Sunday, April 18, 2010

They just don't make 'em like that anymore...

As a life-long cinema enthusiast, there's nothing I like better than discussing (or heatedly arguing about) movies--whether its defending a widely-snubbed film, gushing about a classic, trashing a brainless blockbuster, or bringing attention to an over-looked gem.

Film criticism is a tough occupation--especially one you can actually scratch out a living doing. With Internet bloggers willing to write up reviews for free (in exchange for the screening pass), and lots of moviegoers trusting quick little viral paragraphs or reviews as simple as "It kicks ass!" or "Sucks the big one!," it seems the era of thoughtful, well-written criticism may be heading the way of the VHS tape or the physical on-site video store.

I was disheartened to hear about the cancellation of At The Movies, the weekly half-hour review show, now hosted by A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. They are staying on-board 'til August, then it seems that the long-standing program will leave the airwaves. A real shame--it's been around in different incarnations since the early 1980s, where it started with arguably the most beloved and influential of all film critics--Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

Siskel and Ebert, and their iconic balcony (which, instead of ending up in the Smithsonian, was just broken down and tossed into the trash), offered up some incredibly smart, funny and level-headed criticism. They were accessible, strongly opinionated, and fair. I may not have always agreed with them (see some of the links below), but I always respected what they had to say. What really came across was their incredible love for film, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I owe them a HUGE thank you--because of their inspiration, I dabbled in film reviews at an early age, writing a review for the Wherehouse video chain's in-store magazine of The Lost Boys, which was published and earned me a free prize (which ended up being a Pirates of Dark Water kite...I was hoping for an MGM coffee mug or something less kiddy). I was fourteen at the time, and I soon brought my love for movies to The Davis Enterprise, a daily newspaper where I was interning after school. I was eventually put in charge of co-ordinating a bi-weekly Sunday edition page called "Youth Beat," where we profiled outstanding young people in the community. The other big feature on the page were my movie reviews--where for two or so years I had hundreds of by-lines, simply writing about what I loved the most. Although I didn't end up pursuing a job in journalism or film criticism, I always kept that critical eye and unbridled enthusiasm for cinema, which is probably pretty evident from the bulk of my blog posts.

When we lost Siskel in 1999, the show went through a rough period of guest hosts who could never quite fill his chair. Ebert soldiered on, bantering with the likes of critics like Elvis Mitchell, Joel Siegel, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Kenneth Turan, and even crazy Bay Area personality Jan Wahl, who rates films by a number of "hats." Acclaimed directors such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Kevin Smith also filled in. Eventually, Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun-Times became the go-to guy, and Ebert & Roeper was born. A few years later, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and had to leave the show. Roeper continued the guest critic rotation, then announced he was leaving the show in 2008 after a contractual dispute. They foolishly revamped the show, trying to draw in a younger audience with new hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. They introduced an awkward Critics Roundtable segment, and seemed to try to switch things up weekly. Lyons seemed to always like everything, drawing the ire of a lot of long-time viewers who resisted the changes. Thankfully, that experiment drew to a close, and Scott and Phillips took over.

With At The Movies heading off the air, one can only hope that the website,, stays active, as they have archived thousands of video reviews. I spent hours last night watching tons of old Siskel and Ebert clips, enthralled by their child-like enthusiasm for all things cinema. I can't embed the reviews, but here are links to some reviews I particularly enjoyed. Watch a few, reminisce, and go to their website and pull up a few of your favorites. Until then...the balcony is closed.

(Two thumbs up...and Siskel's pronunciation of "Frank Darabont" is adorable)

(A mixed review....Ebert has it out for the dumb LAPD!)

(Raves for Holly Hunter!)

(Two thumbs down...for one of my favorite comedies!)

(My all time favorite movie...and nice words for young Max Pomeranc!)

(High praise for Tarantino's originality!)

(Lots of disdain for the ridiculous premise!)

(Cameron's directors cut...and praise for Laser Discs!)

(Ebert loves the weird supporting characters...and adores "Wally" Shawn!)

(Product placement be damned!)

(Boy...why must submarines be so ugly?)

(Praise all around for Kevin Kline and co!)

(A nice review for Eastwood's underrated gem, with some great thoughts on "what is violence")

(A diamond in the body-switching rough!)

Oh, and twitter friends--follow Roger Ebert! (@ebertchicago), and At the Movies (@atthemoviestv)!


  1. I was SO SAD to learn they'd cancelled the latest incarnation of the show with Scott & Phillips. These guys were the first pairing I looked forward to since Gene & Raj. So naturally, the plug gets pulled. Pfffffft.

    I'm so glad Raj tweets! He's awesome.

  2. That was a great post, Cole. You're right, they don't make 'em like that anymore. I used to watch them all the time and I miss them. I treasure the fact that Mr. Ebert still does his thing!