Saturday’s Six: Bad calls by Siskel and Ebert

Welcome to this special edition of Saturday’s Six: Six Bad Calls by Siskel and Ebert. Joining me in the balcony is Sitting Duck, film critic for the Mutant Reviewers Tribune.

And across the aisle from me is Chad, film critic for the Mutant Reviewers Sun-Times.

You’d be hard-pressed to find two movie critics more renowned than the Chicago-based Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Following their awkward start on the monthly PBS show Coming Soon, the duo progressed to a livelier back and forth when it was retitled Sneak Previews, going to a weekly schedule. These sons of the Midwest were by far the most engaging film critics on television during the Eighties and Nineties. In particular, viewers always looked forward to them disagreeing on a film and the arguments that resulted.

But they’re still human. Every year, Siskel and Ebert watched hundreds of movies, many of which they viewed solely because it was their job. So, it was inevitable that errors would creep in, usually for the ones they dislike. Often combined with cherry-picking unflattering scenes with all the context removed, these could result in a presentation that was misleading at best or even flat-out false. Here are six of their reviews that really grate our cheese in this respect and, as far as we’re concerned, get Two Thumbs Down.

The Wild Geese (1978)

Sitting Duck: Ideally, a reviewer should go into a movie with as few preconceptions as possible, though it rarely happens. Mind you, The Wild Geese has a couple of issues that aren’t easy to put aside. The first is how mercenary fiction from the 1960s and 1970s has a frequently deserved reputation for indulging in racist sentiments. The fact that much of the film was shot in South Africa certainly didn’t help its image on that front. Then there’s the lead Richard Burton, whose career was a mess in its latter stages (or as Tom Servo once put it, “Parts dried up, but he didn’t”).

That’s no excuse for actively misrepresenting a movie, though. For the selected clip, they show the scene where the mercenaries break into the prison where their target is being kept, and it goes without a hitch. Just from that, you could get the impression that this movie has a minuscule Challenge Rating and less tension than an overcooked ramen noodle, which I’m reasonably sure is their intent in that presentation. But context is everything. What gets left out here is that this was a carefully planned op where the tower guards (whose vigilance had eroded thanks to having been stationed for months with nothing happening) were taken out with stealthy attacks. So, it’s perfectly reasonable for the guardhouse soldiers to have been caught flat-footed. But more important is that this jailbreak is a mere prelude to the meat of the film, where the employer of the mercenaries double-crosses them by calling off their extraction flight, leaving them stranded in the bush, low on ammo and with dozens of very angry soldiers in pursuit.

What particularly impressed me was the performance from Richard Harris. My prior encounters with him have been underwhelming. I found his portrayal of Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies blah and his appearance in Tarzan the Ape Man just embarrassing (though much of the blame for the latter was due to the script). But here, I found his performance engaging. And though it’s obvious from the get-go that his character is going to die, it still hits hard when it happens.

I will, however, concede that the parts touching on the spotty record of post-colonial government in Africa was handled with the same delicacy as the racial relation themes in Women of the Prehistoric Planet. Well-meaning but excessively clumsy, and this gets exaggerated to the most unflattering extreme in the review. Much of this can be linked to how Andrew V. McLaglen is an action director first, and working with that sort of subject matter does not come naturally to him. Even so, The Wild Geese is a solid action movie that is due more credit than Siskel and Ebert give it.

Chad: I hadn’t even heard of The Wild Geese, so I came into the movie, as you stated, with no preconceived notions. And I found it an enjoyable, thoroughly British meat and potatoes action film with three acting giants sharing the screen. Yes, the filmmakers working with the racist South African government during the 70s was a morally dubious choice. But setting all that aside, the movie was a decent action film that’s very much a product of its time.

Siskel & Ebert’s all-negative, take no prisoners review was kind of baffling. Seriously, they leaned into the review with nothing nice to say. They even trashed the action sequences, which I found tense and exciting. And the on-location cinematography of South Africa is evocative, immersing you in the heat and grime as these soldiers of fortunes race from their pursuers. A far cry from S & E’s description of silly, unbelievable action beats with middle-aged men.

It was a treat to see the trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Roger Moore sharing the screen together. Harris, in particular, is having the most fun with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. And yes, Burton is sleepwalking here, reportedly, he was in ill health during the shoot. But even with a half-assed performance, Burton still commands the screen. It was also fun to see Roger Moore take a break from his 007 duties to play against type as a quieter, more introspective mercenary.

I wouldn’t call The Wild Geese great cinema, but it’s a decent, serviceable entry in the spy/mercenary genre featuring late performances by Harris, Burton, and Moore. As you stated, there are some uncomfortable racist politics, both on and behind the screen. But it deserves more than the drubbing Siskel & Ebert gave it.

Excalibur (1981)

Chad: The tale of King Arthur is one of those classic literary works that Hollywood loves to adapt but rarely gets right. With versions ranging from the classic movie musical Camelot (1967) and Antoine Fuqua’s gritty King Arthur (2004) to Guy Ritchie’s underwhelming King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), there are no shortages to choose from. But for me, director John Boorman’s lush and stylized Excalibur is still the best rendering of the story. Developed initially as an adaption of Lord of the Rings, director Boorman repurposed the sets and production design into an epic retelling of the once and future king and his sword Excalibur. This adaption has it all, the knights of the round table, the Sword in the Stone, the kingdom of Camelot, and the search for the holy grail. Most importantly, it places Merlin and the magical elements front and center, something the more modern adaptions always shied away from.

So, imagine my stunned reaction when Siskel & Ebert outright trashed my beloved Excalibur with a full-throated Two Thumbs Down review. Ebert described the movie as a “feast for the eyes and a famine for the mind,” whereas Siskel states that the main characters are drawn with broad brushstrokes. They rightly praise the performances of Nicol Williamson as Merlin and a young Helen Mirren as the villainous Morgana — but dismiss the rest of the cast. That’s a shame because Nigel Terry is a wonderful Arthur who convincingly ages from an eager teenager to King of Camelot, who bristles with passion and authority. He’s matched by Nicholas Clay as a solitary and tortured Lancelot fighting to bury his passion for Guinevere. And S&E never mention the thrilling, gritty battle sequences, many set to the famous O’Fortuna musical cue.

I’ll admit that some aspects of Excalibur haven’t aged well since its 1981 release. Many of the actors indulge in hammy, Shakespearian-style performances with little or no subtlety. The romance between Arthur and Guinevere is undercooked compared to her scenes with Lancelot, which carry more heat. And there are some clunky pacing beats in the final twenty minutes, particularly Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail. But none of these issues are enough to sink the film, and it remains an involving, emotional take on the classic myths. Those big melodramatic performances match the tone of the old Excalibur legend. And Merlin is the central figure in this version, with a quirky, playful performance by Williamson. He knows his days as a sorcerer supreme are numbered, as the old magical world is dying, giving birth to the age of man.

Director Boorman’s ambition is all on screen, and this is a meaty, epic take on the Excalibur story. The film is a dark, sexy, and adult presentation of the material, a far cry from the superhero style or franchise-starting ambitions in this modern, IP-driven era. We also get early appearances of some great British acting talent like Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Gabriel Byrne, in addition to the stunning Mirren, who commands the screen as the scheming Morgana. And S&E was right to praise the gothic visuals courtesy of cinematographer Alex Thomson and the silvery, detailed production designs. You can freeze-frame any shot, and it’s like a medieval painting coming to life. Sorry Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert, but I give Two Thumbs Way Down to your lazy and tone-deaf review.

Sitting Duck: Myself, I enjoy a thick, juicy slice of ham with a medieval epic, as I find the resulting bombast pairs well with the subject matter. Though I recognize that a lot of people don’t share this taste.

I admire Boorman for having the guts to make Excalibur when he did. With Monty Python and the Holy Grail having come out less than a decade before, filming an old-school Arthurian epic without a micron of irony could have been seen as a suicidal endeavor. And I’m sure the executives at most any other studio would have balked at those super shiny suits of armor, dreading the potential mockery that could result. Fortunately, Orion’s more indulgent approach to a director’s creative latitude allowed him to use this armor as a metaphor for the state of the kingdom without fear of it being shot down.

Merlin being a real wizard rather than some herb-brewing shyster is quite welcome. Though what makes it better is how his magic is presented in a subtle and low-key fashion, without an excess of sparkly visual effects like we got with that miniseries starring Sam Neill from the late Nineties.

The actual review is an odd one. In most instances where they give Two Thumbs Down, they go for the cinematic equivalents of that driver’s license photo that caught you in mid-sneeze for their selected clips. But here, both clips prominently feature Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson as Morgana and Merlin, which they both acknowledge as the strongest aspect of the movie. It’s weird. I guess that is the word for it. Weird.

Blade Runner (1982)

Chad: It’s common knowledge that Blade Runner was a commercial flop upon its release in 1982. The cyberpunk film noir by director Ridley Scott failed to attract moviegoers during the summer when E.T. dominated the cinemas. Audiences expecting a rip-roaring action film starring Han Solo instead got a slow-burn mystery that commented on humanity’s relationship with our future A.I. creations. And this was Harrison Ford’s first R-rated leading role outside of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. Despite a solid supporting cast and dazzling visuals, the film didn’t connect with either audience or critics.

Thankfully, Blade Runner eventually found a devoted following thanks to repeated airings on HBO and the booming home video market. Director Scott proved himself a visual stylist, brilliantly blending the classic film noir with the emerging cyberpunk genre, complete with a bleak, dystopian production design. The film also explored climate change, humanity’s relationship with technology, and a post-A.I. future. These were ideas ahead of their time, so who could blame critics like Siskel & Ebert for being baffled by this cinematic oddity?

To be fair, S&E did give Blade Runner a mixed review, with Siskel a hard Thumbs Down and Ebert a reluctant Thumbs Up. But it didn’t help that they chose one of the movie’s worst scenes, the tone-deaf romantic beat where Deckard borderlines assaults Rachel, as the clip they used to base their review on. Also, Ebert mispronounces Replicant, emphasizing the “cant” in an almost mocking fashion. Ebert does praise the stunning visual effects and immersive world-building but agrees with Siskel that the film’s storyline is boring and predictable. Siskel, for his part, outright trashes the picture, calling it a “pretty” waste of time.

While I personally adore Blade Runner, the film is still a cult classic that divides audiences. The movie has a deliberate pace, lacking big action scenes, and Ford’s Deckard is a particularly dour character. And S&E point out the movie’s major flaw, that the mystery Deckard is investigating regarding the Replicants isn’t particularly compelling since their intentions are telegraphed early on. But even if the plot doesn’t have any big twists or turns, these are fascinating characters that grab you immediately. Especially the Replicants, led by Roy Batty, played by the amazing Rutger Hauer, whose plight is enormously sympathetic. Or Rachael, the “special” Replicant with implanted memories, is particularly tragic. You could say the plot gets turned upside down, where Deckard is the bad guy hunting down these android slaves who want more life. All this culminates in the powerful “tears in rain” speech Batty gives Deckard ending the film.

Also, S&E was reviewing the flawed theatrical release with Deckard’s overbearing voice-over that doesn’t add anything to the film. Since Blade Runner’s release in 1982, there have been five versions, with director Scott releasing his polished “Final Cut” in 2007. It’s a movie dealing with frightening, heady ideas of AI vs. Humanity and our responsibility to our technological creations. We are still dealing with these issues today (Chat GPT and the rise of augmented AI). I can understand S&E not absorbing those themes in 1982, but I can’t forgive Siskel’s trashing the film as lovely to look at with nothing to say.

Sitting Duck: My own reaction to Blade Runner was somewhat more mixed. Mostly it’s because I’m not a big fan of noir, and the science-fiction setting doesn’t quite mask the unpleasant bite of that genre. But it was worth checking out to see how it influenced later works, particularly in anime (Bubblegum Crisis and Silent Möbius come to mind). The production design is also top-notch, and there are quite a few memorable scenes.

But yeah, That Scene is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Uncomfortable is the most tactful description I can come up with. It brings to mind a practice applied by journalists writing a piece on a public figure they don’t like, wherein they include the most unflattering photo of the person in question available on file. As for the way Ebert pronounces Replicant, I think it’s just some regional speech quirk, and he’s not deliberately baiting the fanboys. However, I will acknowledge that it really grates on the ears.

The idea of Deckard being the villain of the piece is an intriguing one. Normally, I disapprove of such shenanigans (Dracula as the hero particularly rubs me the wrong way). But it’s not too difficult to reinterpret the Replicants as the good guys, as their motives aren’t nefarious by any stretch of the imagination.

Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Sitting Duck: You shouldn’t have given it a Two Thumbs Down review, Gene and Roger. My father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate gave it a Two Thumbs Down review once. Once!

The thing about comedy movies is that no matter how good one may be, there will always be a scene that lands with a thud. And naturally, the one scene they choose to exhibit is the lamest, most dead-on-arrival scene they could manage to scrounge up. I won’t offer excuses because that scene is genuinely terrible. What grinds my gears is the way it’s implied that the entire movie is like that. Then there is the odious claim by Siskel where he has the gall to insist that gangster movies are too good to be parodied. At least Ebert called him out on what a load of horse feathers that is.

Something which stands out about the review is how Joe Piscopo as Danny Vermin doesn’t get so much as a passing mention. You’d think as the main antagonist, he’d rate at least that. I think I know why. Just about every scene that significantly involves Danny is comedy gold. So, to acknowledge that character’s role would reveal that this Two Thumbs Down review is built on a foundation of sand to be washed away at the first high tide.

Chad: The comedy Johnny Dangerously was always on my “I need to see” watchlist, as I’m a big fan of Michael Keaton’s early 80s work. Ever since Keaton teamed with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice and then Batman, his many famous comedies have fallen by the wayside. That’s a shame, as films like Night Shift and this 1984 spoof show Keaton in top comedic form.

Siskel & Ebert’s review of Johnny Dangerously was a strange one, as they spent most of the time arguing if you can spoof gangster movies. It seems Siskel reveres that classic genre and was miffed that the filmmakers made a broad parody that mocks many of its tropes. Ebert rightly calls him out and had a more mixed response to the film. And yes, they picked one of the worst clips from the film, an S&E specialty, to discuss and frame their review.

As such, I quite enjoyed Johnny Dangerously, which was a fun satire of movies like The Godfather and many of those classic Humphrey Bogart classics like The Big Sleep. Heck, there was even some needling of Goodfellas, which was weird since Goodfellas came out in 1990, a full six years after JD’s release. It’s broad, for sure, and a few of the jokes don’t quite land. But director Amy Heckerling frames the film well and lets the actors shine. Keaton looks like he’s on fire here and having the time of his life. And Moroni’s constant mispronunciation of his words, particularly the cuss words, got me every time. It’s a silly, quirky afternoon watch that both honors and spoofs those many 1940s gangster classics and will remind you how funny Keaton used to be.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Chad: It’s always fun to see our favorite directors step outside of their comfort zone and do something different. I’m thinking of Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise or Michael Mann helming The Last of the Mohicans. For German auteur Wolfgang Peterson, it was The NeverEnding Story, as the 1984 family fantasy starkly contrasts his popular actioners like Das Boot or In the Line of Fire. This darkly operatic epic is still a fascinating watch that sadly spawned several terrible direct-to-video sequels. But it remains a childhood classic of mine, and it boldly deals with some big meta themes like the state of existence and the tug-of-war between imagination and reality.

The Siskel & Ebert review of this movie was fun since this was a split vote, with Siskel doing his dismissive “this is terrible and cheap looking” critique versus Ebert passionately defending the film. I’ve concluded that Siskel and I travel in different lanes regarding our movie tastes, so it was fun to watch Ebert step up and verbally take down Siskel’s lazy remarks. Siskel also strangely pivoted, saying the movie tried to replicate the magic of the many Spielberg-produced films of the era. Thankfully, Ebert praised the visual effects work and found the movie engaging and imaginative.

After re-watching The NeverEnding Story with adult eyes, I found the movie ambitious but uneven. The visual effects swing wildly between impressive and dated. The giant rock-biter creature is wonderfully realized, but the puppetry behind Falkor the luck dragon is poorly executed. But there is some wild and weird imagery, like the huge turtle speaking (and sneezing) on our hero Atreyu and the metaphysical idea of trying to escape “the nothing” is super frightening. Oh, and the movie breaks the “thou shall not harm animals” rule of the cinema: It brutally kills Atreyu’s trusty horse Artax slowly by quicksand in a scene that traumatized a generation of children.

But the most important lesson of The NeverEnding Story is the emphasis on kids needing to read and use their imagination. The movie does that in a nonpreachy and engaging way. And in this age of information and sensory overload, it’s a message we should embrace.

Sitting Duck: I’m thinking that scene where the horse gets sucked down in the swamp contributed to 43% of all bed wettings in 1984. Because yikes!

I didn’t see NeverEnding Story as a kid and only knew about it (or rather the title) from the Limahl music video (which itself is an odd production, as it doesn’t feature any clips from the movie). Having been burned checking out old childhood favorites as an adult, I went into my first viewing of this with some trepidation. In its favor, it helps that Bastian isn’t one of those insufferable little punks that are so often the lead in kids’ movies. And perhaps it’s just me, but the kid they got for Atreyu kind of resembles Bastian, which leans into the premise of readers projecting themselves on the protagonist.

This is not a movie for which I’ll be getting a physical media copy to watch again and again. But then, I’m not really the target audience for this movie, so I’m not going to hold that against it. Plus, I do have some appreciation of the sentiments that drive it. And while Falkor is one of the dodgier creature designs, referring to it as a prize from a county fair ring toss is below the belt.

Return to Oz (1985)

Sitting Duck: In response to how many fans thought that the substandard film adaptations had ruined the original books, Stephen King once pointed out that his books were still there in their original form to be read and enjoyed. While technically true, all too often, film adaptations will form in the popular imagination as the definitive version. To illustrate my point, the first image that comes to mind for many people (perhaps even you, dear reader) when thinking of The Shining is Jack Nicholson with an ax menacing Shelley Duvall.

And nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than with the 1939 MGM musical of The Wizard of Oz. It’s hardly the only adaptation, and it could be argued that it’s not even close to being the best. But it’s the one most firmly lodged in the collective unconscious thanks to the annual television airings. This I believe is at the heart of why Return to Oz failed so spectacularly with the critics and at the box office. And unfortunately, Gene and Roger join the lynch mob. This is all the more disappointing when you consider how they had previously stood up for unfairly maligned films like Popeye and Tron.

What takes this from mere annoyance to borderline rage for me is how they seem to believe that the MGM musical is an original work (or are unaware of how far it deviates from the source material) and that any other Oz movies must adhere to it rather than look to the L. Frank Baum books. This is like insisting that all Sherlock Holmes movies must depict Watson as a buffoon who makes you wonder how he got past kindergarten (let alone graduate from medical school), simply because that’s how Nigel Bruce portrayed the character.

The dissing of the special effects is particularly inexplicable. I’ll grant that much of the bluescreen work is subpar. But everything else ranges from competent to eyepopping. In particular, the Tik-Tok suit is an amazing construction. I think what they’re really taking issue with is how the character designs are based off the W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill illustrations from the books. The MGM production staff didn’t have the resources or capabilities to pull that off, so did the best they could with what they had. But that’s no reason for a more modern production to hobble themselves with such pantomime when the services of Jim By Gawd Henson are available.

Chad: It’s fascinating how film critics will collectively gang up on certain releases. During S&E’s harsh review, you can practically hear them sharpening their claws as they go in for the kill. This is a shame because Return to Oz was a valiant attempt to be its own entity while under the shadow of an iconic classic. The filmmakers tried to split the difference with specific callbacks to the 1939 musical, like the ruby red slippers and Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy, with the pigtails and dress recalling Judy Garland’s take on the character. Even director Walter Murch had stated in many interviews that this Oz film was an adaption of L. Frank Baum’s work and not a sequel.

Yet Siskel and Ebert immediately go to The Wizard of Oz comparison and seem unfamiliar with the unique tone of Baum’s series of novels. The very negative review is fixated on the film being too dark versus the candy-colored charm of the 1939 technicolor musical. I never liked the hyperactive ADHD tone that befalls so much kid’s entertainment, so it was refreshing that Return to Oz features some dark subject matter. And I agree that the visual effects dissing comes off as a pile-on—especially Siskel’s complete dismissal of our beloved Tik-Tok as a Star Wars knock-off. Tik-Tok is a charming creation and a good representation of Baum’s novel. No wonder Mr. Siskel didn’t like him.

While a product of its time, Return to Oz has aged quite well. Yes, there are a few creaky optical effects, but it creates a convincing, tactile world of Oz. And the Wheelers spinning on those skates is full of wild and quirky imagery. Or the downright David Lynch-Ian sequence of Dorothy meeting Princess Mombi and her chamber of severed living heads. There’s some great stuff here, and I’m glad to see the film getting a much-needed critical reevaluation. But S&E’s tone-deaf review is a time capsule of how this movie was received in 1985 and the unfair comparison to the iconic MGM musical adaption.

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