All in favor

Roger Ebert is one of my favorite movie critics for several reasons. One reason is that he possesses great writing ability. That talent can (and sometimes does) turn critics into insufferable pretentious snobs, but not Ebert. He can be witty and humorous, often at the most unexpected times. Sometimes he’ll throw in the most oddball comment in the middle of a review (maybe several if he’s reviewing a silly movie he didn’t like) just because it’s where his thoughts about the movie led him.

Another reason I enjoy reading his material is his love of movies is so infectious. And he’s open to all kinds of films from all genres. He never dismisses a movie just because it’s a raunchy comedy or gorefest or kiddie flick. (I, however, have distinct aversions to the first two.) He has said, "A movie isn’t about what it’s about. It’s about how it’s about it." In other words, does the movie succeed at being the type of movie it tries to pass itself off as? I think that methodology – evaluating a thing on its own merits – is a great way to approach any piece of art, and I have tried to emulate it in my own movie-watching habits. It’s helped me become much more open-minded about certain kinds of movies (namely pre-1980, B&W, and foreign films) I would have resisted otherwise.

One more reason I enjoy reading Ebert’s reviews is that he and I are usually in agreement. It’s gotten to the point that I’ll typically avoid the movies he pans and seek out the ones he loves, simply because I want to enjoy what I’m watching and his recommendations are a fairly good guide. When our opinions differ (usually because he thought higher of a film than I did), I appreciate reading his observations and insights, which if nothing else tend to increase my respect for what the film tried to accomplish, even if I have no intention of ever seeing it again.

Take Andrei Tartovsky’s Solaris (1972), for example. It’s on Ebert’s Great Movies list and was available on DVD at my local library, so I picked it up. I saw it and felt it deserved a 7/10; in other words, pretty darn good, but not approaching greatness. (And that wasn’t because it’s nearly three hours long and in Russian.) After watching the movie I pulled up Ebert’s review and read some great insights into Tartovsky’s directorial style that helped me understand a bit better some of the artistic choices he made. It didn’t change my overall feelings about the movie, but I came away having learned something new: an interesting approach to filmmaking. Now I’m interested to see the 2002 remake with George Clooney and to find out how well the story’s same ideas fit into a 99-minute runtime.

It’s always validating when you learn that "professionals" or well-known and respected figures agree with you. (It’s somewhat less so when you find yourself agreeing with them. Weird, huh?) Roger gave The Bourne Ultimatum 3-1/2 stars; I read his review after seeing the movie myself and giving it a 9/10. Also, though I don’t plan to see the movie myself, he made my day last week when he awarded the Mormons-as-Muslim-terrorists polemic September Dawn a ZERO STAR rating.

Roger’s been slowly recuperating from complications resulting from surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his salivary gland about a year ago, so he’s missed a fair number of movies (or rather, we’ve missed reading his thoughts on them). Lately he’s been catching up on select movies he’s missed at the rate of one per week. A few weeks ago he reviewed Casino Royale (2006) and gave it 4 stars (I gave it a 9/10); today he reviews Ratatouille and also awards it 4 stars (10/10 for me, and one of the most delightful movies I’ve seen in years), calling it "clearly one of the best of the year’s films." It’s a terrible pity that more people haven’t seen it, and I really mean that.

So far my only major disagreement with Roger this summer movie season is in our assessment of The Simpsons Movie, which he awarded 3 stars and which I felt rated a 5/10. It doesn’t even come close to the "Simpsons" episodes from the series’ first eight years, here relying far more on dumb physical humor than on clever wit and parody. It used to be the other way around, but those golden years of the show’s creative output are gone. Slapstick humor might provoke a chuckle the first time around, but it quickly grows stale. Wit, on the other hand, is timeless.

I got a few genuine laughs from The Simpsons Movie, but I soon realized I was forcing them. I relaxed and tried to let the movie earn its chuckles; I watched the last half of the movie in utter silence, wishing I could be over in the next theater watching Transformers instead. Sigh.

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