"Movies as Art"
What You Need To Know:
LIFE ITSELF is beautifully shot by acclaimed documentarian Steve James. However, LIFE ITSELF sometimes has a slow pace. Some lengthy scenes could have been reduced. The movie provides an admirable portrait of Ebert’s marriage and the power of love. It also discusses how Ebert overcame an addiction to alcohol. Despite this, there are several shots of female nudity, sexual activity and violent gunfire from some past movies. LIFE ITSELF also has brief, strong foul language and scenes of battling cancer that are hard to watch. So, extreme caution is warranted.
(RoRo, BB, C, PC, RH, L, VV, SS, NN, AA, D, M) Strong Romantic worldview of art, filmmaking, journalism, mitigated by some strong moral elements, especially extolling the positive effects of marriage, plus man has a lavish church wedding and some brief politically correct, revisionist history regarding the Vietnam War in the movie’s major political references, wherein man discusses being raised as a devout Democrat; seven obscenities (including three “f” words) and two GDs; brief violent gunfire from the movies SCARFACE and BONNIE & CLYDE, discussion about how man’s drinking too much resulted in suicidal thoughts, and extensive depictions of man’s debilitating battle with cancer that are hard to watch; a couple shots of rather graphic sex between a man and a topless woman from the movie BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and discussion of man’s promiscuous lifestyle in his early days as a journalist in Chicago; shots of upper female nudity from movie BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS; much discussion of man’s alcoholism in his early life, which led to thoughts of suicide, but man says he successfully kicked the addiction and speaks strongly against excessive alcohol use at other points in the movie; smoking; and, lengthy depiction of harsh rancor between two rival movie critics, who later became close friends, and movie neglects to mention protagonist’s atheistic tendencies as a lapsed Catholic or rumors of his return to Catholicism later in his life.
LIFE ITSELF is an interesting documentary depiction of the life of America’s famous movie critic, Roger Ebert. It has a strong Romantic worldview and brief PC comments offset by some strong moral elements.
The movie follows the story of Ebert from a small-town boyhood in Illinois and impassioned love for movies and writing, through his college days as editor of his student newspaper and into his work at the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper as its movie critic. From there, it shows his fascination with lurid filmmaker Russ Meyer, who made movies featuring lots of female upper nudity and who invited Ebert to write the notoriously bad cult movie BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS for him. This sequence makes for the movie’s most offensive part as it shows a few clips, but there are also some very funny comments from friends who express bafflement as to why Ebert ever wrote such a thing in the first place.
The movie then focuses on the two biggest relationships in Ebert’s life, with fellow critic Gene Siskel and with his own wife, Chaz. With Siskel, Ebert redefined American movie criticism (for the worst, some would say, including MOVIEGUIDE®) and became a superstar over their long-running weekly TV series. With Chaz, the movie shows an incredibly moving portrait of true marital love in which she cares for him under extremely debilitating circumstances, until he finally asked doctors not to resuscitate him if his body starts to fail in a major way. His wife disagreed with these wishes in that regard but didn’t know about his request until the doctors let him die.
The movie discusses Ebert’s heavy drinking in his early life at length, but it contains stronger segments about the problems that this alcoholism eventually cost him, including a desire to kill himself even as he was on top of the movie journalism world. The movie makes it clear that he successfully kicked the habit. Also, Ebert speaks strongly against excessive alcohol use at other points.
There’s a lengthy depiction of the mean-spirited arguments Ebert and Siskel had throughout much of their career together, although their harsh rancor eventually evolved into a genuine friendship and love for each other. There is also quite a bit of discussion early in the movie about Ebert’s promiscuous early days as a newspaperman in Chicago, but no images are shown and no graphic talk occurs.
LIFE ITSELF contains a brief discussion of Ebert’s moral sense as a critic where, it’s claimed, he would chastise filmmakers he felt crossed the line into truly immoral behavior. The example used is the 1986 movie BLUE VELVET, where Ebert loudly criticized its filmmaker David Lynch for exploiting actress Isabella Rossellini in degrading fashion for graphic nudity and violence against her onscreen, even as most other critics hailed that movie as a classic.
Finally, the movie contains some politically correct discussion of Ebert’s days as the editor of his college newspaper, and his decision to attack the war in Vietnam. There are only a couple of strong, direct comments along those lines in the segment, however. Ebert makes it clear early on that he was raised to be a devout Democrat.
LIFE ITSELF is beautifully shot by acclaimed documentarian Steve James. His early movie HOOP DREAMS became a popular classic thanks to the support of Ebert and Siskel. However, LIFE ITSELF has a slow pace at times. For example, it could have easily been shortened so that lengthy footage of sarcastic fights between Ebert and Siskel could have been reduced and still made their point. Another part that should have been reduced are some unnecessarily lengthy shots of Ebert’s medical treatments, which he apparently bore with grace under pressure.
The movie uses Ebert’s recorded audiobook of his memoir, also titled LIFE ITSELF, of the same name, using that as the primary narration for the movie. It also has numerous interviews with other movie critics and filmmakers who admired his reviews.
Overall, LIFE ITSELF is a well-made look at an enormously influential man’s life and should prove fascinating to anyone who is a movie buff or interested in Ebert’s work. It also provides an admirable portrait of marriage and the healing effect true love can have on a person. Finally, the movie is devoid of any mention of Ebert’s atheism, which isn’t discussed but may have been avoided because of rumors he had re-embraced his lapsed Catholic faith in his final years.
For those who appreciate documentaries and movies, or Ebert himself, LIFE ITSELF is a nice piece of work. However, there are several shots of female nudity, sexual activity and violent gunfire from existing movies. LIFE ITSELF also has some brief, strong foul language and scenes of battling cancer that are hard to watch. So, extreme caution is warranted.