MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Magnolia Pictures
In Theaters, Video on Demand, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Google Play and other streaming services.
Directed by Steve James. Documentary.
If you are one of those persons who check out what critics think about a film before paying for a ticket or a download, you might think that Life Itself, the new film memoir of the life of Roger Ebert, must be one of the best films of the year. Everyone seems to like it.
But then, take a moment for reflection. Well, of course, movie critics like it, since it’s about another film critic! Roger Ebert was a great critic, but that doesn’t mean that Life Itself is for everyone. Let me be the first reviewer to suggest that you may not care for this movie at all. At two hours in length, it’s a long film with more than a few problems for the general viewer.
The idea of making Life Itself originated with Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz, with the help of a loyal website fan base. Funds were raised through Kickstarter to finance this independent feature, based on Roger’s published memoir. Roger then handed this project to Steve James, a Chicago documentarian whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was championed by Roger and Gene Siskel on their syndicated film review show.
So this film is a labor of love. At the time the filming began, Ebert had succumbed to a series of cancers that left him unable to eat or talk, with the complete loss of his lower jaw. Before the film was completed, Roger’s life ended. While the Eberts insisted that James make an honest film unencumbered by their editorial input, this is still a film that is guided by its subject.
Let me be honest here. I loved Roger Ebert and his influence on film criticism. I started watching Siskel and Ebert when I was a seminarian at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and they had a monthly review show on Chicago television. But I know that I could never love him as much as he loved himself.
Roger won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975 and spent the rest of his life reminding people about it. He was a genius and a born writer, but also an only child with the kind of insecurity that was masked by bravado and a long period of alcoholism. He found sobriety (and his lovely wife Chaz) through the 12 steps of AA. His onscreen bickering with Gene Siskel was legendary and genuine; Roger couldn’t understand why this other guy couldn’t bow down before his superior wisdom.
Roger grew up as a Roman Catholic altar boy but eventually left the church. His reviews were known for lifting up the spiritual and Roger never stopped reflecting upon Jesus Christ. You can walk away from the church and still have God walking away with you.
If you want to spend 2 hours with Life Itself you will learn a little bit about Roger’s childhood and his years in college before he became a fulltime journalist. You will hear some great stories from lifelong friends, including major filmmakers that Roger championed to make great movies. You will experience some harrowing scenes of advanced cancer. You will also see the power of redemptive love through Roger’s marriage to Chaz and the eventual awareness of Gene Siskel’s brother-like role in his life.
But this is still a movie about a movie critic. My thumb is up, but it’s just my thumb.
Three halos: An interesting and moving tribute to an influential film critic’s life that does not shrink from encounters with mortality or underestimate the healing power of love.
Three pitchforks: Scenes of pride and vanity; struggles with alcohol; very brief scenes of film nudity; some cuss words; and the ravages of cancer are shown in painful detail.
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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