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DEBORA SHAULIS | On the scene Critics: Leave fantasy land and get an internship



Published: Sun, August 19, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Roger Ebert, the king of movie reviewers, wrote last month in Chicago Sun-Times that the cyber flick "Final Fantasy" was "a technical milestone, like the first talkies or 3-D movies. You want to see it whether you care about aliens or space cannons." Moviegoers said thanks, Rog, but no thanks. After running a tab of more than $100 million, "Final Fantasy" only returned $32 million. It's in second-run theaters now.

Ebert panned "Rush Hour 2," mostly because of actor-comedian Chris Tucker's mean-spirited rants. Americans showed up at theaters in droves and gave this sequel the biggest opening weekend for a comedy, ever. After just two weeks, it surpassed $100 million in ticket sales.

Ebert hits the nail on the head sometimes. But when he misses, boy, does he leave a big hole in the wall.

He's not the only one. Tongues have been wagging ever since so many reviewers embraced "A.I.," which was developed by the late Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg. Ebert gave it three stars, calling it "a movie both wonderful and maddening." More praise came from A.O. Scott of New York Times, David Ansen of Newsweek, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly and Mike Clark of USA Today, among others.

As box-office bombs go, "A.I." was like hydrogen. It was detonated by bad word-of-mouth.

Here's how one casual moviegoer says she uses reviews: "If [the critic] doesn't like a movie, I know I will."

Good question: Why are America's highest-ranking movie critics seemingly out of touch with the public's preferences?

They've been fighting Darth Vader for too long.

In his book "Roger Ebert's Video Companion" (1995), Ebert claimed to have had his version of an out-of-body experience while watching "Star Wars." "When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen," he wrote. "In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them."

All of us want movies to whisk us away from the routine of our lives for a few hours. When you're a professional movie critic like Ebert, however, you spend several hours a day in dark, private screening rooms, several days a week. You become an escapist junkie, hooked on the feeling of swinging that light sabre, running from dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, crash-landing on far-away planets where talking apes hunt for rogue humans.

You write about these movies. Then you talk about them on your syndicated show. Then you rehash your reviews for your next video guide. It's no wonder that what's fantasy to us has become his reality.

Solution: Roger Ebert needs a change of pace.

He needs an internship at The Vindicator.

That's right, an internship. The czar of cinematic critics becomes Jimmy Olson for a few months.

Ebert would benefit from the variety that comes with working for newspapers of this size. Here, every scribe is a utility player. The politics writer takes dictation from beat reporters who phone in briefs about car crashes and zoning board meetings. The education reporter fills in on the cops beat some Saturdays. The health reporter, when he's not compiling military news, serves time on the entertainment desk (such cruel and unusual punishment -- what's the American Civil Liberties Union doing about this?). Even our movie critic, Milan Paurich, puts away his popcorn to write stories for our travel section.

As Ebert shadows our staff, he'll find real-life experiences to match every movie genre. Alligators running amok in Austintown? Action flick. Steel mill workers fighting to keep their jobs? Drama.

Crooked lawyers and politicians receiving stiff sentences for crimes against the community? Now there's a movie that deserves the title "Final Fantasy."

XShaulis is entertainment editor of The Vindicator.




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