Life Itself: A Movie Review

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Roger Ebert

I bet if the great film critic Roger Ebert and I met we would have about 2 things in common.  We disagreed on religion, morality, philosophy and definitely politics.  Why then do I admire him so much? I love Roger because of the way he got me to think. My parents are big on thinking and not just doing, but they don’t watch movies or television.

Let’s face it- being a kid in the post Star Wars world, means movies are a huge part of most of our lives.  So, when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were teaching me how to think about  movies, they were kind of teaching me how to think about life.  It was a building block to add on to what my parents demonstrated at home.

From 1975 to Siskel’s death in 1998 Gene and Roger reviewed movies on their PBS and then syndicated show under various titles, the longest being At the Movies.  They of course were famous for their thumbs up and thumbs down and their constant on air debates over the movies. Here’s one of their best

I have never seen Full Metal Jacket but I still find the review fascinating (and entertaining). In fact, I probably didn’t see 90% of the movies reviewed on Siskel and Ebert and yet I still loved watching the show.

Anyway, with that preface a new movie has come out about the life of Roger Ebert who died in 2013 after a long and painful battle with cancer. It is amazing to think one of the most verbose men in media became someone who could no longer speak. For the last 5 years of his life he communicated through a keyboard and laptop.  His blogging and twitter posts became his new voice and he taught many of us how to use the medium to enrich the world not simply criticize.

The film Life Itself is directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame and it is a lovely film about a man that lived a unique, fascinating life.  He started filming as he was going into a final surgery several years before his death.  They are unflinching (at one point insistently so by Roger) in showing the damage which had been done to Roger’s face and neck.  Even his famous Esquire magazine shoot did not really show what had happened to his face.

They show him writing and then go through his life starting as a young journalism student who insisted on a page edit on his local paper the day Kennedy was shot.  Then it moves on to his first job at the Chicago Sun Times, his alcoholism, his Pulitzer prize winning writing, his time on the show, relationship with Gene Siskel, his marriage and then his illness and last chapter.

I learned a lot about Roger Ebert from the movie but it also reminded me of all of the lessons I’d learned from Roger over the years.  He taught me about movies but also subtely how to live.   Roger and Gene were a reminder to all of us that to share your opinion is not something to be fearful of and to avoid but it is a gift of knowledge and discussion to the world.  Through sharing we hopefully become better people.  I suspect Siskel and Ebert did that for a lot of people.  They made us better by sharing their perspective.

Life Itself is a loving piece but not a complete lovefest.  It makes it clear Siskel and Ebert really did not care for each other for most of their careers.  Roger was also an egotist and a perfectionist to a fault, but we all have our flaws don’t we?

I love learning about people’s lives and how they became who they are.  If you enjoy those types of documentaries than you will like Life Itself- even if you disagreed with Roger Ebert most of the time.  He had quite the life.

Getting back to the quote from above.  Roger Ebert says the movies create ‘shared empathy’.  I propose they do such a thing because he and Gene Siskel taught us to see that empathy.  To look beyond the moment and think about the art whether it was a blockbuster, a silly comedy or a war movie:

Siskel and Ebert showed all of us how to watch the movies.

I’m grateful.  Thumbs up!

Overall Grade A              Content Grade C   (There are a few photos briefly shown of naked women, and a few swears but not too bad)

roger ebert

This is perhaps their best reviews because they both hated it so much.  Love it.




23 thoughts on “Life Itself: A Movie Review

  1. I remember watching “Sneak Previews” on WTTW (Chicago PBS). The title sequence with the funky overture, culminating with the malfunctioning drink-vending machine, was the hilarious hook: fist banging on the machine, pop overflowing the cup, ice cubes erupting from the chute, cup dispensing upside down and then its being baptized with pop … whatever could go wrong, would go wrong (just like Life). After that, Siskel’s and Ebert’s duking it out about the films was just icing on the cake.

    1. I’ve seen that intro! You are fascinated by people so I think you’d find life itself to be very interesting. I learned a lot about their relationship and about both of their lives. It was a lovely movie

      1. It would be a real blast from the past if the cinema that was showing the film could get hold of one of those vending machines (the last time I bought a drink from one was in 1998), and put Siskel and Ebert’s names on the candy boxes and popcorn tubs. Tagline: “Art imitating Life, or Life imitating Art? Only the reviewers know, for sure….” (Madison Avenue, eat your heart out!)

        1. So you liked the intro but what did you think of the show? Regardless I do think you would like Life Itself. It’s just an interesting story about an interesting life.

        2. Sneak Previews was the closest I got to seeing most movies before they’d make it to TV. The nearest cinemas to where I grew up in Illinois were 6 and 12 miles away, it was before the change in air conditioning refrigerants, and I remember that theaters were kept so cold in the summertime, I’d get sick from hypothermia. Right now, I can come up with the names of maybe 20 movies that I’ve seen in theaters, in my whole lifetime.

          Sometimes I do tune in to biographical documentaries on PBS (by that, I mean that I don’t often sit down to watch, but usually listen while I’m doing something else, like washing dishes), so sometime I’ll probably take in Ebert’s on DVD, since his is a sort of “Local Boy Done Good” story.

  2. I forgot to mention but it is available to watch on demand for any of you that can’t get to theater.

  3. You and Ebert did at least share a love for movies, and for the same reasons. I think that implies you must have had some things in common. I’m a bit surprised you said you disagree with him on morality. I don’t see much wrong with this:
    “O’Rourke’s had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:
    ‘I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.’
    That does a pretty good job of summing it up. ‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

    In any case I did like the movie though it took me a while to get to it, and I admit to knowing most of these things about him already since I already read the book he wrote this is based on (all 55 chapters of it!). I liked the book better because we get to see events described vividly from him personally. Here, it’s a bit too detached and we have a few too many scenes of him in his terrible cancer condition, although I suppose the point of that was to reflect Ebert’s belief in “total disclosure”. I liked the scenes where they show old Siskel & Ebert clips the best.

    1. Thanks for reading this old review of mine. You make a good point and I love that quote. I love that idea of contributing joy to the world. Perhaps we did have more in common. I was just referring to his strong liberalism and my strong conservatism and the fact that he was comfortable with content I wouldn’t be. He directed a pretty racy movie after all.

      But you are right as far as trying to be a good person and help people we seem like kindred spirits.

      I love Roger because he was always real whether it was liking Cop and a Half or disliking Apocalypse Now. He had found his spot in the world and that inspires me. I dont know if I’ve quite found that yet but getting closer each day.

      I need to read that book. Honestly I found the revelations in the movie about Gene almost more surprising than Roger. He was always so academic on the show. I never would have guessed he was the playboy!

      It’s not a documentary that takes a whole lot of risks but the life is so fascinating it almost didn’t need to be. Need to rewatch that film

      1. Actually Siskel was the one who disliked Apocalypse Now. Ebert couldn’t believe he would give it a Thumbs Down. He did dislike Full Metal Jacket, though, and infamously gave it a thumbs down on the same episode as he gave Benji the Hunted a Thumbs Up.

        I remember saying that to some people at that family gathering I talked about and one guy laughed and said, “Who knows this stuff?”

      2. I hope you find your place in the world. I have been feeling that way too. You are still working from home right? I have to admit I have never thought that was a good idea, at least not for myself anymore. What do you do outside the home?

        1. Thanks. You are very thoughtful. I love working from home but like any work environment it has its pros and cons. I’m very involved with church and I have open water swimming in the summer and am in a book club to name a few.

        2. Are the people in the book club about your own age? I remember trying to join a book club at the library but then I backed out because when I came in the room everyone seemed to be over 70 except me.

        3. Yep. They are all fellow bloggers and they read way more than I do- like 9 to 12 books a month. I feel really lucky to be included. They are inspiring me to read more and I’ve read 4 books this last month

        4. I found out about the club through a blogging discussion they sponsored a while back on The Book Thief. When my book club fizzled out I asked if I might be able to join theirs and they were nice enough to include me.

          The 4 books were my first Star Wars book Lords of the Sith, Me Before You (very terrible IMO), Room, Jungle Book (not quite done with that yet). It’s been fun

  4. The saddest part of the movie is when Chaz says that it’s 2013 because you feel an awful weight in your stomach and you know he hasn’t got much time left.

    1. That’s so true. It’s got to be bittersweet for her though because he was in so much pain but you still miss him. I know with my Grandpa it was good he left when he did but still miss him every day.

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