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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Movie Review - Life Itself

Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***
One of my earliest film memories occurred on what I can only assume was a Saturday or Sunday evening in February or March of 1992.  I likely pushed my parents to rush home from a dinner at my grandmother's house so I could watch the Siskel and Ebert Oscar special If We Picked the Winners.  You see, 1991 was the first year I'd ever seen a Best Picture nominee in theaters in the year of its release and that film was Beauty and the Beast -- a film which I still hold in incredibly high esteem.  Filmed at the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios, I longed to see if either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert chose this animated film as their favorite of the year.  Much to my surprise and excitement, Siskel did indeed pick my favorite movie of all time with Ebert mentioning that Beauty and the Beast was his #3 film of the year.  The eleven year-old me was so excited (and I got an odd thrill now when I watched Siskel's announcing of the pick again here).  Somehow, even at that young age, the importance of Siskel and Ebert on the film landscape had already been imprinted upon this film buff.  Even at that young age when I couldn't have even begged my parents to let me watch JFK, The Prince of Tides, Bugsy, or the eventual winner that year in Silence of the Lambs, I was already placing some trust in these two writers known worldwide for their film criticism.  Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 and we lost Roger Ebert just two years ago, but I still find myself heading back to their film reviews every now and then in a late night binge on the internet.

While I'm sure there's a story to be told about Gene, Life Itself is a love note to Roger who heroically fought for ten years against various forms of cancer, finally succumbing to the disease after a fulfilled life in 2013.  Director Steve James was invited to film Roger in 2012-13 as he continued to battle his latest cancer diagnosis and the film cuts back and forth between Roger's present struggles and reminiscences from some of Ebert's colleagues and friends.  From his days as an impressively thorough college newspaper editor to his hiring at the Chicago Sun-Times as a movie critic to his fame as part of the dynamic duo Siskel & Ebert, Life Itself doesn't necessarily dig deep, but it paints a nice portrait of a normal guy who happened to be a really fantastic (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) writer of criticism.  I don't know how hard-hitting you can get in a film about a guy as "regular" as Roger Ebert, but the film does touch upon his battle with alcohol, his misbegotten foray into screenwriting, and his rocky relationship with his frenemy Gene Siskel.

In the end, though, it is Ebert's love for movies and his even greater love for his wife Chaz that really shines.  I may have disagreed with him politically; I may have disagreed with him cinematically; but I can't disagree on the fact that he was passionate about what he loved and he wrote about it with such ease and lack of pretentiousness.  If anything, I wanted a little more emphasis on why films were Ebert's refuge.  Why did the movies captivate him?  We don't quite get that here, but I'm certainly heading out to read Ebert's similarly titled book upon which this documentary is based.

I don't think Ebert would have much positive to say about what I write and how I write on this little blog, but I can't help but think that he'd be a little pleased that he and his longtime partner (and foe) Siskel inspired generations of kids like me to love the cinema.  The duo will always hold a place in my heart and Life Itself is a lovely tribute.  The two hours spent with Roger flew by and unfortunately ended much too soon much like the life of Mr. Ebert.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

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