Monday, September 22, 2008

The end of an era

After 38 years, September 6, 2008 marked the first time that At The Movies didn't feature Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, or Richard Roeper. That's right. After 38 years, the show that had written the book on television film criticism was out of the hands of the people who had made it what it was. What really consternates me about the whole thing was that the Walt Disney Company's official reason for the change was that they wanted to take the program in a different direction. Seriously? That's it? That's the "reason?"

Here's the thing: if the program was floundering, I could see such a change being necessary, just like what happens when a team is performing poorly. In that case, it makes sense that changing the coach might make a difference. At The Movies, however, wasn't floundering. Even in the absence of Roger Ebert, sidelined from his duties with the program since 2006, Richard Roeper held down the fort admirably with an abundance of guest critics. It strikes me that this move smacks of some strange motives on Disney's part. For example, the trademarked "thumbs up / thumbs down" review system hasn't been used on the show since August 20, 2007, during contract negotiations with Roger. Interestingly, he's stated that he made it clear to Disney that the thumbs could stay during good-faith negotiations. Why, then, would Disney pull the thumbs, the single most recognizable standard of a film's quality (or lack thereof), if he wasn't opposed to their use?

It seems to me that Disney's had this move planned, or at least in the back of their heads, for quite a while. What's worse is that the replacement program is a significant step backward. Siskel and Ebert always seemed to have a firm grasp not only on the nitty-gritty details of the film that they were reviewing, but also where that film fit into the big picture of cinematic history. Even after Gene Siskel's death, despite their different dynamic, Ebert and Roeper continued in this tradition and offered criticism that almost always seemed similarly well-grounded. Even though I've disagreed with Siskel, Ebert, and Roeper in the past, I can almost always respect their opinion and their reasons for holding it. The new hosts, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, aren't nearly as effective. Instead of breaking down exactly why the film does or does not work, they use broad terms to express their "reasoning." Look, if I want that kind of so-called "criticism," I'll ask some of my less-movie obsessed friends for it. Back in 2005, when Ebert and Roeper were reviewing Woody Allen's Match Point, Richard Roeper wasn't content to just say that Scarlett Johansson's performance didn't cut it for him. He showed a clip that demonstrated exactly why he felt as he did, and then contrasted that with a second clip that displayed what he thought was a better performance (by the terrific Emily Mortimer). Then, when Roger disagreed about Johansson's acting chops, he didn't just say that he thought she did a good job, he referenced a specific film that he thought she'd been very good in that Roeper hadn't mentioned. The two Bens, on the other hand, in addition to their use of generic adjectives, have a stupid feature called "The Critic's Roundup," where they get the feedback of 3 additional critics. Why? Are they admitting that they're not capable of in-depth criticism on their own?

What makes all of this worse is simple fact that the editing for the new program is terrible. In the past, the show has always been presented as a conversation between two guys who know an awful lot about the movies, featuring all the little quirks of conversation, like interruptions, looks of shock, and things like that. The new show just seems like a bunch of soundbites from a couple of average guys who don't know the first thing about how to really review a movie.

At the very least, I take consolation that old reviews from the original program are still available at and Roger Ebert still writes reviews of the week's new films at Apparently, Richard Roeper intends to be involved in the creation of a new program that follows the standards set up by Siskel and Ebert. I look forward to the day when that program becomes available. As for the current incarnation of At The Movies? Let's just put it this way: Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz get a big THUMBS DOWN.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was sad to hear this too because I'd always catch it every Sunday.

As for the new show it won't last just as Hot Ticket and all the other imitators never did. It kind of sucks that there are not really any serious film criticism shows out there on network television today.

I also remember that animated show The Critic way back where Jon Lovitz had to reunite Siskel and Ebert (voicing themselves) and it was my favorite episode of the series.