As Above, So Below
It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…
In this follow-up to our June 16th piece compiling "Life Itself" reviews following its festival premieres, we have assembled below the latest stream of excerpts from reviews published after the film's July 4th roll-out in theaters and on VOD. Click on the individual publications, and you will be directed to the full review. To see when the film is scheduled to open in your city, click here.
“‘Life Itself’ is a work of deftness and delicacy, by turns a film about illness and death, about writing, about cinema and, finally, and very movingly a film about love. Ebert was, by his own and others’ accounts, transformed by meeting and marrying Chaz when he was 50. She was an African-American civil rights lawyer more interested, as he put it, in who he was than in what he did. He became part of her extended family, and as we watch him in home videos from the good days before his troubles started, it is like watching a man blossoming before our eyes." - Geoffrey O'Brien, The New York Times
“There’s an overwhelming sense that Ebert’s fixation on death is simply an extension of his zeal for life in all its complexity, which ‘Life Itself’ embodies from its title on down. Death is a part of life—one that informs everything we do, on some level or another—and watching Ebert characterize whatever time he has left as ‘money in the bank,’ from what viewers know is his deathbed, is life-affirming and heartbreaking in equal measure." - Genevieve Koski, The Dissolve
“Ebert brought the joy and wonder of the movies to every impassioned review he wrote. He was a complicated person; there have been many attempts to sum up his essence succinctly. I have tried myself and failed. But if he was any one thing, I think that he was joyful. James’s documentary captures all of this in the starkest and yet loveliest light. Ebert wanted to be represented in full. He knew that there was something worth putting on the screen when he let James film the painful process of a nurse inserting his feeding tube into his throat each day, or the moments of exhausted frustration when he couldn’t summit a three-step staircase.” - Frances Dodds, DuJour
“For dyed-in-the-wool Ebert fans—those weaned on his thoughtful populism and impassioned advocacy—the august-years footage may be no more affecting than the carefully selected samples of his work, such as an eloquent (and thematically relevant) excerpt from his ‘Tree of Life’ review. Therein lies the happy ending of Ebert’s movie, the uplifting denouement of his third act: The man lives through his words, writ large across the web and accessible at the click of a mouse.” - A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
“Although ‘Life Itself’ traces Ebert's amazing career from the neighborhood newsletter he published as a kid through the 300 reviews he managed to file the year before he passed away, the film is really a love story — his love of words, of movies, and of Chaz. In the end, cancer may have cruelly taken Roger Ebert's voice, but it couldn't silence his greatest gift: his ability to speak to his audience directly, honestly, and with empathy.” - Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
“The film is full of footage of Ebert battling his cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and conspiring with his longtime wife, Chaz, to sneak out of the hospital to go to the movies. He even sneaks information on his medical status to James that he shields from Chaz. (She, it should be noted, is in many ways the hero of the film: an astoundingly steadfast companion to her husband through his pain.) Despite surgeries that removed his lower jaw and left him unable to speak, Ebert kept typing away up to the end. He died a day after announcing his retirement. Shortly before his death, he wrote of his life, ‘You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.’ Thumbs up to that.” - Jake Coyle, AP
“The first image that springs to mind is a bit from a TV interview conducted not long before Roger's death, when Chaz loses her composure and instead of zooming in close to her tears, as a hack cameraperson might, it instead dips down to capture her hand and Roger's intertwined. Life can be harsh, sometimes unimaginably painful, but we reach out. Roger described cinema as "a machine that generates empathy." That's ‘Life Itself.’ It is an accessible, conventional nonfiction film, and yet at the same time it is wily and inventive, dodging and weaving to make easy labeling impossible, inspiring and engaging you, bending and breaking rules, inventing and reinventing itself as it goes along, much like Roger did.” - Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com
“‘Life Itself’ is a joy. It celebrates colorful characters, an indomitable spirit and a beautiful mind. It is how one man saw the world, and is, as Ebert might have said he lived to watch it on the big screen, what we go to the movies for.” - Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
“So many critics write to show off how much they know — it's a way of keeping you, whoever ‘you’ are, at arm's length. Ebert wrote to let you in. To read him is to feel you're pulling up a chair. Director Steve James captures that quality and more.” - Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice
“Anyone who's ever tended to a loved one will recognize the moments in which both patient and caregiver lose patience with the whole process, and with each other. Their love for each other shines through, even when she wants to occlude details from James (Roger sides with the director) and when he rolls his eyes at her optimism over his ongoing prognosis.” - Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
“James has unerring instincts as to what parts of Ebert's story are worth spending time on. It's another mark of the director's skill that he took me deeper into aspects of that life that I thought I knew the most about.” - Kenneth Turan, LA Times
“Long portions of the documentary are accompanied by voice-over narration from the 2011 memoir from which the film takes its name. But anyone who’s read that memoir […]will find herself puzzling over the fact that these vivid reminiscences are coming to us in the voice of a man who, at the time those words were written, no longer had a voice at all. In fact, the narrator is Stephen Stanton, a vocal impressionistwho’s an expert at “voice-matching,” and who captures Ebert’s familiar Midwestern cadences with uncanny accuracy. Finding Stanton was a major coup on James’ part. His incarnation of the critic is more than an impersonation; it’s a true performance, and it leaves the audience with the eerie feeling that Ebert has somehow come back to life long enough to tell his own story.” Dana Stevens, Slate
“‘Life Itself’ immortalizes without mythologizing. Carefully strung together backstory reveals a driven Ebert labeled an assortment of R-rated words by his closest companions. It was a frank and biting attitude necessary to regularly publish the Daily Illini, his college newspaper, and keep the quality up to snuff. Before he was writing about movies, Ebert was a straight-up news reporter (and a dynamite one at that).” - Matt Patches, IGN
“It's impossible for me to approach this documentary in any other way than to say even though I only met the man once and he was only able to share a few hand gestures with me because by that time he'd already lost the ability to speak, I felt like I knew him on some level. I know I'm not alone among the critical ranks and I know I'm note even a blip on the radar when it comes to the legacy he left behind, but the fact he was able to make me feel that way I think speaks to his power as a writer and as a person. So as much as this documentary may be an "In Memoriam" to Ebert, I guess my review of it is as well.” - Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon
“It's a terrific film about the man, loving movies, cancer, and the role of honest criticism that you don't need to be a critic to enjoy, though it inevitably leads this critic to think about why I do what I do. I don't think of myself as a disciple of Ebert, but his influence on me is undeniable. When I was still a little kid, Ebert (I preferred him to Siskel) showed me that movies should be enjoyed in context for what they are, not in comparison to an alleged golden age or an idea of what movies are supposed to be, and that movies could not only be art, but art that could be enjoyed and understood by everyone -- provided it was done well.” - Jonathan Kim, Huffington Post
“In his work, Ebert helped us see movies that way: vibrant, vital parts of our communal experience, made fuller by each of us who watches it and then discusses it with others. Movies help us think about who we are and how we live together. And as a movie, ‘Life Itself’ is a heartfelt, clear-eyed tribute to a master” - Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today
"Perhaps most touching is seeing the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic in his hospital bed, eyes shining wistfully, bravely facing the end. He speaks with characteristic directness about gaining strength by focusing on work. ‘When I am writing," he says. "I'm the same person I always was.’ And that person makes for a compelling subject, intimately portrayed in a revelatory documentary." - Claudia Puig, USA Today
“The classic I thought of after Ebert’s passing was ‘Macbeth,’ and the line ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.’ Because Ebert didn’t lie or hide or quit when the trouble struck him. He fought back. He went on. And he went out like any of the brave old heroes he used to sit and watch and dream of in the dark.” - Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger
“Scorsese appears in 'Life Itself' to reflect on his friendship with Ebert, noting that Ebert gave him a negative review for ‘The Color of Money’ that chastised the filmmaker for not challenging himself while never getting nasty; it was more of a “you can do better” tone, and Scorsese admitted that it was ultimately beneficial to him. The filmmaker also gets tearful when reminiscing about a very low point in his life that was literally saved when Ebert and Siskel invited him to accept an award at the Toronto International Film Festival.” - Adam Chitwood, Collider
“This personal story presents us with one of the best, most honest on-screen romances recently depicted on film. […] You get the sense it's that human aspect of the film that would make Roger Ebert most proud.” - Randy Myers, Mercury News
“Both a fitting tribute to one of the most influential voices in film history and a brutally honest look at who he really was. Director Steve James has made a perfect documentary and one of the year’s best films. By never sugarcoating yet still expressing what made him so important, ‘Life Itself’ is a whirlwind of emotions stuck inside a spectacular piece of film-making.” - Louie Schuth, Hypable
“Here’s the thing: whether you’re a film reviewer, a painter, a poet, a composer, a ceramicist, a filmmaker, or a painter of highway signs, these things you’ve made last, after you’re dead. Ebert’s life is a testimony to the importance, if you have such a talent, of exercising that privilege to the greatest of your ability, regardless of adversity. This film has been called many things: touching, moving, inspiring, saddening, fascinating, entertaining, and heartbreaking, among others. And it is all of these things. Almost more than these, though, it is sobering.” - Max Winter, Indiewire
“Even for someone like me, who knew Roger, the movie is a revelation. I don't think anyone outside his immediate inner circle recognized how deeply he suffered during those final months and years. The reason is simple: his voice, as expressed through his reviews and columns, rang out as clear as ever. His words throbbed with passion and life. When reading his last blogs, the image I always carried of Roger was of the man I walked alongside on the streets of Philadelphia in 1998 or whom I sat next to in theaters in Toronto, Park City, and Champaign-Urbana. If ‘Life Itself’ has taught me nothing else, it's this: I have always known Roger Ebert to be a better critic than I am; I now know he was a better man than I could ever hope to be.” - James Berardinelli, Reel Views
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