It's hard to believe that, with Roger Ebert's death at 70, the balcony is now closed for good. From 1975 to 2006 Ebert appeared on television as an on-air movie reviewer, in addition to his day-job duties as the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, critic from the archrival Chicago Tribune, sparred with each other from the balcony of a movie theater and passed judgment on each week's new movies with their zero-sum, gladiatorial ratings system of "thumbs up" and "thumbs down." (Siskel & Ebert would later trademark the Thumbs. For real.) Sometimes they agreed with each other. Sometimes they were at each other's throats. But they were almost always insightful...and usually pretty funny too. It's why their show Sneak Previews became the highest-rated entertainment series in PBS history. By the time it rebranded as At the Movies in 1982 and moved into broadcast syndication, Siskel & Ebert were truly a dynamic duo.
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As much as their personalities drove the show, Siskel & Ebert's true success may have been due to how they didn't let their egos overshadow the movies they were reviewing. Not to mention that, in terms of sheer word count, many of their on-air reviews rivaled or outmatched film reviews in newspapers or magazines. So as we're paying tribute to Ebert, let's remember what an amazing institution At the Movies was in its heyday. Here are 10 moments from the series that show Ebert (alongside Siskel and several other cohosts) at his very best.
1. The Takedown of Leonard, Part 6
There was nothing more satisfying than a Roger Ebert pan. That's because he cared so much about the movies. He genuinely wanted stinkers to be good films. Witness his critique of Leonard, Part 6, a movie starring Bill Cosby, for whom Ebert has obvious affection. It's because he knew Cosby was capable of so much more that he accused him of "prostituting himself" in this "cynical exercise" of a flick.
2. Ebert Feels for the Actors in Blue Velvet
Don't get me wrong. Ebert could be as wrongheaded as any critic. While Siskel recognized David Lynch's Blue Velvet for what it was as a spiritual heir to Psycho, Ebert saw only nihilistic trauma. In fact, his reaction to the film mirrors famed New York Times' film critic Bosley Crowther's horror upon first witnessing Bonnie & Clyde, a film Ebert went against mainstream critical opinion to champion, twenty years earlier. But, again, his reason for dismissing Blue Velvet is fascinating. He actually suggests that Lynch's actors, especially Isabella Rossellini, were exploited by their director in the making of the film. It's an incendiary charge, and totally unfounded, but shows the deep streak of humanism that informed his critical worldview.
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3. Siskel & Ebert's 500th Episode Retrospective!
Despite being famous for getting paid to sit in a darkened movie theater and watch much more famous people onscreen, Siskel & Ebert developed a flair for showmanship, having a rotating roster of canine assistants during their segment "Dog of the Week," a spotlight on their pick for the worst movie of the week, sporting an incredible variety of facial hair, and even telling showbiz tall tales about why they're called "Siskel & Ebert" and not "Ebert & Siskel." (Siskel claimed they flipped a coin.) Both of them showed their stage presence when filming before a live audience for the first time in 1989 for their 500th episode.
4. Siskel & Ebert Play a Videogame
During the '80s and early '90s, they'd have an annual show called "The Video Gift Guide," focusing on movies from the previous year, along with a few classics, worth adding to your home entertainment collection. They'd cap these shows by engaging in another home entertainment pastime: playing a videogame! This clip from 1993 has them virtually boxing each other via an early ancestor of Kinect. They have to stand inside a metal hoop and it'll sense the movements of their fists and feet as they trade pixelated body blows!
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5. But, In all Seriousness, the Show Really Could Be Legit As Criticism: The Decalogue
Just check out this 15-minute segment from the early 2000s of Ebert reviewing Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue for its DVD release. A shorter version appeared on the At the Movies telecast, while the full 15-minute clip ended up on the DVD box set. Ebert basically gives us a shot-for-shot analysis of several scenes, going into a far greater level of detail than you really could in a print review. It's a clip like this that shows Ebert could be a kind of college film studies professor, with his TV viewing audience as his students. As if he didn't already have enough jobs, he really did teach a class or two a year at the University of Chicago before his battle with cancer.
NEXT: The Blistering Takedown That Actually Inspired a Book. And Ebert Gets Siskel to Change His Mind!
6. The Takedown of North
One thing a film professor doesn't have to do, though, is subject himself or herself to the vast majority of new movies that are released in order to make a tight deadline for a review. Ebert had to do that. And that meant having to see movies like Leonard, Part 6, or what for him was even worse, Rob Reiner's North in 1994, a film he called the worst he'd seen in the almost two decades that he'd done the show and "one of the most hateful movies in years." In fact, his TV and print reviews of North would give birth to one of Ebert's most popular books: Your Movie Sucks, a collection of his one-star reviews.
7. That Time Ebert Actually Got Siskel to Change His Mind
Only one time did it ever happen. Siskel & Ebert were reviewing John Woo's Broken Arrow in 1996. Siskel thought the movie was dumb but enjoyable, and he gave it a thumbs up. Ebert hated it, and in the span of a couple of minutes he got Siskel to change his mind and give the movie a thumbs down.
8. Ebert Says GoodFellas Is One of the Best Movies of the '90s...to Cohost Martin Scorsese
After Gene Siskel's death in early 1999, a succession of substitutes filled his seat in the balcony opposite Ebert. Some were critics from other publications. One, Richard Roeper, was a critic from Ebert's own publication, the Chicago Sun-Times. He'd eventually get the permanent gig. Other subs, though, were filmmakers. For the "Best of the '90s" listathon special that closed out 1999, Ebert tapped Martin Scorsese as his co-host, meaning that he could tell the director to his face that he thought GoodFellas was the third best film of the decade. (FYI: Hoop Dreams was No. 1.)
9. Scooby-Doo Deux
Ebert never really went in for the puns like fellow TV critic Gene Shalit — if you're not following @FakeShalit on Twitter right now, what are you doing with your life? — but when he did, they were epic. Like his imagining of what 2004's Scooby-Doo 2 would be called in France, which also conveyed precisely what he thought of the movie.
10. How Exactly Is Herbie "Fully Loaded"?
Some of Ebert's best writing didn't occur just when he was mining subtext from Kieślowski films or dissecting Alfred Hitchcock's lighting choices in Notorious. It happened when he let his geek flag fly and ask the really meaningful questions. Like when he asked during his review of Toy Story 3, "If Mr. Potato Head lost an ear, would it continue to hear, or if he lost a mouth, would it continue to eat without a body?" Or how he devoted much of his review of Zack Snyder's Watchmen to a discussion of Dr. Manhattan's ontological status. Or, best of all, this gem from 2005 when he asked, while reviewing Herbie: Fully Loaded, if sentient cars are capable of having sex.
What's your favorite moment from At the Movies?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Michael L. Abramson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images]
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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.