The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Life Itself

Life Itself obviously has a tremendous amount of interest for me. This is a documentary about Roger Ebert, who was a hero and an inspiration to a generation of film critics, myself included. I could make this whole review about what Ebert meant – and continues to mean – to me, but I've already done that. Besides, Life Itself is more than simply a valentine to the man. It's a valentine to an ideal, to the notion that following one's passion can bring about wondrous, unimagined opportunities. Whether you care about film criticism a little, a lot, or not at all, this is a movie with a profoundly inspiring message.

Life Itself is based on Ebert's excellent memoir of the same name, and it takes us through his personal journey, from a young boy growing up in Illinois, to his days as a rowdy Chicago newspaperman, to his ascension to household name status along with TV partner Gene Siskel. We hear of his short-lived screenwriting career, when he penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for breast-obsessed director Russ Meyer. His alcoholism and recovery are discussed, as are his often contentious relationship with Siskel and his eventual marriage to attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, the woman he dubbed his “angel” during his many surgeries and attempts at recuperation from cancer. (Oddly, Ebert's other TV partner, Richard Roeper, is nowhere to be seen.) These topics are interspersed with footage of Roger in his final months. His jaw completely removed, he is forced to endure uncomfortable-looking suction treatments and painful physical therapy sessions. Through it all, he clings to his blog, which provides an outlet for his musings, film-related or otherwise. It becomes clear that, in his most dire of moments, Ebert clung to that which he did best to keep his spirits high.

In films like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and The Interrupters, documentarian Steve James has displayed an astonishing ability to get up-close and personal with his subjects. He respectfully gains access to the most personal and private of moments, making viewers feel like they know the people his cameras are pointed at. James seems fascinated in things like motivation and commitment. No wonder he wanted to tell Roger Ebert's story. (The critic was also a longtime supporter of James' work.) Aside from taking us through the milestones of Roger's life, the film explores the impact he and his famous thumb made on the culture. As is often pointed out, film critics were not widely known outside of certain circles. That changed when Siskel and Ebert launched their weekly television show. Success made experimentation possible. It would have been all too easy for them to stick with reviewing the big commercial releases of the day, but they didn't, instead occasionally choosing to champion the work of an independent filmmaker who caught their eyes. Ebert, in particular, took to shining a spotlight on those he thought were the real deal. Several of them appear on-camera to share thoughts on what his support meant, including Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani. Hearing them speak in Life Itself reinforces how vital good criticism is; having a vocal supporter early in one's career can have a lasting impact. Ebert loved great films and wanted to share them with others, to the immense benefit of those who made them.

Not everyone agreed with Ebert's televised approach. Fellow critic Richard Corliss is here, too, opening up about a Film Comment piece he wrote at the height of Siskel & Ebert's popularity, suggesting that the “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach was dumbing down the art of criticism. Through voiceover narration taken from his memoir, Ebert's response is presented, illustrating his belief that film criticism has many roles. It can serve an academic role, but it can also let the average viewer know which movies are successful in being entertaining and which are not. He believed that cinema need not always be serious; it could also just be for pleasure. One of the funniest moments in the documentary is a clip of Gene Siskel's outrage that Ebert gave thumbs-up to Benji the Hunted on the same show where he gave thumbs-down to Full Metal Jacket. Life Itself shows that it was this all-encompassing view that made Ebert such an important and influential critic. He could discuss movies with insight and intelligence, while also maintaining an ability to appreciate well-executed fluff. It doesn't seem so now, but that was once a radical idea in the world of film writing.

Life Itself is at its most touching when it brings us close to Ebert near the end of his life. Mentally sharp as ever, he accepts his illness – which removed his ability to eat, drink, and speak – with dignity, steadfastly refusing to feel sorry for himself. Using a voice synthesizer to speak for him, Ebert reveals that he lived a good, happy life. He saw a lot of great movies, knew a lot of great people. James doesn't shy away from asking complicated questions in an attempt to probe Roger about his illness, nor does Roger shy away from showing it. When doctors tell him his time is running out, Ebert demands that James keep the camera rolling as he and Chaz attempt to cope with this news. Again, Life Itself takes us inside his psyche. He wanted his fans to see the effects of his illness with same unflinching quality he admired in the best movies.

Cinema, to Roger Ebert, was a way of living, not just a form of entertainment. “I was born inside the movie of my life,” he once wrote in a piece recited here. “I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” Life Itself captures what he meant. Roger Ebert loved movies. He loved talking about them, writing about them, and encouraging others to see the ones he was most passionate about. That love got him into print, and onto television, and into pop culture at large. Small films got noticed because he endorsed them. Young filmmakers earned careers because he shouted their names from the rooftops. Talking about movies became cool because he made it look like so much fun, and countless others were inspired to join his occupation as a result. That young man from Urbana, Illinois grew up to change the way we talk about cinema. And when the movie of his life came to an end, it faded to black in a final image of poignancy and grace as powerful as any of the Great Movies he cherished so much.

( out of four)

Note: The R rating for Life Itself is nothing short of a travesty, another example of the MPAA's absurdity. This is a film that could inspire young people to write, about movies or anything. It is absolutely appropriate for teenagers. Life Itself is playing in theaters, but also available on VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu.

Life Itself is rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

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