REVIEW – “Life Itself”


A countless number of aspiring couch critics have spoken of the role that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert played in nurturing their desire for film criticism. The various incarnations of their groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind movie review program entertained, broadened, and inspired generations of film fans. Siskel and Ebert became synonymous with film criticism and while they weren’t the only talented and knowledgeable movie critics during their day, they were instrumental in bringing it to the mainstream and creating a wider appreciation for it as a whole.

I was one of those kids they influenced. It was during the early 1980s that I was first exposed to their weekly television show. I watched them any opportunity I had and I made them part of my weekend. To say I was obsessed would be an understatement and almost instantly I wanted to be a movie critic. Eventually I began to favor Gene Siskel and the way he talked about movies. But over time my appreciation for Roger Ebert and his unmatched knowledge and passion for movies grew tremendously. While we were sometimes at odds concerning things outside the world of cinema, I considered him a wealth of information and his reviews were like fascinating lessons that increased my understanding of movies and of the people of make them. That’s one reason his passing last year had such an effect on so many people.

“Hoop Dreams” director Steve James brings the life of Roger Ebert to the big screen in “Life Itself”, a documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs. It’s a unique but heartfelt mixture of biographical information and poignant emotions. James began his documentary before Ebert’s death and when the beloved film critic passed away James pledged to the family that he would finish his joint venture with Roger.


“Life Itself” follows Ebert during what turned out to be his final months. We spend a lot of time with him in rehabilitation centers following his debilitating battles with cancer and a fractured hip. Some of what he is going through is sobering and uncomfortable but, as he conveyed to Steve James, to omit the reality would be to do a disservice. His wife Chaz serves as his rock and it is impossible not to be moved by her love and dedication to her husband. I also appreciated the truth that she shares in so many of the interview bits we get.

Throughout the film we get many breaks that look into Ebert’s past. We learn a little about his family and his early forays into the newspaper business. And of course we see his jump into film criticism for the Chicago Sun-Times and eventually alongside his local rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. The film has a genuine sense of honesty which shows itself in its dealings with Ebert’s past struggles with alcohol and his off-putting arrogance. But it also reveals deep passions that he possessed and how is life was forever altered for the better when he met Chaz. Personally I was drawn to his relationship with Siskel which was far more competitive and combative in its early stages that I realized. Watching the evolution of their relationship shined a new light on two men who I watched so religiously for so many years.

“Life Itself” is a solid documentary that will certainly appeal to anyone who appreciated Roger Ebert’s work and his contributions to motion pictures. I do think Steve James loses his rhythm midway through the film and his jumps to different events in Roger’s past are jarring due to a lack continuity. But the last act gets back on track and it leaves you with a lump in your throat and an even greater appreciation for a man who meant so much to movies and the art of film criticism. As the final credits scrolled across the screen I reclined in my chair and shook my head. I just can’t believe both Roger and Gene are gone.



I thought it might be fun to do a Phenomenal 5 that should surely spark discussion. I’m going to list five movies that I feel are incredibly overrated. Now I know there are many people who love the movies I’m listing and they have been defended as great films by many who are smarter than me. But for different reasons I didn’t find them to be the cinematic classics that they are heralded as. Some aren’t necessarily terrible movies. But none of these films worked for me. I actually found there to be more movies to consider than I thought there would be but I’m very comfortable with these five. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But for me, there’s no denying that these are 5 phenomenally overrated films…or are they?

#5 – “TOY STORY 3” (2010)

I can’t think of another movie review that I have written that stirred more people up than my take on “Toy Story 3”. The movie was incredibly popular and it was a gold mine for Pixar. It not only won the Best Animated Feature Oscar but it was also nominated for Best Picture. What surprised me even more is that the film found it’s way on countless Critic’s Top 10 lists for the year 2010. My biggest beef with “Toy Story 3” is that it’s pretty run-of-the-mill. The film is bookended by an outstanding opening and a touching ending but it’s everything in between that stumbles. It’s a repetitive drag that’s really nothing more than a typical loud cartoon. The middle has some serious issues with tone and it could have easily been 15 minutes shorter. Now “Toy Story 3” isn’t a bad movie but it’s also not one that I feel deserved the accolades it received. It has it’s share of flaws and I certainly feel it’s overrated.

#4 – “ANNIE HALL” (1977)

I have heard “Annie Hall” called the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I can’t say I agree. This much-loved film won several Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for Woody Allen. It’s also heralded as the 35th Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute (taken for what it’s worth). Now don’t misunderstand me, I did find “Annie Hall” to be funny in places. But I also found it to be repetitive and eventually a tad boring. It sometimes comes across as a standup comedy routine that uses the same material but presents it in slightly different ways. I can appreciate Allen’s wit but here he milks that cow dry. “Annie Hall” certainly isn’t terrible but I have a hard time calling it one of the best of all time. In fact, for me it’s not even close.

#3 – “EASY RIDER” (1969)

“Easy Rider” is considered a landmark counterculture movie and it ushered in a new style and method of filmmaking. It received several Oscar nominations and even today it’s listed as The American Film Institute’s 84th greatest movie of all time. Well, I have to disagree. Not only did I find “Easy Rider” flat and muddled but also annoying at times. It’s the hippie movement’s self-portrait that features more pot smoking and free spirit babbling than entertainment and enjoyment. Jack Nicholson is fun to watch and there is some good camera work and locations. But to be honest, I never connected with “Easy Rider”. It feels dated and features one of the most annoying movie scenes I have ever seen (the drug trip in cemetery). I know many love this movie. I’m not one of them.

#2 – “APOCALYPSE NOW” (1979)

I don’t have room to list all of the accolades, honors, and positive reviews that Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” has received. It was nominated for around 8 Academy Awards winning two. It hauled in three Golden Globe Awards and sits at #28 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list. Almost every prominent film critic has praised the movie. Roger Ebert even goes as far as to call it “one of the greatest of all films”. For me, “Apocalypse Now” is a mixed bag. It’s starts off well enough before really getting good when Robert Duvall hits the screen. The Air Calvary helicopter attack while “Ride of the Valkyries” blares from loud speakers is fantastic and Duvall’s nuttiness is a blast. But the movie flies off the rails with one of the most off-the-wall and numbing endings you’ll find. Look, I understand Coppola is saying a lot under the surface, but at some point I want to be entertained when watching a film. The hallucinogenic jungle cult, severed heads, and philosophical mumblings made “Apocalypse Now” a difficult movie for me to finish. I know that the film broke new ground in terms of filmmaking. It also tries to be too clever for it’s own good.

#1 – “AVATAR” (2009)

James Cameron’s box office juggernaut “Avatar” was an unequivocal critical and commercial success. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and at the time became the highest grossing movie of all time. Even fellow filmmakers like Steve Spielberg praised the movie comparing it to “Star Wars”. Through all the hype, I sat stunned at all of the obvious flaws that were overlooked and the passes that the movie was given for it’s shortcomings. To start out let me give it a little credit. Technically, “Avatar” is a stunner. It was the first movie to really show 3D as a powerful cinematic storytelling device. The motion capture technology was marvelous and the CGI action sequences were unlike anything I had seen before. But for me that’s all “Avatar” offers. First there’s nothing all that original about the story. It’s basically a sci-fi “Dances with Wolves”. It’s completely predictable and you know exactly how things are going to play out in the first 15 minutes. Then there’s the script. It features some of the silliest, cheesiest  lines particularly from the poorly portrayed military and the evil corporate head. Stephen Lang is laughably bad as the stereotypical soldier gone bad in what may be the worst performance of the decade. The movie also bludgeon’s the audience to death with Cameron’s forced environmental and political preachiness. He slams the military. He slams big corporations. He force feeds us his concepts of planet worship. And all of it is incredibly heavy-handed. Yes, “Avatar” is a technical milestone but you must have a good story to match. Instead, “Avatar” has a crappy story covered with a shiny coat of paint. That’s not enough for me.

So there you have them. 5 movies that have received plenty of praise but that I feel are overrated. I’m sure many disagree with my takes on these films. Please leave you comments about these movies or other popular films that you feel are overrated.