Meet a Critic: Michael Phillips

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

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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.