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Enduring film critic and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin on passion, reviews, regrets and his battle with Parkinson’s

Technically, no, this won’t be Leonard Maltin’s first visit to Calgary.

When he sits down with his daughter Jessie for a Saturday morning conversation at the Eau Claire Cinema as part of Calgary International Film Festival’s Behind the Screen programming, it will actually be the second.

The first was a brief one during his three-decade-long tenure at Entertainment Tonight, in the late ’90s on a set visit for the locally shot — Banff, Canmore and other places in Alberta and interior BC — Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin film The Edge.

“Terrible title,” Maltin says from his home in Los Angeles before offering a laugh, “for not a very good movie.”

That said, Maltin does offer some kind words for the “astonishing” production design of the film, specifically the hunting lodge that was built from scratch with the promise that it would be completely removed from the provincial park without leaving any footprint.

“It was movie magic, you know?” he says.

That is a somewhat apt way into a conversation with a man who has been chasing movie magic — as a film critic, writer, historian, author, professor, lover of the Silver Screen and actor (Gremlins 2!!!) — for many of his 67 years on this planet.

“It’s true, it’s true,” he says.

Again, Maltin and Jessie, who is his co-host for the podcast Maltin on Movies, will be part of a free talk about the changing role of the critic in this age of blogs, the rise of sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and, yes, podcasts. Still, Maltin, remains an enduring and respected voice in cinema discourse — perhaps the last one left from the heyday when you and Hollywood both could bank on the thumbs of Siskel and Ebert, and Maltin’s star ratings.

During an incredibly generous and charming-as-hell 30-minute conversation with theYYSCENE, we chose to leave that discussion for his Calgary Film appearance and touched instead on other aspects of his life and his incredible and incredibly influential career, including how he maintains his love of film, review regrets and his recently revealed battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Here are excerpts from that interview.

Q: You talk about movie magic, and just reading a recent interview with you (to promote his latest book Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom), this quote seems to be a good indication of why you keep working, what it’s all about and why you’ve had the success you’ve had: “I’m fundamentally an optimist. Not a Pollyanna, but an optimist. People seem to sense my sincerity and my enthusiasm, which is genuine.” That, I think, has been the hallmark of your career, hasn’t it?

A: Well, I never thought anything about any of that, I just did it. As they, it’s not history when you’re doing something. I’ve had to point that out to people that I’ve interviewed, the work they’ve done decades ago, and now I’m having to explain it regarding myself … I feel very fortunate, I feel very fortunate to still get to do something that I love to do and manage to make a living at it.

Q: How have you kept that passion? Has it ever happened to you (that you’ve lost it for a time) or has it ever ebbed and flowed?

A: Only briefly. Only briefly, and frankly all it takes is one good movie to restore my enthusiasm, like recharging the batteries. When I started working at ET in the early ’80s, there was a spell of really mediocre movies and I was feeling discouraged. And I should say mediocre movies that were becoming successful, and I didn’t know what to do … (Films like) Romancing the Stone, and people were doing backflips over that film. I thought it was reasonably amusing, but I didn’t think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I said, “Am I missing something? Am I misreading something.” And then my wife and I, we lived in Manhattan at the time, went to a revival screening of, I think it was John Ford’s Rio Grande, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was, and we came out and I said, “No, I’m OK. I’m fine. I’ve just got to see more good movies.”

So as I say, they’re just short-term detours. I go see every film optimistic: I want it to be good. I don’t go in gunning for movies, I want them to be good. I don’t want to waste two hours of my life.

Q: Your wealth of knowledge has also served you well on a number of projects, such as the work you’ve done with Disney (he put together the Walt Disney Treasures and also hosted Turner Classic Movies Treasures From the Disney Vault) and even the (National Film Board of Canada), you helped put together a collection of their animated shorts.

A: I was asked to, I was commissioned to. I’ve always been a fan of NFB’s work and some 20 years ago they asked if I would host a collection, which debuted on the A&E here in the States and went to home video. And I was happy to do it. And I genuinely picked films that I cared about and wanted to share with people. And I got reviewed in the New York Times … which kind of chastised me for being blindly enthusiastic. That’s not the term they used, I can’t remember how they described it, but it was like, “This guy likes everything.” (Laughs) Well, no, these are the best films, I’ve chosen the best of the best; what don’t you get?

Q: You know reviewers — they’re the worst.

A: That’s what’s funny, I have been on the receiving end. When people ask about the consequences of reviewing and it’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been there, too. My books have been reviewed, my other projects have been reviewed, and it’s no fun getting a bad review.”

Q: What’s the best film you’ve seen lately and what should people seek out?

A: I think the most neglected great film this year is The Death of Stalin. Most people I recommend it to say, “Oh, yeah, I heard that was good.” Well, then it would be advisable to do something about it. That’s the problem with indie films is that there’s no imperative. When Black Panther opens you’ve got to be there that opening weekend so that you can talk to your friends at work on Monday or at school — that hasn’t changed. Those big-time event movies are still part of our social fabric, but medium-sized films or smaller films are not, and so a great film — and I don’t use that word lightly — does make some noise, some ripples, but it doesn’t necessarily convince people they’ve got to go see it right now. Fortunately it’s now on all of the home screening services and it is a genuinely great movie. It’s tough for comedies to get recognition — this is a comedy with very serious underpinnings — and it’s great.

Q: This could be a tough question, but what’s the one movie you hammered or gave a bad review to that you regret after a second consideration or after seeing it again?

A: Well, the one notable change that I made after many years of my book (Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which he published from 1969 to 2014), was Alien. First of all, I’m a wimp. I have no stomach — no pun intended (laughs) — I have no stomach for graphic gore, I really can’t take it. And I was on a book promotion tour and so I saw it alone in a Boston theatre without my wife, who normally I would clutch in key moments — she still has bruises from when we saw Jaws — and I had a jacket, I was eating my jacket, and so while I knew it was well done I did not enjoy it. Just on a personal level, I didn’t enjoy it. So I gave it kind of a mixed review in my Movie Guide.

Twenty-five years later, Ridley Scott tweaked it a little bit and they reissued it theatrically, and I went to see it again. Well, I knew several things happened: one was my threshold for this kind of content had expanded and broadened; secondly there had been so many imitations and ripoffs that when I went back to see the original I realized this is a masterful piece of moviemaking, and so I did a complete 180 and rewrote the review and gave it a higher rating. I didn’t do that often.

Q: We’ve talked about you not slowing down and I know you were greatly inspired by Alan Alda’s battle with his own Parkinson’s, is that something where you’re following his line of thinking, just work through it, just don’t let it hold you back, just keep going?

A: That’s what I’m trying to do. If fate is kind, that’s what I’ll be able to do for quite awhile. I only opened up about that because an acquaintance of mine who works for the AARP website, used to be with the Hollywood Reporter, called me for comment for Alan Alda. I looked at my wife and daughter and I said, “So does this mean I should come clean too?” And, “Yeah, do it.” And that’s how that happened, by accident, by chance. (The response has been) very touching, very rewarding and very surprising — wonderful encouragement.

In Conversation With: Leonard Maltin and Jessie Maltin takes place Saturday, Sept. 29 at 11 a.m. at Eau Claire 3 as part of the Calgary International Film Festival. Tickets are free and available from calgaryfilm.com.

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