Saturday, February 26, 2011

Yellow Tail + Ben Lyons = Wine + Cheese

So, you were wondering who will win on Oscar night? Of course you were. Then, you were wondering, which wine would go best with each of the nominated films? Of course you weren't. Because Ben Lyons already figured it out for you., sponsored by Yellow Tail, now offers wine pairings for each oak-y film on the Academy's bloated list of 10 Best Picture nominees. The pairings are supplied by cinephile-cum-oenophile Ben Lyons, so you know they are solid. A publicist even sent out emails to various media outlets (although not this blog, mind you) asking:

As you prepare your content for the Oscars, I'm wondering if you're available for an interview with celebrity film critic Ben Lyons? Ben is available for interviews... for either phone or Skype interviews. If you prefer Skype, we can record it and provide back to you as a YouTube video.

During the interview, Ben can discuss his Oscar picks, as well as Oscar party planning tips. He is representing [yellow tail] Reserve wine* and can also discuss suggested movie and wine pairings. Appreciate your feedback. We only have a few slots left for the day, so I appreciate it if you could get back to me as soon as possible.

This text was provided by Jim Emerson, editor of, who was invited and chose to post a partial copy of the message along with a few snide comments. Better yet, PopEater (run by AOL) actually took the bait during what must have been a dreadfully slow news day. Make sure to stick it out to the end if you want to see Ben's recommendation with a proud little smirk on his face, or see my comments below.

You can check out the wine pairings at, where you can also put each movie on your Netflix queue, creating a Lyons/Yellow Tail/Netflix corporate sponsorship trifecta.

Their recommendations, based on the genre of each film, include a food pairing and some commentary to make it look like somebody actually took the time to think this stuff through. The pairings are below:

Black Swan - Genre: Intrigue, Pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon
According to somebody at the web site (and I am not convinced Ben Lyons did anything there besides sign a contract and cash a check), "you'll find flavor-filled red meat recipes that offer comfort as you the whole night." Missing a verb, I think. There are many things you might do the whole night, I suspect they are not referring to any of the activities you are thinking of.

The King's Speech - Genre: Drama, Pairing: Merlot
"There's no doubt, drama movies are emotional. Movie-makers certainly know how our emotional connections to each other pull at the heart strings!" Yes, somebody actually wrote those two sentences, although apparently nobody edited them.

Personally, I would recommend drinking something German to remind you of the pro-Nazi sympathies of the characters that the film conveniently ignores. And based on Ben's pairing, I assume he has never seen the movie Sideways.

Toy Story 3 - Genre: Comedy, Pairing: Pinot Grigio
No, I am not making this up. But in this case, why don't we just skip Yellow Tail altogether and get a Wine Cube juice box at Target and switch it out with the little ones' grape juice. They'll be out so quick you can send the babysitter home early!

The Kids Are All Right - Genre: Romance, Pairing: Chardonnay
I'm not sure where they got the idea this was a romance, unless you consider having one of your mom's cheat on the other mom with your biological father, thus destroying your family, to be romantic.

Along with your Chardonnay they recommend you "try out some of these great Asian, chicken, and vegetable dishes before you cuddle up in front of your TV." Yes, I think Jules might like something "Asian-y" and Nic would like a VERY large glass. But let's be honest, absolutely none of these characters would be caught dead drinking a $6 bottle of Yellow Tail.

The Fighter - Genre: Action, Pairing: Shiraz
Again, this is not an action movie. The horribly choreographed "kidney shot" scene is proof of that. And what you should be drinking while watching this movie to go with its working-class posturing is a really crappy beer, or "beah" as Markie Mark would say. The perfect choice would be a Coors, another corporate product touting its affiliation with the workin' man. It goes down nicely with notes of water, carbonation and the sweat of underpaid workers toiling over it.

Finally, if you are listening Ben Lyons, what I really want to know is which Yellow Tail wine would go best with a viewing of The Human Centipede? (If you don't know, don't ask. Trust me.)

* I will NOT refer to the Australian wine company as [yellow tail], as they prefer (does the comma go inside or outside the bracket?) lest e e cummings should arise from his grave and strangle me with a spare question mark. To read more about Yellow Tail and how they have helped destroy wine in their home country, read John Pilger's wonderfully titled exposé Australia's reds are revolting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

At the Movies Cancelled!

What would be worse: At the Movies with Ben Lyons, or no At the Movies at all? I guess we are going to find out in a few months.

Read Ebert's response (and plans) here.

CHICAGO, March 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. syndicated film review program "At the Movies" has been canceled after 24 seasons, said Disney-ABC Domestic Television and ABC Media Productions.

The show started out in the mid-1970s with the Chicago Sun-Times's Roger Ebert and the Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel sharing their opinions on current releases.

The Tribune said Wednesday the final episode of the series with current reviewers Michael Phillips of the Tribune and A.O. Scott of The New York Times is to air the weekend of Aug. 14.

Phillips and Scott took over the show from Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, who replaced the ailing Ebert and his co-star of nearly a decade, Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times.

Roeper replaced Siskel when he died in 1999 of brain cancer. Ebert has been suffering from various types of cancer affecting his mouth and throat in recent years. His battle with the disease has left him unable to talk.

"This was a very difficult decision, especially considering the program's rich history and iconic status within the entertainment industry," the Tribune quoted Disney-ABC Domestic Television and ABC Media Productions as saying in a statement. "But from a business perspective it became clear this weekly, half-hour, broadcast syndication series was no longer sustainable."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Another Manchurian Candidate?

by Scott Johnson

Note that there are POTENTIAL SPOILERS in what follows, although some of this may not make much sense if you have not seen the movie recently. Please add your comments if you have any opinions about this analysis.

After watching the Manchurian Candidate recently I was struck by the scene where Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra meet on a train and exchange a series of bizarre lines. Through the entire scene, I was uncertain whether they were a) having a real conversation, b) were exchanging a series of code words, or c) Leigh was a Communist dropping post-hypnotic suggestions to Sinatra.

I was pleased to find that Roger Ebert had his own suspicions, writing in his Great Movies review of the film:

Is Sinatra's Maj. Marco another Manchurian sleeper, and is Rosie his controller? If you look at their scenes carefully, you find that she broke off her engagement immediately after their awkward train meeting and before their first date. Reflect on the scene where she talks about Marco beating up "a very large Korean gentlemen," and ask yourself what she means when she calls this man, who she has never seen, "the general." I don't know. Maybe Rosie just talks funny. It would be a nice touch, though, for this screwball story to have another layer circling beneath

In fact, I believe that their relationship suggests that there is something going on beneath the surface--either Leigh is a spy or she is attempting to drop post-hypnotic suggestions to a brainwashed Sinatra. Consider the first few lines of dialogue in their first meeting:

Leigh: Maryland's a beautiful state.
Sinatra: This is Delaware.
Leigh: I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.

This sounds precisely like an exchange of code words between spies--or a post-hypnotic suggestion. Sinatra continues:

Sinatra: I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town. You in the railroad business?
Leigh: Not anymore. However, if you will permit me to point out, when you ask that question you really should say, 'Are you in the railroad line?'

Again, this is even more suggestive, as though Sinatra got the code wrong and Leigh is correcting him, or that his response to the questions is a part of the post-hypnotic suggestion and she is trying to keep him on track. Each character also asks the other--for no apparent--reason whether they are Arabic. At the end, Leigh tells Sinatra her address--Apartment 3B--then repeats her phone number twice, forcefully, as though assuring it gets marked in his hypnotically suggestive mind.

The scene is immediately followed by the entry of Chunjin--the "large Korean man"--into Raymond Shaw's office looking for work. After this scene is a brief interlude with Mr. and Mr. Iselin, then we see Sinatra walking inside an apartment building. Over his shoulder we see a door which is clearly marked "B" in 3 distinct shots--3B?--though we never see the marking of the door he is knocking on. Is this the room Leigh was suggesting he go to? Chunjin opens the door--it is actually Shaw's apartment--and Sintara assaults him.

We next see Sinatra in the police station. Leigh arrives after having been called by the police--Sinatra remembered her phone number! And she shows up! They get in a taxi and she mentions her apartment--"Apartment 3B" he says. On the one hand, he remembered the room number. On other hand, it seems like it is probably her real apartment number and that she did NOT send him to Shaw's, where he was already headed. She then makes a comment about "the general"--she is actually, jokingly referring to General George Washington, whom she admittedly confused with Washington, D.C., so this is a red herring. It is also here that Leigh mentions ditching her fiancee after having met Sinatra once for five minutes.

Shortly afterward we see Shaw's snake bite accident, where he is miraculously discovered and treated by the flirty Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) another attractive blonde who even more miraculously has a razor but no spare cloth and so proceeds to remove her blouse to treat his wound. Is this all a coincidence or was she planning to seduce him? After having seen Leigh's strange behavior, this meeting seems almost too good to be true as well. Immediately afterward, Shaw asks Jordan's father for her hand in marriage!

Finally, note that Parrish later appears wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume, which is the symbol that causes Shaw to enter a hypnotic state. She enters immediately after Shaw is shown the symbol by his manipulative mother, saying "I've been watching you through the window." It almost seems like it is not an accident and she knows what she is doing. This is followed by a scene in which Sinatra proposes marriage to Leigh, followed by a scene in which Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Parrish tell Sinatra that they have just married.

Are both Leigh and Parrish stooges of some form and are their relationships setup with ulterior motives? Probably not--in fact, all of this is probably most easily explained by the "naive" reading that Leigh and Parrish are behaving honestly, if strangely. But the whole backdrop of the movie is that the "Manchurian Candidate" cannot behave honestly. His actions are hardwired and people do strange things to him in order to control his actions. The interactions with Leigh and Parrish ought to be innocent but these various connections and ambiguities create a sense of paranoia.

It is always unclear who can be trusted in this movie, even the women that these men love.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ebert on the Lyons debacle

Months after the demise of the reborn At the Movies, Roger Ebert gives his take on the state of the show. Originally posted on Ebert's Sun-Times blog

Time keeps on slip, slip, slippin' away
By Roger Ebert on November 25, 2009 1:22 PM

I sense it's about time to share some of my thoughts about television and movie critics, myself, and the past, present and future of my corner of the critics-on-TV adventure. My friends A .O. Scott and Michael Phillips are well into their first season as the new co-hosts of "At the Movies." Richard Roeper just announced he will be streaming reviews on his web site, and they will re-run a week later on the Starz cable channel. I wish them all good fortune. And good health.

This act of the saga began for me with a call from good Dr. Havey, who had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that I had thyroid cancer. The good news was that it was the most common kind, which is usually curable by the peculiar treatment of surgery, followed by tossing back a shot glass of radioactive iodine, being isolated for 48 hours and not sitting next to any pregnant women for a month. Enough about that. It worked.

The thyroid removal surgery left me with a slight speech impediment which I tried to deal with by punching out words more forcibly. One side of my mouth drooped a little, and it was recklessly reported online that I'd had a stroke. Diagnosis by video. No such thing.

Follow-up x-rays revealed I had salivary gland cancer, very slow-growing, which had returned after surgery 15 years, as I was told it probably would. I had surgery again in July 2006. Saying goodbye to Chaz in the hospital room were be the last words I would ever speak.

It was said reconstructive surgery would restore my speech and repair my face. I had three such surgeries. Twice it worked, and Chaz held a mirror so I could regard my face as it had been. All three times, as the doctors say, "it fell apart." No need for additional details. They did their very best.

It became clear I might never return to Ebert & Roeper in a speaking role. I had other ideas for participation. Richard Roeper carried on with guest co-hosts, some of whom had also done me the same favor after Gene Siskel's death in 1999. Our long-standing producer and director, Don Dupree, coordinated this, obviously with a look for good long-term candidates.

I believed that such as Michael Phillips, A .O. Scott, Christy Lemire, Kim Morgan, Lisa Schwartzbaum and a few others were good hopes. Roeper and Dupree thought so too. Most of the guest hosts were possibilities for the permanent job. Certain potential guests were suggested to us by friends. Many agreed, One popular recommendation however said she just wasn't interested in doing TV.

Disney in Burbank, who had been a good company to work with, now had a younger generation less impressed with our history. (We were Disney's first show in syndication, and therefore its longest-running.) The studio was concerned about improving its demographics in younger age segments. After Roeper and I announced we were leaving, Disney had Phillips shoot test segments with Ben Lyons, a young Los Angeles celeb-TV personality. Phillips was a good sport; he was essentially helping to choose his replacement. I heard Lyons was pretty much at sea in debates with him. In way, he wasn't to blame; he'd been recruited despite Dupree's incredulity for a job he was obviously unsuited for, but the infatuated Disney producer was dangling a prize plum.

Ben Lyons at that time had never published a single movie review, and to my knowledge still never has. To put him in my seat was a mistake, and it was not well-received. A full-page story in the Los Angeles Times displayed a huge thumbs-down -- not the opinion of the writer, but the general opinion. I wrote a blog entry, "Roger's Little Rule Book," that never mentioned a critic by name, but...

Our new Disney executive from Burbank had other new ideas. She looked at the balcony set at ABC/Chicago, one of the most iconic set ideas in the history of television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium, and decided it needed to be replaced. Now workers tore at our set with sledge-hammers, and it collected in a dumpster in the alley. It was replaced by two sets, one resembling a demo counter at a trade show, the other two nice chairs at an Admirals' Club. (Siskel advised me 25 years ago to buy a Lifetime Pass to that club for, as I recall, $200 at the time. He gave me a lot of useful advice. When I pull out that ancient piece of plastic at a club, I'm treated as if I were George Clooney with his Titanium Pass in "Up in the Air.")

The first Ben & Ben season did not start well. "Roger," an ABC/Chicago friend called and said, "the first taping is this afternoon, and right now they're repainting the sets. They didn't like the color." Those sets could have been painted like Joseph's amazing dreamcoat and they would have been the same crappy sets.

The show's reviews were not kind. Two websites opened to catalogue Lyon's lapses. I e-mailed Mankiewicz in sympathy, comparing him to the victim of a drive-by shooting. That he remained polite and supportive throughout the ordeal is the mark of a gentleman. I was nowhere near that nice to Siskel, and I loved him.

It was clear that the two Bens would have to go. Roeper and my wife Chaz and I had announced a new show. Would Disney simply pull the plug on theirs and walk away? What, and vacate the "At the Movies" time slots for us to try to grab? Unlikely. Time slots are like chess pieces.

The studio announced the hiring of -- why, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips, of all people! Michael courteously came over to our house to inform us personally. I e-mailed my congratulations to them both, and in our living room enthusiastically told Michael I would bring back the Thumbs and give the show my endorsement. Disney turned down my offer, explaining that the show had "moved on." That was a sad day for me.

Watching Michael and Tony on the show, I felt sorry for them being deprived of the famous set. It would have felt creepy to see Ben Lyons in one of our seats, but Scott and Phillips deserved better. It was sad to see them working on a set which, for all of the paint jobs, looked better suited to a couple of earnest preachers on Sunday morning. TV loved the movie balcony illusion. Now we no longer understand why they're sitting like that. There's no screen for them to look at. Why then are they at such an awkward angle, instead of sitting more conversationally?

We were not blowing smoke about our new show. Gathering up Richard, Michael and Christy Lemire (the Associated Press film critic), Chaz and I seemed to have found a welcome at a major syndicator. Unfortunately, its president left. I suspect, but do not know, we fell victim to the ancient Hollywood custom that a new executive must clean house by throwing out his predecessor's projects. Perhaps there was more to it than that. They treated us honestly and fairly, but it was not to be. At about that time, the economy went into free-fall. Roeper & Phillips & Lemire was the show that was never to be.

Now here we stand. Chaz and I still have plans. We still love Christy. She and Chris just had baby boy Nic. Don Dupree has caught fire as assistant news director of CBS/Chicago, helping them to a recent ratings surge. Richard has announced his own plans for his web reviews and Starz. Good luck, buddy.

I confess I felt a twinge that Rob Feder's column quoted you: "As much as I loved doing 'Ebert & Roeper,' this will have much more of an unfiltered, uncut, viral feel. As someone at Starz put it, they wanted 'Roeper uncut.' If a film is a piece of shit, I'll say it's a piece of shit."

Richard, were you not uncut at E&R? Did you never say a movie was "a piece of shit?" On the web and cable you can use that very word, of course, as you do in your web site's promo for your new enterprise, promising to review "a lot of big movies, and some smaller, shitty ones as well."

Things are better. Ben Lyons has returned to celebrities. Ben Mankiewicz is still at Turner Classic Movies and will prevail. Scott and Phillips are doing exactly what we all advised Disney two years ago they should be doing. Everybody still has the day job.

I still can't speak aloud, but I have the dear Sun-Times and write more than ever. When I try to put things in context, I remember Olympia Dukakis's wise dialogue in Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck." Her husband thinks he's been getting away with cheating on her, and she tells him: "I just want you to know no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Criticwatch: Giving credit where credit is due

So here we are. The end of the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week in spinoff form. Criticwatch will always have an eye out when he crosses our field of vision, but no longer will he have a major network venue to inch film criticism closer to the world of Idiocracy. It’s a glorious time. Proof that the written word can make a difference after all the talk from the powers that be and Mankiewicz who said, “this is a TV show and the notion that only people who qualify to talk about film criticism are people who have written for a newspaper seems silly." Disney never wanted to cop to sagging ratings on the show, so maybe the constant criticism by this column and Scott Johnson over at really did have a hand in the change.

That is Erik Childress from Criticwatch giving his final Ben Lyons Quote of the Week. He continues with a top ten list of Ben Lyons' worst quotes of the past year:

10. "And it seems like this is going to be the one film we’re gonna see of this franchise. It wasn’t like Zack Snyder was trying to setup the sequel. I really appreciate that.”

9. “I like Splinter too, I just don’t have the stomach for horror movies. Life is too short. I have to say rent it.”

8. “If someone said to you and told you this was the same directing team that did No Country for Old Men, I wouldn’t believe you unless you said it was the Coen Bros.”

7. “It helps me improve my movie knowledge, and it's a lot of fun to play either alone or with some of the homies when they come over.”

6. “It’s really important to tell people to go out and see W. so they can talk about it and have an opinion about it and this freedom of speech of course that allows us to go and talk about a film about a current sitting president.”

That's five, you can click here to read the rest.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to bad habits

Ben Lyons certainly did not excel in his role as a "serious film critic" during his tenure on At the Movies, but he seemed to realize that some of his more ridiculous hyperbole needed to be toned down--or at least heard the voices of reason telling him to do so. That did not stop him from making all sorts of gaffes, but at least he did not once again call some silly action movie the greatest film ever (more on that below) and backed off his early Twilight hype.

But since getting canned, he has fallen right back into his old habits, and it will doubtless be only a short time before he returns to being the complete fool he was before he was hired by ABC/Disney. Granted, this move already started before the ink was dry on A.O. Scott's contract, as witnessed in the interview below Lyons did with the stars of New Moon--that would be the second film in the Twilight series for those of you over 13 years old:

Unless I missed it, Lyons does not call the original Twilight a "really great film," or the next one "highly anticipated," but for somebody who gushed all over the series, then was forced to backtrack and call it the tenth worst film of the year (it was lame, but it wasn't that bad--The Spirit and The Day the Earth Stood Still didn't even make his ten worst list) this just seems to confirm what we all thought--he really loved Twilight but embarrassed himself by gushing all over it while pretending to be a serious film critic.

This interview was done while he was still presumably working for At the Movies. Since he was fired, Lyons wrote this on his Twitter page on August 17:

@wilcassettes sadly back in LaLa land. quick trip for a cameo in a @iamqueenlatifah movie with @thefatjew. Crazy!! 10 year reunion coming up

That's right, we're not going to have just The House Bunny to kick around anymore but some other movie as well.

But now, we get a full defense from Ben Lyons of some of his past behavior, specifically his claim that I Am Legend is "one of the greatest movies ever made." A reader of this blog left a link to an interview Ben did where this came up--I kept meaning to listen to it but the one hour running time kept making me think that I must have something better to do with my life. Fortunately, Erik Childress from Criticwatch took one for the team and summed it up for us. You can read his entire article here, but I'll give you a few highlights. First, on being asked whether he really believes this statement about the movie, Ben says:

Lyons: Yes, I do. OK, listen I’m going to explain it to you. This is a film that I saw and it blew my head to bits and I grew up in New York and it looked unlike anything I had seen before and I grew up on Will Smith. I think it’s an emotional movie, it’s funny, it made 700 million dollars around the world and inspired a prequel so there’s obviously a connection that people have made to the story. There are certain movies that just speak to you and that’s a film that I connected with and I won’t (inaudible) hide my opinion when that’s what I’m being paid to do. I love that film. That film is awesome. Every time I watch that film I notice new stuff in it.

Erik responds:

Is there anything sadder than a so-called professional film critic who grew up on Will Smith? Actually yes. It’s one that needs to justify their own feelings about a film by inciting the rule of the almighty public dollar. See, look at all the money the movie made so clearly I’m in the right. There is no quicker moment that you can call bullshit on any critic or moviegoer who jumps to that well to defend their opinion. Even Ben Lyons himself, I suspect, would scrunch his face at someone who said Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is good because it’s the highest grossing film of the year. But there he is whipping out figures to back up his opinion. It didn’t inspire a prequel (still in the planning stages) because of some fantastical, emotional connection to the story. It’s BECAUSE it made 700 MILLION DOLLARS worldwide. Chicken and the egg maybe since it can only make money if people go see it and recommend it. But how many crappy movies have made a dime at the box office? Even Wild Wild West made over $110 million. The best of Lyons’ defense though was yet to come.

It might be fun to watch Lyons try to regain the fan base that he lost by slamming Twilight but life may be just too short to devote too much time to that either.