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CHICAGO - Sometimes two things you’re trying to review overlap in an unexpected and astounding way. Such is what happened when watching Life Itself a documentary about Roger Ebert and poking through Herzog: The Collection boxset. Ebert gets quoted from his review of My Best Fiend, Werner Herzog’s documentary about his relationship with Klaus Kinski.

My Best Fiend is about two men who both wanted to be dominant, who both had all the answers, who were inseparably bound together in love and hate, and who created extraordinary work - while all the time each resented the other’s contribution,” wrote Ebert.

Ebert could have used those words to describe his relationship with Gene Siskel. While Steve James’ documentary is primarily about Ebert’s life, Siskel’s biography is also presented. The duo became inseparable. They changed the way Americans viewed movie critics. Yet they were far from a couples act. They were more Ali-Frazier than Abbott & Costello.


What made them special is that they really did hate each other for the longest time. They worked at rival Chicago newspapers and neither one wanted to play the schmuck. Roger worked at the Sun-Times and made movies with Russ Meyer. Siskel was the main man at the Chicago Tribune and palled around with Hugh Hefner. Roger won a Pulitzer. Gene owned John Travolta’s suit from Saturday Night Fever. Roger was fat. Gene was bald. Ultimately they were a critical Laurel & Hardy with vengeance in their souls. When they were put together on a local Chicago PBS station to review movies, what they lacked in TV ready technique, they made up in a fireworks show. This is what made their show special since the animosity was real. This wasn’t pro wrestling. After the cameras were turned off the duo didn’t hit the bars as pals. Life Itself digs up amazing outtakes of them turning on each other during promo shoots. The two don’t crack each other up so much as stab each other in the back for each blown take.

The duo didn’t seem to be able to truly enjoy their success together. Which might have been a good thing since that’s what made the show popular. There have been numerous clones of Siskel & Ebert since they arrived in 1975 and none of them had any real impact. Why? Because the other shows featured people who were professional to each other since they wanted success. There’s talk of how Siskel lived in fear that Ebert would pull the plug on their TV show and go solo. Ebert eventually got his wish of being free of Siskel when his co-star died in 1999.

Steve James doesn’t do much to explore the post- Siskel era when Ebert looked for a new buddy for At the Movies. Richard Roeper doesn’t get much profile in the documentary. I didn’t have a chance to ask James is this omission was just a case of not enough time or he didn’t want to mess up the narrative. Roeper worked with Ebert for close to a decade on the show, but the show lacked the spark. Mainly because Roeper was a co-worker at the Chicago Sun-Times. He knew that Ebert was the top dog. Eventually Roger’s loss of his jaw and voice made him quit the show. I had written Ebert that he ought to hire Michael Lerner to play him on the show. The two looked like brothers. But Ebert never wrote back on that idea.

Roger Ebert was the last newspaper movie critic. When he died last year, everyone rushed to write his obituary. His was the an obit on the peak of a pink slip mountain filled with forgotten newspaper film reviewers. In the world of draconian cuts at newspaper chains, the movie critic was the first to put their belonging in a box and get escorted past the presses. Reporters were often jealous of the staff movie critic since they got to spend a majority of their work day at a movie theater instead of working for a living. Nowadays the movie reviewer in your paper is yanked off a wire service or a local that gets paid a flat fee to email over their review. There will probably never be another Ebert level reviewer in Chicago or any other major city.

Life Itself does a fine job documenting the decline of Ebert’s health. Numerous operations for cancer ends up with him missing his lower jaw bone when James arrives in his hospital room. It is strange to see the movie critic begin to resemble a Tom Savini-Rick Baker creation. But even without the ability to talk, he’s still Ebert in his eyes. What doesn’t get discussed with Ebert is his decline in being able to elevate small films.

Personally the most frustrating moment in the film is the arrival of Ramin Bahrani at Ebert’s hospital room. I worked with Ramin at the NC School of the Arts School of Filmmaking. Back then, he was a serious douchebag. Even when he was trying to appear nice, he came off as such an Ivy League douchebag. Did I mention he was a douchebag? He was. But somehow he’s become a filmmaker who gets plenty critical and festival love. Ebert pushed Ramin’s poorpolitation flicks hard over the years. But odds are high that even the limited audience that will see Life Itself will wonder who is Ramin when he appears in the film. They certainly didn’t show up for At Any Price, his major flop about genetically modified corn starring genetically modified corn Zac Efron. A slight few will remember Ramin as the director who terrorized his child star in Chop Shop. The closest he had to a hit was Goodbye Solo which even with a serious push from Ebert couldn’t clear a million bucks at the box office.

I had a little hope that Ramin had somehow become the soulful cinematic genius since I last saw him at the end of the 20th century. But that isn’t the case. Ramin shows off a puzzle Ebert had given him. This is a puzzle that had passed along by various famous people included Marilyn Monroe. Ramin is such a major douchebag as he shows it off. He’s the least important of all the owners of this puzzle. He might as well nabbed it on eBay. It’s rather painful to think that this will be the end of the line for the puzzle since Ramin will probably be buried with it. At least Ramin showed up at Ebert’s hospital room.

It rather hurt to notice that Ebert lost the ability to champion a small film that didn’t have a serious marketing budget into a hit. Ebert couldn’t warn people from wasting their money on a crappy Hollywood film that had a massive marketing campaign. In the end, the only thing Roger Ebert had the power to champion was Roger Ebert. In a world where newspaper film critics were a vanishing breed, survival can’t be completely mocked. Luckily for Ebert, he has his widow and Steve James who will make sure his legacy isn’t dumped at paper drive. Life Itself is a poignant view of who lived by his thumb.

PSA

Will the person who took Casey Kasem’s body please return it to the funeral home? You have until the count of 40.

WERNER TIME

There will be a bigger review of Shout! Factory’s Herzog: The Collection in the next column What needs to be said right now is that the boxset contains 16 of his films on Blu-ray. This is a mix of his documentaries and his dramas including all 5 of his movies made with Klaus Kinski. The German filmmaker is an adventurer with a camera. This boxset will turn your large screen HDTV into the best retro house in the world. Aguirre, the Wrath of God brings out the lush jungle in the 1080p transfer. Grab this collection quick since it is a limited edition run.


SCREAM FACTORY SHOUTS

Ginger Snaps: Collector’s Edition reminds us that young ladies can be werewolves too. The Fitzgerald sisters aren’t so happy stuck in Canadian suburbia. They are goth gals to the extreme. Brigette (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) spend their free time staging and photographing themselves in death scenes. They hate their classmates. The only exciting thing in the town is an unsolved series of dogs murdered in backyards. The girls have had it with the school’s queen bee. They plot revenge, but before they can put their plan in action, Ginger gets attacked by a supernatural creature. She heals quickly from the attack. Others things change on Ginger including her libido, unwanted hair and a tail. She’s becoming a werewolf. Brigette does her best to save her sister. She even befriends the local dope dealer who might know about a few way to turn the curse. Ginger Snaps strikes the right balance of fear and comedy that was previously achieved in American Werewolf in London. The film wears its Canadian nature proudly. It feels like a David Cronenberg After School Special. There’s also a DVD in the combo box. The creative team of John Fawcett and Karen Walton are now behind the BBCAmerica hit Orphan Black. The bonus features include a documentary about the movie. There’s also a round table of women discussing the impact of the movie. Fawcett and Walton give commentary tracks. There’s deleted scenes that have commentaries so the filmmakers can explain why they didn’t make the cut. Video shows the auditions and scenes being worked out. If you’ve been a fan of Ginger Snaps since it snuck over the border and arrived at Blockbuster (remember that place?), this collector’s edition will be a fine addition to your prestigious collection.


Southern Comfort isn’t a Scream Factory release but it ought to be viewed as a horror film. A group of National Guard Troops are doing their weekend warrior training in the Louisiana swamps. Included in their ranks is Peter Coyote, David Carradine, Fred Ward and Powers Boothe. They get assigned their mission as part of a massive war games. Since they’re stuck in a watery swamp, they borrow a few unattended boats to get to their position. Instead of asking permission, one of the crew fires his rifle at the locals. He thinks it’s funny since they’re only packing blanks in their magazines. However the cajuns don’t notice. They return fire with real ammo. This attack leads to a fatality and loss of map and compass. Even though the Guardsmen are in their home state, they are lost in enemy territory. The cajuns aren’t happy. The film was made in a time before spice racks were filled with cajun seasoning so they were a rather unknown culture in America. This was made during that time that director Walter
Hill was on his hot streak. Southern Comfort has a bit in common with his The Warriorswith a gang of men stuck in a bad place. Except the Warriors could figure out their escape thanks to the subway map. The Guardsmen are as good as dead as their green uniforms stick out from the local color. Thankfully Hill didn’t get a chance to ruin Southern Comfort as he did with that lame director’s cut of The Warriors. The bonus features include a documentary with cast and crew discussing their time in the swamp.


VINEGAR SYNDROME

Peekarama: All Night Long & Tapestry of Passion delivers on the promise of Big 2 Unit Show since this is a double feature of John Holmes. All Night Long is the classic tale of two men doing their best to prove they’re the best. John Holmes and Rick Lutze have their reputations on the line as they go all out. It’s like speed eating without pants. There is an award show so make sure you’re properly attired. Tapestry of Passion gives us John Holmes in his iconic role of private investigator Johnny Wadd. This is what Boogie Nights spoofed. This latest case might once more be the last for Wadd. He must track down the person who killed John Leslie. The case is a bit complicated since he might be the victim of a murder cult. The prime suspect turns out to be a true black widow killer. She poisons her victims and then wears them out until they drop dead in bed. Wadd proves to be Sam Spade without pants that slow down his investigation. Vinegar Syndrome has once more done their best in restoring these grindhouse features. Both films have their original trailers.


Peekarama: Erotic Adventures of Candy & Candy Goes to Hollywood is a double feature from Gail Palmer. She’s a real woman who appears in her trailers although there’s rumors that Bob Chinn really called the shots. Gail is not the star of her two Candy films. That honor belongs to Carol Connors who had a role in Deep Throat. She’s a blond with the hairstyle used in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She’s a virginal girl who wishes she could be bad in Erotic Adventures of Candy (1978). She has plenty of fantasies, but doesn’t want to go against her father’s wishes. Her libido gets the best of her with a gardner and this leads to her father getting checked into a hospital. Even with such trauma, Candy wants to keep up the fun. She goes off the deep end with an encounter with John Holmes. Candy Goes to Hollywood (1979) has her looking to be a star. She’s willing to do anything to please anyone with a part for her. She doesn’t need a casting couch. There’s even a Gong Show spoof that features the Unknown comic and Wendy O. Williams doing the ping pong ball trick. Candy hooks up with a faux Johnny Carson. Both films have fine production budgets and happening soundtracks. Carol Connors does a fine job bringing the tale of Candy to the big screen.


MST3K MADNESS

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX is the 30th boxset from the beloved series that dared to talk back to the movie. While it’s hard to get a real count, that does mean way over half of the beloved 197 episodes have now come out on DVD. The XXX does not signify that this has the more adult features. Although Crow and Tom Servo appear to be not wearing any clothes in several scenes. The Black Scorpion is the last of the first season one episodes to arrive on DVD. This means we get to say goodbye to Larry (Josh Weinstein). For a long time, MST3K was supposedly not happy about rerunning their first season on the Comedy Channel. But now fans can enjoy them all including the grand finale. The Black Scorpion is best remembered because King Kong’s Willis O’Brien did the special effects. In order to save money, he brought a few creatures back from Kong. He did a great job for a low budget film about giant scorpions running around Mexico. They ended the first season on a high note. The segments include a really bad history of Mexico that mocks the limited knowledge of the Bots. Joel really gets his Spanish wrong. The big bonus features is the history of the movie including how O’Brien got involved. Outlaw (of Gor) (season five) is a fantasy field day. A college professor can travel through space to a distant world called Gor where men are men and women are slave girls or evil queens. He takes a buddy with him to experience this strange world. Mike and the Bots can’t get enough of this D&D universe. The bonus features explore the Gor novels written by John Norman. They also interview Bud Cardos and producer Harry Alan Towers. Most of the film was made in South Africa when it wasn’t cool. Producer Towers points out that he had the white and black members of the crew eat together which wasn’t something done in that country back then.

The Projected Man (season 9) is the classic tale of a scientist who creates a transporter device. Naturally something goes really wrong when he tries it on himself. He’s not happy with the outcome. This episode is best known for being the end of the great chase between the Satellite of Love and Pearl in her VW Microbus. The SoL is now attached to Pearl’s castle. Pearl, Bobo and the Brain Guy now have a home. There’s a fun routine when the Bots come up with a device to transport Mike’s most precious objects. There’s a bonus feature that explains how this film came about. It Lives By Night (season 10) brings us the threat of werebats! A couple hiking in the desert during their honeymoon end up with the husband being bit by a bat. But he gets something worse than rabies. He needs blood and doesn’t care where it comes from. Pearl sprays Mike and the Bots in hopes of making them mutants. Mike and Crow get into a mustache growing contest. This is just another collection that will fill your night with quips.


BLU-RAY HEAVEN

Black Dynamite: Season One brings the over the top retro fun of the movie to the animated mayhem that’s Adult Swim. The movie was a tribute to the low budget ’70s black action films that made legends out of Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Jim Kelly, Rudy Ray Moore and Pam Grier. The animated version really ups the fun. The Blu-ray has all 10 episodes and the pilot episode. “Just Beat It or Jackson Five Across Yo’ Eyes” puts Black Dynamite on a security detail for Michael Jackson. While it seems like the future King of Pop is being abused by his father, a more dangerous story comes out. “Bullhorn Nights or Murder She Throats” has him going undercover to make sure the first interracial adult film gets made. Who would stop that feature film? “Taxes and Death or Get Him to the Sunset Strip!” makes him protect Richard Pryor from himself. “A Crisis at Christmas or The Dark Side of the Dark Side of the Moon” puts him on a NASA mission with O.J. Simpson. Can he survive being in orbit with the Juice? “Seed of Kurtis AKA Father Is Just Another Word For Motherf#@ker” is a disturbing time with living puppet Kurtis the Frog. This isn’t a regular Sesame Street adventure. Black Dynamite is high energy and retro rush on the screen. There’s just something so addictive about a show that takes place inside a Whorpanage. The Blu-ray includes Digital HD Ultraviolet.


DVD SHELF

Under the Skin gives an alien performance from Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). She’s going around Scotland seducing men like a Trainspotting groupie. Elements of the film really give the feeling found in The Man Who Fell To Earth except Scarlett isn’t quite as human as Bowie’s Thomas Newton. What is she doing on Earth? Why must she kill other people? This is not the kind of movie you watch with that guy who has to constantly ask questions when there’s a silent moment on the screen. You’ll be answering more questions than a presidential spokesperson in that case. They might go quite a few times in the film since Scarlett gives us a view of what’s she’s like inside her skin. In the glory days of VHS, this would be a part of the videotape that would be stretched thin thanks to overuse of the pause button. You might want to spring for the Blu-ray if you have a thing for her Marvel action. The bonus features include a featurette on the movie and the Ultraviolet stream and digital download. And because I care, here’s the red band trailer.


The Angriest Man in Brooklyn starts off with the traumatic news that Robin Williams only has 90 minutes to live. Sadly he does not use this time to apologize for Patch Adams or return to stand up. His character Henry Altmann is a complete dick and he thinks other people like him for being a douchebag. When Mila Kunis (That ’70s Show) examines him, she gives him a ticking clock of mortality. This leads him on a race to say goodbye to those who should have mattered more in his life. He wants to patch things up with his ex-wife, Melissa Leo (Treme). He really wants to get on the good side of his spiritual brother played by Peter Dinklage. These scenes allow Dinklage to remind us that he can play comic moments without being around by hookers and heads on pikes. Can Williams set things right before he dies? Or is he doomed to just be remembered as a jerk? Fans of Game of Thrones must be warned that Dinklage has combed hair. The bonus features include a gag reel and an Ultraviolet access.


No Vacancy is another reminder why if you have plans to go to Las Vegas, book a flight with Southwest Air. Do not drive through the desert if you have any desire to live. Do not check into out of the way motels that have secluded rooms around back. Why? Because you’re just signing your own permission slip for death. That’s exactly what happens to seven friends who are looking for a party weekend in Sin City. Instead they have SUV issues. Sure the high desert locals are very helpful. But it turns out that they have motives for wanting to get their motel rooms all booked up for the night. Very quickly their hospitality turns into Motel Hell 2.0. What’s really interesting is that this film comes from writer/director Christopher Stokes who previously made the dance epic You’ve Been Severed. Now he’s made You’ve Been Severed. This is the perfect film to show your buddy who thinks flying to Vegas is a waste.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Classics contains the tops 10 fan-favorite episodes as tabulated by reviews on TV.com. So if you didn’t rate your favs, it’s your own fault. The collection of the original animated series arrives just as the Michael Bay big screen version arrives this summer. These really are my favorite moments with the pizza eating sewer dwellers. Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo have been kicking mutant ass for 30 years. The bonus features include a look back at the turtles, artist interviews and diehard fans discussing their devotion. I still remember buying one of their first comics when they were over-sized affairs. The comic book guy told me Radioactive Hamsters was going to be a bigger sensation. Never bet against the cold blooded reptiles controlling the imagination.


Hercules: Hero, God, Warrior brings together 3 specials from A&E and the History Channel. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will delight in Biography’s “Hercules: Power of the Gods” since Jack Perkins introduces the special. You can see who Mike is always spoofing on the DVDs. The other two specials are “Clash of the Gods: Hercules” and “In Search of History: The Greek Gods.” After watching all three episodes, you’ll know more about the mythology than from the Rock’s upcoming Hercules movie. They dig through conventional knowledge and archaeological digs. This is a properly educational experience.


Once Upon A Time in Vietnam stars Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street fame. There’s a battle between a quiet little town and a crime boss who wants absolute control. He won’t settle for anything less than full submission. An employee of the emperor shows up at the town looking for deserters. While he hates the crime boss, he uncovers that the main defender of the villagers is AWOL from the emperor’s army. Can he capture this man or will he fight with him against the crime boss? What is a priority in the soldier’s heart? The movie was written, produced and directed by Nguyen. What’s interesting is that as a child Nguyen left Vietnam as the communists took over. Now he’s returned to make this major fantasy film. The DVD comes with interviews and a way to get access to the Ultraviolet stream and download.


Stage Fright is the perfect horror film for those wanting a slasher film that takes place at a drama-riffic stage camp. Who doesn’t want to see an episode of Glee mixed with the cast of Hostel? There are those moments when a person has had enough of the singing and dancing. And that person is at a drama camp. But is it Allie MacDonald? While she’s stuck cleaning up in the kitchen, she’s really a talented performer. Her dad (Meat Loaf) is holding her back. But she wants to be in the big end of camp production. She has to overcome the trauma of her talented mother (Minnie Driver) being murder. Once the killings take place at the camp, she fears the killer wants to ice her too. This is a fine movie for watching after you’ve wrapped up your time at an arts camp.


NYPD Blue: Season 06 marks the transition from Jimmy Smits to Rick (not Ricky) Schroder. It’s an emotional changing of the detectives since Smit’s Detective Bobby Simone doesn’t merely transfer to another part of Manhattan. He starts the season feeling rather out of it. After a few more cases, he gets rushed to the hospital. He’s in a near fatal condition. He needs a heart transplant. Will he survive the surgery and retire early? Since he’s out of commission either way, Detective Danny Sorenson (Schroder) arrives from Narcotics. He doesn’t have a good reputation. Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) has to deal with the bumpy partner change. Things get worse for him later in the season when his girlfriend gets marked for death by a mobster. He seems ready to emotionally meltdown as God (or Steven Bochco and David Milch) turns on him. This was a big season for the already huge cop show.


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