The Balcony Is Closed: A Look Back On “At The Movies”

May 9, 2010 by  

Growing up, I loved movies. I guess that’s evident here. I’ve been “reviewing” movies since 1989–something I didn’t realize till a few years ago when I dug up my old journals from elementary school and found that the unused pages in the binder were dedicated to reviewing movies such as “Arachnophobia”, “Willow”, and “The Abyss”. I used a star system, 1-4. It was hard being a critic at age 11, I found. I pretty much liked everything I saw, unless it was something I didn’t understand. I gave “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” 2 stars because at the time I found it “weird and kind of boring”. Later, obviously, I understood how great it was. I thought I knew everything at 10 years old. How naive I was not to think that you know everything by 16.

But my inspirations for such aspirations as being something as spectacular and rewarding as a film critic were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert; the stars of the CBS Saturday early evening special “At The Movies”. The show eventually moved to the mornings, but I had first started watching them in 1985 when my dad would sit me down on the couch in upstate New York and convince me this was a fun show. I just saw two guys yelling at each other about movies I’d never heard of like “Prizzi’s Honor”. One guy was thin, the other guy was fat. But the two grew on me, and throughout the years, I started following their show more.

In the late 80’s, when I myself became a film reviewer, I paid more attention to their show. I especially liked their specials that dealt with giving Hollywood some pointers. They liked to think they had an impact on the industry. Perhaps they did. “Memo: To The Academy” became one of my favorite features because it focused on the more obscure talents of Hollywood that would never get a whiff at the Academy Awards–which as we all know, is the ONLY awards show worth watching. Why? Because it’s hosted by Billy Crystal. That’s why.

Well, the 90’s saw my inner critic grow. I began keeping my own journal of movie reviews. Most of the movies I saw were on cable at the time; I didn’t get to see a lot of movies in the theatre. But, I can tell you this–“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” received 4 stars. They were just flawless films. What was interesting was that I gave “Dances With Wolves” only 3 stars. I distinctly remember the running time being a fatal flaw in the film. I’d still give it a thumb’s up–sure. But did my butt need to suffer through so many sequences of  subtitles and scene after scene of buffalo chasing? I found more solace in “Cameron’s Closet”–a film I gave 3 and a half stars. The review ran thusly: “This movie scared me. I thought it was great.”

Now that’s journalism. If I had really thought I had a chance at professionally writing film reviews, I guess I should have pursued it. But of course, I was a modest chap. I just really liked watching movies. I loved the smell of a movie theatre. The scents of stale popcorn, crusty carpets, and that ubiquitous butter smell that permeated the walls. I loved the strange creepiness of the darkness that shrouded the entire theatre. I’d sometimes look around the theatre to find those entirely black areas, and wonder if a ghost was there haunting it. And if that ghost would haunt me.

I loved watching the previews. Movie trailers in some cases are better than the actual movie itself. Like “Red Eye”. Can you think of a better example of a movie trailer OUTDOING the movie in such a way that “Red Eye” did? I didn’t think so. Shut up, I said I didn’t think so. And I’m right.

I loved all aspects of moviegoing. In fact, I included that in my review of “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country”. I admitted that I didn’t pay attention to the movie, but I absolutely loved how the EXIT sign looked so cool. So distant, and yet…inviting. Not because I didn’t like the movie–as I said, I didn’t really pay attention to it. Except for Kim Cattrell. She was quite attractive in it. And me being a Star Trek fan in general, I immediately liked it. But something about that EXIT sign. I don’t know. It really grabbed me. It made me want to stand up and cheer. It was outstanding. It was Oscar worthy.

I really thought of those two as my pals. Or at least, they were my intellectual equals. But really, Siskel and Ebert provided something that no one had ever done before; they were televised critics. Critics had always been subjugated to the written word on cheaply rendered paper. Now we were getting criticisms through that warm blue glow of a television screen. Really worked wonders.

And Siskel and Ebert were entertaining. Did I always agree? No. I didn’t like “Benji: The Hunted”. I didn’t hate  “North”. But they had so much heart. I believe both Gene & Roger just *loved* movies. Loved them to the point where they lived and breathed film. You can see it like lightning when they talk. Watch the old reviews they did. Whether they liked or disliked a film. They were passionate about it. Siskel with his baggy and deeply wounded eyes when he loathed a film, and his cautioning fingers; his thumb touching his forefinger as if he were orchestrating a symphony of criticism through his own hands. Ebert with his gaze and flailing arms, his loud voice. Ebert was the loud; but Siskel was the real assassin. Roger had a pomposity that outweighed Siskel’s subtle demeanor. But both were deadly with their words, and thoughts.

Ebert always seemed more sensationalized; although I believe if he were ever to read this, he’d argue that he was the “sensible” one. It was Siskel that was overbearing.

When Gene Siskel died in February of 1999, “At The Movies” went with it. Roger made an admirable effort to keep the show alive, even including an intellectual inferior critic such as Richard Roeper (whom I love dearly!!). But this show had such vitality at its prime and even collected some Hollywood ears on the eves of those 80’s and 90’s when it seemed as though film franchises went down like Pepsi and french fries. Their criticisms of “Colorizing the Classics” made a difference; it was discontinued soon after. Their exposure of “Video Nasties” brought the controversy  and regulation of the “Faces of Death” series into the mainstream. They criticized the controversial introduction of the PG-13 rating and said it was inconsistent and didn’t solve the problem of PG to R (brought on by the release of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” that was rated PG; but the bug scene was considered far too intense for a PG rating).

But mostly, it was their adamant demand of Hollywood to please us that was so honest. It was true. These were not two ideologues paid to be sensational and over the top. These were two men who absolutely loved film. Their hearts melted for films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Schindler’s List”. Their teeth gritted through movies like “The Squeeze” (although Roger Ebert admitted to forgetting he saw it) and “Black Sheep” (the only film that Gene Siskel has ever walked out of while a professional critic).  They spoke of “getting a cup of coffee” and talking about “The Truman Show”, and hating big picture big shots for stooping to such lows like Stallone in “Judge Dredd” and Demi Moore in “Striptease”. They didn’t just break down Hollywood–they wanted it to be better. They knew it was better.

Siskel once called out Eddie Murphy for “A Vampire In Brooklyn” and told him to be a supporting character in a film directed by a great director. It was like they had a lifeline into the vein of Hollywood itself.

That voice is gone now. It is merely a ghostly relic of a time that’s passed. We don’t have TV movie critics anymore. Part of that is due to the internet. Any worthless University of Delaware drop out can be a film critic these days. And actually like the remake of “Halloween”. Yes. Somehow, it happened. The art of film criticism is a dead one these days.

Roger Ebert still punches out his columns. He’s still passionate about films. . He’s still a vital writer. But he’s seen the best days of his life go. He can’t dictate the screen like he did when he was with Gene back in “At The Movies”. But there was a time when the two of them held Hollywood by the balls, and it was wonderful. Not just because it could be done; but because it was the right people that could do it.

Roger and Gene were the essence of what criticism is, and that is love and honesty. And we rarely see either of those in media these days.

The balcony has closed. You can still find some of their reviews on YouTube. Watching them  makes me miss them both. And, makes me feel lucky that I got to see it when it mattered.

To look at most of their reviews going all the way back to 1986, visit this website to relive some “At The Movies” movie reviews:


One Response to “The Balcony Is Closed: A Look Back On “At The Movies””

  1. newper on May 9th, 2010 9:44 pm

    “Black Sheep” is not an award winning movie by any measure, but it is far from walk-out worthy. He walked out because he didn’t like Chris Farley. If he didn’t like him so much, then why review the film at all.

    They were certainly the iconic reviewers of their day (Michael Medved be damned!) They definitely played off each other very well, and clearly had a passion for the industry. Things would never be the same after Siskel passed. Did you happen to catch the 60 Minutes (I think… some news show) about this IT company that is trying to restore speech to those who have lost it by going through taped audio of the person and using their own voice in a Stephen Hawking type app? It looked very interesting; they featured Ebert on the show and are working with him to perfect the technology.

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