The latest version of AT THE MOVIES premiered this weekend. Did anybody notice? Capone did!!
Published at: Sept. 7, 2008, 6:22 p.m. CST by hercules
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. You know, I wasn't even going to bring this up, but just having watched the premiere episode of the retooled (emphasis on "tool") "At the Movies" syndicated show, I felt compelled to voice my thoughts.
In case you weren't even aware that the show was, in fact, debuting this weekend, join the club. I found out by accident. I've seen zero promotion for this thing, and perhaps the show owners Disney ABC Domestic Television are looking at these first few episodes as a probationary period--a chance to tweak the format to make certain every last remaining morsel of soul and originality has been drained from the hollowed-out corpse of what was the humble but important and inspirational work that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert created more than 30 years ago on PBS.
As a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I watched the old "Sneak Previews" show on PBS with a religious-like fervor. What I remember liking about the format and style (or lack there of) was that there was actually nothing pretentious about the presentation. These were two guys--competitors who truly did not like each other for the first 20 years or so of the show--on a dark set made to look not like a luxury balcony, but a ragged theater where any of us were watching movies at the time. These were two of the least photogenic men on TV, offering us a combination of balding, pudgy, glasses, sweater vests, corduroy jackets (probably with patches on the elbows). Siskel and Ebert were the anti-movie stars who loved films both big and small, and often gave more weight to smaller films because they often needed the help to get audiences.
And get audiences these two did. Studios quickly realized the impact a Thumbs Up (or Down) could have on box office. But just as important, Siskel and Ebert inspired a generation or two of new film critics who wanted to care and write about movies as much and as well as they did. I didn't move to Chicago to be closer to these two (at least, I'm pretty sure I didn't). But moving here for college afforded me the opportunity to read their print reviews for the first time (this was pre-internet, folks), and my fate was pretty much sealed from that time forward.
When Siskel died, I was crushed because I'd never gotten to meet him, to tell him what I'm sure dozens of younger critics have told him over the years--that he was an inspiration, not just to see good movies, but to think about them and influence others to care about them as much as I did. After a string of guest hosts (including our own Harry Knowles a couple of times), Ebert settled on Richard Roeper as his new permanent co-host. I thought this was a mistake, not because I had anything against Roeper (I was actually a very big fan of his work as a columnist and commentator on all things pop culture), but for the simple reason that the two men worked for the same newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. No, that didn't mean that they couldn't disagree, but there was always that feeling that even when they argued, they ultimately were on the same team. And the potential for true bitterness between the hosts was lost. The smartest thing Roeper ever did for the show was bring in the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips as a permanent co-host; at least the potential for a real rivalry was in place. Alas we'll never know.
Maybe I missed it, but I'm pretty sure Disney did not offer up a farewell episode of the "Ebert & Roeper" show. After a couple weeks of recent repeats following the completely-without-fanfare final show of last season, we get "At the Movies" (a show title actually recycled from "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies") with new hosts Ben Lyons (formerly of MTV and currently with the bastion of cinematic integrity, E! Entertainment) and Ben Mankiewicz (of Turner Classic Movies). The first thing you notice are the suits. Both men are wearing suits and ties, jackets buttoned, sporting nice haircuts, and fairly photo-friendly faces. Very corporate. The two men open up the show talking about how honored and privileged they are to be hosting a show that was begun 33 years ago by Siskel and Ebert, and what a great responsibility it is to have such a gig.
And they honored that tradition by giving us absolutely nothing that resembles that original format or any of depth that that original show offered to the films they were there to discuss. As if to set the tone, Ben Lyons uses the word "amazing" in the first minute of the show. "Amazing" is currently the most overused word in the English language, and people have taken to using it because they can't be bothered to take two seconds to think of a better (and probably more appropriate) word. I think pretty much the same thing about the word "absolutely" (a word Lyons uses twice in the first five minutes of the show). Is something wrong with the word "Yes"? People use the word "absolutely" instead of "yes" to sound smarter as this four-syllable word comes spilling from their lips. But all of this is nit-picky, I'll admit. I'll also admit that I'm pre-destined to hate "At the Movies" on principle, but I did try to watch it with as open a mind as possible.
Gone also is the balcony set. I'd expected this. Instead, we get two very comfortable-looking leather (hopefully faux leather; PETA better check into that) chairs in a bland set. Later in the show, we shift to a desk, but I'll get to that in a minute.
The first review was of the Coen Brothers' BURN AFTER READING, which was touted as an early review. Since most of you are aware of the embargo structure of Hollywood, you might also notice that this show (and some print critics) are given a pass to review movies before opening day. Here's a little secret that maybe you haven't figured out already: if a studio lets any critic review a film early, it's only because the critic has already told the studio they like the movie. If you see an early review by a name critic, and the review is bad, some publicist is getting fired the next business day and some critic is probably getting banned from screenings by that studio. Lyons and Mankiewicz both told me to "See It." The first problem with the "review" portion of the show is that there are too many clips. The bigger problem is that there is too much time spent on plot summary and not enough discussion of the actual pros and cons are the film.
What is there in terms of critique is very sound bite and quote friendly; there is no discussion. When they agree, it's a series of superlatives. When they disagree, it's two guys who really didn't listen to the other guy's surface review. We particularly notice this when Lyons summarizes Mankiewicz's "Rent It" review of TRAITOR: "I guess you don't like political thrillers that make you think." [I'm paraphrasing, but not much.] But it's the first show, so presumably these two will actually start listening to each other and develop a rapport. Lyons also seems to enjoy name checking other recent movies that actors have been in. I don't need a history lesson, dude. I'd rather hear you actually review the movie. More disturbing to me is that, while Mankiewicz offers up a sense that he is a critic who's spent some time studying up on his film history, Lyons doesn't give me the sense that he's seen too many movies that were made before the 1990s. And no, Ben, making a reference to the egg-eating scene in Cool Hand Luke during a review of that film's current Special Edition DVD release doesn't count; we've all seen that scene.
The show maintains the post-Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down format that was adopted when Disney decided it didn't want to pay Ebert for use of the trademarked phrase, and I guess that's okay. I resent the "Rent It" mentality, but that's the world we live in. If a movie is good enough to see on any level, it's good enough to see on a big screen. That's just me. What's more annoying about "At the Movies" is the Critics Roundup. Holy sweet mother of Jesus, is this idea bad. Instead of just having two relatively unknown, photogenic critics going head to head, we get five. Via some sort of satellite we get three additional heads on the screen, all shouting over each other, each trying to spew out one or two clever phrases. I'm not here to discuss the validity of their actual views on any of the films; everybody has their own opinion and they're entitled to that. But there's no room in this format for anything beyond quips and material ripe for quote whoring.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the Critics Roundup is that it's done at a desk set that actually forces its hosts to face the camera and not each other, eliminating any semblance of actual conversation. Lyons poses the question to his panel of talking heads: Is Steve Coogan the next big comedic star? First of all, who the fuck cares? Why waste time on this question in lieu of an actual discussion of, oh, I don't know, movies? An actor's worth as a star shouldn't mean anything on a show like this. Save that shit for "Showbiz Tonight," boneheads.
The show wraps up with DVD recommendations and the Three To See segments carried over from the Roeper-Phillips days. My assessment of the actual hosts is fairly simple. Mankeiewicz at least seems to have an informed opinion and something resembling a vocabulary. He would have seemed like a suitable guest host for Ebert or Roeper, when the two were rotating guest hosts at various points in the show's history. Lyons, on the other hand, brings absolutely nothing to the table beyond his youth appeal. He's the equivalent of bringing in Carson Daly (well, Carson Daly 10 years ago, maybe), and while I'm sure he knows how to handle himself talking to celebrities and giving sample-friendly reviews, he does not yet have what it takes to really talk at length and in depth about these movies.
Now excuse me. I need to throw up. You may not have felt it, but a couple weeks ago, an era in televised film criticism ended. Today, a new, shallower one took its place.