Movie Review by Greg Goodsell
Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert led an expansive life. He enjoyed an early success as both a columnist and critic for the Chicago Sun Times, a newspaper he never left in spite of better paying job offers. He successfully won his private battle with alcoholism, and his marriage at age 50 to Charlie "Chaz" Hammelsmith, a fiery African-American woman who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. was a love story for the ages. Through it all, Ebert was probably best known as “the fat one” with his cohort Gene Siskel, “the skinny one” on PBS' “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.” The long-running series was among the very best of its kind, as it explored a relationship – oftentimes contentious, of two intellectuals saying why they did, or did not like a particular film.
The importance of “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” cannot be downplayed, as it turned many people's heads to the possibilities of film criticism. Both Siskel and Ebert created the notion of “superstar” film critics, for good or ill. Both Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael brought intellectual heft to the form – although Kael would indulge in naughty fun by titling her books with double entendres, such as “I Lost It at the Movies.” There was also Rex Reed, also a critic, but he mostly attained notoriety for tell-all celebrity profiles. It was both Ebert and Siskel that the nation listened and adhered to. In time, they would draw criticism for their “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” rating system. Their contemporary Richard Corliss of Time magazine, who is also interviewed in the documentary, would take them to task for this all or nothing value system. Motion pictures, he argued, were complex creatures, far more worthy of being turned away out of hand for a few of the many disparate elements combined to make them.
Ebert courted controversy. For readers of this Web site, he absolutely HATED horror movies. He would take a lonely stand in 1986, when accolades poured in from all corners over David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Ebert took Lynch to task for depicting his-then girlfriend Isabelle Rossellini in a series of sadistic scenes of torture and humiliation. It was a most unusual stance for Ebert. In his most noteworthy screenwriting credit, Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Dolls (1971), his title in the credits appears over a scene of a woman fellating a loaded handgun – a scene he himself had written! Elsewhere, Ebert made clear his disdain for Inoshiro Honda’s classic Godzilla (1954) as a “terrible film.” As to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1985) – “Midnight is still too early to show it!”
In spite of this, Life Itself is a most remarkable film. Focusing on Ebert's life, the cameras began to roll a five short months before Ebert lost his battle to cancer in April of 2013. Radiological treatments for an infected ear while he was a child is believed to have been the cause of losing his entire lower jar. Left unable to speak, eat, or drink, Ebert would find an even more expansive audience in cyberspace, and made regular entries in his blog up until the day of his death.
Many details of this film should be left to the viewer to uncover. This reviewer will share that his favorite moments of the documentary, which is based on the memoirs of the same name, is that Siskel and Ebert had a genuine, deep enmity when they started the program. Friends and relatives share hilarious stories of the outrageous pranks Siskel would play on Ebert. Siskel himself would be cut down in the prime of his life at the age of 53 from complications of surgery for the removal of a brain tumor, a secret he kept from everyone save his immediate family. By the time of Siskel's passing in February of 1999, his and Ebert's relationship had mellowed – and Ebert was very hurt that Siskel kept his medical condition a secret from him until the very end.
Overall, this writer cannot imagine anyone with a passing interest in film not cozying up to Life Itself – the title derived from the only thing that Ebert loved more than the movies. The DVD from magnolia Home Entertainment has a plethora of extras. There are copious deleted scenes, and interview with director Steve James, also the director of Hoop Dreams, an AXS TV special entitled “A Look at Life Itself,” and the film's theatrical trailer. It is not often that what this reviewer review for Cinema Head Cheese gets a full on endorsement from myself. Do see it.