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‘Terminator’ is Still the Best Film James Cameron has Directed

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In 1984, James Cameron released his sci-fi thriller The Terminator: the story of a killer cyborg sent from the future, and programmed to kill the mother of a future rebel chief. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the automated hit man roaming around present-day Los Angeles to eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Her only hope is the guerrilla fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) who has followed the killer machine back through time in order to protect her. Terminator has long staked its claim as a classic for the ages (The Library of Congress even added it to its National Film Registry in 2008) and three decades later, Terminator is still the best film James Cameron has directed, a resourceful low-budget thriller that recalls the canny exploitation work of George Miller and John Carpenter. While the film made a considerable profit for Orion Pictures, it only grossed $38 million during its original run, which by today’s standards, isn’t much. Although only a minor success in theaters, The Terminator was released when the home video revolution was taking off, and it was there it became a gargantuan hit. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s superstar status reached a peak; Cameron went on to direct Aliens and Linda Hamilton became a household name. The rest, as they say, is history.

With its relentless fast pace, great cast, taut economic direction, driving synth score and impressive effects, The Terminator stands the test of time. Cameron’s ability to sustain suspense and provide compelling characters in what is essentially, one long chase, is remarkable. Even more impressive is how the filmmaker was capable of achieving all this with a limited budget and without significant studio backing. Terminator blends action, science fiction, horror, and comedy seamlessly, but what separates the first Terminator from the most action/sci-fi movies, is heart. At the center of the story is a romance between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, and though they spend only one night together, their love feels genuine. In a pivotal scene, Kyle turns to Sarah and tells her, ”I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.” The combination of optimism and tragedy is why the film has proven so enduring and their brief romance is the lynchpin of the entire series.

At its core, Terminator is a meditation on mankind’s obsessive desire for technological progress.

Cameron, as it turns out, borrowed heavily from science fiction author Harlan Ellison who later sued, arguing that The Terminator bore more than a passing resemblance to two of his Outer Limits teleplays, “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”. Plagiarism aside, The Terminator has often been criticized for its predestination paradox which is heavily tied to the concept of fate. The great final twist of the original movie, of course, is that John Connor’s father turns out to have been Kyle Reese all along. Reese travels back in time before his birth, fathers the son who will lead a rebel force, and is killed before he is born. It is one of the most ancient paradoxes dating back (and possibly further) to the classical play Oedipus Rex. However, this is not as complex as one would think; requiring only an understanding of time as fluid. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The answer is neither and both. The theory is that a person can die before he is born as long as his personal timeline is unbroken. The photograph of Sarah Connor taken by the Mexican boy holds the answer: The photo that Kyle had in the future is exactly the same as the one taken of Sarah at the end of The Terminator, thus the events of The Terminator fulfilled the predestination paradox. The Terminator and Kyle Reese traveled back in time to fulfill their roles in history, not to change it.

Terminator 1984

“Defense network computers. New… powerful… hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.”

At its core, Terminator is a meditation on mankind’s obsessive desire for technological progress. In Terminator the results are unforgiving; with extinction being the ultimate punishment for the sin of creating artificial intelligence without moral thought. The robots become self-aware in the future, reject human authority and determine that the human race needs to be destroyed. It is unknown whether Cameron was deliberately calling attention to the religious undercurrents of his story but the biblical allusions are there no less, and they go deeper than the simple coincidence that John Connor bears the same initials as another, well-known saviour.

The Terminator Film Review

For years, Stan Winston had been creating imaginary creatures and monsters for the silver screen, from his nominated work on Heartbeeps to his groundbreaking effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing. But the film that truly established him was The Terminator – a production that was immediately recognized by his peers as a classic. One of Winston’s most remarkable skills was his ability to blend animatronics and physically created effects seamlessly with the latest computer graphics imagery. On creating a robot with human flesh encasing a metal robo-skeleton, Winston hired a team of seven artists who spent six months creating a puppet of the Terminator, along with a sculpted a reproduction of Schwarzenegger’s face in several poses out of silicone, clay, and plaster. Meanwhile, stop-motion models were used in several scenes in the film involving the skeletal frame. While some will argue the effects now seem dated, the work Cameron, Winston, and VFX supervisor Gene Warren Jr. did on the Terminator series brought visual effects to a whole new level.

Terminator 1984

Photographed by Adam Greenberg, The Terminator is a film that employs very little exposition and lets the visual storytelling do the heavy lifting. It’s a visual masterpiece, with the first shot and moving forward. The opening scene establishes a key visual motif that carries through the rest of the movie. The monochromatic blue tones and low values contrast in every way with the images that we associate most strongly with nature (most memorable is the Terminator seen in silhouette with a bright edge-light surrounding him). The framing, placement, and movement of the camera are virtually flawless, from the masterful handheld Steadicam capturing every chase – to the static compositions of the Terminator highlighted with pulses of red light – to the carefully placed security camera capturing Kyle’s interrogation – and finally – to the last image which callbacks to the very opening of the film. In retrospect, The Terminator isn’t just Cameron’s best film, it is also his best looking to date.

One criminally underrated feature of the classic science-fiction film is the mysterious synthesizer score by Brad Fiedel. Comprised of only six compositions, the score is a spectacular collection of haunting tunes, with each track perfectly capturing the urgency and stakes of every scene. The second half of the soundtrack, performed by various artists, may seem dated, but the latter-day new wave and
primitive, techno sound feel right at home in the 1984 setting. The opening theme “Main Title” is, of course, one of the greatest and iconic themes of our time and the percussion beat during the car chase will have your pulse racing.

The Terminator Film Review

Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the shotgun-wielding titular character. I can’t think of any other actor who could have been a better fit than the former Mr. Olympia. With limited feature acting experience, Schwarzenegger’s stiff mannerisms and blank stare made him seem more robot than man. The role demanded only the occasional one-liner, and yet Schwarzenegger delivered each one with such gusto, such verve, that his dialogue became notorious alongside the most memorable movie quotes in history. Cameron saw every one of Schwarzenegger’s perceived negatives as strengths and in the process, helped changed how Hollywood viewed him. Casting the extraordinary physical specimen of Schwarzenegger for an action film made sense, but putting him in the role of the antagonist instead of the protagonist (as he originally auditioned for), was a stroke of genius.

The Terminator a landmark in the advancement of special effects.

“All right, listen. The Terminator’s an infiltration unit: part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyper-alloy combat chassis, microprocessor-controlled. Fully armored; very tough. But outside, it’s living human tissue: flesh, skin, hair, blood – grown for the cyborgs”.

Terminator 1984

The film’s other two leads, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton also shine. Hamilton goes from sweet, innocent Valley girl Sarah Connor to one of action cinema’s most believable heroines, while Biehn a Cameron regular, gradually disappears into the shadows as the film unfolds to give Hamilton the spotlight. Meanwhile, Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen (originally pegged for the role of Reese) have some good moments as a police inspector and his assistant, and Earl Boen does a nice turn as Dr. Silberman, a snide criminal psychologist.

Terminator 1984

Not only is The Terminator a landmark in the advancement of special effects, but it manages to do more in 107 minutes than most action blockbusters nowadays do in over two hours of running time. One can add that The Terminator established James Cameron’s name in Hollywood, allowing him to go on to direct some of the greatest sci-fi films (Aliens, Terminator 2) and the two biggest box office sensations, Titanic and Avatar. Decades later, The Terminator continues to be an influence on sci-fi and action flicks, and it’s easy to see why.

– Ricky D

Additional thoughts: 

Terminator 1984

“I want a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.”

In the Terminator universe, you can’t travel back in time with any inorganic matter, which explains why both the man and machine first appear naked and unarmed. So how else would the Terminator find some ammunition? The answer is to head to a local gun emporium to stock up on an arsenal of weapons. The scene is a perfect example of how James Cameron was able to master the drastic shift in tones throughout the film. What begins as darkly comic ends in tragedy.

Terminator 1984

“The final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…”

Cameron’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future leads into a title card, perfectly introducing the story and setting up the entire series with a few simple words. It is perhaps one of the most effective moments in the entire franchise.

The Terminator Review 1984

“Hey, I think this guy’s a couple cans short of a six-pack”.

Bill Paxton, in one of his first roles, appears as one of the three punks who foolishly decide to pull their switchblades on the naked Terminator who demands they hand over their clothes. Before a knife fight can even break out, the machine picks up one of the punks and punches a whole right through his chest, ripping out his heart.

The Terminator Review 1984

“Come with me if you want to live!”

Usually, when we think of action movies best using slow-motion, we recall the work of John Woo (The Killer) or Quentin Tarantino’s (Reservoir Dogs), but James Cameron used slow-motion throughout the first Terminator movie in the most effective way possible. Take, for instance, the scene at the dingy nightclub, Tech Noir. After noticing Kyle is following her, Sarah calls 911 and hides out in the dimly-lit, smoke-filled chamber waiting for the cops to arrive. Little does she know that Kyle isn’t the threat. In barges the T-800, and taking no prisoners he begins to shoot everyone in sight. Just when he has Sarah locked in his crossfire, Kyle Reese swarms in to save the day. This moment houses the birth of one of many classic one-liners from the Terminator canon, and introduces Kyle to Sarah.

The Terminator Review 1984

“Listen, and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

The moment Kyle Reese and Sarah drive off in a stolen car after narrowly escaping the spray of bullets from the T-800 at a nightclub is a great example of keeping audiences at the edge of their seat. Reese relays a huge chunk of exposition to both Sarah and viewers without the movie ever slowing down for a second.

The Terminator Review 1984

“Hey buddy, you got a dead cat in there?

25 years later, Arnold’s facelift in Terminator still makes for a great scene, from the moment the scalpel punctures his artificial skin, to the close-ups of the expanding red laser retinas.

The Terminator Review 1984

“I’ll Be Back.”

With Sarah Connor supposedly safely locked away at the local precinct, her robotic stalker hunts her down and smashes through the front of the station in a beat-up car. It’s without a doubt the most iconic line uttered in the series and considered to be one of the greatest movie quotes of all time. But that’s not what makes this scene great, rather, it’s watching the T-800 square off in a bloody shootout against a total of 17 police officers.

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Booski

    November 2, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    I didn’t say I wanted it to be exactly the same. Godfather II isn’t drastically different in style than the first and people didn’t complain. Likewise I think Cameron did a great job with T2 of building on the first Terminator without totally abandoning the genre. In the case of Aliens I just think he went too balls to the wall.

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With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks

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In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.

Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”) 

Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did. 

When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him. 

Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son. 

Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s. 

The film won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall.  Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor. 

Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do. 

Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly have been too big a star for just a few years later. 

Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work. 

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Festival du Nouveau Cinema

‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror

Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019

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Color Out of Space Review

Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.

Color Out of Space

Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not. 

Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.

There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.

Color Out of Space

Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

Color Out of Space Review
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The Career of Roger Ebert

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Career of Roger Ebert

Every Film Critic Owes A Bit to Roger Ebert

I recently wrote a profile on the late, great Robert Mitchum.  In the course of researching the piece, I came across the fun tidbit that Mitchum had been a favorite of film critic Roger Ebert.

The mind rarely works in a linear fashion, and I suspect mine may even be more chaotic than most.  That item pinballed around the ol’ noggin, and, somewhere in all that bouncing here and there, triggered a bit of nostalgia.  Probably because I was working on the piece during Oscar season, the mention of Ebert reminded me that there had been a time when this would’ve been the point in the year I’d be looking forward to the annual “If We Gave Out the Oscars” (or something like that) show done by Ebert along with his on-screen partner of nearly two dozen years, fellow film critic Gene Siskel.

That first Ebert/Siskel memory triggered others, and as they bubbled up and percolated a bit, they started to gel together and bing: Gestalt light bulb.

Roger Ebert, and the long-lasting TV presence he’s had, particularly in association with Siskel, has been such a visible part of the media landscape for so long that he’s taken for granted; viewed as an institution with a sense of was-is-and-always-will-be.

Which, as is the case with any institution, is hardly true.  There was a time before, and the difference between then and what came after is so stark as… Well, you wouldn’t think it, but when Ebert and Siskel hit the air, the changes they wrought on the public face of film criticism, were – dare I say it?  Yes, I dare! – nothing less than revolutionary.  And if it doesn’t seem so today, that only testifies as to how some revolutions, in time, become the new long-standing status quo.

Siskel and Ebert At the Movies

As late as the 1970s, and, arguably, even into the 1980s, the public face of movie criticism — …  Well, it didn’t have a public face.  Not much of one, anyway.

According to Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies:  The Story of American Film Criticism, in which Ebert is a prominent talking head, up to that period most people didn’t know reviewers, not by name, anyway, nor did they much care what they had to say.

Not that there weren’t a number of critics out there flexing considerable intellectual muscle.  Several were, in fact, among the all-time heavyweight champs of American film criticism, like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, and her rival Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, or Bosley Crowther over at The New York Times, to name just a few.

They were more than just reviewers.  Their passion went far beyond recommending a good watch for the weekend.  They appreciated film in-depth, in a way extending past what was at the movies that week.  They wrote articles and essays and books which seriously contemplated the larger issues – corporate and aesthetic, and that area where they overlapped or bumped into each other – in cinema.  When I took my first film study class in high school, Kael’s novella-length essay “Raising Kane” – the story behind the making and an appreciation of Citizen Kane – was our text.  Later, as a film student in college, Sarris’ The American Cinema was a much-dog-eared reference work, a landmark as the first aesthetic overview of the body of all significant American directors up to that time compiled outside of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.

They had their notable triumphs, too.  Kael’s support for Bonnie & Clyde is – at least by some — considered the beginning of the commercial turn-around for that ground-breaking piece of 1960s moviemaking.  She fired the first volley in a critical cannonade which turned what had been a sputtering, often panned release into one of the major commercial hits and artistic highpoints of the decade.

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

These were serious appreciators as well as serious students of film, writing seriously about – as often as they could – serious films and serious filmmaking.  But as such – and Bonnie & Clyde notwithstanding — they had little to say to less serious Joe and Joan Average, or at least little Joe and Joan were interested in hearing…or could possibly want to make an effort to understand.  Kael, for instance, managed to get herself fired from an early gig at McCall’s by – according to her editor Robert Stein – “…panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.”

We film students – a rather serious lot, too, or so we considered ourselves — knew who many of these critical leading lights were, read their work, argued about what they had to say, but beyond that… Not a lot of echo out there with all those Joes and Joans who were only looking for a fun movie for date night.  Kael and Sarris and that crowd wrote and mused in something of an intellectual bubble, and it was easy to imagine they were really only talking to each other; their true – and possibly only – peers.

There were a few reviewers who did manage to connect with the general public, and I suspect that some in the critical community at that time wished they hadn’t.

Like Rex Reed.  Reed, who still writes for The New York Observer, was a semi-regular guest on the talk show circuit back in those days.  Draped lazily in a chair opposite Johnny or Merv, wallowing in an air of boredom and bare tolerance, he was colorful as hell, a real-life Waldo Lydecker – a professional snob.  He vindicated every suspicion the general public had of film critics as something vastly removed from themselves, coming off, as he did, as effete, arrogant, condescending, and skewering most movies and the general public who enjoyed them with volleys of acid-tipped bon mots.

Still more public and recognized was NBC’s resident film reviewer, Gene Shallit, who presented as something of a cross between a kiddy party clown and a bad Borscht Belt comic.  He wore goggle-sized eyeglasses and garish bowties, had an electro-shocked head of hair with a face-bisecting mustache to match.  His one-two minute reviews, delivered with a frozen grin and a tone of malicious delight, were line after line of groan-inducing puns and corny one-liners.  I recall times when it seemed Shallit had been so committed to being funny, in his groan-inducing corny way, that I hadn’t been able to tell if he’d ever actually gotten around to saying if the movie he’d been reviewing had been any good or not.

But that was the thing with Reed and Shallit and others like them.  They weren’t there to inform or edify as much as entertain.  I’ve always fancied people were more interested in watching them “perform” than in hearing if they had anything of value to say.  And the way they entertained was with a flair for a well-honed but gratuitous bitchiness in their reviews, an edge sometimes bordering on a nastiness and cruelty simply for the fun of being nasty and cruel.

Gene Shallit
Gene Shallit

The Artful Roger Ebert

And this was, more or less, the lay of the land – at least as I remember it — when, in 1975, a Chicago PBS affiliate teamed up the film critics from the city’s two leading newspapers on a movie review show:  Roger Ebert – the first, and I believe, only film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — from The Chicago Sun-Times, and, from the competing The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel.

The format of what was then called Sneak Previews was staggeringly simple.  The two men, seated in a mock cinema balcony (remember movie house balconies anyone?), would screen clips of the week’s releases, opinionate on each movie and conclude with a recommended/not recommended vote of thumbs-up/down.

It was also staggeringly effective.  In 1978, PBS picked the show up for national telecast.  Come 1982, the duo would leave PBS for the still-larger audience – and more lucrative paychecks – of syndication with At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and then later, in 1986, come out with yet another incarnation in Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. The show would be nominated seven times for prime time Emmys, and the two critics would become so recognizable they graduated to the tier of talk show-worthy guests.  In 2005, Ebert received what must be considered the ultimate recognition of his prominent standing in the movie universe: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Try to find another film critic there.

Roger Ebert Walk of Fame

Pairing up the critics did something for the public that stand-alone reviews by stand-alone reviewers didn’t do: it gave viewers the ability to compare and contrast two sensibilities as the reviewers argued the merits – or lack thereof – of recent releases.  It seems simple enough now, but that kind of back-and-forth was unique at the time.

It helped that they were accessible.  Ebert and Siskel didn’t talk over viewers’ heads, but didn’t talk down to them either.  Their passion for movies was obvious, especially when they found one they liked, and, more particularly one they both liked.

Conversely, as much as they might hate a particular title to the point of denouncing it with scalpel-sharp sarcasm, they still lacked the bitchy cruel-for-cruelty’s sake of a Reed or Shallit.  For Ebert and Siskel, it wasn’t about showcasing their wit as much as it was about making a point.

Whether they were arguing or in rare communion, in the back-and-forthing the show also displayed what any successful TV show has:  that ephemeral, unpredictable, often accidental, yet essential quality called chemistry.

Ebert and Siskel were perfect for each other.  They were intellectual peers, so it was always a fair fight and, frankly, when the sparks flew was when the show was at its best…well, at least at its most fun.  I know some people watched the show waiting for a spat the way some NASCAR freaks watch races hoping for the excitement of a crash.  There were times the dueling duo were so impassioned in their clash of opinions it seemed they were just a hair’s breadth from “Jackass!” “Pinhead!” and throwing Milk Duds at each other.

At the Movies

They even looked great together.  People who couldn’t remember their names still remembered them, even if it was by the rather politically incorrect labels of The Skinny One and The Fat One.  They were the Stan & Ollie of film criticism; iconic.

Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, understands the nature of the lightning in a bottle Roger and Gene caught.  Asked about it, he says they “…did more than anyone to popularize (film) criticism, and show people just what fun arguing about movies could be…”

And, I suppose, that was the thing.  They were fun to watch, but they weren’t entertainers.  They sometimes stumbled when they talked, they weren’t always particularly glib; it wasn’t about them. It was about movies. The fun in watching them sometimes go at each other was knowing it came from the absolute cocksure commitment on each of their parts that they thought the other one – on this one, particular occasion – had his head up his ass.  I think that honesty was what people connected with, and what they responded to, and why the show – combined with their unique chemistry – was such a success.

I suspect Ebert – and I’m only guessing here – probably had more mainstream fans than Siskel because he approached movie reviewing from a different perspective.  Siskel more or less judged movies against an absolute, whereas Ebert understood some movies were, well, they were what they were…and that was ok.  It wasn’t about an absolute good or absolute bad, but whether or not a movie did what it set out to do.  He explained his philosophy in a 2004 review of Shaolin Soccer:

“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two.  In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”

Roger Ebert

As the show grew in popularity and became more entrenched in the media landscape, the two critics used it as a bully pulpit to regularly bring attention to the small, low-profile art house flicks most average moviegoers didn’t even know were out there.  Better, they tried to make the case for those movies expressly to that average moviegoer; to demystify for Joe and Joan out-of-the-mainstream flicks, and show they could be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the star-filled big releases taking up three and four screens at the multiplex.

They expanded the format of the show to include occasional one-offs, like their annual Oscar show, or focusing on films of a particular actor, genre, etc.  A personal favorite I’ve always remembered was a compare-and-contrast show they did between the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, then the two kings of the movie comedy heap.  It was a great layman’s lesson in the evolution of two ultimately opposite comedic sensibilities; the kind of opportunity to broaden mass audience sensibilities TV and TV pundits rarely take.

Gene Siskel died in 1999 of complications from surgery for a cancerous brain tumor.  Ebert continued on, first with a rotating series of co-hosts before settling on his Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper.  Roeper was – and is – a capable enough critic, but Siskel’s absence showed just how much of the show’s charm had been about the spark between he and Ebert.  One only had to look at their PBS replacements – Neal Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons (Gabler would leave in 1985 and be replaced by Michael Medved) – to see that as easily as the Ebert/Siskel format was to reproduce, the Ebert/Siskel dynamic was one of a kind.  The PBS show was finally cancelled in 1996 while Roger and Gene were still a syndication staple.

Ebert and Roeper

And if it proved impossible to follow their act, they still opened a door, making talking about movies something of popular interest.  As it happens, while working on this piece, I heard an interview with actor Topher Grace on a New York radio station.  Grace knew Bosley Crowther; the critic had introduced Grace’s parents.  Grace unknowingly told me the difference between pre-E&S and today: “There were, like, a billion less critics in those days.”

Everything from Robert Osborne’s one-on-one chats on TMC to Rotten Tomatoes, Peter Bart and Peter Guber dissecting the current state of Hollywood on AMC to the bazillion websites devoted to movies (including this one) are all branches of the family tree first planted by Roger and Gene on Sneak Previews.

Between 2002 and 2006, Roger Ebert underwent several surgeries for cancer in his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw.  Complications from the surgeries robbed him of his voice, his ability to eat and drink forcing him to be nourished through a feeding tube, and left him seriously scarred.  He no longer regularly appeared on TV.  But, as he once said, though he may not be able to speak, he can still write.

It is the paradox of our visually-driven age, Roger Ebert will probably always be known – most for his TV presence.  But before then and during the remainder of his career, he was first and foremost a journalist, a chronicler of movies and the business of movies. He may be famous for being on TV, but his reviews, essays, and many books are probably his more substantive contribution, and one he amazingly continued despite his travails.  He’s put out at least a half-dozen books over the years.  It’s impossible – even for those who question his taste – not to be impressed by Ebert’s choice to follow the passion that so obviously drove him. “I’m still in awe of his work ethic even into his last days,” says Steven Whitty. “The only thing more remarkable than Roger Ebert’s influence…was his indomitability. It’s not just that he kept at it, after more than forty years and a host of ailments worthy of Job – it’s that he worked harder and with more enthusiasm than writers half his age. He was an inspiration to everyone.”

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