I started my real interest in movies around the age of 13. Growing up in Chicago, I had the distinct honor of being able to follow the most known movie critic of all time, Roger Ebert (even though an argument could be made for Pauline Kael and Gene Siskel, who died shortly before I got into movies).
I met Roger Ebert two times in my life. The first was in 2002, at the Ebert and Roeper Film Festival at see (the best eighth grade graduation present I could ask for). I could not talk to him. I was in awe. I mean, here is the guy who invented the saying “thumbs up” for crying out loud! I did at least get introduced to his “great movie series”, which I am still working through. Without him, I would have not been introduced to certain directors like Kurasawa, Ozu, or even get to know why there is a greatness to Scorsese. I would not have even been introduced to lesser known films that I now consider masterpieces (the first that come to mind is Whale Rider).
The second (and final) time I met him was in 2010 at a book signing. I got to see him up close after the torment he had gone through out the years. It was also my time to see his wife, Chaz. I can’t imagine, even after seeing the film, how grateful Roger was for her. I vowed I would try to ask at least one question, but I was silent again. I was in the presence of a legend. That is not to say I always agreed with him (how he did not like To Kill a Mockingbird is beyond me).
Now I get to the movie Life Itself, which shows Roger and Chaz just before his death. Directed by Steve James (who made the great documentary Hoop Dreams, which Ebert reviewed and used the term “Life Itself”), it spends half the movie talking about his life, the other half on his influence. I was almost literally glued to the screen, not wanting any distractions as this movie went on. There were scenes I found myself smiling, such as him going to his (and my) favorite restaurant, Steak N’ Shake. Even in a scene where he is in physical therapy, they show his shoes. I was smiling, because I have those type of shoes.
My only qualm with the film was its use of nudity. I am aware a film about Ebert could not be made without mentioning Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Also unknown to me was Gene Siskel’s early life around the playboy mansion. Still, I feel this movie would be great for young people who are wanting to see movies not as an escape, but as an art form. Is there something wrong with just mentioning it and not showing it? I mean, you can at least blur an image right? That said parents, I would say high school and above are fine (there is some swearing as well).
When Ebert died, I took it hard. Who else could I turn to? There are some I have found to look towards as inspiration (Richard Roeper, A.O. Scott, to name a couple) but there was only one Roger Ebert. It seems like I even felt he passed a torch on to me, in a way, to make sure people know what movies are and why we watch them.
I will always see him at the movies.
Overall: Four Stars ****