Publisher: Chicago Sun Times
Tested: January 18-20, 2005
Movie fans have been spoiled rotten by the best free databases on the Web, which have been graced by such gems as the widely popular Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and All Movie Guide (AMG) from the early days. The New York Times Movie Reviews database added more than just a venerable collection to the Web for free, it made the Web more respected by conservative, technophobe cinema fans. Then came the lesser-known Rotten Tomatoes site with — among others — superbly consolidated, aggregated and sorted reviews. It, in turn, must have inspired the creation of the fine Metacritic site, which took this idea one level higher by extending the high-brow aggregation and integration of reviews from hundreds of newspaper, magazine and Web site sources beyond movies and into music, software and books.
Eberts' reviews have been around in digital format on CD-ROMs, then hosted online by the Chicago Sun Times on a rather modest platform for many years. In addition, it had a limited archive covering only the past 20 years. Ebert has been writing movie reviews for nearly 40 years and is probably the best-known columnist of the newspaper. Finally, his collection has received the prominence it deserves. The old URL of his collection was http://www.suntimes.com/index/ebert, the new one is http://rogerebert.suntimes/com. Actually, typing in just rogerebert will suffice.
Ebert's reviews, interviews and essays (all of which are now included) don't need introduction. Not everyone will agree with his reviews or star ratings, but most will recognize his vast knowledge of cinema.
Even his occasionally very critical and personal comments, which would come through as shrilling from some other critiques, sound like a grandfatherly admonition. To wit: as I was writing this column his comments about the disastrous movie "Along Came Polly" popped up. In it he writes that "the movie depends on finding ways to embarrass [Ben] Stiller, who has specialized in being embarrassed since 'There's Something About Mary' but this time is embarrassed mostly by the movie he's in."
He could have put it more mildly, but he could not have put it better. What makes it palatable is that later in the review he acknowledges Stiller's earlier success and explains — without appearing to lecture or just throw sop — that "as Stiller himself classically demonstrated in 'There's Something about Mary,' embarrassment is comic when it is thrust upon you by accident or bad luck, not when you go looking for it yourself."
Sometimes I roll my eyes when I see his three- or four-star scores or two thumbs-up rating for movies that I could hardly sit through, or even walked out of. Yet I still read his reviews of those films, and without exception I enjoy them and learn from them. Ebert always puts his criticism in context, conjures up images from other movies, and generates interest in watching them. These are the same traits I liked so much in the reference book and database reviews of my predecessor Jim Rettig on this very site.
Ebert is in his own league, especially after the passing of Pauline Kael. She was equally well-versed in the world of cinema and expressed herself colorfully, but she was often combative and sometimes venomous. Even though it is sometimes necessary, Ebert never comes through like her in his reviews. He is a wise guy, but never a wiseguy of Hollywood.
His reviews are long, but worth reading. For those with less patience, there are also one-minute reviews included on the much enhanced site, which features more than 5,000 reviews, essays and interviews. It is another question that they are not as easy to retrieve as they should be because of the deficiencies of the interface and the search software.
At first glance, the new homepage is much more impressive than the old one, but problems arise after the first search you make. No matter what your query is, even if it has retrieved all the relevant matching documents, a long note is displayed in the rather narrow column. It may give you the impression that nothing was found as it includes suggestions on how to improve your search. No matter how large your screen display is, the matching entries are not visible until you scroll down.
If and when you get down to the result list, you may be confused. There is a section labeled as exact matches and another one labeled as partial matches. Often the same movie titles appear in both sections and both link the user to the same review on the same Web page.
As for searching the archive, there are disappointing changes. There is no way to limit the search to the title field. This is especially irritating when your search word is part of another word. For example, if you want to look up Ebert's reviews about movies that have the word "war" in the title, you will also get movies that have the words "forward," "reward," "Howard," "Edward" or "dwarf" in the title.
Searching for movies with the word "man" in the title yields more false hits, matching it with title words like "Amandla," "Bad Manners," "The 24-hour Woman," "The Manchurian Candidate," etc. The advanced mode offers an exact phrase search option, but it does not deliver. Searching by actors can also bring up confusing results — reviews that mentioned the actors' names in passing, even when they aren't actually in the film being reviewed, are returned.
Luckily, IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes link to Roger Ebert's new site. You are much better off searching IMDB for a title word (if you don't remember more) or, say, Steve Martin as an actor. You can then click on the external reviews link and Ebert's review should be first. (Throughout my test, IMDB always brought up Ebert's review as the first in a long list — and for good reason.)
Rotten Tomatoes is even more powerful. You may specifically search by critic's name, which returns a list that can be sorted by several categories. It can then take you to Ebert's site, or very smoothly bring the review into its own context. There are also links from Metacritic to Ebert's archive, but the substantial new additions are not relevant for Metacritic users, as there are less than two dozen movies produced before 1985, so the additions of reviews written between 1967-1984 is not significant for Metacritic.
It is worthy content, not just for such occasions as when the Golden Globe, Oscar and other award ceremonies are due, but at any time one needs a substantial and informative review combined with a good synopsis. Just remember to spare yourself frustration when searching for specific movies, cast members and directors by using IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes for intelligent searching and let them fetch Ebert's excellent reviews.