Crix find stars at spine of dino-less hits

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, co-hosts of television’s syndicated “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” were interviewed by Jerry Roberts in connection with the fifth EDI Gold Reel awards at NATO/ShoWest in Las Vegas presented to the eight movies that earned more than $ 100 million each at the domestic box office in 1993.

Siskel and Ebert’s televised opinions of the films — in order, “Jurassic Park,””Mrs. Doubtfire,””The Fugitive,””The Firm,””Sleepless in Seattle, “”Indecent Proposal,””In the Line of Fire” and “Unforgiven”– will be re-shown in clips during the EDI presentations at 7:30 p.m. on March 7. The two critics will be present to elaborate on their thumbs-up opinions or to defend their thumbs-down evaluations.

Ebert’s reviews appear in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News and other newspapers; Siskel is critic for the Chicago Tribune. They have been partnered on television discussing films for 18 years, first in Chicago, then on the Public Broadcasting System and now on a syndicated basis. The two critics were interviewed by telephone from Chicago.

Variety: Why should critics be interested in the box-office take of movies?

Roger Ebert: Movies are not made to play to empty theaters. I find it extremely fascinating what a film’s ultimate reception is by the audience — whether or not it appeals to others. Part of the fun of this show (EDI Awards) is to take another look at our opinions, some of which weren’t favorable, to those blockbuster hits.

Variety: You were quoted as saying that 1993 was the best year in movies since the early ’70s. How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Ebert: Because many different kinds of directors chose that year to make movies that they have wanted to make for years. Steven Spielberg made “Schindler’s List,” Martin Scorsese did “The Age of Innocence.” These were very personal projects and it’s interesting that Scorsese was just as concerned in this picture with obsessive behavior as he has been in his violent big-city films.

“The Piano” was empowered by something very deep inside Jane Campion. “The Fugitive” was not only a terrific thriller, it provided the opportunity for Andy Davis to use Chicago in a different way than he had before in his other action films. That film was different from any other movie Chicago that I had ever seen.

Also, there were twice as many good movies — like “Menace II Society”– in ‘ 93 than there were in 1992. I gave 50 percent more four-star ratings in ’93 than I did in ’92. I don’t know what made them better or why they get worse. It’s like trying to make sense of the weather. Look at what Spielberg accomplished. How many directors have in the same year directed the most commercially popular film and turn around and also direct the most critically admired film? That’s the kind of year it was.

Variety: Let’s pick a film from the list and you say why you think it was so popular. “In the Line of Fire” was a Clint Eastwood thriller, but that only goes so far.

Ebert: The key to that movie is the villain. The key to any movie in that genre is almost always the villain. The good James Bond movies are always determined by the dimensions of their villains. John Malkovich (in “In the Line of Fire”) is just as evil as Anthony Hopkins was in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Then, the aging Secret Service man was very right for Eastwood to play. Then you blend those things into the reality of a presidential entourage, which this movie does convincingly, and you have quite a package of things.

Variety: What’s the definition of a blockbuster for you?

Ebert: It’s not a word that I invented. It means a movie that makes a lot of money. It’s possible to think that critics should not be involved in that. But the process is simple. Every Friday a movie opens. Someone stands at a window and takes your money. It’s just as true of a Godard movie as it is of “Jurassic Park.” When a picture makes a lot of money against expectations, like “Like Water for Chocolate” or “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” then it becomes even more interesting.

Variety: Is it a thrill for you personally to see our culture affected by a blockbuster, to see “Star Wars” toys everywhere or hear a phrase that becomes a reference point for people, like “Go ahead, make my day”?

Ebert: It’s been suggested to me that I’m out there reviewing the nation’s dreams, that you’re discovering what frightens people or makes them laugh, that the movies are better than a public opinion poll. I find that interesting. In a large part, and with awards, I find that dynamic working.

Variety: Why should a critic be interested in a show about blockbusters?

Gene Siskel: They are going to show excerpts from our show, which are critical opinions without response to the box office. Some people will probably be wincing. Each of us didn’t care for some of those pictures. At one level, I’m not concerned with the box office. But if a picture scores with the audience, they’re telling you something.

Variety: So, you’re saying that, by and large, big stars are key to a film becoming a blockbuster.

Siskel: “Jurassic Park” is an exception. The stunning success of “Jurassic Park” tells me that Steven Spielberg obviously found another primal thing going on inside people — like he did with “Jaws.” The difference is that in “Jaws” you had terrific characters. Here, you have dinosaurs to carry you through the rough human passages.

Variety: Why were some of the other big hits of 1993 so popular?

Siskel: “Mrs. Doubtfire” was a new version of an age-old gender-switch story, plus you have Robin Williams. In “The Fugitive,” you have one of the most compelling stars in the business, a guy who is able to hold a thrill for the audience as well as anyone in movie history. Harrison Ford is like Steve McQueen — there’s a longing in these guys’ eyes. With Ford you sense a layer of unhappiness and the notion that, well, “I have to suffer these fools.” Ford has a tremendous skill and it isn’t the kind of skill rewarded by Oscar.

Variety: Except for “Jurassic Park,” all of the movies that made more than $ 100 million were vehicles for top-level stars.

Siskel: With a big star, you already have a certain profile. And it takes tremendous skill to carry a movie for 120 minutes. Tom Cruise often plays a guy who’s a sharpy but who also gets a bit of a comeuppance. I don’t think people fully realize the unlikable sides of the characters he plays. He’s initially not the nice brother in “Rain Man.” He goes for the easy money in “The Firm” and is clearly venal. He has smugness in “Top Gun.” But he can carry the movie. Apparently, you need one of these handful of big stars to have a blockbuster.

Variety: Is the press partially responsible for Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality — in reporting commercial success as a primary kind of merit?

Siskel: I’ve been on a campaign to get money out of journalism about the movies. It’s simple-minded: Newspapers, TV stations and soft-news programs have created this mentality that if something makes the top-10 list, it must be good. It’s unfortunate.

One reason I like the EDI Awards ceremony is that we get to talk about financially successful movies that we didn’t like. I didn’t like “Sleepless in Seattle.” I didn’t like the graphics for traveling across the country. I didn’t like the songs to cue emotions instead of scenes. It put my teeth on edge.

Variety: Is there a danger in trying to make movies that appeal to all tastes?

Siskel: The best movies are made out of the heart and not out of audience-centered interests. Prior to “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” a lot of young American filmmakers were drawing inspiration from the European masters to make the Great American film. (Now) they’re trying to make the great American hit.

There are exceptions. The new Black Wave –“Do the Right Thing,””Boyz N the Hood,””Menace II Society”– these films are about something.

I once asked Steven Spielberg what separates him and George Lucas from the rest of them. He said: “George and I love film, I mean actual film. We love to look at it, touch it, expose it to light, edit it. We love film. But in this business, too many people only love what film can do for them.”

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