"Life Itself" (2014)- Movie Review

Directed by Steve James
Based on the best-selling novel and memoir by Roger Ebert
Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert and Gene Siskel

‘A Must-See for Movie-Buffs’

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved watching movies. Ever since I was a young child, my favorite hobby was- and still is today- the joyous experience of escaping from reality. Whether it’s eagerly awaiting the release of the next big superhero movie or discovering small films with larger-than-life meaning, movies have become an essential part of my life. Yet, a question that has haunted me for most of my life is how did this passion for movies come about?

Maybe family has something to do with it. Growing up, I was regularly exposed to t.v., movies and video-games at a young age. My fondest memories are that of my grandfather taking me along with my cousins to watch Bollywood films. Yet, not only my grandfather but my entire family had a passion for watching films. My father, for instance, once considered pursuing a career as an actor. Although this may seem like an exaggeration, a ‘love’ for Cinema ran through my family.

If there is a single person, however, who inspired me to start writing about movies it’s Roger Ebert. A renowned film critic, Ebert expressed his passion for movies by writing about them throughout his career which lasted from 1967 to 2013. Through his highly popular t.v. show “Siskel and Ebert”, which he hosted alongside fellow critic Gene Siskel, Ebert showed that movies could be a topic of discussion and debate. What’s most inspiring, though, about Ebert is that he refused to give up his profession even after being diagnosed with Cancer in 2005. Instead of ending his career, the disease gave him a new voice. It encouraged him to pursue his dreams, even though he had been given little time to live. Although I never knew or met Roger Ebert in person, I’ve always looked up to him as a role model who encouraged me to follow my dreams.

It’s difficult to do justice to such a legendary figure, especially someone who has had a huge following, however director Steve James has pulled it off. With his latest documentary, “Life Itself”, James has painted a portrait of Roger Ebert’s life that would have made the film critic himself proud.  An insightful, enlightening and deeply heartfelt film, it gives viewers an in-depth look at the life of the famed film critic. With a sharp eye for detail, director Steve James shines a light on different aspects of Ebert’s life from his rise as a journalist to his heartbreaking fight against Cancer. Using found footage, interviews from friends, family and admirers, as well as voice-over narration, the filmmaker has crafted a documentary that celebrates Roger Ebert’s legacy. Whether you look up to this film critic like me, love movies or are simply in the mood to be inspired, “Life Itself” is a documentary that’s well worth a few hours of your time.

Unlike the majority of documentaries about celebrities, surprisingly you don’t have to be a fan of Roger Ebert in order to enjoy “Life Itself”. More than a film about a famous celebrity, it touches upon universal themes that everyone can relate to such as friendship, hope and tragedy. This makes the documentary accessible to a broad audience, even those who may not have heard of Roger Ebert until now. Adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name, “Life Itself” plays out like a biography made for the big-screen. Tracing the life of the world-famous film critic from his career as a journalist up till his tragic death from Cancer, it offers a detailed look at how a man who loved movies ended up changing the world.

When you’re making a movie about a famous personality, particularly someone who has died, it’s a huge responsibility. There are always high expectations surrounding these types of films. On the one hand, filmmakers are expected to pay respect to the celebrity and present their life in an accurate manner that pleases family/friends. At the same time, however, they are also expected to satisfy fans who have been following the celebrity throughout life. With “Life Itself”, director Steve James has crafted one of those special documentaries that is guaranteed to please both audiences.

The most fascinating aspect of this documentary is the generous side it reveals of Roger Ebert’s personality. Although he was a Pulitzer Prize Winner, fame never got in the way of Ebert’s compassion for others. Instead, he used his status as a film critic to change the lives of the people he looked up to and admired. Take, for example, movie directors. Not only did Ebert review movies, but he also went out of his way to recognize first-time movie directors whom he believed were talented. Ava DuVernay, for instance, is one of the directors whose career took flight thanks to Roger Ebert. When her first film came out, “I Will Follow”, Ebert’s support lifted the then first-time director’s career to another level. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, DuVernay admits that she wouldn’t be where she is without the encouragement she received from the film critic.

As compassionate and caring as he was, though, Roger Ebert was not a man without flaws. What’s most impressive about “Life Itself” as a documentary is that it doesn’t shy away from addressing the controversial side to Ebert. Most documentaries about famous figures glamorize them, yet are too afraid to shine light on their mistakes. This is where “Life Itself” stands out from other documentaries about celebrities. Despite his compassion for others, Ebert struggled throughout life with an addiction to alcohol. This addiction to drugs almost ended up ruining his life early on in his career. It’s rare to come across a documentary that isn’t afraid to shine light on a celebrity’s failures as well as their triumphs in life.

However, when a movie tackles subjects as grim as drug addiction, it’s bound to not be for everyone. Although “Life Itself” is a must-see for movie-lovers, it’s not the type of film that I would recommend to everybody. Because it shows in great detail the trauma that people go through when they have Cancer,  this is not a film for the faint of heart. The last hour of the documentary is particularly hard to watch, due to it’s disturbing depiction of Roger Ebert’s fight against Cancer. Viewers that are sensitive towards these kinds of subjects may not be able to sit through the entire running time of “Life Itself”.

In the end, though, if you are able to digest a subject as harsh as Cancer “Life Itself” is well worth a watch. Despite being a little longer than necessary at 2 hours, and dragging in certain sections, this is one of those special films which reminded me why I watch movies in the first place. Not just to be entertained, but also to learn a life-changing lesson about life. “Life Itself” inspired, educated and enlightened me about a world-famous icon whose legacy will never be forgotten.

As a final note, one can’t help but wonder what Roger Ebert would have thought of this film. Since he unfortunately passed away two years ago, he never got a chance to see the final product. Nevertheless, I have a strong feeling that he would have appreciated this tribute to his life. If he were alive today, he would have given this documentary two thumbs up with a beaming smile on his face.

4.5/5 stars

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