Gene Siskel must be rolling over in his grave right about now. For those who believe intelligent film criticism in this country is on the verge of extinction, you’re case just got a whole lot stronger. I finally got the opportunity and displeasure to watch the brand new, re-launched At The Movies, the long-running syndicated movie review show originated by Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1986.
When Gene tragically passed away in 1999, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper was selected as his replacement (as if anyone could actually “replace” him). Roeper wasn’t well received at all by film buffs, but I think that resentment stemmed more from frustration that Gene was gone than there being anything wrong with the selection. While it was a far cry from the dynamic duo of Siskel & Ebert, it worked just fine and as time went on they they developed good chemistry together.
Ebert’s health struggles over the past few years led to the announcement that he would be retiring from the show to concentrate on his writing, which led to a revolving door of co-hosts like The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, and The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips (both of whom were excellent). Phillips was named the permanent replacement, at least until Disney announced they couldn’t come to terms with Roeper on a new contract and would be axing Phillips as well because they were completely overhauling the show. It’s never really been the same since Siskel’s death (and REALLY wasn’t the same after Ebert left) but I still recorded it each week and respected Roeper and Phillips’ intelligent observations and analysis on recent films, even if I didn’t always agree. Replacing them seemed pointless and then when I heard the new direction the show was heading I really started to worry.
It was announced that starting on September 6 Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz would be taking over as co-hosts. Lyons I was familiar with through his work as an entertainment reporter on E! but Mankiewicz, a Sirius Satellite radio and Turner Classic Movies host, I knew virtually nothing about. What these guys have in common is that they’re both more known for their bloodlines than any meaningful contributions to film criticism. Lyons, is the son of longtime New York WNBC TV quote whore, I mean film critic, Jeffrey Lyons, whose glowing blurbs you’ve probably seen splashed across print ads for middling movies over the years. The apple apparently doesn’t fall far from the tree as last year the younger Lyons declared Will Smith’s I Am Legend “THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE.”
If Mankiewicz’s name rings a bell that’s because he’s the grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote a little movie called Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. While I felt obligated to mention it, if their connections helped them get this job I have absolutely no problem with that. Stuff like that happens all the time in and I commend them for taking advantage of the opportunity presented to them. Anyone would. Or they could have gotten this based on their own merits and nothing more. I have no idea. It’s irrelevant. They both seem like good guys who I’m sure are doing the best they can under thankless conditions and I would never personally attack them. This isn't their fault. That said, this show is a complete disaster and the two hosts were made to look like fools. I can only hope the Disney executives are wrong about the kind of review show the casual moviegoer in this country wants to see. If they’re not, I’m officially scared.
Cosmetically, the show looks horrible, as they did away with the very practical and inviting movie theater atmosphere the set had from the beginning and replaced it with bright colors and a design that recalls a 1970’s college public access television studio. If Lyons and Mankiewicz have anything insightful to say about the films they’re reviewing we’d never know it because both are obviously either reading from a TelePrompter or cue cards. Their eyes barely connect with the camera as they rush through bullet points briefly re-capping each film and telling us whether we should see it. That’s great, except I always watched this show not to find out what movie to see but to get a lively, intelligent debate about film and I bet more viewers than Disney thinks watched for the same reason.
Even on its worst days one of the best qualities of At The Movies was that it always felt like we were eavesdropping on a discussion about film between two friends (or sometimes enemies) talking about what they felt worked or didn’t. This new format just arrogantly assumes no one has the attention span for that anymore, wanting useless information and sound bites spat out at them as quickly as possible. On last week’s show they reviewed Surfer, Dude starring Matthew McConaughey and I’d say both hated the film, but using the word “hate” would falsely imply there was any kind of emotion behind their comments. Sure, neither liked it, but I have no idea why. Not surprisingly, the movie does look awful so you’d figure anyone would have a laundry list of reasons why it doesn’t work, but we weren’t given much outside of “bad” and “not funny.”Say what you want about Roeper but he always backed up his opinions with solid reasoning and he never lacked passion. Just ask Eli Roth.
I was alarmed when I first heard Lyons was selected as a co-host but the one thing he had going for him (at least from what I saw in his appearances on E!) was that he seemed like a reasonably cool, laid back guy you could sit around and shoot the breeze with about movies. So what do the producers do? They dress him like a schoolboy and have him stiffly recites sound bites. The humorless Mankiewicz fares slightly better, but not much, and I couldn’t help laughing when they returned from the break and he was standing behind what looked like a kitchen counter. I was waiting for him to prepare Lyons a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s the producers’ obligation to make these guys look credible. They might (or might not) have a wealth of film knowledge to share, but we’ll never know if they continue along this route.
The centerpiece of the half hour is a train wreck of a segment known as “The Critics’ Round Up,” where three critics are featured on the program via satellite to review one film. It’s obvious they’re going for that same annoying “expert panel” approach you’ve seen used to death on Fox News and CNN. Pointless, especially when you consider the film in question was The Women. The two Bens probably could have handled it. Even worse, they factor in all 5 “opinions” in the needlessly complicated rating system. I understand the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down was abandoned out of respect to Ebert but they desperately need to find something better than See It/Skip It/Rent It. If you think I'm exaggerating how bad this is check out the show's official site where you can see clips.
The Disney executives seem to think by bringing in younger hosts and turning this into an entertainment program like The Insider or Access Hollywood they’ll reach a more desirable demographic. What a joke. This is a syndicated program and enough people have problems just trying to figure out when it’s on because of all the time shifts and preemptions due to baseball games and other events. The only audience there is for a show like this, and who would have gone out of their way to find it, are hardcore film buffs (who they’ve just managed to completely alienate). As for the rumors that Ebert approved this new direction, I’ll choose to ignore them if you don’t mind.
Siskel & Ebert had a rough start in ’86 so I’ll give this time, but that’s more out of necessity since there are no outlets to get film reviews anymore outside of the internet. Speaking of which, I could name many of those online critics I’d rather see hosting this show (a few of which are probably reading this right now).
I think what’s happened here represents a larger shift in our culture over the past few years. Serious film criticism is dying as the need for television executives to appeal to the instant gratification demands of the MTV/Facebook generation increases. That’s not meant to be an insult and the last thing we need is old, out of touch film snobs giving us an oral dissertation for 30 minutes either. Change is good, but it can’t be without purpose. There’s no denying the show was stagnant and needed some kind of an overhaul but this wasn’t the way to go. The new At The Movies should at least be able to find a fair balance between art and entertainment. If it does that Disney will get the ratings it wants and those who love film will be winners because of it. Unfortunately, until it’s able to do that there’s little reason to watch.