes you wonder...On second thought , maybe some people don't need a Yang , just an audience who enjoys an intelligent exchange of ideas ...

  • D. J. Fone | July 4, 2014 4:47 PMReply

    Thank you, Mr. Maltin; a great review about a unique person. Roger Ebert's weaknesses, as detailed by other reviews of "Life Itself", were alcohol (early on); poor choices in women (until the amazing Chaz); and a predisposition to insert his personal politics into his film reviews. That understandable bias was gleaned from being a journalist who learned early on that the truth comes not from the power structure and its highly-paid gatekeepers, but from the real people, the lowly frontliners with the boss's blood on their hands from carrying out marching orders that violated their own morals, but had to be done to keep the family fed. With Ebert's and Siskel's initial move into televised review debates on "Sneak Previews", we learned both critics were not the snooty, smarmy, esoterics like the "Today" show's Judith Crist nor the prissy, arrogant Rex Reed, who would verbally sucker-punch you,, then tell you "You can't hit a lady." By making their reviews part of our mass culture, Siskel and Ebert made us all more observant and demanding of our movies, and more appreciative of the great films.

  • Walt Mitchell | July 4, 2014 4:21 PMReply

    Thank you, Leonard, for this thoughtful review. I was not a regular viewer of Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert's TV program, but they became such icons with it that I became well aware of whom they were. And, with the terrible hand that Fate dealt to Roger, he proved what a brave and noble human being he was!

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