Some Thoughts For the Holidays

In 1994, film critic Roger Ebert wrote a scathing review for Rob Reiner’s film North. In that review, he spent an entire paragraph saying that he hated the movie over and over again. This became the title for Ebert’s book of bad reviews. Reiner himself pointed it out on The Rich Eisen Show years later.

In that same review, Ebert describes Reiner as a good filmmaker who made a lot of good films and will make good films again. He said the same thing years later when he gave a negative review to another one of Reiner’s films, Alex & Emma (2003). In both cases, Reiner did make films that Ebert liked again.  

This article will explore some of Ebert’s work. I do not necessarily see Ebert as a paragon of virtue or agree with every one of his viewpoints. However, I also think that Ebert possessed a degree of empathy and curiosity that I find missing from certain reviews and online videos today.

Ebert’s Reviewing Style

It is important to remember that Roger Ebert was a film critic. As a film critic, he described his job as saying whether or not the film accomplished what it set out to do. In an episode about his thoughts on criticism, he talked about how the reviewer should write about what happened to them rather than saying what happened in the movie. 

Perhaps one of his emblematic reviews was a review for the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard (2005). Ebert understands that this is a studio remake of a 1970s comedy designed to appeal to everybody and make money. On that level, Ebert feels that it succeeds.  Being a professional, he gave it a positive review on the show weeks earlier. 

However, since he gave the film a positive review, he went to Cannes. There, he saw movies that tried to be great, even if they did not always succeed. So, towards the end of the review, he recommends other movies that he feels the audience should see more.

What a Critic Does

It is important to remember that a critic presents an educated opinion, not holy writ. They do not insulate the audience from all forms of disappointment when viewing a movie. In an article for his substack, critic Drew McWeeny described a critic as being like a sommelier. A good one will offer an informed opinion on wines, while a bad one will try to force their opinion on others.

Gene Siskel and The TV show

As a critic for newspapers and television, Ebert created fairly short reviews. His reviews had to fit on a newspaper page or within the time frame of a television slot. On television, the review would often include some clips, a brief summary, a bit of criticism, and then a short discussion with the co-host. The show would alternate who filled what roles in these reviews. Gene Siskel served those duties until his death in 1999.

Over the years, the show changed several times from its name to its home on television. It began as Opening Soon At a Theater Near You on PBS in 1975, before changing its name to Sneak Previews 2 years later. After leaving that show in 1982, they formed At the Movies, which originally aired as part of a deal with PBS and Tribune publishing. After a contractual dispute At the Movies later found a home at Buena Vista Television in 1986. 

One of the main things fans loved when watching its many incarnations is when the two would passionately argue and yell at each other on camera. Some people point to passion being the reason for these, but I would like to point to another reason: friendship. More than anything, watching Siskel and Ebert argue was also about two people connecting over something that they had both experienced.

How The Internet Changes Things

Many of the shows like the old Siskel and Ebert show have now gone to the internet and become Podcasts or Youtube channels. With many new avenues, now more people can have a platform than they did in the 1980s. Less represented voices that often do not match Siskel and Ebert have now become part of the media landscape. However, the internet also changed how media was viewed and discussed.

Difference in Length

With the internet, creators often experience a lot of freedom over their content. So instead of having a three or four minute clip reacting to and critiquing a movie, video reviews or Podcasts can go on anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours. 

Some of the people who make these videos act less like critics and more like sports commentators, going through the whatever project they are covering play by play. It lacks the empathy that many of Ebert’s reviews have because a lot of the video is picking apart a bad movie or TV show they do not like.

Ebert did dissect movies, but not in the same way. At the University of Colorado Boulder, Ebert had a lecture called Cinema Interruptus, where he would play a movie and then stop it to answer questions and point out details. However, these were movies that people generally regarded as good like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). The goal of such a lecture was to instill a love of cinema in students rather than to tear the most recent Star Wars Movie apart.

Connecting with People

Many of these reviews also mainly feature somebody talking to their camera, so the audience does not watch two people in passionate discussion as much as they watch somebody straight up tell them something. Criticism can be delivered this way (Ebert did it himself). However, it is less about people relating to each other and more about somebody relating an opinion to the audience.

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down

On the show, Siskel and Ebert would give a binary thumbs up or thumbs down rating. This led to marketing departments using the simple thumb rating as part of their advertising on films. With this ranking system, what sometimes got lost was the complexity of what their review actually was. It was not always about simply loving a film or hating it. Sometimes they slightly recommended or did not recommend the movie.

David Lynch famously turned their two thumbs down review for Lost Highway (1998) into an advertisement for the film. However, the arguments for not liking Lynch’s film were more complicated than this poster suggested. He saw it twice and tried to make sense of the film, but felt manipulated by it. He saw Lynch as talented, but felt that he pulled the rug out from under his own films. 

Ebert in Pop Culture

Due to its iconic nature, Siskel and Ebert became the subject of parody multiple times. They even made fun of themself on an episode of The Critic (1994-1995). In many of these parodies, Siskel and Ebert would fight or give movie after movie negative reviews. When YouTube came about, compilation videos of Ebert’s funniest interactions with Siskel and critic Richard Roeper became popular.  

Although many parodies and compilation videos made Ebert seem like a negative one liner machine, he was actually a fairly positive critic. When he passed, Metacritic found that he gave 71% of films good reviews. This was a full 12 points higher than the critical average on the site.

Even with many of his bad reviews, he would provide something positive for his audience. Many of his reviews end with him recommending another movie to the reader. Often he has a lot of respect for the intention of the filmmaker, even if he does not think that it works. On top of all of this, he rarely critiqued the filmmaker directly. For a moment, I would like to share some of the reviews that I feel are a little more complex and nuanced.

‘Fedora’ (1978)

Ebert’s review of Billy Wilder’s penultimate film Fedora (1978) presents a different take on the director’s work. At the time of its release, Fedora was compared to Wilder’s previous film, Sunset Boulevard (1950). For this film, Wilder brought back Boulevard’s star, William Holden, who serves as the narrator of both stories.

The film focuses on the movie star Fedora (Marthe Keller/Hildegard Knef), who has miraculously managed to stay young for decades. It turns out that the real Fedora has been disfigured. Her daughter (also played by Keller) has taken her place. When her daughter realizes that she can never escape her mother’s persona, it leads to tragic consequences. Within this story, the audience sees a story about the consequences of trying to stay young forever. 

In his review, Ebert says that the film does not work as a mystery and that the audience can easily figure the twist out in the first 15 minutes. However, he also says sometimes we go to the movies, not because it is their best work, but because it is the work of a craftsman.

The Making of ‘Fedora’

Charlotte Chandler covered the making of Fedora in Nobody’s Perfect (2002), her biography of Wilder. Fedora began as a novella from Tom Tryon, where the actress Fedora returns to Hollywood after 17 years to make a movie. For Fedora, Wilder tried to get reclusive movie star Marlene Dietrich, only to have her turn him down. Shortly after that, Universal Pictures rejected his script. Unable to get studio financing, Wilder ended up finding financing through a German tax shelter.

Throughout the film, the character Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (Holden) represents the struggle to get the movie made. In the story, struggling independent movie producer Dutch tries to make an adaptation of Anna Karenina through a tax shelter. 

At the time, Wilder did not have a high opinion of the new studio system and many of the new directors. In the film, Detweiler describes how “the kids with the beards have taken over.” In the book, Wilder speculates that all the young directors have not shaved because they are too busy pitching movies. Detweiler also describes this new group of filmmakers as needing “a camera with a zoom lens” rather than a script. 

In his interview with Chandler, he describes not knowing how the film will turn out until you get halfway through it. In writing the film, Wilder and co-writer/producer I. A. L. Diamond did not see the film as a mystery and thought the characters made the film, like they did in Sunset Boulevard. However, based on critical reviews, they felt that the mystery might have been more important than they initially thought.

‘The Thing’

Although Ebert liked John Carpenter’s hit film Halloween (1978), he gave middling reviews to many of his other films for years afterwards. Ebert did not give a really positive review to one of Carpenter’s films until Escape from L.A. (1996).

One of them was Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982). He dislikes the characterizations and finds the story implausible, but focuses primarily on the effects. He says that the film did scare him at points, but was not really for him. While Ebert feels that this material has been done better, he feels that the film will find an audience with “thousands, if not millions,” of moviegoers.

John Carpenter’s Career

Robert J. Emery’s book The Directors – Take 1 (2002) features an interview with John Carpenter about his career up until that point. By the time he gave this interview, he had experienced many ups and downs. 

Many of his films came out of a mixture of practical concerns and intriguing ideas. Escape from New York (1982) and Village of Damned (1995) came around partially because he needed to fulfill a contract with a studio. After Halloween, he took a job on a three hour TV movie about Elvis that every director turned down. Since Carpenter did the music, Dick Clark and the other producers hired him. Due to the scale of the project, Carpenter describes the film as his “baptism as a director.”

He had made lots of films that received mixed reception on initial release only to be reevaluated later. The Thing was a commercial flop upon release. In the interview, Carpenter says that he took Christine (1983) partially because he needed a job after The Thing.

In terms of criticism, Carpenter describes his career as fluctuating between being seen as a bum or genius. He says that neither is particularly true, but the truth lies somewhere in between the two.

‘Quick Change’ (1990)

Quick Change stars Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid as a group of amateur bank robbers trying to escape New York city. Ebert gave it a lukewarm review bordering on the positive. He saw it as a return to form for Murray after a few movies that disappointed him.

The Film was directed by Murray and writer Howard Franklin. Ebert ponders if two directors affected the movie in a negative way. In the review, he specifically talks about how comedy is so specific to certain people and two viewpoints might pull on the filmmaking process. While this criticism exists in Ebert’s review, it does not serve as the focal point of it. While not loving the movie, he praises a lot of stuff about the movie including Murray and Geena Davis.

The Making of ‘Quick Change’

At the time, Bill Murray described the experience of having two directors as pretty fulfilling. However, editor Alan Heim gave an interview years later where he said that Murray and Franklin would give contradictory notes throughout the editing process. Eventually, Heim got the producers to get Murray and Franklin to come in at the same time. Heim also later asked a nervous actor about why he seemed that way in the film. The actor told him that Murray and Franklin gave him contradictory directions. 

To date, this remains Murray’s only directed film. Franklin did direct Murray again in Larger Than Life (1996). Despite all of this, it received pretty positive reviews from critics.

The Subjectivity of Film 

Each one of these reviews presents a subjective and complex viewpoint of a film of the time. Ebert’s opinion does not represent the final opinion of the public, but a reaction to a movie at a certain time. Some of these reactions changed over time, while others did not.

Unlike Ebert’s reviews, I see many videos and articles on the internet about subjective matters that present themselves as objective points. Sometimes it feels like many YouTube channels fight to be the correct viewpoint on the internet, instead of just presenting a perspective on art.  

A Story Can Have Multiple Interpretations

More than other art forms, a film is an interpretation of a piece of material. Unlike painting or fiction, the artists begin by interpreting a script. In turn, the audience interprets that project when it gets released. With this sort of entertainment, you cannot necessarily get a completely objective version of if a film or TV show is good. At best, you can get a consensus of the quality of the film.   

If you go on YouTube right now, you can find video after video discussing the decline of a popular show or movie series. Many of these videos have millions of views. The subjects range from the new Star Wars movies to Unsolved Mysteries. The Simpsons (1989 -) has a half dozen videos calling the show dead or zombified. Each one presents the idea that the show or movie had some strong central thesis that the creators abandoned or destroyed in favor of making a simplistic cartoon. These videos tend to treat subjective art as a stock that has not done well.

With many of the YouTube videos, it feels like the point is to describe the new project as a desecration of the original film or TV show. It somehow makes the film less special or less of a unique item. However, that original version still exists and can be watched at any time. I do not think every piece of media should exist as a sequel, remake, or reboot of an old intellectual property, but I also question why every successful original film or television show should be seen as holy writ. Why can there only be one version of a story or characters?

Some Thoughts on Remakes

In the old studio days, studios would remake their old films in new genres. Comedies would become musicals. Classic Oscar winning films like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) turned into You Can’t Run Away From It and High Society (both 1956). Film noirs would become westerns. House of Strangers (1949) got remade as a Western (Broken Lance (1954)) and a circus movie (The Big Show (1961)). Many of these films are not as well regarded or remembered as their original counterpart, but they exist.

Some of my favorite comedies exist as remakes of older films. Films such as Some Like It Hot (1959), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Airplane! (1980), and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) all came from earlier films. Many of these films changed the material or subverted the film altogether.

Truthfully, I think that people often get sick of films and TV shows that feel like they get remade partially for brand recognition. At the current moment, intellectual property has saturated the market because it reliably drives interest and makes money. However, that does not invalidate remakes and retellings of stories as a whole.

Many of the modern remakes, reboots, or spin offs are of films that were popular in their time. Oftentimes, I think the success of retelling these stories lies in how the new filmmakers subvert or change the material. Similarly, the reception of these films often revolve around audience expectation. In his time, Ebert reviewed many remakes, sequels, and reboots. However, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on The Birdcage (1995) and The Pink Panther (2006). Both of these reviews focus on Ebert’s willingness to accept the new version. 

‘The Birdcage’ (1995)

A remake of the French film La Cage Aux Folles (1978), Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage focuses on a gay man Armand (Robin Williams) meeting his daughter-in-law’s rightwing homophobic parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest). In order to please his son (Dan Futterman), Armand tries to hide his homosexuality in an increasingly farcical situation.  

By the time this movie came out, the French movie had two sequels and a Broadway production. In his review, Roger Ebert notes that some of the plot is telegraphed from the first film, such as Nathan Lane’s storyline. He actually finds the biggest laughs for him come from the parents in the story. 

‘The Pink Panther’ (2006)

Co-written and starring Steve Martin, the remake of The Pink Panther (2006) focused on bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Martin) as he tried to solve a new mystery around the titular diamond. The character of Clouseau and plot device of the Pink Panther came from the original 1963 film of the same name. The original series also kicked off a series of beloved comedy films. 

In this review, Ebert admits that unlike the mythical characters of James Bond or Batman, he cannot see Martin in the role comedian Peter Sellers originated. He says that Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards created something irreplaceable and even they could not replicate that same magic in the end. 

However, Ebert’s point is also not there to rip apart the new film. He concedes that he found some moments funny “in a mechanical sort of way” and that everybody involved is talented. He even ponders why this type of comedy might work with Sellers, but not with Martin.

Not Every Film Should be Precious

Right now, it feels like certain points of view see the film landscape as Franchise films and more artiscally films directed by big name directors. In both these cases, fans have become incredibly passionate with what these films mean.

With many franchise films, the franchise has become a serialized story where every little detail gets noted. There are plenty of trailers and posts to highlight the film up until it actually comes out. Many of these franchise films were inspired by or adapted from long running material like comic books, film serials, and television shows. They also tend to rake in lots of money. Out of the top 10 films on Box Office Mojo’s highest lifetime gross, 7 are franchise films. The other three are the 2019 remake of The Lion King (1994) and two James Cameron epics (Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009)).  

For the films from big name directors, these films represent the ability to see original films in theaters. These films usually do not receive the type of marketing or make the same amount of money. Unlike many of the franchise films, these films are seen as edifying. The experience should last longer than an opening weekend. It should mean more and give a more complicated and nuanced take on human nature.  

Sometimes it seems that these are the two options. However, I feel that some films and entertainment should not exist as precious pieces of work that will send some great message. I also do not necessarily want every film to exist as part of a large universe or brand. Seeing a film that is linked to hours of mythology gets draining for me after a while. Sometimes I just want to see a film that can be genuine, small, or silly. I like when it does not feel like so much emphasis has been placed on how important the film is. 

‘Two Weeks Notice’ (2002)

Ebert gave a positive three star review to the romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice (2002) with Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock. In this review, Ebert talks about the basic predictable nature of Romantic comedy. As the audience, he knows the basic formula of a Romantic comedy minus the specifics of the movie he goes into. He describes the genre as “the comfort food of movies.”

Ebert has one big criticism: he wishes that the rival love interest played by Alicia Witt had acted as more of a traditional villain. He does not feel that her performance is bad, but that it is written as a more sympathetic role than he would have liked, making the formula not work as well. Despite this, he still likes the movie and recommends it.

People Should be able to Try Again

One aspect of Ebert’s reviews that sticks out prominently was his willingness to give filmmakers a chance, even if he did not like their film at the time. Oftentimes he did not go out of his way to outright dismiss a film unless he found the film morally repugnant.  

With Ebert’s reviews, he would often describe the people in them as well-intentioned if he felt that way. For example, he describes sympathizing with the Spierig brothers’ intentions in Undead (2005), even though he does not feel the style and tone works. The year after his death, they made Predestination (2014), a fairly well received film.

In his career, Ebert gave multiple negative reviews to great filmmakers such as Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols. He gave bad reviews of some of Martin Scorsese’s films, but was also a good friend of his. He later wrote a book on Scorsese’s films (Scorsese by Ebert (2008)). In many of these reviews, he hopes that the filmmaker will make a film that he likes since he knows that they have in the past.

Ebert Changed

Over the years, Ebert changed his opinion on many films as he became older. He started reviewing films at the age of 24 and stopped reviewing them when he died at the age of 70. His opinions did not necessarily stand still because his opinions of the world changed. 

A great example of this is The Graduate (1967). The film tells the story of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate who starts a sexual relaitonship with family Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). When he re-reviewed The Graduate on its 30 year anniversary, he found Mrs. Robinson to be the most likable and attractive character in the movie and found Benjamin Braddock to be an “insufferable creep.” By the time he had written this review, he had met the children of friends who he found to be like Ben. Ebert still says that the film is still good, but finds that also serves as a time capsule of that period. He describes how the film spoke to young people at the time and how it illustrates the generation gap of the 1960s.   

Similarly, Ebert gave a 2 and a half star review to the 2009 remake of 1972 horror film The Last House on The Left. 37 years earlier, he had given a 3 and a half star to the original film, but had changed a lot since then. Since the original film, he had seen so many gruesome movies (including Chaos (2005), which he gave zero stars to). He found the film well made, but gruesome, so decided to give it that rating and be done with it.

Conclusion

On old episodes of their TV show Sneak Previews, Siskel and Ebert had a segment called “the dog of the week.” In this segment, they brought out a cute dog (called “Spot the wonder dog”) and then proceeded to single out 2 terrible movies they saw that week. On the August 23, 1979 episode, Siskel and Ebert bring out Spot the wonder dog, but decide not to use him that week as they have grown tired of giving audiences two movies they should not see. Instead, they bring out movies that they really like from the summer. The films Ebert chooses include such classics as Breaking Away, The In-Laws, and Alien.

On that same show, they reviewed 5 new movies. For Dom DeLuise’s directorial debut Hot Stuff, Siskel argued that the film proved that the Mel Brooks troupe of actors could not direct after seeing Deluise’s and cast member Marty Feldman’s directorial efforts. Ebert refused to take that leap of faith and believed that it was still possible for DeLuise to make a good movie.

Last Revised on December 30, 2021.