Sunday, August 17, 2014

Life Itself review

Junior year of high school, fall 2003. Seventh period. I was in Mr. Yack's TV Production class where I learned all the basics of camerawork (rule of thirds), the history of television, and I learned non-linear video editing in this class. I remember we utilized Adobe Premiere to put together a montage of family pictures. That was the first video project I ever did. I scoured through the family photos that we had in the family room, shot each picture with a videocamera, then we uploaded the footage onto Adobe Premiere and edited together for one seamless montage.

But that was without really knowing the real tricks of the trade. Before we really got into all what we could do via Adobe Premiere, we had to watch a video about non-linear editing. It turned into a really cool project, but neither me nor my classmates could help but laugh at the cheesy fake-film that we'd have to use for our very first non-linear editing project. The fake-film involved a small group of criminals who decide to rob a bank. They each go into the bank individually. As the editor, you're given all these different clips from the fake-film and you were supposed to edit it all together however you and your project partner choose. There were many ways to do it.

Why am I talking about all this? Because the host of this fake-film project was a young Roger Ebert who was wearing a suit that was horrendously out of style by 2003. It was clear that the video was from the '70s, maybe early '80s. And while I had seen snippets of Ebert's TV show "At the Movies" and the phrase "Siskel & Ebert give it two thumbs up" was everywhere whenever you watched a TV commercial in the '90s, this was my first real introduction to the man. Even though I didn't know too much about him, he was the film critic I knew about. By this time, Gene Siskel was dead so he was it. If you didn't know much about the movies during this time, you still knew who Roger Ebert was. And thinking back now, it amazes me to think that he was the host of this video whose sole intention was to help students learn how to edit. As cheesy as the video was, it was also very educational and Ebert was the host. Roger Ebert helped me understand how to edit.

He was the de facto critic. He was the main voice for anyone who had a basic interest in movies. He was a gateway. As TV production helped me to realize how much I love movies and the process of making movies, I was turning to Roger Ebert's writing more and more as well. Ebert wasn't just a guy on TV who did reviews, he was also behind thousands of reviews from 1967 to 2014. Nearly 47 years of written reviews, and that doesn't include the hundreds of movies he wrote about via his Great Movies column. He did commentary tracks for the DVDs of movies like Citizen Kane and Dark City. And when cancer took away his ability to speak he became even more prolific on his blog,, where he gave his thoughts on a whole multitude of subjects. When social media went on the rise, Roger Ebert was all over twitter. He wasn't just a great writer, he championed other bloggers as well. He may have written reviews here and there that you may not agree with (lord knows I didn't see eye-to-eye with him on a lot of different movies), but I always trusted his opinion. I always trusted that he was giving me the most honest account of what he truly felt about a movie. You couldn't ask for anymore than that.

"Life Itself" talks about Ebert's storied career as a critic, but for the first time, you really get to know the man through his friends, his family, his colleagues, and himself. Yup, while "Life Itself" premiered at Sundance this year, 9 months after his death, Roger Ebert is very much the on-screen star of this documentary. He and director Steve James agreed to do a documentary based off his memoirs a few years ago. Near the end of Ebert's life, it became clear that he didn't have much time left, but there he was, still trying his best to keep his spirits high and to have a major input on this documentary.

We learn about his upbringing, how he became editor-in-chief for the school newspaper at University of Illinois. And "Life Itself" isn't just some fluff piece, a lot of friends are bluntly honest about Ebert's then-struggles with alcoholism, his taste in women, and his cocky attitude. The doc goes into the love/hate relationship Ebert shared with Gene Siskel, and how betrayed he felt when Siskel kept his sickness a secret until the very end. We learned how Siskel's secret was what made Ebert so public about his own health battles, and how a crucial decision made by Ebert before his death affected his loving wife Chaz.

Ebert wasn't perfect, but he was human. And this made it all the more tougher to watch just how much he struggled in his final months. The last half hour of the movie is truly difficult to watch as it takes us through the details of Ebert's deteriorating condition. The moment where Ebert tells Steve James that he's too weak to type just shattered my heart. This was a man who seemingly could never be stopped from speaking his mind via his blog. As one interviewee says in the doc, Ebert may not have been able to talk with his mouth, but through a keyboard, you couldn't shut him up. A seven year battle with cancer finally took its toll on the man and it's hard not to finish this documentary without having a heavy heart.

It's impossible for me to be fair and impartial to a movie like this when it's about the very man who inspired this blog. Without Ebert, there may not have been a kenoncinema. I may not have written about over 400 movies. Ebert's prolific writing inspired me to write about movies. He inspired me to try my best to be level-headed, he inspired me to stick to my guns even if I wasn't overtly confident about my opinions.

That said, I truly believe this is a well-made documentary. It does Ebert's life justice. And I'm sure if he were able to write a review about the doc, he'd have positive things to say about it too. There are so many instances now where I'll watch a movie and wonder what Ebert would have thought about it. His death created a void that I don't think will ever be filled. There are a lot of great critics out there, but I can't think of any that had enough on-screen confidence and would ever be popular enough to teach a 16 year old how to edit via a TV production class.

And in many ways, "Life Itself" is, well, life-affirming. He may have had a rough last seven years, but the first 63 were filled with trips to Cannes, run-ins with celebrities, a brief stint as a screenwriter for a Russ Meyer film, and a long and healthy marriage to a strong woman such as Chaz. Roger lived a great life and it makes for a great movie. I'm sure he wouldn't have it any other way.

Grade: N/A (feels weird to grade a movie based on a film critic)

You can rent "Life Itself" on itunes.

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