Even in hard times, critic shares love of film

Michael Phillips works as the film critic for the Chicago Tribune. Photo via Rotten Tomatoes.

In recent years, the world of film criticism has taken quite a hit. The universal panning of a film by critics no longer guarantees a box office bomb, and an 11-year-old’s Twitter feed can impact more people than a New York Times essay.

In response to these trends, newspapers are offering buyouts or forcing layoffs of critics at several high-profile publications, such as Newsweek and the Village Voice.

Yet even during this tumultuous time, some have been able to weather the storm. One such critic, Michael Phillips, has not only survived, but has thrived.

Phillips currently writes film reviews for the Chicago Tribune and essays and interviews for the Talking Pictures collection on the Chicago Tribune website. The Racine native became a popular name in the film criticism world after making numerous guest appearances on “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.” He would later be named as a permanent co-host with New York Times critic A.O. Scott, but the show was cancelled after only one season. Despite its short life span, Phillips still looks back fondly on the experience.

“That was a kick,” Phillips said. “Tony (A.O. Scott) and I had no illusions about the likelihood of being renewed, but we made the most of it.”

The writer’s stint on “At the Movies” was not the end of his television career. Recently, Phillips acted as the host of Turner Classic Movies’ primetime schedule, introducing films. He also had a notorious cameo on HBO’s “Entourage,” resulting in one of the main characters profaning his name.

While Phillips may currently write in Chicago, his love and interest in film criticism started back in his hometown, where he wrote reviews for the St. Catherine’s High School newspaper. Writing about films in the mid to late ’70s — noted as one of the most significant times in Hollywood’s history — ended up being a lucky break for the young critic.

“It turned out to be a good time and place to start writing about movies,” Phillips said. “It was a really, really rich period of both studio and international filmmaking. It was amazing what the major studios were financing back then.”

The movies of the ’70s may have provided some of the spark for Phillips’s early writing, but it was the older works of cinema innovators like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy that truly moved Phillips into the world of film. One particularly strong inspiration came from “The Men Who Made The Movies,” an old PBS series of interviews and tributes with classic directors.

“They interviewed guys like Hitchcock, William Wellman, and Vincente Minnelli,” Phillips said. “It was an absolutely irresistible introduction to that kind of work, and it wasn’t incidental in my life.”

Phillips would continue to write about film and drama, eventually becoming a writer on the Minnesota Daily with Marquette lecturer and friend, David Fantle. Their friendship recently brought Phillips to campus for a reception at Johnston Hall and a guest lecture in Fantle’s History of the Hollywood Musical seminar.

At both the reception and the lecture, which occurred last week, Phillips demonstrated his knowledge of film’s past while also addressing the issues of modern cinema. While the lecture was based on “The Band Wagon,” a 1953 musical, Phillips still found time to talk about his favorite genres, movie reviewing and the recent trend of 3D, which he was actually an advocate for until he’d “seen about 20 ‘Clash Of The Titans’-level films.”

Even though his appreciation for 3D has dipped, it’s that embrace of new technology and new ideas that have helped keep Phillips relevant and employed.

“Mike has done a remarkable job of adapting to the changes,” Fantle said during his introduction to Phillips’s guest lecture. “It’s a different world. He’s still rooted in a print publication, but he’s also looked at the whole world of media.”

For Phillips, however, it’s not the medium that keeps him afloat, but the audience.

“People will always look for an honest broker in times of confusion or especially when the market is turning,” Phillips said. “All I’m trying to do is give people something to think about.”

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