This past weekend Life Itself, the Steve James-directed, Martin Scorsese-produced documentary that chronicles the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, grossed $138,000 in 23 theaters while boasting an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, this situation forced film critics to write about the film critic that — at least in some ways — inspired and influenced their careers (some of whom knew Ebert personally). Crafting a critical, objective analysis of a film is difficult when one is so deeply connected to the subject they’re analyzing. While praise predominantly permeated the airwaves last week, there have been some dissenting takes.
These reviews, published at Slant Magazine, Pajiba, CinemaBlend.com and elsewhere, are outliers in a sea of positivity. And as every contemporary critic is painfully aware, challenging the consensus can be dangerous in the insular-minded, troll infested Internet age we inhabit — where incendiary thoughts are immediately deemed “contrarian” or “patently dishonest.” Unfortunately, Life Itself is no exception to this dangerous trend that discourages dialogue and engenders uniformity in opinions.
The irony of this situation is rich, though. As the chief film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times for nearly have of cinema’s existence (from 1967 to his death), Ebert was a purveyor of discourse and a proponent of dissentient writing himself. Throughout his illustrious career, Ebert was unafraid to champion a film his contemporaries eviscerated, and vice versa. With that in mind, below are twelve films in which Ebert eloquently went against the grain.
“Is the movie fun? Yes. Especially when the desperate Bullock breaks into a ship’s supply cabinet and finds a chainsaw, which I imagine all ships carry. And when pleasure boaters somehow fail to see a full-size runaway ocean liner until it is three feet from them. Movies like this embrace goofiness with an almost sensual pleasure. And so, on a warm summer evening, do I.”
“What is fascinating and ingenious about ‘When Will I be Loved’ is that nothing need be anticipated, not even the possibility of a con. In scenes of flawless timing, logic and execution, Vera improvises in a fluid situation and perhaps even surprises herself at where she ends up. The third act of this movie is spellbinding in the way Vera distributes justice and revenge and adapts to the unexpected and creates, spontaneously and in the moment, a checkmate.”
“”Knowing’ is among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome. In its very different way, it is comparable to the great ‘Dark City,’ by the same director, Alex Proyas. That film was about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit, and so is this one.”
“I suspect I’ll be in the minority in praising this film. It will be described as empty, uneventful, meandering. But for some, it will weave a spell. It is a parable, yes, but it is also simply the story of these people and how their lives and existence have suddenly become problematic. We depend on such a superstructure to maintain us that one or two alterations could leave us stranded and wandering through a field, if we are that lucky.”
“Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.”
“’Blue Velvet’ is like the guy who drives you nuts by hinting at horrifying news and then saying, “Never mind.” There’s another thing. Rossellini is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve. In one scene, she’s publicly embarrassed by being dumped naked on the lawn of the police detective. In others, she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most actresses would rather not touch. She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.”
“This dialog is especially inappropriate in the final shoot-out, when it gets so bad we can’t believe a word anyone says. And then the violent, bloody ending is also a mistake; apparently it was a misguided attempt to copy ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ But the ending doesn’t belong on ‘Butch Cassidy,’ and we don’t believe it, and we walk out of the theater wondering what happened to that great movie we were seeing until an hour ago.”
“How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh? How could they put such a fresh and cheerful person into such a scuz-pit of a movie? Don’t they know they have a star on their hands? I didn’t even know who Leigh was when I walked into ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ and yet I was completely won over by her. She contained so much life and light that she was a joy to behold. And then she and everybody else in this so-called comedy is invited to plunge into offensive vulgarity.”
“The most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel. The perfect criticism of ‘Straw Dogs’ already has been made. It is ‘The Wild Bunch.’”
“The first time I saw ‘The Usual Suspects’ was in January, at the Sundance Film Festival, and when I began to lose track of the plot, I thought it was maybe because I’d seen too many movies that day. Some of the other members of the audience liked it, and so when I went to see it again in July, I came armed with a notepad and a determination not to let crucial plot points slip by me. Once again, my comprehension began to slip, and finally I wrote down: “To the degree that I do understand, I don’t care.” It was, however, somewhat reassuring at the end of the movie to discover that I had, after all, understood everything I was intended to understand. It was just that there was less to understand than the movie at first suggests.”
“Harold is death, Maude life, and they manage to make the two seem so similar that life’s hardly worth the extra bother. The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell. Nothing more to report today. Harold doesn’t even make pallbearer.”
“It’s macho porn — the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights. Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.”