Paying Tribute and Counting Down the 10 Best Siskel and Ebert Reviews
I know it may sound strange, but I’m sort of a geek fan of film critics and film criticism. I began reading movie reviews online around the age of 13 (I’m 26 now) through websites like Movies.com, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Yahoo movies. Late at night I remember watching, for the first time, Ebert & Roeper, which was the version of the show that came about after Gene Siskel’s unfortunate death in 1999.
For some reason, I became fascinated with the idea of movie debate and criticism. There’s something intrinsically exciting, as a movie fan, to see two critics debating, praising, or panning a film on television. It almost made me want to talk and debate films with friends. Now, there’s a steady stream of film critics I admire, including James Berardinelli of Reelviews, who pioneered online film criticism.
Having read that the show originated with Siskel and Ebert, and being aware of “Two Thumbs Up” through pop culture and on the back of DVD covers, I had always wondered what the show was like with Gene and Roger. Back in the early 2000’s, their reviews were not available for viewing or listening pleasure. So, it was actually a pretty long time before I actually got to see Siskel and Ebert together.
Nowadays, with sites like YouTube and SiskelandEbert.org, not only are many of the movie review episodes available, but also Siskel and Ebert appearances on various talk shows like Howard Stern, The Tonight Show, and David Letterman. Of course, there’s also the now famous off the cuff behind the scenes footage of them that shows you how complicated and yet close their relationship was.
The great thing about Siskel and Ebert was the show’s rather simple format. It was shunned by some intellectual critics for not being an “in depth” movie review show, simplifying a film review to a “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs down”, but it was never really meant to be that. Ebert once wrote:
The program’s purpose is to provide information on what’s new at the movies, who’s in it, and whether the critic thinks it’s good or not.
That’s a perfect summary. Siskel and Ebert, while always giving their opinion on a film, also would consider how mainstream audiences might respond to it. Hence, you always felt open to disagree with one of them or both of them. I know personally that I’ve learned a tremendous amount about not just movies, but filmmaking itself, from Siskel and Ebert.
If you haven’t seen the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, I highly recommend that you do (currently streaming on Netflix). It works for everyone, not just film geeks or Siskel and Ebert fans.
For my ten best Siskel & Ebert reviews, I am going to pick reviews that involve split decisions, two thumbs up, and two thumbs down. There’s value to all three kinds of reviews they could possibly have.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987) Two Thumbs Down
One of the great pleasures of watching Siskel & Ebert completely crap on a film. They have a blast ravaging the awful fourth Jaws film, Jaws The Revenge. One of the best points they make is the obvious continuation error of Michael Caine’s character climbing a boat ladder after coming in from the water, with a dry shirt. Magical.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Split Decision
Siskel and Ebert go at it here over Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. You can see how passionate they both are in defending their point of view. It’s been said that even as the camera’s stopped rolling, Siskel and Ebert would still be arguing.
I happen to think Siskel is right here.
Hoop Dreams (1994) Two Thumbs Up
Siskel and Ebert were more than anything, champions of films. Meaning, they loved to sing the praises of independent films they thought were great. For these lower budget productions, praise from Siskel and Ebert might mean that your film would see a release. In 1994, they really got behind the great Steve James documentary Hoop Dreams. James would later go on to direct the equally great documentary Life Itself about Roger Ebert’s life.
Do the Right Thing (1989) Two Thumbs Up
Siskel and Ebert were early advocates of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing as well. They both named it number one of their best films of 1989.
Cop and A Half (1993) Split Decision
Roger could be a tad more generous than Gene in regards to giving films thumbs up, which led to some funny moments of Siskel keeping Ebert in check. Cop and a Half is a classic example of Siskel being stunned by Ebert’s generosity.
Home Alone 3 (1997) Split Decision
This is probably the review where Siskel truly gets the best of Ebert because, inexplicably, he gave Home Alone 3 a thumbs up. If you’re stunned, watch Siskel’s reaction.
Broken Arrow (1996) Split Decision, then Two Thumbs Down
To be fair to Ebert’s generosity, he did get Gene Siskel to change his vote on a movie at least once. The 1996 film Broken Arrow had initially been given a “thumbs up”, but after hearing Ebert’s criticism, Siskel changed his mind to “thumbs down” to make it unanimous.
Blue Velvet (1986) Split Decision
One of the most infamous Siskel & Ebert spats was their review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The film happens to be one of my personal favorites, so naturally, I agree with Siskel. I find Ebert’s argument well intentioned, but ultimately it doesn’t hold water. Still, it’s fun sparring.
Frozen Assets (1992) Two Thumbs Way Down
This is Siskel & Ebert at their most fun and funniest. I have never seen Frozen Assets before, but it has one of the worst sounding ideas for a movie ever. The only reason this film is still in the public mind is because of Siskel & Ebert’s epic take down
North (1994) Two Thumbs Way Down
Siskel & Ebert may have hated Frozen Assets, but that’s nothing compared to the absolute hatred they had for Rob Reiner’s infamous flop, North. Siskel and Ebert both pronounced it the worst film of 1994—a decision they each came to independently.
In their original review, Ebert called it “one of the most thoroughly hateful movies in recent years. A movie that makes me cringe even when I’m sitting here thinking about it.” He later added, “I hated this movie as much as any movie [he and Siskel] have ever reviewed during the 19 years we’ve been doing this show. I hated it because of the premise, which seems shockingly cold-hearted, and because this premise is being suggested to kids as children’s entertainment, because everybody in this movie was vulgar and stupid, and because the jokes weren’t funny and because most of the characters were obnoxious and because of the phony attempt to add a little pseudo-philosophy with the Bruce Willis character.” Siskel continued by saying “I think [Ebert’s] gotta hold Rob Reiner’s feet to the fire here. I mean, he’s the guy in charge, he’s saying this is entertainment, it’s deplorable. There isn’t a gag that works. [Ebert] couldn’t write worse jokes if I told [him] to write worse jokes. The ethnic stereotyping is appalling, it’s embarrassing, you feel unclean as you’re sitting there. It’s junk. First class junk.” and concluded the review by saying “Any subject could be done well, this is just trash, Roger.”