Northampton Press

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Movie Review: Two thumbs up for 'Life Itself'

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

"Life Itself" is a harrowing, if heart-felt, documentary about movie critic Roger Ebert, best-known sitting opposite Gene Siskel on TV's "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" movie review and movie clips shows.

The documentary, made with the cooperation of Roger Ebert's then wife and now widow, Chaz Ebert, doesn't pull too many punches in its sometimes brutal assessment of Roger Ebert, who died in 2013.

Roger Ebert made a career of sitting in a dark theater, viewing images on a screen, taking notes and writing or taping a review, telling us whether we should or should not do the same (sans notebook and reviews).

The film provides insights into what at the time was the intensely competitive world of reviewing movies, the producing of "Siskel & Ebert & The Movies" (1986 - '99) and its TV predecessors, "At The Movies With Siskel & Ebert" (1982 - '86) and Sneak Previews" (1975 - '82).

"Life Itself," based on Ebert's "Life Itself: A Memoir" (2011) will appeal to movie buffs. Among those interviewed about Ebert are director Martin Scorsese ("Hugo," 2011; "The Departed," 2006; "Goodfellas,"1990; "Raging Bull," 1980; "Taxi Driver," 1976), who is executive producer for "Life Itself"; director Werner Herzog ("Encounters At The End Of The World," 2007; "Firzcarraldo," 1982; "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God," 1972), Time movie critic Richard Corliss and The New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott. Each brings a worthy perspective about the influennce of Ebert, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for criticism for his film reviews which appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and in syndication.

Nowadays, of course. everybody's a critic. Siskel (1946 - 1999), who wrote for the rival Chicago Tribune, and Ebert (1942 - 2013) were powerhouse movie critics of another era: pre-facebook, pre-Twitter and pre-blog. Prior to 2000, most every major market newscast had its own movie reviewer. Second- and third-tier markets often had weekly cable TV movie clips, movie star interviews and movie reviews shows.

"Life Itself" has inherent drama: Ebert's career arc, Ebert's rivalry with Siskel, and Ebert's fight to stay alive. However, arcane outtakes of Siskel and Ebert arguing (they apparently verbally battled each other off-camera) are, well, arcane.

Other aspects of "Life Itself" are similarly trivial: Ebert basking in the celebrity limelight at the Cannes Film Festival, his writing the screenplay for director Russ Meyer's obscure B-movie, "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" (1970) and his late-night Chicago bar-hopping with fellow ink-stained wretches before he went sober in 1979.

There are numerous clips from movies, giving the sense that you are still watching a "Siskel & Ebert" movie reviews TV show.

"Life Itself" is mostly a valentine to Chaz and the love they shared and to Ebert's indomitable spirit, lust for life and love for the movies that he felt best represented it.

The documentary rises above the mundane in depicting Ebert's courage in battling thyroid cancer and a cancerous salivary gland tumor, beginning in 2004, with cancer treatment and radiation and surgery leading to facial disfigurement (which is difficult to look at until you see the delight had not dimmed in Ebert's dancing eyes), an inability to eat and the loss of his voice.

Ebert learned to communicate via an electronic voice synthesizer he operated with a computer keyboard. He continued to write about movies, expressed his viewpoints and mused about his own life challenges.

Ebert's perceptive reviews, elegant writing and mordant wit live on at

One wonders, though, had he the opportunity to do it all over again whether Ebert would have spent as much time at the office, i.e., the movie theater and screening room.


"Life Itself," MPAA rated R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) for brief sexual images-nudity and language; Genre: Documentary, Biography; Run time: 2 hrs.; Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: The "Life Itself" end credits "Thank-you" list includes some 154 persons, many of whom apparently helped finance the film.

This column is dedicated to Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013).

Box Office, July 25: You loved "Lucy." Scarlett Johansson, coached by "La Femme Nikita" (1990) director Luc Besson, wrestled Bethlehem Area School District product, former WWE wrestler and Hollywood's No. 1 male box office draw, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to the mat, with a surprise No. 1 opening, $43.8 million, one week, with Johnson's sword, sandles and loin-cloth mythology epic, an also-ran, opening at No. 2, with $29 million, one week, and ending the two-week No. 1 run of "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," No. 3, $16.4 million, $172 million, two weeks;

4. "The Purge: Anarchy," $10.4 million, $51.8 million, two weeks; 5. "Planes: Fire & Rescue," $9.3 million, $35.1 million, two weeks; 6. "Sex Tape," $5.9 million, $26.8 million, two weeks; 7. "And So It Goes, $4.6 million, opening; 8. "Transformers: Age of Extinction," $4.6 million, $236.3 million, five weeks; 9. "Tammy," $3.4 million, $78.1 million, four weeks; 10. "A Most Wanted Man," $2.6 million, opening

Unreel, Aug. 1:

"Calvary," R: John Michael McDonagh directs Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd in a drama about a good-natured priest who is threatened while giving confession.

"Get On Up," PG-13: Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") plays soul singer James Brown in the music biography film.

"Guardians of the Galaxy," PG-13: Vin Diesel, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper and Zoe Zaldana star in the sci-fi action film.

"What If," PG-13: Daniel Radcliffe (of "Harry Potter" fame) stars in the romantic comedy about two best friends who fall in love.

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site,; the Times-News web site, tnonline. com; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, and, where they're archived. Email Paul Willistein: pwillistein@ You can follow Paul Willistein on Twitter and friend Paul Willistein on facebook.