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Remembering Roger Ebert
For moviegoers, Roger Ebert has been synonymous with how we approach and judge films. For more than forty years, Ebert has taken his love of movies by engaging in discussions and debates with the films he loved and the ones he loathed. Since 1967, Ebert was the syndicated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper but found widespread recognition when he and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel launched the syndicated television show “At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert,” whereby the two not only reviewed the latest movies but were quick to get into heated debates with each other over their criticism of a film. Ebert was the first film critic to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has influenced millions of film fans in how to appreciate film while being able to find the faults. In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and after several surgeries, he lost his ability to speak and had his lower jaw removed. This did not stop him from continuing his prolific career of reviewing films and writing books. Unable to speak, he developed a resurgence on the Internet, becoming more outspoken though blog posts and on social media outlets like Twitter (whom he had over eight hundred thousand followers). He became more vocal (at least through his keyboard) regarding his liberal political ideologies and criticism of the film business. On April 2, 2013, Ebert announced his “leave of presence” from his duties due to complications of a hip fracture he suffered a few months prior. Two days later on April 4, 2013, Ebert passed away at the age of 70. The final line of his last blog post said, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."
Years ago, I realized that I identified with Ebert’s approach to criticism the most in judging what I liked and what I didn’t like about a film and whether or not the film succeeded in achieving what it set out to do. Ebert knew how to judge a film from the perspective of the intended audience. Take for instance the 2012 film “The Avengers.” Roger Ebert would judge that film in comparison to other comic book adaptations from the past decade and decide whether or not it achieved its goal of entertaining audiences. Instead of comparing “The Avengers” to “Citizen Kane” (the film Ebert frequently cited as his favorite and considered it the most important film of all time), he would compare it to such comic adaptations like the 2005 film “The Fantastic Four.” Both films have the same targeted audience but declared “The Avengers” film “done well by [director] Joss Whedon, with style and energy. It provides its fans with exactly what they desire.”
While Ebert and Siskel popularized and trademarked the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” gesture in judging a film, his discussions of each film he reviewed was more informative. When you happen to have the same positive reaction for a film as much as he did, his critique makes you appreciate the film even more. He puts the film in perspective, from how the filmmakers were influenced in making the film, how it stacks up to films of the past, and whether or not such a film would have a lasting legacy amongst audiences. He didn’t cater to movie marketing either by providing brief, quotable one-liners that could be plastered on a movie poster. He gave his opinion and did not apologize if his criticism ruffled feathers. Here is a clip of Siskel & Ebert reviewing one of my favorite films, “Goodfellas,” which Ebert calls the best mob movie ever made.
In 1994, when reviewing the terrific inner-city high school basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams,” Ebert said, “this is one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.” He would later name “Hoop Dreams” the best film of 1994 as well as the best film of the 1990s. When he and Siskel were stunned that the film failed to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 67th Academy Awards, the Academy decided to change its nomination process for documentaries due to the public outcry.
The downside to Ebert’s career, unfortunately, was that he had to sit through an endless amount of bad films. Even if a bad film made tons of money at the box office, Ebert was known for his no-nonsense style of criticism. If he didn’t like a movie, he’d tell you. Here’s a brief rundown of Ebert’s scathing reviews of popular films:
Armageddon (1998): “Here it is at last, the first 150-minute trailer. Armageddon is cut together like its own highlights. Take almost any 30 seconds at random, and you’d have a TV ad. The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”
How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003): “Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson star. I neglected to mention that, maybe because I was trying to place them in this review’s version of the Witness Protection Program. If I were taken off the movie beat and assigned to cover the interior design of bowling alleys, I would have some idea of how they must have felt as they made this film.”
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (2003): “I like good horror movies. They can exorcise our demons. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t want to exorcise anything. It wants to tramp crap through our imaginations and wipe its feet on our dreams. I think of filmgoers on a date, seeing this movie and then — what? I guess they’ll have to laugh at it, irony being a fashionable response to the experience of being had. … Do yourself a favor. There are a lot of good movies playing right now that can make you feel a little happier, smarter, sexier, funnier, more excited — or more scared, if that’s what you want. This is not one of them. Don’t let it kill 98 minutes of your life.”
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination… The movie has been signed by Michael Bay. This is the same man who directed The Rock in 1996. Now he has made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Faust made a better deal.”
The Last Airbender (2010): “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here. It puts a nail in the coffin of low-rent 3D, but it will need a lot more coffins than that.”
One infamous print review Ebert wrote targeted the 1994 Rob Reiner-directed family film “North,” which Ebert later emphasized his hatred of the movie by calling it the worst film of 1994.
For film fans such as myself, I envied Roger Ebert. He had a love of films and a love of writing and was able to make a living out of it. He wrote about what he loved and wrote about what he detested. He popularized film criticism, became an unlikely television personality, and he championed independent and foreign film making. If there was a film he believed deserve recognition, he used his platform to inform and educate audiences. He made criticism of film its own form of art. He will be missed.