Over his long and storied career, Roger Ebert (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer for Criticism), often took contrarian views, dismissing movies lauded by fellow critics—or championing films scorned or ignored.
Here are some excerpts from reviews in which he famously (or infamously) went against the grain.
Blue Velvet [ * – review ]
Now regarded as a film classic (cult and mainstream), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet wasn’t universally welcomed in its 1986 release, though few critics were as harsh as Ebert, who objected to its unflinching depictions of “sexual despair.”
“Blue Velvet contains scenes of such raw emotional energy that it’s easy to understand why some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece. A film this painful and wounding has to be given special consideration. And yet those very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what’s wrong with the movie. They’re so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true. But Blue Velvet surrounds them with a story that’s marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending it’s all part of a campy in-joke.”
Full Metal Jacket [ ** 1/2 – review ]
Falling squarely in the middle third of the Stanley Kubrick oeuvre, Full Metal Jacket earned solid notices. While not completely dismissive of the movie—he conceded it had “great moments”—Ebert was stinting in his praise.
“Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is more like a book of short stories than a novel. Many of the passages seem self-contained, some of them are masterful and others look like they came out of the bottom drawer. This is a strangely shapeless film from the man whose work usually imposes a ferociously consistent vision on his material…. But Full Metal Jacket is uncertain where to go, and the movie’s climax, which Kubrick obviously intends to be a mighty moral revelation, seems phoned in from earlier war pictures. After what has already been said about “Vietnam” in the movies, Full Metal Jacket is too little and too late.”
Die Hard [ ** – review ]
Arguably the best-reviewed action movie of all time, Die Hard proved off-putting to at least one prominent critic. Ebert found the movie “passable” at best.
“The name of the movie is Die Hard, and it stars Bruce Willis in another one of those Hollywood action roles where the hero’s shirt is ripped off in the first reel so you can see how much time he has been spending at the gym. … On a technical level, there’s a lot to be said for Die Hard. It’s when we get to some of the unnecessary adornments of the script that the movie shoots itself in the foot… the film does contain superior special effects, impressive stunt work and good performances, especially by [Alan] Rickman as the terrorist. Here’s a suggestion for thrillermakers: You can’t go wrong if all of the characters in your movie are at least as intelligent as most of the characters in your audience.”
Speed 2: Cruise Control [ *** – review ]
The clumsy 1997 sequel to the 1994 hit was one of the worst reviewed films in recent memory—it holds an incredible 2% approval rating on the review-aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes. But Ebert found things he liked in a movie that even its star (Sandra Bullock) would later disown.
“…The special effects sequences in the movie are first-rate, especially that one. I know some of the houses on shore were models and that all kinds of fancy techniques were used, but the progress of the ship, as it crushes piers and condos, restaurants and trucks and cars, looks surprisingly real…. Movies like this embrace goofiness with an almost sensual pleasure. And so, on a warm summer evening, do I.”
Cop and a Half [ *** – review ]
Gene Siskel hated this Henry Winkler-directed comedy—he later named it the worst movie of 1993. Ebert was kinder, and lauded the performance of its young star.
“…Cop and a Half is a cheerful example of the “wunza” movie, so named because of its popular formula, as in: “Wunza cop and wunza robber,” or, in this case, “Wunza cop and wunza 8-year-old kid.” You can almost hear the pitch being made in a producer’s office, as the possibilities are discussed. There isn’t much that’s original in Cop and a Half, but there’s a lot that’s entertaining, and there’s a winning performance by a young man with a big name, Norman D. Golden II, who plays little Devon Butler, a kid who dreams of someday wearing the shield.”
Dark City [ **** – review ]
Reviews for director Alex Proyas’ 1998 sci-fi noir were generally muted if respectful, but Ebert was moved by moody thriller, finding it “so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey.” He proclaimed it the best film of the year and included it in his “Great Movies” list.
“…Is the film for teenage boys and comic book fans? Not at all, although that’s the marketing pitch. It’s for anyone who still has a sense of wonder and a feeling for great visual style. This film contains ideas and true poignance, a story that has been thought out and has surprises right to the end. It’s romantic and exhilarating. Watching it, I realized the last dozen films I’d seen were about people standing around, talking to one another. Dark City has been created and imagined as a new visual place for us to inhabit. It adds treasure to our notions of what can be imagined…”