Good afternoon to you all, I hope you’re all having a great Fourth of July today. Before I’m able to celebrate our nations independence with you, I had a prior commitment. When I put up my ten most anticipated films of the upcoming summer, I selected a small film called Life Itself as the fourth most anticipated film of the summer. Many of you were probably confused by this choice, as it wasn’t a narrative or a adrenaline filled CG romp. I chose this film because it was a movie documenting the life of film critic Roger Ebert, who without his influence I wouldn’t be writing to you today. I remember, about 5 years ago, a little before I started writing film criticism, I had become enamered with film criticism, but in print and it’s ever growing presence online. That’s when I began to find clips of Siskel and Ebert on YouTube, where they have hundreds of clips of Both Gene Siskel and Roger reviewing films such as Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, The Silence of the Lambs, and several films before. I was in awe of both Siskel’s and Mr. Ebert’s passion for every film that they saw. It was magnificent, and as I said, without them I could have cared less about film criticism. Unfortunately, in April of 2013, Roger passed away after his long and hard fight with cancer, and in January of this year Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, which in my opinion, is the greatest documentary ever made and one that Roger called the greatest film of the 1990’s, brought to Sundance the film Life Itself, which Roger and his wife Chaz let him film many of Roger’s final days left on this earth. I was unable to see the film when I was at Sundance due to the tickets having been sold out at the time, which is something that I regret to this day. But, after the trip, I made a promise to myself and to Mr. Ebert that I would see the film the next opportunity I had. And so, I got up this morning, rented the film on Demand, and I now give you my review of Life Itself, the story of Roger Ebert, the greatest film critic who ever lived.
Steve James documents nearly every key moment of Roger’s life in this epic, two hour documentary. Roger grew up outside of Chicago in Urbana, Illinois, went to school there at the University of Illinois, and then moved to Chicago and got a job writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. We learn more about when Roger was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, his years of going to both the Cannes Film Festival and Sundance, and his complicated professional relationship with Gene Siskel, who both changed the world of film criticism and how much of an influence and power that the film critic carries on a film. We also get a look into Roger’s personal life, with his wife Chaz having saved his life after years of heavy drinking. Roger’s life is one that’s almost too good to be true, and all is documented in this beautiful and moving tribute to not only one of the great film critics who ever lived, but one of the great public figures who ever lived.
As I said earlier, Roger and Chaz let Mr. James chronicle the last days of Ebert’s life, up until much of their conversations were reduced to moving and heartbreaking emails between the two. The film goes back and forth between your standard documentary format with some backstory on the subject with talking heads of people who meant a great deal to Roger’s life, and then we occasionally see Roger in the hospital, which is very hard to watch as it is inspiring and, is just wonderful to watch. The man had gone to hell and back with this bitch of a cancer he had, and he continued to do what he loved doing, and that was write. Most of his scenes in the film are Roger and his Mac, typing away. That Mac is also a means of communication with Mr. James, as due to Roger’s cancer of the jaw, he was unable to speak. And throughout this entire, for a good majority of it I was in tears. Maybe it was just me, due to the subject matter and how much of an impact Roger had on my life and my work, but I hope that when you are able to see this film, you will feel the same emotional response.
We have interviews from several folks that Roger influenced or worked with, including film critics like A.O. Scott and a large number of other colleagues, as well as several filmmakers whom Roger had helped for years, including Martin Scorsese (who served as an executive producer on the film), Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and many more. There stories on how they got to know Roger and how Roger helped get many of their small, often obscure films be known to the masses due to Ebert’s popularity and influence. And Mr. James presents the film in such a wonderful way. The format he uses to present most of the film is a familiar one, but it works wonders here in this case. The passion Mr. James has for Roger and many of his colleagues is uncanny here in this film, and there stories about Roger, wether it’s from a personal or professional relationship, is always either greatly funny and very inspiring and beautiful.
So, as I wrap up this review, I beg of you to go see Life Itself. Steve James, 20 years after the release of his magnum opus, Hoop Dreams, has made another masterpiece in the medium of both documentary filmmaking and filmmaking as a whole. Maybe it’s just me, but this is a perfect film. Hands down. I feel I don’t need to defend why I feel this way, because I feel that after watching this film and if Roger has had the massive influence on both your life and your work, I feel that you would probably feel the same way. The film is being released in limited release but it’s available for rental on both iTunes and On Demand. Not only is the just a great film about a great man, but it’s a great film about movies, and how powerful their impact is on the world we live in. I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing if there was no such thing as movies. I can’t think of anything, and Roger probably have had the same mindset. The work Roger has done will live on for years and years to come, and I pray that there will be others out there, similar to my story, that will have been greatly influenced by Roger. The work Chaz has done to keep Roger’s legacy alive is astonishing, and god bless her for the work that she’s done.