Thursday, April 18, 2013

RIP, Roger Ebert: The Good Soldier of Cinema Has Left the Building (as well as my reviews of the movies of March 2013)

Roger Ebert (1943-2013) has escaped into the future, into that dimension we have yet to see.

No matter what, fans of the Cinema of Weirdness have to love Roger Ebert because he wrote Russ Meyer’s 1970 magnum opus Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of the greatest movies ever made.
That’s Roger and Russ above—and if you don’t know which is which, what are you doing here?

Ebert went on to script two more flicks for Meyer: Up! (1976) and my fave, the beyond-whacky Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979).

As a teen, after only having the opinions of NYC-centric-intelligentsia critics like Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris to turn to (I won’t bother to comment on the nabobs and halfwits pretending to be critics on New York’s TV stations—even as a kid, I knew they were wastes of skin), discovering Roger Ebert via PBS’ Sneak Previews (I can still whistle its theme!) was a godsend: Ebert was a populist, but he was smart—and, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t a snob.

There was a reason that director (and later friend) Werner Herzog called Ebert “The Good Soldier of Cinema:” The guy LOVED the movies, and craved the new, eye-opening and soul-stirring. Ebert even praised 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, when every other “respectable” critic (with the exception of his TV co-host, the late Gene Siskel) spewed hot venom at the flick.

Best of all, he could write clearly, intelligently and with purpose—never falling back on “big words,” obtuse philosophizing (something that plagues current New Yorker critic Richard Brody) or “posing.”
Ebert’s criticism was concise and direct. He appreciated “high art” and sleazeball B-movies—as long as they were sharp and entertaining.

Roger Joseph Ebert was cooler than you or I could ever hope to be, bucking convention and trends in his criticism, his art and his life.

And let us not forget that Ebert was such a cultural force that he (and Siskel) wound up satirized in John Carpenter’s 1988 political satire They Live (image at left).

Some fun links about RE:
—Big Rog’s last review—thank goodness it was a film that deserved this honor: Malick’s most recent.
—Always marching to the beat of his own drummer, here are some movies Ebert defended that others completely slammed
—A recipient of one of Ebert’s bad reviews has the opportunity to meet the critic
It was only after he died that I found out he was a recovering alcoholic; here’s a recommended autobiographical article about it.

BTW, in honor of the fab Mr. E, this edition of LERNER INTERNATIONAL is gonna swipe his patented method of insta-reviewing: Thumbs Up, or Thumbs Down.
Read on…

It’s kinda funny: As this blog progresses, my movie choices become more and more eclectic, if not downright weird.
And that’s good. To hell with the Hollywood Propaganda Machine and its Electro-Dynamic Process of Thought Reform!
Long Live the Strange! (It’s what Roger would’ve wanted…)

Vampire Bride (Hanayome Kyuketsuma) (1960; Kyotaro Namiki) Old school Nippon B-movie craziness: an actress is pushed off cliff by rivals, and her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-etc.-grandma, a sorceress, gives her the power of the yeti-bat (I don’t know what else to call it) to get revenge.
Unfortunately, the now-undead actress still has a conscious, and it keeps getting in the way of her supernatural retribution!
Dumb fun, with lots of cool location-shooting around Tokyo and surrounding suburbs.
Thumbs Up

30 for 30: Straight Outta L.A. (2010; Ice Cube) Reviewed HERE 
Thumbs Up

Doomsday Book (2012; Kim Ji-woon and Yim Pil-sung) Reviewed HERE 
Thumbs Down

Meatballs (1979; Ivan Reitman) Thumbs Up, natch.
A stupid and sloppy but fun movie that has an earnest and genuine working class/proletariat vibe—and excellent Zen messages.
There’s a sweetness and a male-female parity that hasn’t shown up again in teen-oriented summer comedies as far as I can tell: having a woman (Janis Allen) on the screenwriting staff was a good idea. The flick isn’t as misogynistic or lecherous as those that have followed.

Unlike so many comedies (for both adults and teens) that are wish-fulfillment fantasies that end with the protagonist rich and “happy” (ending up essentially like the villains of the piece were at the beginning), this film does not try and “social climb” or get its characters to want to be something they are not.

Meatballs would be ultimately completely forgettable if it weren’t for its essential philosophical messages, all from star Bill Murray (in his first “major” film):
At the basketball game: “I’m not going to lie to you guys: There’s no way we’re gonna beat this team… We’re gonna lose. But we can lose with some self-respect.” [Subvert the system; don’t buy into The Man’s program]

Early on, there’s this exchange between Bill and Rudy, the lonely kid with no friends, when the youngster is trying to leave the camp early because his lack of sports ability has been ridiculed—
Rudy: “I want them to like me.”
Bill (almost shocked): “Why? [pause] You make one good friend a summer, and you’re doing pretty well. If you have trouble, come to me and I’ll help you.” [The crowd isn’t to be trusted]

But the film’s most (in)famous philosophical message is now regarded as a classic:
And even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man woman and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!
(To see the clip, go HERE)

He’s right, it just doesn’t matter, not especially stupid games at a summer camp in a world where most people are greedy and easily swayed by superficialities.
I wish I had absorbed this message better when I first saw the film as a kid—but it’s tough to claim this Zen calm when you’re surrounded by adults (coaches, teachers and parents) who are complete assholes. Just try to remember it, and you’ll get enough strength one day to split from their crazy death trip. You might wind up on your own crazy death trip, but it’s yours and yours alone.

Cosmopolis (2012; David Cronenberg) Reviewed HERE 
Thumbs Down (hate to say it, but there it is)

 A perturbed, but still sexy, Jessica Lange in King Kong
King Kong (1976; John Guillermin; produced by Dino De Laurentiis; special makeup effects by Rick Baker)
Saw this twice in the theaters when I was a kid; but it’s not as bombastic and action-packed as I remembered.
The flick is actually an interesting commentary-with-parodic-elements of corporate greed and the raping of the earth
Jessica Lange is hot; and not as bad an actress as she was accused of at the time: she’s playing a ditz, but the audience had nothing to compare it to (and wrongly assumed she was just a dumb blonde, hired for her hot bod). The supporting cast is great, especially Charles Grodin as a venal oil exec.

Thumbs Up (because who doesn’t love giant monster movies?)

BTW, I liked Dino’s version much, much, much more than Peter Jackson’s hyperactive flick, a movie that seems much more cocaine-addled than this Disco-era remake.

The essential John Kenneth Muir spent more time than I’m willing to address 1976’s King Kong: His insightful comments HERE.

Coup de Tete (1979; Jean-Jacques Annaud) A French soccer hooligan’s revenge against corporate bosses and hypocritical townsfolk—great stuff! Reviewed HERE.
Thumbs Up, Way Up

A Sunday in Hell (1976; Jørgen Leth) is a film only for cycling enthusiasts. With the exception of a few stunning shots of dozens of racers going through the French countryside and a crack-up or two, a non-cycling audience would be bored.
Thumbs Down

Kongo (1932; William Cowen) Walter Huston does Kurtz in a feverish pre-code nightmare—a must-see.  Reviewed HERE.
Thumbs Up, of course.

Pictures of Light (1994; Peter Mettler) A wasted opportunity, despite about 20 minutes of exquisite footage of the Aurora Borealis, something I want to see with my own eyes one day.
Thumbs Down

Stoker (2013; Park Chan-wook) LOVED it! Reviewed HERE
Thumbs Up, very, very up.

End of Watch (2012; David Ayer) Well-crafted action scenes save this shallow cop drama from complete mediocrity, but it’s Michael Pena’s performance that really saves the day. Pena was the best thing in 2009’s sick comedy Observe and Report, and here he steals the show again. Jeez, somebody get this actor a primo project STAT!
Meanwhile Jake Dreamy-Eyes latest attempt at machismo doesn’t fail, but seems, well, really out of place.
Thumbs Down

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954; Kenneth Anger) Beautiful weirdness that is almost beyond criticism: either you get it or you don’t. (Honestly, though, being familiar with Aleister Crowley helps a lot with this stunning short—watch it HERE).
Thumbs Up

Selective Service System (1970; Dan Lovejoy, Warren Haack)
Screened as part of the Spectacle Theater’s ongoing tribute to Amos Vogel’s Film as Subversive Art
A dude (Dan Lovejoy) shoots himself in the foot to avoid going to Vietnam in this short documentary.
Holy shit, this is gnarly. Thank Cthulhu it’s only 11 minutes long.
Thumbs Up, but only if you can take grueling shots of a foot squirting real blood all over a room.
(Imagine if they brought back the draft: this would be happening all the time. Of course, then people would pay a bit more attention to the “fun & games” the military-industrial-congressional chicken-hawks send the poor to die in.) 

Porcile (Pigpen) (1969; Pier Paolo Pasolini) Reviewed HERE 
Thumbs Down

Death Wish (1974; Michael Winner)
“Nothing in this worthless world ever mattered more than Charles Bronson,” writes Zack Carlson in Destroy All Movies!!!, the punk-rock movie encyclopedia. “As an icon of male aggression, he will never be equaled.”

Yep, Death Wish is a highly reactionary flick, programmed to piss off liberals and preach to the right-wing choir, but everybody who’s ever been mugged will love this movie (even a leftie like me; mugged at gunpoint in Brooklyn in the late-1980s, thank you very much).
This is Michael Winner’s classic, with Bronson actually acting, and an important document of the time, trumping Dirty Harry even, due to the director’s artless and grim realism, and excellent location photography.

Of course, the flick’s thick-headed fascist trash that ignores social issues for knee-jerk answers.
Thumbs Up, but not if you’re a “birther” or a wingnut: you don’t need more encouragement.

Breaking Bad [the first half of] Season Five (2012; eight episodes; created by Vince Gilligan)
Walter White has revealed his true asshole self—which was always there, just hidden—
I love this show (like most of America), and wish that I knew how to make some quick cash cooking up crystal meth in my bathtub.

Thumbs Up, very up—I love this show, and can’t wait for the conclusion. I mean, if he’s buying an M-60 machine gun in the first scene of the season, that piece of people-killing machinery has got to be used. Chekov, yo.

One reason I love Breaking Bad is that—with the exception of main character Walter White (who seems to now think of himself as “Heisenberg” full time)—all the characters could be right out of a Donald Westlake/Richard Stark novel: heck, Mike the Fixer is basically a septuagenarian Parker!
All these people—except Walter—are professionals; even Jesse in his own lowbrow way. They would be doing their jobs and committing their crimes and making money on a regular basis, with a minimum of muss and fuss.

But selfish Walter is a force of chaos, wrecking their plans as he imposes his childish ego on the situation.

This is not the story of a good man gone bad—it’s the story of an awful, terrible man who’s hidden his dark side under a “dork side” for so long that even he believes the lie that he is “a nice guy.”
The cancer was his true nature eating him up from the inside—and when he starts killing and destroying and not caring about it, the cancer goes into remission.

So why did Walter ever leave Sandia Labs (where they build the atomic weapons for the US arsenal) in the first place, and how did he end up as a lowly, poorly-paid high school teacher after that? He really must’ve burned some bridges, and his enormous pride has kept him from mending any fences.
Pride is probably the most inexcusable of sins, and Walter’s an egotistical, arrogant asshole.

And with all their money (even just the stuff that’s been money laundered), why hasn’t the White family gotten a new home? Their place is a dingy, dark mess—kinda gross actually—at least get some new furniture, dudes!

Franklin J. Schaffner,
who also directed The Planet of the Apes,
Patton and Papillion
he should’ve stuck to films with “P” in the title!
The Boys From Brazil (1978; Franklin J. Schaffner) Big budget trash, one step above They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
But the flick does have a very interesting, much overlooked subtext: that all the elements for the creation of a Fourth Reich are already in place—the parents and their vile socio-political beliefs.

Sure, the kids are all Hitler clones, but that is meaningless: the parents are the ones who form the boys’ personalities (which is why the Nazis chose them in the first place).
Sly stuff that’s overshadowed by the rest of the bloat.

Thumbs Up, but recognizing this flick is trash—BTW, remember that Sneak Previews link above? Go to that, and at the 20 minute mark, you can watch Siskel & Ebert slam The Boys From Brazil (and later, the two dump on Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, and Joe Dante’s Piranha: well, no one was perfect, not even the late Mr. Ebert…).

The Killer Nun (1978; Giulio Berruti) Unholy insanity, with dope-addicted murderous nuns, featuring cruelty to the elderly, wheelchair sex, lesbianism, copious nudity, poor dubbing and even more insanity. Perfect six-pack movie.
Thumbs Up

(*) = read before
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (play) Fascinating stuff, although it should be considered very dated, and perhaps far too cynical than it needs to be.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (graphic novel)—interesting, if light, look at life north of the 38th Parallel, as a French animator must spend time in the capital city of North Korea (this week’s enemy of “freedom”). 

(*) The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick—Not science fiction, but a brilliant and sad roman a clef looking at the life (and death) of the now-largely-forgotten controversial spiritual leader Bishop James Pike of the Episcopalian Church (who also inspired the main character’s name in The Wild Bunch, no lie).

(*) The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie—one of my faves, using art to explore the psyche of the infamous Soviet tyrant. This was the third or fourth time I’ve read it.

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James—an interesting idea looking and the whys and whats of the “asshole,” but also a boring, humorless book, due to its adherence to being a philosophy text first and foremost. It’s a magazine article that’s been given enough rope to hang itself.

Pssst! Guess what? I have finally joined the 21st century and gotten a Twitter account! Check me out: woo-hoo!

Bonus: Click HERE to see some music videos I directed about a gazillion years ago… 


  1. Lovely tribute to Ebert, Ivan. It's been good to see all these bloggers come out to pay their respects to the man.

    By the way, I've nominated you for a Liebster Award over at my blog.

  2. This is awesome. You nailed it, that Ebert, a 'populist' wil be forever cool, if not for his HONEST outspokeness, for the fact that he penned amazing movies for RM. And your reportage on recent films seen is, as always, inspiring and joyful. And hey, I was there for Japanese vampire brides and killer nuns, so consider myself privileged!

  3. Thank you both! And I'm sorry for the recent paucity of postings: socio-economic-psychic factors have been conspiring against me lately.

    Aubyn: God bless you and the ground you walk upon for this honor; I will do my best to live up to this praise! (Hopefully, it won't take me too long to complete my portion of the Liebster Awards!)


  4. Ebert's reviews were clear and concise, and I like his writing, but have mixed feelings about his opinions. Like most people passionate about their subject, when Ebert was wrong, he was really wrong.

    "The characters are bitter and hateful, the images are nauseating, and the ending is bleak enough that when the screen fades to black it's a relief… Videodrome, whatever its qualities, has got to be one of the least entertaining films of all time."

  5. T-stubz: Thanks for doing the R&D to find an example of RE getting it wrong--although what's funny to me is that RE is right, but he's coming at it from the wrong direction! (Okay, I don't think Max is "bitter and hateful"...)

  6. Well, it’s a nice one, I have been looking for. Thanks for sharing such informative stuff.