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Life Itself (2014)
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Life Itself is a documentary by the director of Hoop Dreams that examines life of acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert, who died in 2013. It traces both his career -- both as a newspaper critic and on his popular TV show with Gene Siskel -- and his personal life, including his late-in-life marriage and the impact of the debilitating disease that robbed him of his ability to speak and eat but not think and write. Expect some brief swearing ("s--t," "f--k," etc.), a few quick nude/sex scenes in clips of old movies, and a good deal of talk about drinking and Ebert's eventual realization that he had an alcohol problem.
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What's the story?
Beloved film critic Roger Ebert had a huge appetite -- not just for movies, but for life. He adored and was enormously loyal to his friends, he valued artistry both high and low, and -- most of all -- he wanted to, as Henry David Thoreau said, "suck out all the marrow" out of LIFE ITSELF. This documentary traces Ebert's career as a lifelong reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and his sometimes-combative yet important and loyal friendship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, his partner on their long-running TV show. The movie also delves into Ebert's personal life, including his early days as a raconteur who indefatigably held daily court at a Chicago saloon (and later realized he had a drinking problem), and his later-in-life dealings with love and marriage. And then there's the cancer that ultimately claimed his life, stealing his ability to speak (among many other things), but never his deep and compelling desire to communicate through his writing.
Is it any good?
Life Itself is a beautiful documentary that befits a man as complex, intelligent, and compassionate as Roger Ebert. As with many biographical films, viewers get to know the writer from childhood on -- born in a small Illinois town, dad was an electrician, mom was a homemaker, always wanted to be a journalist. But that's just the beginning; as the film goes on, Ebert's portrait (which he narrates himself in spots) gains texture not just through the many interviews with friends who share memories of a man with an deep yearning to experience as much as he could -- and demanded the same from the art he reviewed -- but time with Ebert himself, who remains eloquent even when cancer has made it impossible for him to speak.
No matter the impact of his disease, he still had his words on paper, and with these, Ebert never stopped sharing his wisdom. Some people might have sunk into bitterness and despair, but Life Itself shows that Ebert remained optimistic and joyful. He had no qualms about showing his face, even after surgery left him visibly disfigured. It's easy for a film to show what a man accomplished. Life Itself excels by showing us who the man really was. As Ebert himself says in a clip from the first few minutes of the film, "The movies are like a machine that generates empathy." Life Itself, as part of that machinery, succeeds.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the film portrays Roger Ebert, both as a film critic and as a person. Why was he so influential? How does knowing more about his personal life impact your opinion of his film criticism?
How does the film treat Ebert's illness? What do you think about the way it showed him even after his face was so changed?
What do you think about Ebert's relationships -- with his friends, his wife Chaz, and his fellow critic Gene Siskel? Was Siskel a friend, a colleague, or both?