“Ebert & Roeper” Web site to post movie reviews

By Don Babwin

CHICAGO – For someone who can’t talk, film critic Roger Ebert is making a lot of noise – at times in a British accent.

Open a newspaper and his reviews are in there. He’s published three books since last fall and has two more on the way. All the while, he’s recuperating from cancer surgery and a subsequent operation that left him unable to speak.

“I’m writing as much as ever,” Ebert said in a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press, during which an electronic voice with a British accent spoke the words he typed onto a laptop computer.

And now he’s adding a page to the “Ebert & Roeper” Web site that is all thumbs: His, the late Gene Siskel’s, Richard Roeper’s and those of others who have been filling in on the movie review show.

Touted as the largest collection of video-based movie reviews online, www.AtTheMoviesTV.com will include 5,000 movie reviews and span more than 20 years of the program that made the thumb the most prestigious of digits.

Starting Thursday, the site will offer visitors a chance to watch spirited – sometimes really spirited – discussions about movies that always ended with reviewers assigning them a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” designation.

“You can tell when we were mad at each other and when we were together against the world,” Ebert, 65, said of his longtime partner, Siskel.

Sitting in the living room of his home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Ebert talked about his show that looks pretty much as it did when he and Siskel – competing film critics at rival Chicago newspapers – first sat down in the 1980s in what looked like a theater balcony and talked about movies. He answered questions about his health, his work and his plans for the future.

Ebert’s neck is wrapped in gauze and his mouth hangs open, but he appears robust. As he fiddled with his computer before the interview, he even gave a sly smile and his trademarked – literally – thumbs up when it started speaking his words.

Ebert has been battling cancer. After undergoing a series of operations, he was operated on again in June of last year, with doctors removing a cancerous growth from his salivary gland and part of his right jaw. Two weeks later, a blood vessel burst near the site of the operation, forcing emergency surgery.

He can’t talk because doctors did a tracheostsomy, opening an airway through an incision in his windpipe.

Ebert said he isn’t quite sure when he might return to the television show. He still needs surgery that he hopes will restore his voice, but he said he is cancer free. After being hospitalized so long that he had to learn how to walk all over again, he said he is getting stronger and he and his wife, Chaz, take daily long walks.

“He’s taking about 12,000 steps a day,” his wife said.

In the meantime, he said, he screens as many as three films a day, with his nights spent watching DVDs to catch up on the films he’s missed.

He clearly wants to return to the balcony seat next to Roeper, who has been his co-host since 2000, the year after Siskel died. But, he said, even if he doesn’t, he’d like to see the show “go on and on and on.”

And, he said, he doesn’t expect it to go on completely without him. “I would stay closely involved as a consultant,” he said.

Ebert is obviously proud of the program – as much for what it isn’t as for what it is.

“Too much entertainment TV is just hype and gossip,” he said. “We have no interviews, no premieres, no arrests … And (it is) a rare show that says when we think a movie is bad.”

All of that can be found on the Web site.

Observers can see just how often Siskel, the Chicago Tribune’s film critic, and Ebert, his counterpart at the Chicago Sun-Times, disagreed and how passionately they did so on “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.” They can see “Ebert & Roeper.”

And they can see more recent shows featuring Roeper and guest reviewers including Jay Leno and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.

They can see the time Ebert said he got “worked up” when Siskel didn’t send his thumb north for “Apocalypse Now.” Or the time the two heaped praise on the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” smiling at the memory of how the “Oscar judges turned it off after 15 minutes.”

Then there is the memory of the enthusiastic thumbs up both he and Roeper gave “Monster.” If that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, given that the movie earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for best actress, Ebert said that at the time they gave their review, “‘Monster’ wasn’t necessarily going to theaters at all.”

For himself, Ebert, who has been the film critic for the Sun-Times since 1967 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, said he has no plans to stop seeing movies and reviewing them. He also wouldn’t mind reviewing something else he really likes: Food.

“I would love to go to Steak ‘n Shake for a steak burger, fries and milk shake,” he said. “I watched Chaz at Steak ‘n Shake Friday. It was not easy.”