The Dark Side of Roger Ebert

By Deane Barker tags: entertainment

(Note: This post was originally made in October 2004 to an earlier incarnation of this site. It was good enough to recover from the Internet Archive and re-post.)

(Another note: I sent the original URL to this post to Ebert at his AnswerMan email at the Chicago Tribune. I got a response within about 30 minutes, that said something to the effect of “Wow, you must be a really big fan – RE.” This is the second email I’ve gotten from Ebert, believe it or not. I discuss the other one at the end of this post.)

I’ve loved Roger Ebert’s movie reviews for years. He writes the best long-form review in the business, even though that form at is falling out of favor. You see a lot of short-form reviews (a la Leonard Maltin), but Ebert essentially writes an essay on each film.

Ebert’s reviews are so good that I tend to read them more after I’ve seen a film. They help me understand the film much better. Often, I’ll read them both before and after.

I especially like Ebert when he tears a film apart. He’s exceptionally eloquent, and he can light into a film like no one else in print. My buddy Joe sent me a link this week to a film Ebert ripped up: I Heart Huckabees:

The movie is like an infernal machine that consumes all of the energy it generates, saving the last watt of current to turn itself off. It functions perfectly within its constraints, but it leaves the viewer out of the loop. This may be the first movie that can exist without an audience between the projector and the screen. It falls in its own forest, and hears itself.

Surprisingly, he gave the film two stars (out of four), which isn’t that bad. Now, while this bit flows nicely, it lacks the viciousness that has characterized past victims. Obviously Joe has been sheltered from past rants, and needs to be introduced to the dark side of Roger Ebert…

We’ll start with an easy target – perhaps the most reviled film of the last five years, Battlefield Earth:

“Battlefield Earth” is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. it’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way […]

Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in “The Fugitive.” I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.

Oh, that’s good stuff. Here’s another good one, though it’s not a review. After Cannes last year, Ebert got into a war of words with Vincent Gallo, director of The Brown Bunny. Ebert said:

I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.

Gallo countered with a snide comment about Ebert’s weight, to which Ebert replied:

It is true that I am fat. But one day I shall be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.

The amusing postscript of this is that Gallo re-edited the film and re-released it earlier this year. Ebert reviewed it again, and this time gave it three stars:

But then a funny thing happened. Gallo went back into the editing room and cut 26 minutes of his 118-minute film, or almost a fourth of the running time. And in the process he transformed it.

That’s a big step forward from:

The audience was loud and scornful in its dislike for the movie; hundreds walked out, and many of those who remained only stayed because they wanted to boo. Imagine, I wrote, a film so unendurably boring that when the hero changes into a clean shirt, there is applause.

But we digress. Let’s jump back into Ebert’s reviews with a quote from the review of Tom Greene’s 2001 masterpiece, Freddy Got Fingered:

This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.

And how about She’s Out of Control, a 1989 vehicle starring Tony Danza:

What planet did the makers of this film come from? What assumptions do they have about the purpose and quality of life? I ask because “She’s Out of Control” is simultaneously so bizarre and so banal that it’s a first: the first movie fabricated entirely from sitcom cliches and plastic lifestyles, without reference to any known plane of reality.

Here’s the opening to his review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from last year:

The new version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a contemptible film: Vile, ugly and brutal. There is not a shred of a reason to see it.

He gets downright offended at Tomcats:

If the details are gross, the movie’s overall tone is even more offensive. All sex comedies have scenes in which characters are embarrassed, but I can’t remember one in which women are so consistently and venomously humiliated, as if they were some kind of hateful plague.

Those are pretty good, but cheap, because these films aren’t expected to be high-brow. What I like even more is when he shreds films that are trying very hard, but which Ebert hates anyway. How about The Life of David Gale, a film in which the director and three stars have been nominated for a total of eight Oscars over the years, winning two:

The direction is by the British director Alan Parker, who at one point had never made a movie I wholly disapproved of. Now has he ever. […] this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein. […]

The last shot made me want to throw something at the screen – maybe Spacey and Parker.

But, you will never beat his review North, a film supposed to be a warm, family-oriented comedy about a kid who “divorces” his parents and goes looking for new ones. This deserves entry into the pantheon of film reviews.

I have no idea why Rob Reiner, or anyone else, wanted to make this story into a movie, and close examination of the film itself is no help. “North” is one of the most unpleasant, contrived, artificial, cloying experiences I’ve had at the movies. To call it manipulative would be inaccurate; it has an ambition to manipulate, but fails. […]

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

That second paragraph even inspired a book by Ebert: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, which is an anthology of reviews of the worst films he’s ever seen. (Perhaps surprisingly, I have not read it, probably because I would self-destruct from laughter.)

If these quotes have whet your appetite, head off to Ebert’s site. Advanced search will let you search by number of stars. Set it to return films between zero and one-half stars, and strap yourself in.

(Small final note: I got an email from Ebert once. I noticed one week that he had given out some great ratings. I don’t remember the week, but he reviewed five films and the lowest rating was three stars. I sent him an email about it and he responded two weeks later with:

Those are, collectively, a batch of pretty good films. – RE

Greatest email I’ve ever received.)

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