The New At the Movies? Boo!
Double Ben? Boo!
Complaining about the state of film criticism is like gnawing on a papier-mache hamburger full of sawdust. Especially when you're getting paid to do it yourself. At one time, it was a respected position held by few and worshipped by many. Watching movies every single day? And then getting a paycheck for your troubles? Whoop-doo! Seriously? Who wouldn't want that job? But something went wrong along the way. Back when Siskel & Ebert first premiered on PBS, there was this odd sense that they were enjoying themselves. That they actually liked watching movies. Together, Siskel and Ebert turned televised criticism into high art. I never got the sense that they wanted to be famous. And you believed in what they were saying. Now, once a so-called film critic gets a little attention or notoriety, they forget their task at hand. They stand up in the theater before the movie starts and shout, "Look at me! Look at me! I'm so important!" Somehow, they've turned our focus off that projected light. They've instead brought this peculiar attention back onto themselves. The films being discussed have become a stinging afterthought. Furthermore, these jokers actually believe that their views are the definitive voice of reason. That a movie lives and breathes by their word of mouth. Meanwhile, poor Roger is getting slapped in the knee because he can't see the screen nor vocalize his concerns about it. I hate to relate this to you, but the state of televised film criticism is in the shitter. And it has never looked worse than the brand spanking new edition of At the Movies featuring E! correspondent Ben Lyons and Turner Classics host Ben Mankiewicz.
Siskel & Ebert? Whoop-doo!
Roger Ebert has lost the ability to speak. And with that comes the end of an era. Maybe you think I'm too cynical. A bit hypocritical. A die-hard. Maybe it's that I don't like the seasonal exchange of exteriors. Though, I don't see it that way. I grew up with Sneak Previews on PBS. Back in 1978, I didn't have the Internet. I didn't have Aint It Cool News and Chud telling me which obscure treasures I needed to seek out and see on any given week. Sure, a lot of those guys will tell you they discovered certain films in the pages of Starlog and Fangoria magazine. But it was Siskel and Ebert that served as my gateway drug into the bizarre world of truly independent filmmaking. Every week they'd showcase some future hidden gem that wouldn't normally play at our local Cineplex. Because of their combined exuberant essay on Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, I knew to pull my dad into the theater when it hit our town as a first run feature. And my mom? She took all of us to see Raising Arizona on their recommendation alone. I only have these guys to thank for getting this little kid into a lot of our contemporary cult films when they first opened way back in the day. It's true. With the influx of Internet entertainment journalism, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz are incapable of having that kind of influence upon young filmgoers in this day and age. Say what you will about AICN's greasy tactics and lofty writing styles, they will make damn sure you know about a great film moments after its seeded out of the shaft of some upcoming auteur's pre-adolescent imagination. What was once the responsibility of pre-Internet dinosaurs like Siskel and Ebert has now become their job. Whether you like it or not.
Ebert Back on the Beat? Whoop-doo!
Where most televised film critics put themselves first, especially in this day and age, I never saw Roger or Gene do that. They never seemed disingenuous. They were always engaging. And their arguments were legendary. My mom always claimed that she couldn't stand either man. But half the time, she'd tune in with me just to see one of their famous film battles. Sneak Previews (and its future incarnation Siskel & Ebert At the Movies) was never better than when these two gentlemen had their sleeves rolled up, ready to throw verbal punches. The focus was never on their personal life or style. It was always about the film at hand. That was the important topic. With them, the film always came first. It wasn't a matter of always agreeing with them, either. Today, the televised critic puffs out his chest and says, "I hate it! That means, 'fuck you, you must hate it too!' That is my command." They aren't willing to listen to you. They only want to hear their own voice. It was often times easy to disagree with both Siskel and Ebert. But it was always fun listening to their views on why they felt a certain way. The thumb was always a secondary reaction. Before it went up or down, these guys always had a legitimate reason for swinging it in either direction. And like any great film critic, they both succeeded in their job of making you understand the film's own point of view a little better. They never took away your right to hate or love a movie. They just went about sprinkling salt on your intellect. It was the first real film course I ever took, way before I made it into college. And they should start packaging DVDs of their greatest hits and serve it as a precursor course in high school. I know I'd buy the entire set.
Today's televised film critic is a bully of sorts. There is no other way to say it. They pretty much shove you into a corner and tell you how you should feel about a film. And it dribbles down into every other faucet of media. That's why it sucks to have first lost Gene, and now have to go without Ebert for an indefinite amount of time on my television screen. Sure, one was a Yale graduate, and the other is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. But they never beat you over the head with their intellect. First and foremost, they represented the average moviegoer. Ebert, in his ongoing series of print essays, and Siskel, up until the moment of his untimely death, never lost sight of that. They're movie lovers, first and foremost. People thought Gene got a little soft in his last years as a film critic. After Roger's recent bought with cancer, certain people have complained that he's star happy. That he is tossing out up-thumbs left and right, as if he's lost site of his intended goal. I don't see it that way. And neither does Ebert, who summed it up best last week when he published You Give Too Many Stars on his public Journal. These guys loved movies. Plain and simple.
Replacement Critics? Boo!
Siskel and Ebert, together, were Classic Coke in a glass bottle shipped straight from Mexico. They were the real deal. Over the years, many so-called critics have tried to step in and fill their shoes. When Gene and Roger left Sneak Previews for their own syndicated program, Neal Gabler and Jeffery Lyons (Ben's dad) took over. And then Michael Medved replaced Gabler a few years later. All were discount bin replacements. While I would watch them on occasion, I never felt any vested interest in them, and continued on with my loyalty to the original starters of this fantastic franchise. Its simple math. Gene and Roger sought out their existence on the small screen. After they left, it became the producer's job to replace them. And as you can see, that's proved to be an incredibly tough con job to pull off.
Watching Sneak Previews when it first aired, I was a small child. And I gravitated towards Ebert and his opinions. Siskel came on like a high school teacher eager to hand out detention. He was aggressive, and a little intimidating in a Revenge of the Nerds kind of way. I'd usually side with Roger whenever an argument arose, bubbling to the surface with white heat. It wasn't until college that I began to really get into what Gene had to say about film. The man aged like a fine whiskey. And his death was a sad moment. Things would never be the same from that point on. I liked Roger Ebert At the Movies, when he went solo. It always seemed off center, but Ebert managed to carry the absent weight of his missing sidekick quite gracefully. And I enjoyed his revolving door of critics. It took me a long time to warm up to Roeper, though. Their chemistry always seemed impartial to the show at hand. Roeper always seemed to have too much respect for Ebert, and the juicy on-screen fights seemed to cease. Oh, there were tiffs here and there. But Roeper only ever swung the bitch slap where Siskel would throw a hefty fist in retaliation. It wasn't the same by any means. But...And this is a BIG but...The show continued to be entertaining. And Roeper did a decent job of taking the focus off himself and placing it back on the movies, where the crux of the concept belonged.
Ebert & Roeper? Whoop-doo!
Heck, I even stayed with Richard after Ebert left. Roeper was good with the right guest critic. But sadly, Michael Phillips came in as Roeper's weekly foil, and it was all down hill from there. I, personally, didn't like Phillips and felt that he was another faceless critic lost adrift in a sea of "so-what" reviews. I didn't care about the words coming out of his mouth. They didn't affect me one-way or the other. I took one look at the guy and said, "He's going to tell me what films I should see? I don't think so." So I stopped watching. And I probably wouldn't have returned had it not been for ABC Disney totally revamping the show. When Roeper and Disney couldn't come to an agreement about the direction At the Movies was taking, Roeper and Ebert (still out due to health complications), severed all ties with the long running syndicated program. I was certainly disappointed that Ebert would never make his way back onto the show. But I was exciting by this idea of fresh blood. Roeper and Phillips were played out. They'd become boring. The show desperately needed some new faces. An added burst of energy. I anxiously awaited their announcement for new hosts, and could only scream, "Fuck you, Disney!" At my computer screen when I read their finalized two-man pick. "Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz? What kind of cock farmers made this decision? These two pricks are the least interesting people I have ever seen on television. Even my TV turns itself off when they come on the tube."
That's a little harsh. But it was my initial reaction. Actually, I didn't even know who Ben Mankiewicz was before he nabbed this coveted gig. I often times have an initial bad reaction to things that I will later come to love in life. So I figured, what the heck, I'll still give the new At the Movies a shot, even though I didn't care for either host. Maybe it would turn out to be a decent change of pace from the last thirty years. Boy, was I wrong. This show is awful. And I'm not the only one that feels that way. Nobody seems to like it, or the two men purporting to be critics on this small screen equivalent of a public nut pummeling. Not even my mom. And she likes everybody.
Old School Rules! Whoop-doo!
The main problem here? These guys don't know their audience. They don't know who they are talking to. They aren't talking to the average moviegoer, who is sitting at home, wondering what to see. Instead, they are talking out loud just to hear themselves think. They are talking to other critics, as if they are all sitting around a junket roundtable. They have absolutely no concept of who is actually seeing what movies. They aren't aware that they are being watched by people in Arkansas and Tennessee. They are simply oblivious to the world outside their own Hollywood sphere. And most of the time, they don't even look like they are interested in hearing each other speak. You get the sense that the other one is just waiting for his turn at the microphone. There is this clouded look in both their eyes, as if they can't hear the other one's argument. That's not two critics coming together to discuss this weekend's new releases. It's two clueless clowns spouting what they think the moral majority wants to hear. There won't be any arguments or heated verbal debates here on this new At the Movies. And it's strange how such a mainstream show so strictly adheres to the mumble core movement.
Seriously, Ben Lyons, otherwise a glassy-eyed mannequin, has so much saliva in his mouth, I almost can't stand to listen to his voice. He needs one of the those disposable saliva ejectors used by Dentists to control the amount of juice being produced inside the mouth. The guy needs to suck, rinse, and spit before each on-screen interview he washes over us. Either that, or Disney should start handing out raincoats. I realize that's a little mean, but Ben Lyons kind of pisses me off. Both of these new so-called film critics play it coy, and they uphold the textbook definition of smarmy without a reasonable cause to do so. Ben Mankiewicz has this squinty-eyed demeanor that makes him look ready for a fight. At any minute. The guy is a trip wire. Sure, he seems to know a thing or two about the film making process. Problem is, he looks like he'd beat you up if you failed to agree with him. It wouldn't be a manly fistfight, either. It would be a crybaby, red-faced tantrum fight. I take one look at him and want to love the movies he hates. And vice-versa. With him at the helm, At the Movies has become an almost confrontational experience. And Ben Lyons is clearly the little bitch in this scenario. Sometimes, Lyons looks sacred to voice his real opinion. And I'm sort of afraid for him. Though, that is, if he had a real opinion to voice. And this is what burns me the most.
Cell Phones in Theaters? Boo!
I've never seen Ben Mankiewicz at a critic screening. For all I know, he's a nice guy. Charming, fun to have dinner with. He just has a lousy screen presence for televised film criticism. Ben Lyons, on the other hand, is a handsome kid. He's lovable, like a retarded puppy dog. And its nice to see him upholding the family tradition, just like the son of a doctor or a lawyer might do. And he's nice. He always comes with this blinding white smile. Thing is, I've seen him at critic screenings before. He likes to stand up before the film starts and talk really loud. He's not the only one, a lot of press and on-line critics are guilty of this. In a movie theater, where he is shouting over the crowd, I can't turn him off. Never one to agree with the overly simplistic way he describes the films he likes, it sucks to see him on the TV, now occupying space on what was once one of my favorite TV shows. When I worked at E!, he'd run around the halls, claiming to be some kind of Movie Expert. But ask him a question, and he'd just give you one of those retarded puppy dog, blank eyed stares. He really didn't know that much about film. Still, I was sort of happy for him. Because, being nice does go a long way. A handshake here, a "hey, how's it going?" there. The kid did good. Great. So what if he's a lousy look at me critic? But then, Ben Lyons sat down next to me at the Towelhead screening. And I lost any respect I had for him as a televised film critic right then and there. Because he obviously hadn't studied his predecessor's guide to filmgoing etiquette.
Mr. Lyons remained on his cell phone for the entire duration of Towelhead. While he wasn't talking on the phone, he did spend most of the two hour running time click-typing out texts. His head was continuously pulled down, face away from the screen. His zombie-like eyes bathed in that annoying bright blue light. He then later went on to give the film a "Don't See It" review on his show. He called the film "icky" and treated it like a frat daddy doucher might. He looked sort of apprehensive about speaking his own scripted words. Maybe even ashamed when Mankiewicz called bullshit midway through the kid's sickly desertion. You can see the entire embarrassing review Here, where Lyon's own on-screen partner smirks at this kid's obvious lack of integrity. Its disappointing, to say the least. We now live in an America where our beloved reviewers are talking, and texting, and sleeping through the movies they are supposed to be warning us about. I call: "BULLSHIT!"
Roger Ebert, in one of his great Answer Man columns, once said, "Cell phones have no place in a movie theater, and anyone who uses one there should be required to wear a badge saying, "I am an inconsiderate moron." The time is coming when theater chains will be forced to take action against audience misbehavior, because it is alienating so much of its customer base. With big pictures, perhaps some multiplex screens could be set aside for the civilized." Ebert speaks the truth. I stick to the Drive-In nowadays. There are no seat kickers or isle talkers there to ruin the experience. If you are looking for community, you can sit outside and hear the cheers of those around you, while remaining confined to your own space. Its great. There, at the Mission Tiki, I don't have to sit next to film critics like Ben Lyons, who spend their filmgoing time fiddle fucking with the phone. Seriously, shouldn't he be disqualified from reviewing Towelhead? And don't you think he should have to wear the coveted "I am an inconsiderate moron" badge the next time he appears on what was once a great show? I do. He should slide that fucker on like a Dunce cap.
The Reel Geezers? Whoop-doo!
I used to love watching At the Movies. It's probably one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It's certainly up there with the best. And when Siskel and Ebert were at the helm, it was nominated for seven Prime Time Emmy Awards. Sadly, those Gene and Roger glory days are gone now, and what we are left with is two pathetic men attempting to wax poetic graphite and galvanize their opinions onto the minds of a numb public. Its time to move on and away from this sinking ship. Luckily, for those of you also uncomfortable with Disney's revamped pillaging of a once successful series, there are some great Web alternatives for you out there.
You want a show that is actually enjoyable, with two guy's that seem to love what they are doing? Why not check out The Movie Blog: Uncut with Doug Nagy and John Campea. They are worthy of that Siskel & Ebert throne. Especially in light of who is sitting there now. I also like watching The Reel Geezers, which features the octogenarian duo of Marcia and Lorenzo. These two seniors are hilarious. And Lorenzo cops to sleeping through half of Burn After Reading in their most recent installment. If Ben Lyons came out and said, "I was texting through most of Towelhead." I'd have more respect for him. And it might help explain his "ick" sissy review of the film.
Faraci and Gilchrist At the Movies? Whoop-doo!
I don't know how long Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz will be invited to stick around before Disney cleans house once again. But when they do decide to hit that restart button, I hope they are able to look outside their own shitty box for inspiration. Maybe Disney will have the balls to hire two real film critics next time out. I'd love to see Devin Faraci and Todd Gilchrist go at each other every week. They are two of the most entertaining, intelligent, and funny critics on the circuit right now. They'd kick the shit out of At the Movies and actually turn it back into something worth watching. Sho'nuff.
Eat food! Kill Grandma! Turn off the new At the Movies! Whoop-doo!