Meet a Critic: Michael Phillips

A delightful chat with the Chicago Tribune scribe and Roeper guest host.

by | December 11, 2007 | Comments

Michael Phillips

Welcome to Meet a Critic! In the second installment of our new regular column, you’ll meet the estimable Michael Phillips, resident film scribe of the Chicago Tribune. Television watchers may also recognize Phillips from his recurring guest stints on the syndicated review show At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper, where he’s proven a formidable sparring partner to co-host Richard Roeper.

A Wisconsin native, Phillips was a longtime theater critic for the LA Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Dallas Times Herald before segueing into the Windy City’s movie beat. His first film gig was at the Twin Cities weekly City Pages; there, he book ended his tenure as a film critic with reviews of The Big Chill and Sylvester Stallone‘s Cobra, respectively, “which was a lovely way to leave it behind for a while.” The lifelong entertainment writer is a self-professed “whore for musicals” (endorsing the critically-divisive 2005 film Rent) and possesses a delightfully sharp wit, as you’ll see in our interview below.

How did Michael Phillips become a nationally-known critic? Where does the Bratz movie fit in with the best of 2007? What is the biggest hot-button issue on the set of Ebert & Roeper? All these questions — and more! — are answered in our Q&A with the one, the only, Michael Phillips.

Where did you grow up?

Michael Phillips: First two years, above grandparents’ house in Kenosha, Wisconsin; next 16 years, Racine, Wisconsin.

Why and how did you become a critic?

MP: Why: To find my way into everything that seized my imagination.

How: By watching an ungodly amount of films on television and at the local theaters growing up. Racine’s about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, which was handy for someone who was always bugging his parents or his friends who were old enough to drive for a ride up to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for The Man Who Knew Too Much, or down to Chicago. This was way before video and DVD, of course. When dinosaurs ruled the earth. Christopher Durang once wrote a play called When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth. Funny man.

As a teenager I wrote for the high school paper (The Shield) and we all had Citizen Kane T-shirts made up, and generally were suckers for the myth of newsprint’s golden age. I remember writing some pretentious nonsense about Taxi Driver at the wizened age of 15 for that paper.

Then I got very lucky in college: The Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota was, and is, a well-funded, anything-is-possible arena for arts and entertainment writing. Those of us who reviewed and edited there over the years took our beats very seriously, and had a ball. That’s where we began figuring out who we were, and what kind of critics we had inside us.

You used to be the Tribune‘s theater critic. Why the change to film, and how’s it different?

MP: In my 20s I wrote more about film than theater; in my 30s and early 40s the balance tilted the other way, and I’ve been eager to get back into the movies for a while now. It’s utterly different. I feel no complacency or jadedness writing about film, even in a month loaded down with three-quels. I’ve been the theater critic for five different daily newspapers, including the L.A. Times and the Tribune, and I knew it was time for a change when writing that fifth or seventh or 11th review of something I love (let alone Cats) became less and less interesting. With film I may have a ceaseless amount of research nagging at me, but it’s a privilege to do it and to be able to use it on the job.

The film version of Rent divided critics, but you rather liked it…

MP: All right, so in general I’m a whore for musicals, which doesn’t keep me from resisting things like The Phantom of the Opera. On Broadway with the original cast I loved Rent, and the late Jonathan Larson was an awfully good melody writer. I actually liked the film. God knows it was the best Chris Columbus film in a while.

Which filmmaker (living or not) who you’d most like to meet, and why?

MP: Buster Keaton, just to hear stories about that amazing roughhouse childhood. Vincente Minnelli, who knew so much about the camera as dance partner. Orson Welles, just to thank him for the work.

What is your favorite film?

MP: Too many to mention, and it depends on where I am in my life. It’s a 37-way tie for favorite, including Animal Crackers; Cops; The Passion of Joan of Arc; The Band Wagon; His Girl Friday; The Rules of the Game; Psycho; Shame; Sweet Smell of Success; Holiday; the recent Nuri Bilge Ceylan film Climates; the first 40 minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons; and a couple of dozen others.

Who is your favorite director?

MP: Too many — a key handful would include Welles, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Hawks and Preston Sturges.

Name one guilty pleasure film.

MP: The Oscar, from 1966: Riveting in so many ways.

Can you update your best and worst pictures of 2007 list for us?

MP: Can’t go early with the actual lists, but I can tell you that my Top 20 includes Once, Ratatouille, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Host and Knocked Up. Bottom 15 would likely include Bratz and a certain Eli Roth picture, plus Ocean’s 13. I wish Eli Roth had directed Ocean’s 13, actually.

As the main film critic for a major metropolitan newspaper, you seem to cover the gamut of releases big and small (for example, reviewing Stephen King’s The Mist and Crispin Glover’s It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE in quick succession). Is there a conscious effort on your part to provide variation for your readers?

MP: Variety, always. All I can do, really, is to engage filmgoers and give them something to respond to, and to get them thinking about something they otherwise wouldn’t think about, whether it’s 28 Weeks Later or Crispin Glover or why Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille makes me all weepy.

You’ve said you liked Casey Affleck‘s work this year in particular. What other actors/filmmakers have impressed you lately?

MP: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood — brave and terrifying, and even with that crazy-ass last section, it’s remarkable. Ellen Page in Juno — not a false moment. And Affleck’s work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was on the money.

Who is the next breakthrough performer, director or writer on the horizon?

MP: Everyone in Bratz. Didn’t you love Jon Voight in Bratz? Not since he got horked up by the snake in Anaconda have I seen such magic.

What’s your favorite disagreement or agreement with Richard Roeper?

MP: Offscreen, we argue constantly about our hair. I know A.O. Scott argues with Richard about hair as well, generally about gels and mousse and such. Onscreen, Richard and I were at polar opposites regarding Margot at the Wedding and Beowulf — he was wrong on both — and his virulent attack on Southland Tales almost got me to recommend a film I couldn’t in good conscience recommend.

What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly and respect in particular?

MP: I’m destined to overlook plenty here but in no particular order: A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and Dave Kehr, The New York Times; Stephanie Zacharek, Salon; Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times; J. Hoberman, Village Voice Media; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker; Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly; David Elliott, San Diego Union-Tribune; Rob Nelson, The Rake; Xan Brooks, The Guardian; Jonathan Rosenbaum and JR Jones, Chicago Reader.

What does it take to earn a 4/4 rating from Michael Phillips?

MP: I don’t go the full four stars too often in a given year (it depends on the year, of course), but it’s not a matter of what will become a classic (devalued word, and who can say, really?) or what is truly great (another devalued word). A film can be imperfect and still capture something special, and achieve a level of excellence; therefore the best of these merit four stars. Little Children is a good example. It’s not perfect, and there are several off-kilter aspects to the final few scenes, but the best of it is vivid and beautifully acted. No End in Sight is another example: It’s not cinematically dynamic but it’s marvelous in other ways. Once, Ratatouille, these films have their flaws, but who cares? They’re delightful. And they’re this year’s stuff; they don’t feel like retreads or familiar formulas in any way.

What is the state of current film criticism?

MP: It’s the Wild West right now, with a lot of gunslingers shooting up the town without taking particular aim at anything. Serious criticism has a hard time maintaining a steady audience in print, which is why so many online critics end up being poached by Old Media. The digitalization of cinema will likely provoke a further democratization of critical voices, which is the best thing about the trend. Finding them and encouraging them isn’t easy, though.

What word or phrase do you over-use?

MP: “Botox.” I get bummed by how many formerly expressive foreheads there are in Hollywood.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

MP: A Marx Brother. And later, the gentile George S. Kaufman.

What is your most common concession stand purchase?

MP: Popcorn. I make lots at home, too. Our son, who’s seven, calls it “the ace of snacks.”

What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?

MP: This is more childhood-traumatic than I should get into here, but when I was 9 my brother John and I went to the theatrical re-release of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which was probably the most frightening movie going experience of my preteen life. Just sitting there, for what seemed like days, trying to figure out why it wasn’t working for me. I was crazy about cars and chases back then; things like the finale of The Bank Dick were everything to me. Or the opening credits of The Love Bug. I wasn’t picky. Anyway, being sent into a low-grade funk by that alleged comedy to end all comedies probably had something to do with me becoming a critic. I wanted to figure out WHY it didn’t click, at least for me.

On the brighter side, the experience of watching and re-watching Carrie and Jaws with my high school pals really stuck with me. Just the sheer volume of the screams, and all the laughter and charged-up analysis on the sidewalk afterward. Movie going is such an intimate response to an event. But gimme a crowd any day.