If you’re an American between the ages of 25 and 50, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies is probably how you first encountered the concept of movie critics. Beginning in 1975 as a local Chicago program called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, the idea was novel and brilliant: bring together the top movie critics from the city’s two most popular newspapers– Ebert of the Sun Times and Siskel of the Tribune– to give a simple yes-or-no reaction to films debuting in town that week.
As Hollywood transitioned into nationwide releases, the duo went with them, going national, first as Sneak Previews on PBS and then in syndication Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. Siskel died of complications from brain cancer in 1999, and Ebert’s later health problems forced him offscreen before his own death in 2013, but the show has made an indelible mark on film criticism, especially online.
Siskel and Ebert’s best moments were either when they disagreed vehemently on a movie or came together to trash a deserving clunker. Even when they agreed, though, they never had quite the same opinion. Reductively speaking, Ebert was typically the well-intentioned normie while Siskel was more artsy, so by comparing their perspectives, the viewer could get a much clearer idea of what they might get out of a picture. Once confronted by a fan who was inspired to see a movie by a negative review, Ebert said that the job of a critic isn’t to convince the audience that a movie is good or bad, but to give an idea of whether or not they wold want to see it. And with that, let’s watch.
Based on the movies reviewed, this episode seems to come from late June of 1982. At the end of the decade, both Siskel and Ebert would declare 1982 one of the best movie years of all time (soon to be covered in my blog Movie Years, from Personal Best to The King of Comedy). Up this week are Diner, Eight Minutes to Midnight, Chan Is Missing, and Blade Runner.
The first thing that strikes me is just how reminiscent this is of early public broadcasting in America. Ira Glass once spoke derisively of his early years in public radio, when it was customary to run news stories with no narration or setup. Here that takes the form of long movie clips with little to no plot synopsis. This doesn’t do any favors for the hosts or the movies themselves: even while they praise Diner, the context-free use of whole minutes of the film makes it look like the most boring thing on earth where it probably works better as part of a whole movie.
Thankfully, the actual discussion is more enlightening: Ebert identifies with Daniel Stern’s character because he too strictly organizes his records, but also sees the sadness underlying the male bonding so prevalent in these nostalgia pics. I do love that in the New Hollywood, everyone in the ’50s had a New York accent, even in Baltimore.
Eight Minutes to Midnight
This is a movie about an Australian doctor who became a spokeswoman for nuclear disarmament. In the clip used for the movie, she seems to be referencing the expropriation of Aboriginal lands for uranium mining later referenced in the Midnight Oil song “Beds Are Burning.” Ebert claims the above clip is the one bit of excitement in an otherwise dull and pointless bit of well-intentioned fluff, but again, even that is not very compelling.
I notice YouTube commenters lately referring to Siskel as an “SJW,” but here he seems like he’d be perfectly happy with the label after disclaiming that just because he agrees with the movie doesn’t mean he has to like it (personally, a bad movie trying to agree with me can be even more infuriating). With two thumbs down, the verdict is this: why make a movie about one woman’s book tour and claim it’s about nuclear war?
Chan Is Missing
This movie was directed by Wayne Wang, who would arguably go on to bigger and better things in Hollywood and still works a ton today. Siskel and Ebert are blown away by what appears to be the first Chinese-American movie ever made, but it looks really rough here– though that may just be the videotape transfer.
Interesting clip choice.
Both of our hosts agree that the special effects and production design are great but the story is lacking. Siskel in particular is baffled by the plot, and for good reason: the theatrical cut is quite terrible. At the time, director Ridley Scott lost control on the cutting room floor, after which WB cut out some significant but non-obvious scenes and brought Harrison Ford in to record a noirish voiceover to help “explain” the film but which actively contradicted what happened onscreen. Ford attempted to do the voiceover as badly as possible in the hope that it would be unusable, but to no avail. I was born in 1989, and by the time of the rapturously-received Final Cut, I was old enough to see the movie in theaters myself. Nowadays, the theatrical cut is buried in history.
Dogs of the Week
I don’t know how long this lasted, but apparently Sneak Previews had a dog mascot named Sparky who would come on as a visual pun while our hosts discussed the worst new movies of the week. The first is allegedly titled Pranks, though Siskel spotted a copyright notice for Death Dorm in the end credits. According to iMDB the movie’s proper title is The Dorm That Dripped Blood. Roger and Gene’s disdain for slasher movies is notorious among horror fans, but a “yikes” 4.9 on iMDB suggests that even the few who remember this film aren’t willing to defend it. Ebert then brings out Paradise, a quickie cash-in on The Blue Lagoon that’s set in the desert.
Roger: “Thank God they only have one camel.”
For next week, we’re promised reviews of The Secret of NIMH and Megaforce.
Next Week: 20/20, sometime in 1990.