13 Facts About Siskel and Ebert At the Movies

YouTube
YouTube

While 1986 was a big year for films—with a varied slate of movies including Top Gun, Platoon, Back to School, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off dominating the box office—it was an even bigger year for film critics. On September 13, 1986, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies (which was later renamed Siskel and Ebert At the Movies) made its television debut, and turned arguing about films into a national pastime.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST TIME GENE SISKEL AND ROGER EBERT DISAGREED ABOUT MOVIES ON TELEVISION.

Throughout its lifespan, what eventually became known as At the Movies adopted (and discarded) a variety of titles. Though the iconic film review series began its run on September 13, 1986 as Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, it wasn’t the first time Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had collaborated on a television program. From 1975 to 1982, the two critics had co-hosted the PBS series Sneak Previews. And yes, they often disagreed about the quality of the movies they reviewed.

2. A COIN TOSS DETERMINED WHOSE NAME WOULD BE LISTED FIRST IN THE TITLE.

According to the Archive of American Television, Siskel and Ebert determined whose name would come first in the title of their new show in the fairest, most democratic way they knew how: a coin toss.

3. THEY USED TO HAVE A DOG SIDEKICK, THEN A SKUNK.


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For all their intelligent opinions about movies, Siskel and Ebert weren’t above using a fun little gimmick here and there—going all the way back to Sneak Previews. First there was Spot the Wonder Dog, who helped the duo declare the worst movie of the week (a.k.a. the “dog”). When asked about the canine cineaste, Ebert told The Washington Post, "You want the story of Spot, I'll tell you the story of Spot. Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week." There were other dogs, and then Aroma the skunk, who introduced the critics’ Stinker-of-the-Week.

4. THEY TRADEMARKED THE PHRASE “TWO THUMBS UP.”

Siskel and Ebert popularized the concept of a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, with “two thumbs up” being the holy grail for any filmmaker lucky enough to have his or her film reviewed by the duo. To maintain the sanctity of that glowing accolade, Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase. "We made television history, and established the trademarked catch-phrase 'Two thumbs up,'” Ebert once explained.

5. DISNEY CLAIMED THAT EBERT FORCED THEM TO PULL THOSE THUMBS DURING ONE HEATED CONTRACT NEGOTIATION.

In 2007, Disney-ABC Domestic Television issued a statement claiming that Ebert had forced them to pull the thumbs from the show (which, by that time, was At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper) in the midst of a contract negotiation. In response, Ebert claimed that he "had made it clear the Thumbs could remain during good-faith negotiations," despite what the press release said. He went on to explain that, "They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counteroffer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the Thumbs removed from the show. This is not something I expected after an association of over 22 years.” When Ebert eventually ended his association with the show, the thumbs went with him.

6. THEIR FREQUENT DISAGREEMENTS WERE THE SHOW’S MAIN DRAW.

Any fan of Siskel and Ebert and the Movies can tell you that some of its best moments came when the critics were in serious disagreement about a movie. And while the critics themselves knew that their frequent differences of opinion were one of the show’s main draws, their relationship was based on fierce mutual respect.

“Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks,” Ebert wrote on the 10th anniversary of his longtime partner’s passing. “Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren't supposed to, God help us if one caught the other's eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.”

7. THEY FOUGHT HARDER FOR EACH OTHER THAN THEY DID AGAINST EACH OTHER.

Though Ebert acknowledged that he and Siskel often disagreed on movies, when it came to real life, they always had each other’s backs. “In my darkest and moodiest hours, when all my competitiveness and resentment and indignation were at a roiling boil, I never considered [going our separate ways],” Ebert wrote. “I know Gene never did either. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. 'You may be an a**hole,' Gene would say, 'but you're my a**hole.' If we were fighting—get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal. When we were on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat."

8. IN ADDITION TO REVIEWING MOVIES, THEY TALKED ABOUT THE STATE OF MOVIEMAKING.

Though reviews were their main business, Siskel and Ebert worked hard to develop an appreciation for the art of cinema itself in their viewers. In an editorial for Film Comment in 1990, Ebert reminded readers of the many themed issues he and Siskel had produced where they delved into issues facing moviemakers of the day, including the colorization of films, the virtues of letterboxing, the art of black-and-white cinematography, and why the MPAA was the same as censorship.

"Siskel & Ebert was the first, and often the only, television show of any kind to deal with many of these subjects,” Ebert wrote. “It would be fair to say that most mainstream Americans who have formed an opinion on colorization and letterboxing were inspired to do so because of our program. (Video retailers say the Siskel & Ebert program on letterboxing caused a noticeable swing in the opinions of their customers on the subject.)"

9. THEY FILMED AN EPISODE IN BLACK AND WHITE.

To illustrate that aforementioned point about black and white cinematography, Siskel and Ebert filmed an entire episode in black and white.

10. THEY TURNED AUDIENCES ON TO A NUMBER OF INDEPENDENT FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES.

While much of the show was dedicated to major Hollywood movies, Siskel and Ebert made a point to review smaller films, including foreign films, arthouse movies, and documentaries. Many people credit the critics with pointing audiences toward the documentary Hoop Dreams, and they were very early champions of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (Ebert was also a huge fan of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

"They'll talk about art-house films I wouldn't have fathomed seeing, like Heavenly Creatures, and I will give them the benefit of the doubt and go see or rent them," one twenty-something film fan told the Los Angeles Times. "But they could say what they want about Interview With the Vampire or Desperado, and a pack of wolves couldn't keep me away from either. There are some actors I will see anything that they do." (We're thinking she was an Antonio Banderas fan.)

11. A BAD REVIEW OF THE FISHER KING LED TO A VILLAIN NAMED SISKEL IN THE REF.

Ahead of the 1992 Academy Awards, Siskel and Ebert ran a pre-Oscars special in which they discussed that year’s nominees and Siskel declared Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, among the least deserving nominees. "I thought it was overwrought," Siskel told the Los Angeles Times.

Two years later, while at a press screening of Ted Demme’s The Ref, also penned by LaGravenese, Siskel noticed something odd: The bad guy’s name was Siskel. The critic had no idea why the screenwriter would have any ill will toward him, until LaGravenese confirmed through a publicist his reasons for using Siskel’s name.

"I think it's a strange form of revenge,” Siskel said. “I don't know that it's the most effective form of protest. He may have sabotaged those scenes in which it's used, dramatically, by causing you to suspend disbelief by bringing the 'reality' of my name into the mix. I think people may be waiting for a Roger Ebert joke after that." (Always a critic.)

12. SISKEL LIKED JOHN WOO’S BROKEN ARROW, UNTIL EBERT DIDN’T.

One of the duo’s most memorable reviews was, ironically, of a pretty unmemorable movie: John Woo’s Broken Arrow. It marked the only time on the series where Siskel changed his opinion (and the direction of his thumb) after hearing Ebert’s take on a film. He changed his thumbs up to a thumbs down on the air to make it a unanimous stinker.

But it wasn’t the only time that one of the critics swayed the other to a new way of thinking about a movie. “I was far more enthusiastic about Babe than Roger was, and he’s come around,” Siskel told Entertainment Weekly in 1996, before explaining that he “was sort of on the fence about Broken Arrow, and when he made his comments, right then and there I turned my thumb down.” Ebert had his mind changed, too. “I changed my mind on Unforgiven,” he said in the same interview. “I gave it only two-and-a-half stars [in the Chicago Sun-Times]. I wasn’t thinking very well when I reviewed that.”

13. THE BALCONY SEATS WERE EVENTUALLY DESTROYED.

Disney

Like many movie props before them, the balcony seats the film critics occupied for so many years were eventually destroyed. Ebert was not happy. He wrote about how “one of the most iconic set ideas in ... television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium”—and which he believed belonged in the Smithsonian—were instead thrown “in a dumpster in the alley.”

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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The 15 Best Netflix Original Series

Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Netflix

Netflix is a cultural Rorschach test. In addition to being a revolution of the way we watch movies and television, it's a prestige factory that's helping to bring Oscar-quality entertainment to your home. And it's massive enough to be whatever you need it to be at whatever time you need it.

Seven years after House of Cards changed our perceptions of what streaming content could look like, Netflix has amassed a library of more than 100 original series (and that's only counting the English language stuff). Here are 15 of the best of them.

1. Russian Doll (2019- )

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created the series) is a game developer stuck in a time loop that keeps killing her and depositing her back at her own birthday party. If you roll your eyes at Groundhog Day situations, roll them back, because this incredibly inventive take from Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler is deeply funny, strange, sad, and celebratory all at once. One woman's existential crisis is our binge-worthy content. As a bonus, Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" will be permanently stuck in your brain.

2. Dear White People (2017- )

Based on his (also excellent) 2014 feature, Justin Simien takes us back to prestigious Winchester University, where social justice bard Samantha White (Logan Browning) navigates the growing pains of collegiate romance and friendship while trying to make her classmates recognize the social divisions at their school. Through three seasons (with a fourth coming in 2020), the show has faithfully delivered outrageous humor with its singular blend of satire and soap opera.

3. GLOW (2017- )

Anchored by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and a stellar ensemble cast, GLOW follows a group of women who launch a wrestling show backed by a trust fund kid and a cranky cult horror director (brilliantly played by Marc Maron). It scored laughs from how awkward everything was early on, but the show really sailed when Brie and her cohorts began to fully own the weird, wonderful spandex assault they were creating. Now it's about keeping that show, their group, and their personal lives intact.

4. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (2019- )

Tim Robinson is a Saturday Night Live alum whose sketch show couldn't be further from that mainstay's sensibilities. Where SNL is the McDonald's of comedy, I Think You Should Leave is the hole-in-the-wall place only you and your friends love because it keeps changing the menu with new dishes you can't get anywhere else. It's fair to call the show outlandish, but its comic brilliance stems from the simplicity of its setups and the deranged lengths that the characters go to in order to stick with that premise. Learn nothing else and dive in.

5. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)

It's the silly cartoon show here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff. Like emo music for grownups, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt's brilliant series focuses on the addiction, self-loathing, and career envy of its titular anti-hero as he attempts to crawl out of the cheesy '80s sitcom stardom of his past and into something more respected. No other show can get away with this many animal puns while exploring the depths of despair that result from trying to fill a bottomless pit in your soul.

6. Master of None (2015- )

Allora! Although it has dipped its toe into experimentation, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's relationship comedy works largely because of the likability of Dev Shah (its main character, played by Ansari). It's buoyant and feels like you're hanging out with friends but, fair warning, it will make you deliriously hungry for pasta.

7. Sex Education (2019- )

Plenty of high school comedies have focused on how awkward sex and romance is for high schoolers, but this fantastic show from Laurie Nunn wanted to raise the stakes by making the young, sexually ambivalent main character's mom a sex therapist. In another ingenious move, they hired Gillian Anderson to play that sex therapist mom, and she delivers all the frank, embarrassing talk you could possibly ask for. So what happens when the insecure son of a sex therapist starts his own sex therapy side hustle to help his high school friends? An excellent, empathetic series that uses its laughs as a release.

8. Sense8 (2015-2018)

Eight strangers living all over the world discover they are emotionally connected to each other. They can feel what others in their cluster are feeling and can communicate with each other despite physical separation. Teaming with comic book and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis have pulled another big-think, sci-fi rabbit out of their hats with this globetrotting thriller that's never met a third-rail issue it didn't want to explore. When they're not running from a mysterious entity bent on their destruction, the fascinatingly diverse crew of connected characters break down everything you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. So maybe we should be talking about them around the dinner table?

9. Orange is the New Black (2013-2019)

One of Netflix's original originals is still one of its best. Jenji Kohan found a perfect follow-up to Weeds with this adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about a young suburban woman going to a minimum-security prison. The fish-out-of-water comedy, drama, and horror only lasts as long as it takes for the show to blossom into a gorgeous, emotional roller coaster that shines the spotlight on all of its women—from the surly cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) to the sweet/troubled Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba)—to humanize them beyond the personas they adopt to survive. The show is a hilarious self-peeling onion, tears and all.

10. Astronomy Club (2019- )

Within the first two minutes of Astronomy Club, a talking garlic bulb shoots a gun at Dracula and shouts "Tryin' get this money in 2020, baby!" Fortunately, it gets weirder. This sketch show from some Upright Citizens Brigade alums is framed around a fake reality show that wisely lets us get to know these new performers while mocking every Real World descendant and the cast themselves. The comedy ranges from self-aware and absurdist to straightforward and even socially-conscious, and it all blends together smoothly. A one-of-a-kind winner.

11. The Crown (2016- )

Peter Morgan's historical drama has taken advantage of the new format and the lengthy reign of Queen Elizabeth II to craft a charming, devilish exploration of the scandals and triumphs of her adult life. As The Crown has covered decades and decades, it has shifted from Claire Foy playing the young queen (post-WWII) to Olivia Colman playing her through middle age (Winston Churchill's death and Soviet espionage intrigue) and will eventually star Imelda Staunton as the older queen closing out the show in the early 2000s (the years, not her age). It's an anglophile's delight with keen dramatic instincts and a huge list of world events to tackle.

12. Mindhunter (2017- )

Based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series—created by Joe Penhall and executive produced by David Fincher—uncovers our earliest understanding of serial killers and the pioneering research conducted by letting FBI agents interview the country's most notorious murderers about their crimes. The fictionalized team played by Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv battle bureaucracy and old paradigms in order to get their fledgling, vital program to succeed in using the criminal mind to help solve future cases. It's a delicate, gorgeous show exploring our worst impulses, and, chillingly, uses real serial killers' own words to describe their acts.

13. Stranger Things (2016- )

If there were an Audience Choice Award winner for this list, this nostalgia-bomb from the Duffer Brothers would score it. An absolute phenomenon that stuffs Steven Spielberg, The X-Men, and D&D into a blender and pours the results into a Trapper Keeper, the adventures of the psychokinetic Eleven and her band of merry young men are wondrously creepy fun. Perfect PG-13 horror where puberty and a Cthulhu-esque behemoth from a different dimension are equally strong villains.

14. The OA (2016-2019)

After being missing for seven years, a blind woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) resurfaces with the ability to see and calling herself the Original Angel. The series is a stunning blend of sci-fi and fantasy that explores past trauma and near-death experiences with the backdrop of dimension-hopping adventure. It's an epic, intimate story that's truly unlike anything else, and diving into the magnetic first episode comes with the risk of getting addicted to a series that (for now) ends on a cliffhanger.

15. American Vandal (2017-2018)

American Scandal is undoubtedly the best show ever made about misdemeanor penis drawings. What might have been a crass, surface-level parody of our obsession with true crime stories is elevated to the highest of comedic heights due to the unwavering dedication to taking its juvenile crimes seriously. The first season focuses on a high school slacker who swears he's innocent of drawing the aforementioned phalluses on dozens of cars in the school parking lot while the second uncovers the truth about who spiked cafeteria lemonade with a laxative to cause an event known as "The Brownout." Imbued with all the twists and obsessively granular details of Serial, it's a miracle that they filmed any of it with a straight face.