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September 17, 2004

Roger Ebert

Not that it needs my help to promote it, but Roger Ebert's new site is up, and it's awesome, since it features Ebert's film reviews going back to 1967, as well as his various other writings on film. I've personally been using Ebert's previous site for research and enjoyment for a while now -- I often bounce my own film opinions off of his to see if I'm missing something (or, alternately, if he's missing something) -- and this new site is that much more useful to me.

I don't think I've made any secret that I consider Ebert to be one of the best film criticism writers; he's often maligned as shallow by the people who only know him from the "thumbs up!" rubric promoted by the various Siskel & Ebert shows and now on his current show with Richard Roeper (speaking of shallow film criticism), but these people need to actually read Ebert's reviews, through which three things become apparent: One, Ebert is very smart; Two, Ebert knows film; Three, Ebert realizes that the best way to review is a film is to talk across to moviegoers, not down. Ebert is a film geek who can speak the language of normal people. He's a fine model for writing popular film reviews.

Which is not to say he's always right. Ebert can be as clueless about a clever film as anyone, and he's a sucker for pretty lights and cool design. In the former case, this is what caused him to give Fast Times at Ridgemont High a one-star review; in the latter case, it's what caused him to declare Dark City the best film of its year. Dark City's a fine film, but it definitely ain't "movie of the year" material. But in both of these cases (and by in large in his reviews in general) reading Ebert's review lets you understand why he thinks like he does; you don't have to agree, but you understand where he comes from. That's good criticism.

One of the sad tragedies of film criticism in newspapers is that much of the criticism is done by people who can't write well and don't have a point of view, i.e., the review is useless as a piece of criticism, and as an entertaining piece of writing. The really excellent newspaper critics can be counted on two hands (two of my picks would be Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post and Elvis Mitchell, late of the New York Times, although rumor has it he may go over to the dark side, which is to say, film production), and after them there is a regrettably sharp drop in quality; the gap between the first tier of newspaper film critics and the second is abysmal.

This means, alas, that chances are good that your local film critic is pretty bad. Do yourself a favor and check out Ebert in a form unrelated to TV. Whether you agree with him or not, it'll show you what good newspaper writing about film can be.

Posted by john at September 17, 2004 10:06 AM

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Comments

Claude Muncey | September 17, 2004 11:33 AM

I think kindly of Kenneth Turan ot the LA Times (Tinseltown doeserves at least one good critic in the papers) and on his better days, Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle. Not that I always agree with them, but I understand their biases and they seem to have a decent eye -- Turan better than LaSalle. And I agree, Ebert may be the best film critic in the US still doing the classic newspaper review. Elvis Mitchell rocks as well, but there is a reason Ebert got the Pulizer.

Laura Y | September 17, 2004 11:41 AM

As a recommendation for those who have yet to meet Ebert outside of TV: two of my favorite film buff books are by Ebert. First, _I Hated Hated Hated This Movie_, which has a selection of reviews where he gave two or fewer stars, and really taught me how to assess a film beyond whether or not I "liked" it (as well as being very funny), and _Great Films_ which allows Ebert to really delve into these films, some of which I've seen, and some not, but all of which I can imagine through his writing.

Mark Musante | September 17, 2004 12:14 PM

I'm glad I'm not the only one who dislikes Roeper.

Firebyrd | September 17, 2004 12:41 PM

I think one of the local film critics here is excellent. His reviews are very entertaining (especially of bad movies!), and while this might seem biased, his views on films tend to be pretty similar to my own, which doesn't seem to happen with most critics. He's not currently at a newspaper, but you can read his reviews at http://www.ericdsnider.com. Sorry for the shameless plug-feel free to delete or ignore it if you find it inappropriate, John.

Bowler | September 17, 2004 12:51 PM

I like your points on getting a critic that is consistant and you can immediately understand why they are for/against a movie.

I actually wish that magazines like Entertainment Weekly (shudder) would start getting movie reviewers like game magazines have game reviewers. I.E. Lisa Schwartzbaum: Likes romances, romantic comedies, and movies where Barbara Streisand cries a lot.

That way, when a reviewer like her reviews The Matrix (the original) and gives it a C-, it will be immediately apparant as to the reason WHY. Also, it might actually give an editor the incentive to give an action movie to an action movie buff, and a romance movie to a romance movie buff, because honestly, her reviews of Matrix and Fight Club were downright clueless.

Chad Orzel | September 17, 2004 01:07 PM

Back when I was in grad school near Washington DC, the Post had a habit (or policy, who knows?) of sending a guy who really liked action movies to review art flicks, and the art-film guy to Summer Action Movies. (At least, that's what it looked like to me.)

This mis-match led to a lot of really bad reviews, but they were consistent enough that it was almost useful, in an odd way. And probably more entertaining than sending them to the "right" films would've been...

betsarms | September 17, 2004 01:15 PM

I'd like to give a critic shout-out to our local critic (although I think he lives in New Jersey now!) Joe Baltake.

I'd refer you to his reviews on the Sacramento Bee website, but it is god awful!

Columbine | September 17, 2004 01:35 PM

To a certain extent, though, Bowler, you learn to do that with a critic anyway. I've been reading Entertainment Weekly for years now (best dose of trash pop culture on the streets), and I'm accustomed enough to the tastes of the Owen and Lisa Show that if they ever change film reviewers I'm going to be lost. I agree, though, that perhaps it would be nice to have a legend or a cheat sheet somewhere: "Remember, Owen likes anything pretentious, somber, or with subtitles. Lisa likes intelligent female characters, lots of emotion, romantic comedies ... and an occasional big explosion." Strangely, she's the one of the pair more likely to give the thumbs-up to a big-budget action film.

EW's Ty Burr really wanted to review films, so he moved to my local newspaper - win for us! Is he a good film reviewer? Ask me again in a couple of years. He's clearly new at it, but he's got the potential to do it right.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2004 01:57 PM

Betsarms writes:

"I'd like to give a critic shout-out to our local critic (although I think he lives in New Jersey now!) Joe Baltake."

I know Joe; he was the Sacramento Bee reviewer when I was the Fresno Bee reviewer. I would see him on occassion when I had to go to Sacramento for a screening.

Joe's an interesting reviewer, I think; in many ways rather more ideosyncratic than most film critics are. I think he's something of an acquired taste, but once you acquire that taste you can admire his point of view.

James G | September 17, 2004 01:58 PM

For our local newspaper, I would tend to agree we have an aweful critic. There is a weekly newspaper (Urban Tulsa) however, that has one of hell of a critic writing for them. This guy is quite entertaining, and seems to be right on in his observations.

Jas | September 17, 2004 04:35 PM

My favorite reviewer is Nathan Rabin from The Onion. He doesn't fawn over films, or pull punches, and his writing is typically entertaining for a guy that doesn't like most mass-market movies.

Claude Muncey | September 17, 2004 05:39 PM

My word, John, when did you work in Fresno? (I'm writing this from Merced.) My only excuse for not knowing is that like most Mercedians, we have always been more likely to subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle than to the Sun-Star or to the Bee.

Mitch Wagner | September 17, 2004 05:44 PM

I don't particularly dislike Roeper. But the show recently showed some old clips, which underscored how much better Siskel was--and how Siskel brought out the best in Ebert, and made the show better.

Siskel was always something of a snob, whereas Ebert was more of an enthusiastic fanboy. Ebert was the one who occasionally gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a low-budget teenxploitation movie, simply because he thought it was funny, or a space opera because he thought it was a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes.

Now, Ebert has become a bit pompous, although still worth watching. However, the pomposity is nonexistent in his written reviews, which are still great.

John Scalzi | September 17, 2004 06:27 PM

Claude Muncey asks:

"My word, John, when did you work in Fresno?"

From September of '91 to February of '96. At the time I was hired, I was indisputably the youngest full-time newspaper film critic working in the US; I believe when I left I still was (I'm not anymore). I got paid like I was the youngest film critic, too, but what did I care? I was watching movies for a living, and Fresno isn't exactly expensive to live in (or wasn't in '91, at least).

Chris Lehmann | September 18, 2004 12:43 PM

Fruit Cart!

Roger Ebert's Film Guide -- and the glossary that goes with it -- is on my list of "Must Reads" for anyone who considers themselves a film buff.

Guy Matthews | September 20, 2004 08:55 AM

Can't say I have that much love for Ebert's work, I do enjoy his writing style, but he has a very frustrating tendency to act as though he's in possession of all the facts when in fact he is quite badly mistaken. Here's an example from his review of Alien: Resurrection:

"Mankind wants them for their genes? I can think of a more valuable attribute: They're apparently able to generate bio-mass out of thin air. The baby born at the beginning of the film weighs maybe five pounds. In a few weeks the ship's cargo includes generous tons of aliens. What do they feed on? How do they fuel their growth and reproduction? It's no good saying they eat the ship's stores, because they thrive even on the second ship--and in previous movies have grown like crazy on desolate prison planets and in abandoned space stations. They're like perpetual motion machines; they don't need input."

Let's review..

1. There haven't been any Alien-on-space-station themes so far so I don't know what that one's about, all the action in 1-4 has been on planet and on ship.
2. Alien: a SINGLE alien on a ship equipped with enough supplies to sustain an entire deep space mining and salvage crew. No potential food shortage.
3. Aliens: an alien nest provided with the resources of an entire self-sustaining human colony. No potential food shortage.
4. Alien 3: a SINGLE alien with the resources of an entire prison planet. No potential food shortage.
5. Alien: Resurrection: A CONTROLLED alien breeding experiment, now granted the scientists in charge are idiots, but it's unlikely they'd be so grossly incompetent as to not provide the basic nutrients necessary for their experiment to grow successfully.

Just how much does Ebert think these things need to eat???

Also: "The movie opens with surgeons removing a baby alien from her womb. How the baby got in there is not fully explained, for which we should perhaps be grateful."

Helps if you watch the previous movie and actually listen to the dialog in this one ole chap.

DPWally | September 20, 2004 03:43 PM

Elvis Mitchell is expert at film reviews that are master works on their own, but useless as reviews.

His predecessor, Janet Maslin, was brilliant (maybe still is, I don't know what she's doing now). I could read one of her movie reviews and guess with a high rate of accuracy whether I would like the movie. That doesn't mean I agreed with her, she usually disliked comedies, but I could tell from her review whether I would like it.

She left and Elvis Mitchell came along. Not only couldn't I tell, from his review, whether I would like the movie, I usually couldn't tell whether HE liked it. He would start with the movie's name and stars and by the middle of the first paragraph was off on a soaring work of prose and imagery and usually didn't return to earth in time to finish the review. He got better over time, but not enough for me to consider him a good reviewer.

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