Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Worst. Movies. Ever.

Your Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert.. Andrews McMeel Publishing. 338 pages. $16.95

Here’s something you don’t hear said about many movie critics: people love Roger Ebert.

In the last few years, as he’s waged a tough fight against thyroid cancer with grace, humor, and class, his fans have been there for him, sending cards and letters and pictures holding their thumbs up.

There’s a good reason for this: he doesn’t stand between moviegoers and the audience. Rather, his regular readers are serious movie-lovers who see him as their rep, the guy out there fighting to make movies less stupid, more entertaining, more intelligent, more everything. You don’t have to agree with him -- and I certainly didn’t in this book, when he ragged on Team America and Jesus is Magic, two movies where I laughed myself sick -- to know that he’s on your side. He sees the bad movies so you don’t have to, and he’s seen the same ones over and over.

For some years, Ebert and his devotees have even kept a running list of common movie clichés and plot conventions. This book, his second collection of strictly negative reviews, following I Hated Hated Hated This Movie from 2000, suggests Hollywood has started using the list as a playbook.

There's the Wrong Gas Station movie, such as The Hills Have Eyes, where soon-to-be-disassembled innocents always stop at a gas station "located on a desolate road in a godforsaken backwater."

There’s the Talking Killer movie, such as Reindeer Games, where the bad guy would rather blab than shoot.

There’s what might be called the Relenting Parent movie, such as Bootmen and Raise Your Voice, where a Mom or Dad who has spent the entire movie discouraging his child's performing abilities sheepishly slips into the auditorium on opening night, swelling with parental pride as he or she realizes that Junior or Sissy really is talented after all.

Then there’s Ebert’s main pet peeve, the Idiot Plot: "the plot that would be solved in an instant if anyone on the screen said what was obvious to the audience."

"Perhaps,” as he says at one point, “movies are like history and repeat themselves, first as tragedy, and then as farce."

At the bottom of the heap, of course, are the usual slew of laugh-free teen-audience comedies, which depend in whole or in part on farting, excrement and semen, even elephant semen -- as in Tom Green’s masterpiece Freddy Got Fingered -- or worse. (He writes half-admiringly of Jenny McCarthy in Dirty Love: “Yes, it takes nerve to star in a scene where you plop down in a supermarket aisle surrounded by a lake of your own menstrual blood.”)

You have to wonder why Ebert hasn’t burned out, why he still puts on the protective suit and walks into one flaming pile of toxic waste after the next. What’s the point, you may reasonably ask. Do people who go see this crap even read reviews? What’s the point of even writing about them, unless it’s to deliver a string of put-downs?

Ebert certainly has a gift for put-downs. Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor is "about how on December 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle." Of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, he writes: "To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes."

Mere bile, though, isn’t his game; he’s as interested in why movies fail as why they work. Sometimes, well, a lot of the time, it’s obvious: because it’s made by morons for morons. In these cases, Ebert drags us through the plot in as entertaining a fashion as possible, pointing out the glaring groaners and random insults to collective intelligence. (As in Just Married, a movie "which underlines and emphasizes like a Power Point presentation for half-wits.")

At the other end of the scale, he has no patience for sanctimony, particularly when it comes to movies, high or low, that bully the audience, and which don't know the difference between revealing ugliness and being ugly.

Ebert has a few clichés of his own; he lectures a little too much about humor, he’s in love with the word "ungainly," and I think it's about time he retired the phrase: "It knows the words but not the music."

There are, also, times he sounds a tad disingenuous. "I am not really offended by the movie's gender politics," he says at the end of Beautiful Creatures, after spending the entire review being precisely that.

On balance, though, this book is a reminder why he’s the most entertaining and illuminating of all newspaper reviewers, as well as the most fair-minded and tough. He demands accountability. He wants to be repaid in kind for the sharp attention he brings to a movie.

Forty years on, he’s still a moviegoer’s best friend.

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