Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Worse than Ben Lyons - Larry King

I use to do this as a regular thing--just to keep a little perspective, I like to talk about people who are worse than Ben Lyons, or dumber than Ben Lyons, or have done something worse (or dumber) recently. After all, Ben has never killed anybody or stolen anything (unless you count disappointed advertiser money), he is just a scourge on film criticism. There is a whole world to screw up that has nothing to do with movies.

So here it is--Larry King is a fucking idiot. I am watching Larry King Live right now and he has a group of UFO guys on. At first I thought this was an Orson Welles War of the Worlds thing--set up a hoax, get people to go nuts, then admit you are just doing it all for entertainment. Hey, it's New Years Eve, why not have some fun?

No, that would make sense. Instead, in the year that gave us the most obvious and stupid Bigfoot hoax in a field full of obvious and stupid hoaxes, King falls for it all over again. This time it is aliens.

King just said, "Do you think there is a national defense plan for aliens? Sounds crazy, that's up next." Then he asks his guests "Do you think there is a plan for invasion by aliens?"

With crack journalism like this, I understand why Bush got away with invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence.

Ben's Ten

Ben Lyons posts his top ten of 2008 list in the video below on the E! web site. All in all, a pretty decent top ten list--mine would probably be about 2/3 the same and in a different order. Of the ten, I have seen all but one--Miracle at St. Anna, which got a 33% on the Tomatometer. Of the rest, the one that does not belong in the top ten--much less number one!--is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I'll have my review of that one posted tomorrow. The biggest crime, though, is that he did not include two of the best movies of the year: Synecdoche, New York, and Doubt, which he gave "Skip it" and "Rent it" ratings, respectively.

The video is below, followed by the full list in case you don't want to watch Ben.

By the way, what's up with the Mr. Rogers sweater? I was at Target the day after Christmas and saw these things and thought "Who would wear that?" Now I know . . . Sorry to go all Mr. Blackwell, you should see the crap I wear . . . Anyway, here's the list.

10. In Bruges
9. Miracle At St. Anna
8. The Reader
7. Let the Right One In
6. Frost/Nixon
5. The Dark Knight
4. The Wrestler
3. Milk
2. Slumdog Millionare
1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ol' Dirty Harry

Gran Torino
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood
Rated R

Review by Scott Johnson

What if instead of being a cop in San Francisco, "Dirty" Harry Callahan was a retired auto worker in Detroit? That's the question that Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino asks, looking to reconsider the bloodthirsty vigilanteism of the earlier films.

In his review in 1971, Roger Ebert wrote that "if anybody is writing a book about the rise of fascism in America, they ought to have a look at Dirty Harry," and Pauline Kael said it had "fascist potential". Eastwood is too thoughtful a filmmaker to have let these comments go unnoticed, even nearly four decades later. This new film believes that the world is a bit more complicated than Harry saw it, and forced to live in changing times might have given Inspector Callahn a different perspective. This is a noble effort, but unfortunately I think it fails.

Eastwood plays retired autoworker Walt Kowalski. If you were to think that Walt is a bit less violent than Harry, you would be wrong. Walt is a veteran of not only the Korean War but also the auto wars with Japan. He growls and grimaces at his son's Japanese car--and everything else for that matter. This is not a guy with friendly feelings towards anything, especially if it comes from Asia.

Guess who moves in next door? A Hmong (Southeast Asian) family arrives and Walt is none too happy. If you have seen a single commercial for Gran Torino, you will know that a group of Hmong gang-bangers drag the neighboring boy out of his house, resulting in Walt pointing a rifle at them and snarling "Get off my lawn!" In case you didn't catch it, he's an angry old man of the John McCain variety.

This over the top moment is tense but is also clearly played for laughs, along with much of Walt's angry, racist ranting. As a normal, sane person I can appreciate that this is authentic dialogue from this sort of guy--I have known a number of people who speak much the same way. I am even willing to laugh at some of his idiocy since it is so clear that is what it is. However, I think a little of this goes a long way--when Walt is invited over to the neighboring house for a barbecue and thanks them for all their "great gook food," it is just a bit much. This is not authentic--even a guy like Walt would know better than to say something so stupid--and the moment just played for dumb laughs. Worse yet, one of the characters tells Walt that Hmong people usually smile politely when insulting, and unfortunately they do just that after all of Walt's remarks, instead of what they should do, which is rip him a new one. I would like to see Harry/Walt respond to that.

The story itself is a bit tired and predictable--old man meets boy, hates boy, reluctantly comes to like boy, etc. A few of the Asian-American actors do well in their roles but the key characters just don't work. A key actor in a key scene towards the end finds himself in a fit of rage and it is simply unconvincing.

The ending is a bit unexpected--but only a bit--and Walt's ungrateful family is just silly. They do everything they can to not give a damn about this guy and not understand him, so it is no surprise to us in the end when we find that Walt does not give a damn about them. It is, however, all a bit too neat and tidy for a film that is attempting to provide a more complex counter-point to simplistic cop movies where there are clear cut good guys and bad guys. In fact, if the movie were not associated with Eastwood I doubt anybody would give it the time of day. Other than Eastwood's scenery chewing performance there is just not much here.

It is good to see Eastwood attempting to reconsider his past roles and providing a corrective to his legacy, but the story ends up being a bit too simplistic to really be effective towards those ends.

Worst critic of the year?

Erik Childress maintains a "Quote of the Week" page on's Criticwatch. Erik has also done the exhausting, mind-numbing, and frankly painful task of collecting the worst quotes from the worst critics (dubbed "quote whores"*) and even has a top ten list to go with it. Note that critics end up on this list not just for having silly opinions. Rather, they end up there because they a) give great praise to films that don't deserve it, b) make ridiculous comments that are tailored to be picked up as a blurb on an ad or c) usually both.

Ben Lyons is only number ten on the list (tied with his Dad, Jeffrey Lyons), so Erik believes that there are nine critics that are even worse. Number one on the list said the following (you have to click on the link to find out who that is--those of us who grew up in the Sacramento area will be familiar with the name and wonder how in the hell he became a movie critic):

Will Ferrellicious! You’ll laugh so hard you’ll dribble. (Semi-Pro)
Funny and smart. Steve Carell brings it! (Get Smart)
Everything a romantic comedy should be! (Fool’s Gold)
The best date movie of the summer! (Sex and the City)
Fun and Hysterical! Zack and Miri is the best date movie of the season. (Zack and Miri Make a Porno)
Epic. Glorious. Unforgettable. (Australia)
Spectacular! Visually stunning. It will blow your mind. (Speed Racer)
Amazing! Mind-blowing! (The Day the Earth Stood Still)
Hysterical! Bernie Mac is at his absolute best! Perhaps the best buddy picture ever! (Soul Men)

Also, Erik summarizes the 20 dumbest comments made by critics this year:

20. Who-Ray for Horton! (Horton Hears a Who) – Joe Neumaier

19. In this family, just about everybody’s funny. (Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) – Chicago Tribune

18. The Buzz is out . . . (The Secret Life of Bees) – Prairie Miller

17. Super hilarious! Funnier than Spiderman and Batman combined! (Superhero Movie) – Steven Chupnick

16. Chimptastic! A barrel of fun families will enjoy. (Space Chimps) – Scott Rolfe, Dove Foundation

15. Crude, lewd, rude and very very very very funny. (My Best Friend’s Girl) – Daily Star

14. A veritable Cluckwork Orange… (Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead) - Variety

13. This is the winner that will take it all! (Mamma Mia) - Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter

12. Semi-Pro puts the fun in funkedelic. (Semi-Pro) – Lisa Johnson,

11. With great power come laughs. (Superhero Movie) – Staci Layne Wilson, Scifi Weekly

10. This year’s Oscar race starts with Sleepwalking. (Sleepwalking) – Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee

9. It rekindles the great Hollywood romances. (Twilight) – Richard Corliss

8. It’s one of those movies audiences of the future will look back to…when they want to know something about how life was lived in America. (Stop-Loss) – Scott Foundas

7. Imagine what Michael Moore might produce if we forcibly administered truth serum to him. That would be Expelled. (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed) – Joseph Farah, Washington Times

6. This is what Star Wars fans have been waiting for. (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) – Mike Sargent

5. Dempsey, with his relaxed charm, and Monaghan, with her soft and peachy sensual spark, rise to the challenge of making friendship look like the wellspring of true love. (Made of Honor) - Owen Gleiberman

4. It’s the ingenious and inspired comedy that we remember from Airplane! (An American Carol) – Ain’t It Cool News

3. A terrific film with an Academy Award winning performance by Greg Kinnear. (Flash of Genius) – Larry King

2. For the Christmas season, prepare to be baptized by the Basinger. (While She Was Out)

1. The most visually inventive, trailblazing film of its kind in light years. (Wanted) – Pete Hammond

Erik continues:

OK, sorry, but we couldn’t resist pointing out Hammond’s quote as one of the dumbest ever printed on a movie ad or spoken by anyone on our Watch list. It’s only appropriate then that we end this year’s piece with maybe my favorite quote of the year, spoken by this site’s own Rob Gonsalves. I believe it perfectly sums up Pete Hammond, Ben Lyons and all the whores and sluts we’ll continue to keep an eye on in 2009.

“Light years measure distance, not time, you fucking clown shoe.”
– Rob Gonsalves,

* I tend to avoid using a term like "whore" because it has offensive connotations, although I have a bit less of a problem with "dumbass" and "star-fucker".

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Gort of the blogosphere

The LA Times story on Ben Lyons has found its way throughout the blogosphere and there is just not enough space to begin to mention every blog and news outlet that has posted it. I will mention a few notables, though. The Chicago Tribune and New York Magazine are probably the biggest mainstream media outlets that have picked up the story. Among the blogs, my favorite posting (for obvious reasons, see below) is Adam G of Synecdoche Cinema, who refers a la Johnny Dangerously to:

Ben Lyons, the man ABC/Disney tapped on the shoulder to take over for Richard Roeper and living legend Roger Ebert on At The Movies, once the premier film review show in America.

Note I said once.

Lately, Lyons has been getting a bit of heat. I say a bit, I mean enough heat to make the surface of Mercury feel like an icebox.

Adam goes on to link to a number of the Lyons-related souces, including this one:

Computer programmer-turned-blogger (according to the LA Times article - I'm sure he's much more, like a bad critic-destroying superhero with laser eyes or something...heh, laser eyes) Scott Johnson has started up the wonderfully-named and interesting blog Stop Ben Lyons!

Let's just hope that's the original Gort and not the new one.

Chillin' with Tom Arnold

Ben: Dude, check me out, I'm a badass!

Tom: Dude, check him out, he's a dumbass!

Who should replace Ben Lyons?

Roaring About Lyons
by Kim Voynar, Film Essent

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times finally sat up and took notice of the blight to film criticism that is Ben Lyons in a scathing piece enumerating the many film critics and bloggers who have disparaged the 27-year-old, celeb-mugging quote whore since he took over At the Movies with his onscreen counterpart, Ben Mankiewicz. (I hear LAT's been sitting on this piece for a month ... guess they decided to wait and run it as a special Christmas present). Back in my college days, I used to debate, and we often had to advocate for the side of an argument we disagreed with, as an exercise in learning to debate an issue regardless of what our actual beliefs were. I thought about writing a post defending Lyons, just to practice my skills at taking up an argument in which I don't believe; unfortunately, Lyons doesn't give one a whole lot to work with.

I've followed pretty closely a lot of the talk around and about the internet about Lyons since he and Mankiewicz took over the once-mighty seats in the balcony previously occupied first by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and then Ebert and Richard Roeper (who I also never cared for, but compared to Lyons, Roeper looks like Pauline Kael). Erik Childress over at has been running a popular recurrent feature called "Ben Lyons' Quote of the Week," in which he eviscerates Lyons' "criticism" by dissecting whatever banal things he's had to say in each show. Childress' piece has become a weekly must-read for his scathing critique of the TV film critic ... if you've not read it, check it out. It'll make you laugh out loud almost as much as if you were watching Lyons on TV yourself, only with the added benefit that you're not giving At the Movies your time and your television every week.

Lyons didn't choose to be interviewed for the LAT's piece, but his boss, Disney-ABC Television's Brian Frons, defends him in the piece thusly: "This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies," Frons said. "Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see."

Uh huh. Which sounds a lot like corporate-speak for either "Yeah, he sucks, but we signed a contract with him so we're going to make the best of it," or "Yeah, we really do think people who watch this show are that dumb." Take your pick. Of course, it's also possible that Frons really does think Lyons is the bee's knees, which would say something ... unflattering ... about his own taste in film criticism.

Which brings us to the greater question surrounding the existence of Ben Lyons as a critic: Does his existence in that position mean that film criticism as a whole is being "dumbed down," or that people in general have no taste and lower standards for movies in general and film criticism in particular than they had back in the good old days? There was a certain segment that, back in the day, bemoaned Siskel and Ebert bringing the world "two thumbs up," but the difference between Siskel and Ebert's two thumbs and what Lyons does is that Siskel and Ebert had intelligent things to say about the movies they were talking about, even when they had to talk in a truncated format for television.

Lyons, on the other hand, either babbles incoherently, talks in sentence fragments that make no sense, or says things that are so ridiculous they practically defy belief, as in one of my personal favorites -- also called out in the LAT piece -- when Lyon's called I Am Legend "one of the greatest films ever made," or more recently, when he said of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, "As much as I was watching their romance on screen I was thinking about my own life and where I’m at in my life’s journey on my timeline, a very sort of introspective experience.” His life's journey? What, since those tumultuous years of middle school?

I don't think film criticism overall has been dumbed-down; if anything, the internet has made the perspectives of more smart film journalists available to a wider audience than ever before, even if there is more chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. And I don't think people in general are any stupider now than they were 30 years ago; growing up in the age of the internet may have changed the way in which people get their information, but that doesn't mean they aren't still seeking it -- they're just getting it delivered in different formats, faster than they used to. But there's something about Lyons on that show that just chafes relentlessly.

In a time when so many smart critics are out of work, Ben Lyons is the best they could do for that show? Really? The thing is, you can't even properly lay the blame for Lyons' glaring ineptitude on his youth. He's 27, not 12 (though you'd be hard-pressed to know that based on what comes out of his mouth), and there are a lot of very smart film journalists and critics I know in that general age range who are endlessly smarter than Lyons when it comes to talking about movies. If Disney wanted someone smart and young, there are any number of smarter young film writers who would have fit the bill. Put Childress on the show opposite a smart, younger female writer, someone like, say, Karina Longworth from Spout, and you might actually have a show that would be worth watching.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Variety - Lyons and Me deputy editor Anne Thompson takes another swipe at Ben Lyons.

I have been a frequent critic of the new At the Movies movie reviewing team, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. In fact, at a screening of Tropic Thunder at Comic-Con, I was sounding off on Lyons to my colleagues when a man turned around from the seat in front of me and said, "Hello, I am Ben Lyons." Was my face red. Later, Lyons approached me in one of the convention hallways as I was sitting on the floor juicing up my laptop, and I snapped the picture above.

Clearly, he's a genial telegenic young fellow who loves movies and film fests (he was all over Toronto, getting his picture taken with celebs he was interviewing, like Keira Knightley). But these qualities do not necessarily a good film critic make. I couldn't help wondering, when Lyons recommended that audiences see Valkyrie (I also liked the movie, btw), if he wasn't keeping future E! access to Tom Cruise in mind.

The LAT went after Lyons last week, as others happily piled on. Does he have any supporters, as ratings plummet? Well, the one demo that seems to like him is 20ish young men like him. And I confess that when I visited Charles Fleming's USC entertainment journalism class, a few of the kids admitted to watching the show.

But how long can Lyons last against this barrage of naysayers? The other Ben, Mankiewicz, would be so much better if he had someone sharper to play against. I'd take even youngsters Matt Singer or Karina Longworth over Lyons any day. They are capable of a little depth of discourse, at least.

SAG's Terrible Dilemma

Originally posted at

To Strike or Not to Strike


The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is still without a contract, which, even in the best of times and for the most opportunistic of unions, is a tricky and precarious situation. But according to what’s being reported in mainstream and trade media, SAG—led by its fiery, beleaguered president, Alan Rosenberg—is close to slipping into your classic “no-win” status.

Not to get sucked into Hollywood-style melodrama here, but given what’s happened so far, and what looms ominously on the horizon, it can be argued that SAG is in the worst position a union can find itself. With bad externals and equally bad internals, things look pretty damned bleak.

Consider the formidable array of obstacles lined up against it.

First, there’s the economy. The condition of the national economy has been described, variously, as “bad,” as “very bad,” even as “scary bad.” In any case, things are as disturbing as they’ve been since the Great Depression, with the prospect of getting worse before they get better. Not exactly the ideal climate for hunkering down to a tough negotiation.

Second, SAG membership, led by a splinter group of big-name actors, including Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Alex Baldwin and Cameron Diaz, have publicly opposed SAG’s executive board’s decision to seek a strike vote, arguing that this is no time for saber-rattling and putting people in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Succumbing to pressure, SAG leadership announced on December 23 that the proposed strike vote, originally set to begin on January 2, would be moved back to January 14, “at the earliest.”

On the flip side you have a group of other “name” actors, including Mel Gibson, Holly Hunter, Martin Sheen and Sandra Oh. This group is less sanguine. They believe that the issues facing SAG are simply too vital and timely to abandon without a fight, no matter how shaky the economy or how nervous the membership. With Tom and Mel squared off like this, the theater marquee would read: “Forrest Gump vs. Braveheart.”

Third, there’s the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), SAG’s adversary at the bargaining table. Predictably, the Alliance is playing this up for all its worth, poor-mouthing its financial position and pretending that it’s already gone the extra mile to get a deal when, in fact, it’s barely moved an inch and has no intention of budging another millimeter. When Hollywood producers can get cast as the meek, sympathetic victims, baby, you know you’re behind a million-pound eight-ball.

Fourth, the New York branch of the 120,000-member SAG union is, reportedly, engaged in a nasty, internecine battle with Rosenberg and company, taking management’s view that SAG-West is being reckless and irrational. It’s bad enough having management on your back; just imagine what it must feel like when it’s your own union brethren doing the clawing.

Fifth, there’s been a considerable amount of negative public opinion. Talk radio, letters to the editor, op-ed commentaries, industry blogs—most of it has been critical of SAG, accusing it of the traditional, garden-variety union stuff, plus railing against its leaders for not being man enough to simply admit when they’re whipped.

And sixth, there’s the pressure being exerted by “negotiation momentum.” With the DGA (Directors Guild of America), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and the WGA (Writers Guild of America) having already signed similar contracts, SAG comes off as militant, greedy, selfish, and isolated (“Hey, why can’t you guys be team players?”). It’s a grim picture.

But here’s the irony: Despite a sick economy, negative public perception, and a potential membership rebellion, the guys running the show at SAG—the same guys who are being portrayed in the media as “cowboys” and “ego-maniacs”—are absolutely, dead-on correct in their assessment of the playing field and in what they’re seeking.

The critical issues in this bargain involve the broad question of residuals for New Media ventures, technological areas which are still largely untapped and unpredictable, but potentially wildly lucrative. The Alliance desperately wants to keep these goodies locked up for themselves, resisting any attempts to further divvy up with the hired help. It’s not complicated and it’s not surprising. It’s Business 101.

Forget it’s Hollywood for a moment. Treat this SAG vs. AMPTP deal like any other union vs. management negotiation. It’s been a time-honored management practice to use a weak economy as their main argument for not sweetening the pot, even when they’re not being hurt by it. (Note: Worldwide movie revenues continue to climb.)

Of course, anyone who’s ever sat at a bargaining table knows there are two problems with this macro-economic scenario. One is that management never, ever allows the union to take the converse approach—to ask for a decent raise on the grounds that the economy is chugging along on all eight cylinders.

Indeed, when the union tries to help itself by pointing out that the country is wallowing in one of the greatest economic boons in history, it’s told that the condition of the national economy is irrelevant, that they’re not there to talk the Big Picture, that they’re there to talk specific industry-related or company-related matters. It’s a one-way street.

The other problem is that a union can never dig itself out of a hole once they’re in it. When you capitulate because the overall economy is weak (even when the company or industry in question is strong), you will struggle forever to make that up, even when things turn prosperous. In truth, you never catch up; you stay behind forever.

Which is exactly what AMPTP wants. They want a 3-year contract that will give them an insurmountable headstart in New Media. The producers regard this innovative technology as a potential bonanza, viewing New Media the way John D. Rockefeller viewed a new oil field. Why share it, when you can keep it all for yourself—especially if you can use a convenient recession as your weapon?

This brings us, finally, to the little matter of the strike vote itself. And that can be summed up in one sentence: If you ask for strike authorization, you damned well better get it. Period.

To that end, SAG has set itself a formidable task. Unlike many unions, which require only a simple majority, SAG by-laws require a 75% mandate to authorize a strike. Given SAG’s public dissension, even the most optimistic handicappers believe that getting three-quarters of the membership to vote Yes will be a long-shot.

Make no mistake: Nothing kills bargaining leverage quicker than having a strike vote fail. That’s why union leaders usually won’t risk a strike vote if they think it will fail. Not asking your members for strike authorization always leaves the lingering doubt that you may have gotten it, even when—like now, with SAG—it looks dubious. Without proof, neither side can know for certain.

But a membership voting down strike authorization not only erases all doubt, it tells management two things: The members have no stomach for a fight and no confidence in their own executive board. In which case, the union may as well take a shovel and bury any hopes it had of getting a decent contract.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at

Criticwatch - Good thing Ben doesn't read newspapers

Erik Childress at Criticwatch, writing about this weekend's episode of At the Movies, says this after the first of many tirades against Ben Lyons:

This is precisely why Ben Lyons will continue to be the subject of ridicule. It’s not out of jealousy. It’s not because we have nowhere else to channel our hate. Dumbing down film criticism for the masses merely means keeping it simplistic. Not just thumbs up or thumbs down, which is just a star rating or lottery quick pick in another form. I’m talking about what marketers, studio publicists and quote whores have conspired to do in reducing movie reviews into easily digestible hyperbole even at the expense of just making them up from scratch. Sure, Lyons plays that game too, but he has taken it to a whole new level of dumb. We’re not just picking on this poor little dope. He just happens to be at the forefront of an expanding epidemic and he’s made no effort to prove he’s worthy of this inheritance nor IMprove to throw egg in the face of his distractors. He’s had nearly four months of on-the-job training and we need more Colonel Stauffenberg’s with one eye on what’s happening and keeping a blind eye to the various temptations and hypocrisies that Lyons has relished in.

Discussing the review of Revolutionary Road, Erik quotes Ben's thoughts on the movie:

Lyons: "I thought it was a wonderful display of acting and high cinema."

Oh, c’mon. [Erik continues] What studio is going to pass up on the opportunity to boast the words “high cinema” on their ad? Anyone who has seen a studio junket memo is aware that this is precisely what it looks like under the name of each whore providing 10-12 quotes a piece (or attaching their name to studio-written blurbs.) One of my favorites is when some jackass like Pete Hammond or Shawn Edwards pre-advertise a film as a “big hit” or a “surprise hit” even though the film hasn’t grossed dollar one yet.

By the way, speaking of "high cinema," Lyons gave a "Skip it" rating to Synecdoche, New York.

Finally, Erik quotes Ben's boss Brian Frons who defends him in the recent LA Times critique of our least favorite critic:

FRONS: “This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies. Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see."

Of course he has to support his boy, but my God! You could sit down at a party and find a guest who loves movies. You might even find one knowledgeable to kick Lyons’ ass in a game of xBox Scene It. I know a lot of guys who didn’t spend 20 years as a critic for a major newspaper who know more about the history of film than Ben Lyons. They are also part of the “TV generation” and I guarantee they’ve spent more than their share of time reading a newspaper or two. Perhaps Frons meant the internet generation who may not have ink on their fingers but read the papers in their online format. Frons may think this is what audiences want to hear about film, but that’s difficult to say when the show doesn’t really have an audience. Just remember - Jerry Jones said a lot of positive things about Wade Phillips too before seeing his Dallas Cowboys get slapped down 44-6 by the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend too. Frons was also the subject of a 2003 online petition to have his duties at ABC removed due to "rudeness" and an "inability to relate to his viewers."

Frons--are you really worse than Ben Lyons?

Read the entire article here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eartha Kitt, 1927 - 2008

Originally posted by Ted Johnson at Wilshire and Washington blog at Variety, this article briefly discusses the progressive side of the late Eartha Kitt--when she stood up to LBJ at the White House and was attacked for doing so.

Even today it's difficult to imagine an entertainer, upon an invitation to the White House, having the guts to use the occasion to directly confront the administration.

That is exactly what Eartha Kitt did more than 40 years ago. Back then, the sultry singer, who died today at age 81, was one of many performers to speak out against the Vietnam War. She just chose an otherwise prim and proper White House luncheon in 1968 hosted by the president's wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

In a discussion about troubled urban youth, Kitt said, "I think we may have missed the main point. The young people are angry, and their parents are angry, because they are being so highly taxed and there's a war on—and Americans don't know why."

Then she looked at Lady Bird: "You are a mother too, although you had daughters and not sons. I am a mother, and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut. I have a baby and then you send him† off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot—and in case you don't understand the lingo, that's marijuana."

The First Lady reportedly was at the point of tears when she responded to the gathering, "Because there is a war on—and I pray there will come a just and lasting peace—that still does not give us a free ticket not to try to work at bettering the things in this country that we can better. Crime in the streets is one thing that we can solve. I am sorry I can't speak as well or as passionately on conditions of slums as you, because I have not lived there."

Afterward, the First Lady quipped, “I do want to say this has been a lively meeting with lots of ideas.”

Kitt was unapologetic.

“I see nothing wrong with the way I handled myself. I can only hope it will do some good.”

It didn't do her career much good, as it went into freefall, forcing to Europe for bookings for nearly a decade. The CIA maintained files on her and investigated her background, all but suggesting that she was a nymphomaniac, even though she otherwise embraced the image of a sex kitten. She said in 1998, "I was thrown out of the country, practically," Kitt explains. "Johnson put out the news that I was a 'bad girl' by being rude and all that. And it wasn't true. It was his way of defacing me in the eyes of the American people. He put me out of work."

Only in 1978, when she won a Tony nomination for "Timbuktu!," was she invited back to the White House, at a reception hosted by President Carter. Her exile was over.

Kitt didn't stray from the political fray. "I'm for my country, not politicians who go blah blah blah," she said last year, when asked about the field of presidential contenders. She got in a few digs about President Bush, a few others about Hillary Clinton and some words of praise for Barack Obama. This time, she wasn't speaking at the White House.

At the Movies, 12/28/08

Could this guinea pig be more annoying than Ben Lyons?

Is it possible that Ben Mankiewicz is trying to get Ben Lyons fired? After several weeks of discussions between the two finding very little difference in their opinions (papered over by the "Rent it" rating), this week's episode of At the Movies saw a near smack-down between the Bens.

First we get a bit of tense parrying around Revolutionary Road. Lyons liked it, Mank didn't. Lyons defends it, Mank says "eh . . ." and shakes his head. Nothing explosive, but it's the most tension we've seen in weeks.

Then, Lyons reviews Bedtime Stories. He ends his intro of the movie by quoting how much money Sandler's movies have made (what else?), saying "Over the years, Adam Sandler's movies have grossed 1.5 billion dollars at the box office and I expect Bedtime Stories to be his biggest hit yet. See it."

Then Mank responds: "I don't know where to begin. I didn't like any part of this movie. You aren't right about any point you made in the entire review."

Lyons comes back: "I think the live action family film is a lost art," which gets lost in CGI special effects. Unfortunately, this movie has a CGI guinea pig that seems to have all of the charm and subtlety as the Homer Simpson-voiced "Poochie" character. "Where's your heart, Mank, this is a sweet kids movie. I commend Adam Sandler."

Mank, visibly frustrated at this point, replies "I commend him, but they got to execute it. Just making it is not nearly sufficient."

Keep it up Mank, you may just save your job when Lyons gets fired as a result of the recent Los Angeles Times article calling Ben Lyons the most hated film critic in America. That's tough stuff that will be hard to get over--remember, America has Michael Medved and Rex Reed, being more hated than those guys takes and exceptional amount of effort.

Granted, Disney is standing by their decision for now, with one of their bigwigs (Brian Frons of ABC Media) saying "Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see." Ah, the TV generation--we couldn't waste our time with things like newspapers or reading. That's why there has been an explosion of news blogs in the last few years--because nobody wants to read the news anymore. Nonetheless, at some point Frons is going to be worried about saving his own ass in the face of the "Ben Lyons Hate Storm"--best to start worrying about yours sooner rather than later, Mank.

After this section, the air lightened up a bit, possibly because they tended to agree a bit more Marley & Me. But the best Ben Lyons has-his-cake-and-eats-it-too moment comes in the review of The Spirit. Lyons is very critical and at one point talking, about the shallowness of the film, says "All of the women are just eye-candy." Then we have this exchange:

Mank: I didn't have a problem with the women being eye-candy. First of all, they're exceptionally beautiful . . .
Lyons: Neither do I, yeah . . .
Mank: No, but I mean in the sense that they are playing along with it.

Oh, great, Lyons gets to act like a sensitive, thoughtful man and a horny frat boy, all at the same time! And good job for noticing, Mank, that all of complex roles for women that are replaced by "eye-candy" roles are all because the actresses want it that way. Or maybe it's just because you want it that way. After all, this is the same guy who said he would watch Famke Janssen eat oatmeal.

Finally, Lyons picked Valkyrie, The Wrestler, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons as his 3 to see. A few weeks ago, Ben said that Frost/Nixon would almost certainly be one of his favorite movies this year, but it gets pushed aside for a mild "See it" for Valkyrie, even though there are MANY places where Frost/Nixon is still opening. But who can remember that old movie? We have to stay current, not dwell on some old movie that came out 3 weeks from now. Unless we're talking about Twilight, of course.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lyons lowlights

In September 2008, Ben Lyons became on of the two permanent hosts of At the Movies, the movie review show that used to be commonly known as simply Siskel & Ebert. That was a great show--the new version, well, not so much. And as you can guess, there is one person in particular to blame for this sorry state of affairs. The following is a roundup of Ben Lyons's greatest misses:

Roger Ebert's little rule book for critics: Here is a secret--it's not a rule book at all. Rather, it is a list of things said and done by Ben Lyons written by Ebert, without Roger ever mentioning Ben's name.

What is the greatest movie ever made? According to Ben Lyons, it's I Am Legend. Seriously.

Roger Ebert once said that people who use their cell phone during movies are inconsiderate morons. Well, we can now add Ben Lyons to the list of morons.

Want to make one of the 10 best movies of the year? Here is a hint--put Ben Lyons in it.

Want to make the best James Bond movie ever? Whatever you do, make sure to make it into a really cool video game.

External links, Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quotes of the Week, by Erik Childress

Ben Lyons, poser with famous people "The Continuing Adventures of Ben Lyons, Starfucker" "'Lyons & Mankiewicz At the Movies' Promises A Bold New Era of Critic Hackery" Pulitzer Prize Winner’s Slot Is Filled By The ‘Less Than Impressive’ 26 Yr Old Ben Lyons "Ben Lyons: Too Much Of a Cub For At The Movies"

And just in case the whole "film expert" thing doesn't work out, Ben has other career options. Or he can just sell his recommendations for money.

Critic Ben Lyons gets many thumbs down

An article about the "Ben Lyons Hate Storm," originally printed by the Los Angeles Times.

The new 'At the Movies' reviewer's detractors find him a celeb-loving shill for film marketers.
By Chris Lee
December 28, 2008

Is Ben Lyons the most hated film critic in America?

In the four months since the fresh-faced 27-year-old "movie dude" for the E! Entertainment Network was installed to co-host a revamped version of the venerable movie review program "At the Movies," he has gotten a resounding thumbs down from an angry mob of film bloggers, columnists, professional movie critics and fans of the show. Consensus is that Lyons, the son of New York film critic Jeffrey Lyons, is unworthy of the balcony seats once occupied by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the TV mainstay that has rallied audiences into theaters for more than three decades.

"His integrity's out the window. He has no taste," said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. "Everyone thinks he's a joke."

Lyons became infamous in film circles for calling Will Smith's 2007 zombie-vampire movie "I Am Legend" "one of the greatest movies ever made." That appraisal became a key part of the movie's print advertising campaign.

"One of the 'greatest movies ever made'?" said Childress, who's also a movie reviewer for "Next to 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Citizen Kane'? The only way you can say that with a straight face is if you've only seen 50 movies in your life. Or you're trying to give quotes to appease someone who can do you a favor later."

Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story. But among the accusations flung his way: that he landed his job through nepotism, is unknowledgeable about movies, sucks up to celebrities and, most damaging, is a "quote whore" -- a shill for movie marketers whose all-too-frequent raves are repurposed as gushy pull quotes on movie ads, usually accompanied by several exclamation points.

Which would be of hardly any consequence were it not for the drastic transformation of film criticism. Long gone are the times when a vaunted single critic such as the New Yorker's Pauline Kael could inject a film into the national consciousness with a single positive review. These days, moviegoers are just as apt to check a movie's rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie-review aggregating website, as to read an actual review from a major news organization.

Worse, with readership plummeting, newspapers and magazines have had to drastically thin their ranks of critics. In recent months, the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Newsweek, Newsday, the Village Voice and The Times, among other outlets, have let critics go. Meanwhile, movie marketing has never been more pervasive, and many studio summer blockbusters are now described as "critic proof," meaning that negative reviews do nothing to affect the box office.

In this light, Lyons' ascension to the "throne" of televised film criticism has come to represent something more than just the changing of the guard -- many view it as yet another example of the dumbing down of media and of celebrity triumphing over substance.

With his meat-and-potatoes good looks, frat-boy bonhomie and straight-down-the-pike delivery -- more reminiscent of a "SportsCenter" commentator than an erudite cultural arbiter -- Lyons is certainly not your father's movie reviewer. But it's his way of shrinking a sweeping critical pronouncement down to glossy sound-bite size that seems to most affront Lyons' detractors. Especially when held up to his predecessors' standards.

"It crystallizes everything that's wrong with American pop culture right now," said Scott Johnson, the blogger behind the website "I don't expect to agree with a critic all the time. But his approach is to throw out blurbs just so he can get on a poster."

S.T. VanAirsdale, senior editor of the entertainment-industry-skewering blog Defamer, framed the debate around the so-called "Ben Lyons Hate Storm" in more direct terms. "It's a pretty microcosmic phenomenon, when you look at who hates him," VanAirsdale said. "But for people who take film criticism seriously, he's an imposition. If he's established himself as the benchmark for where popular criticism is headed, we're all kind of [in trouble]."

Setting a standard
Regime change has always been hard for fans of the show, many of whom began watching in the mid-'70s when it was hosted by Siskel and Ebert and known as "Sneak Previews." By 1979, it had become the highest-rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Evolving into "At the Movies" in 1981 -- Jeffrey Lyons was hired to appear on "Sneak Previews" when Siskel and Ebert left over a contractual dispute -- it set the standard for subsequent movie review talk shows and remains the only such program to both brand itself in the American mind and change the face of film criticism -- some might say grossly oversimplifying it -- with its patented "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system.

"Two thumbs up conveyed a seal of approval," said Jason E. Squire, instructor of cinema practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and editor of "The Movie Business Book." "It was so powerful, the expression became part of the general lexicon." Added Bill Mechanic, former chairman and chief executive of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment: "For marketing purposes, a 'two thumbs up' was great to have." (Ebert, who stopped appearing in "At the Movies" after medical issues robbed him of his voice in 2006, exercises the sole right to use his thumb for rating purposes; Siskel died in 1999. Richard Roeper joined the show in 2000, and hosted with revolving guest critics in Ebert's absence.)

Last summer, producer Disney-ABC Domestic Television decided to take the syndicated show "in a new direction," prompting Ebert and Roeper to announce that they were severing ties with the program. In their places, "At the Movies" executives hired Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies who is the grandson of famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz ("Citizen Kane") and nephew of Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz ("All About Eve"), and Lyons, a New York native whose academic pedigree consists of a few semesters at the University of Michigan and whose first professional critic gig was talking film on his father's movie review program "Reel Talk." The younger Lyons also reviews movies and interviews celebrities for E! Online, "E! News," "The Daily 10" and "Smash Time Saturday's" and hosts the game show "My Family's Got Guts" on Nickelodeon.

Viewers haven't been quite so rankled by Mankiewicz, 41, who comes off a bit more measured when giving his critical appraisals. ("You put anyone next to Ben Lyons and they're going to look bulletproof," notes VanAirsdale.) But Lyons' installation released a torrent of negative blowback, most of it online. "I don't like Lyons," blogger Jeffrey Wells wrote on, "because you can tell right off the bat he's too much of a glider and a glad-hander."'s deputy editor and columnist Anne Thompson also derided Lyons, describing "At the Movies" as "a train wreck," complaining that discourse between Mankiewicz and Lyons is "dismayingly shallow."

"It's like Johnny Carson being replaced by Dane Cook," said Childress, who also writes a feature called "Ben Lyons Quote of the Week" on that deconstructs and ridicules Lyons' critiques. "It's going from the top echelon in the profession to the absolute lowest."

Then there's Established in September by Oakland computer programmer-turned-blogger Scott Johnson, the blog is largely devoted to highlighting Lyons' perceived critical trespasses and advocating his dismissal. A die-hard fan of the show, Johnson was motivated to create the site by what he views as righteous indignation.

"If [Lyons] wants to sit in Siskel's or Ebert's seat, he's got to prove he's worthy of our attention," Johnson explained. "What Ben says about movies, it's not worthwhile. He seems to be doing the show more because he wants to be on TV than because he has something to say about the movies."

Some of Lyons' pronouncements certainly seem to show a certain lack of seasoning. While recently reviewing " Quantum of Solace," he proclaimed that "GoldenEye" was his favorite James Bond film, eschewing many of the franchise's most heralded installments. His rationale? "It was the first one for Pierce Brosnan," Lyons said. "And that was also. . . when the first-person action video game Bond franchise was launched, which I wasted many hours of my childhood playing."

A show's ratings
It's unlikely that Lyons will be mentioned in the same breath as heavyweight critics such as Ebert, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, The Times' Kenneth Turan, or the New York Times' Manohla Dargis any time soon. But then again, you don't see any of those critics posing for snapshots with many of the same celebrities they write about, as you do on Lyons' blog The Lyons Den -- a professional habit that has given the reviewer a reputation for kissing the hand that feeds.

But critical standards aren't the only issues being debated when it comes to "At the Movies." Some industry observers think that the show's relevancy may have gone with the dawn of the Information Age. "I . . . wonder if the era of sitting passively in front of a TV screen and listening to a couple of guys trade opinions about movies has the same vitality that it had when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel started 'Sneak Previews' on PBS in 1977," Wells wrote on the Hollywood-Elsewhere blog. ". . . Audiences these days like to talk back and argue and engage interactively."

The show's numbers are far below what they used to be. Ratings for the new "At the Movies" are at 1.8 million total viewers, down 21% compared with the same period last year, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Comparative viewership also dropped by double digits in every key demographic except for males 18 to 34, for whom it's down only 4%. A spokeswoman for ABC Media Productions, which oversees "At the Movies," pointed out the revamped program has shown improvement among total viewers since its September premiere.

Disney-ABC Television Group's Brian Frons, who heads up the creation, production and delivery of shows for ABC Media Productions, voices unqualified support for Lyons.

"This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies," Frons said. "Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see."

Staff writer Scott Collins provided additional reporting.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who will criticize the critics?

I have already snagged a few bits from this very funny article by Jon Swift, so it is worth highlighting in full. In case there is any confusion about the nature or purpose of this article, read more about the "real" Jon Swift here. Happy Holidays!

Last year I identified an important new school of film criticism, which I called “derrièrism,” since all schools of film criticism are supposed to have French names. Derrièrists are inspired by Jack Warner (though some say it was Harry Cohn), who once said that he judged movies by whether his ass shifted in the seat while he was watching them. Like Warner (or Cohn), a derrièrist film critic judges movies by his ass. As I wrote last year: "Derrièrists are tired of liberal elites telling us what is good for us. They are tired of movies that are depressing and pretentious and difficult." At the time Variety magazine hailed derrièrism as “provocative” theory and said my piece “represents to some degree the thinking of the younger male online film community that recently voted for their Top 100 films,” whose virtues I extolled in my piece. While derrièrism was once an esoteric school of film criticism championed by a few forward-thinking critics, this year it has triumphed. Not only has Andrew Breitbart, the conservative Hollywood critic behind, announced that he will start a new website, Big Hollywood, which promises to be a hotbed of derrièrist film criticism, such respected film critics as Roger Ebert and the critics at Cahiers du Cinema have jumped on the derrièrist bandwagon.

Breitbart’s site will feature film reviews and criticism from some of this country’s leading derrièrist film critics, people like House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor, Reps. Thaddeus McCotter, Mary Bono Mack and Connie Mack, former presidential candidate Fred Thompson, MSNBC correspondent Tucker Carlson and conservative commentators Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and others. According to The Hill, “If Boehner, for instance, sees a movie, ‘I’d like for him … to do a movie review,’ Breitbart says. ‘Not everything is going to be a political dissertation,’ he says. In that vein, Cantor spokesman Rob Collins says he could see his boss writing a post on the television shows his three teenage children watch and how those programs affect them.” Breitbart wants to bring back the kind of crowd-pleasing movies Hollywood used to make, which encouraged people to pay their credit card bills on time. “The movies used to reinforce good behavior — that you should pay back your loans,” he says, apparently thinking of such films as The Grapes of Wrath, It's a Wonderful Life and Salt of the Earth. Because Breitbart's site will not pay its writers that should encourage good behavior like thrift.

Breitbart also wants Big Hollywood to change the image of conservatives in Hollywood, where they are cruelly oppressed. “We’re not bigoted, homophobic, racist, sexist monsters,” says the new blog’s editor-in-chief, John Nolte, the proprietor of Dirty Harry's Place. Nolte, who says that gay marriage “has nothing to with ‘rights’ and everything to do with hate, the tearing down of tradition, and seeking yet another excuse to attack conservatives and religion,” and who wrote after J.K. Rowling outted Dumbledore, “English and Gay is like Japan and China: you can’t really tell the difference,” is known for his trenchant film criticism. Although he has never seen such minor, really old movies as City Lights and The Passion of Joan of Arc, that hasn’t stopped him from weighing in on such important questions of film scholarship as whether Deuce Bigelow or The Searchers is the best film ever made.

Read the complete article here . . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Criticwatch - The Curious Case of Benjamin Lyons

Erik Childress from Criticwatch writes:

Coming soon to theaters – The Curious Case of Benjamin Lyons. Not sure how they’re going to squeeze 160-plus minutes out of a life barely worth a 22-minute sitcom episode, but we can certainly try. Born under unusual circumstances to one Jeffrey Lyons, Ben started his own production company in 2002, creating segments for Hip Hop Nation. In 2004, MTV hired him to co-host “Your Movie Show” and in 2006 he began hosting segments for the The Daily 10 on the E! channel (where he became their “resident film expert”) and writing the column known as The Lyons Den. In 2008 he joined Ben Mankiewicz to become the heir apparent to Siskel & Ebert’s At the Movies. Ben Lyons enjoys playing basketball and golf, is a die-hard Knicks fan, was a childhood friend of Ivanka Trump and speaks fluent Spanish.

Much of that was culled from his E! bio page and entry over at Wikipedia, which was briefly hacked a few months ago to include the title of “douchebag” amongst his accomplishments. To quote a fellow New Yorker, George Costanza: “If you take everything I've accomplished in my life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent!”

On this week's At the Movies, Erik writes:

I can’t wait to see the look on your face when neither Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt get nominated, which is looking more and more likely. Got any thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino?

“Every line is there for a reason.”

Um, thanks?

"Um, thanks," indeed. There are actually a substantial number of lines that are unnecessary, most of it out of Clint's mouth. Playing a character who seems like he would be very short on words, Clint's character Walt spends far too much time talking to himself--read, explaining the plot to the audience. Not to mention a number of racial epithets, many of which ring true to the character but far too many of which just seem over the top and played for dumb laughs. This is simply Ben trying to look smart about movies even though he doesn't have anything to say.

Erik continues, quoting Ben on Seven Pounds:

“There’s a cloud of secrecy surrounding this film and it’s a big reason why you haven’t seen it nominated for anything. They didn’t get the movie out there early and get people talking about it. Partly because I think its just kind of average . . . but Rosario Dawson is great and worthy of some kind of recognition throughout this awards show season. I don’t think she’s gonna get it.”

Oh, I wonder why he would say the movie should only be rented and not seen, but nonetheless one of the actors deserves an Oscar? I guess we'll never know . . .

Read all of Erik's article here

Monday, December 22, 2008

At the Movies, 12/21/08

Ben Lyons, get off my show!
On last week's At the Movies, Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons gave a "See it" and "Rent it" rating, respectively, to the excellent movie Doubt, then proceeded to talk about what is so wrong with it. The discussion was clearly shaped by Lyons's vacillating "Rent it" rather than Mank's relatively hearty (although a bit too critical) "See it". Mank didn't question Lyons's absurd rating--how can he really not recommend this movie?--or defend the movie, either of which could have produced an interesting discussion. Unfortunately, the same dynamic occurred this week in their review of the nearly universally panned Seven Pounds. Here is Lyons on the movie:

The film took so long to get going. The first 2/3 to 3/4 of it is really over-bearingly slow to the point when the plot comes together and there's a really cool twist at the end I just didn't care anymore . . . [The director] asks a lot of the audience without really getting anything for their hard work in return . . . The music in the movie was just an afterthought, completely distracting and awful. So I'm going to have to say "Rent it."

What?! So that's 3/4 of a boring movie, a twist at the end you don't care about and a really bad soundtrack, and somehow that doesn't deserve a "Skip it" rating? Mank did little better here, saying "See it," nodding in agreement when Lyons said it was mostly boring but then saying it got interesting just when he was about to check out, although the key points at the end do not really hold up after you think about them at all. So "See it"!

Suffice it to say, while I try not to be too influenced by the reviews on this show I think these guys have convinced me to skip it.

On The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Lyons said, "As much as I was watching the romance on screen, I was thinking about my own life and where I am at in my life's journey and timeline, it's a very introspective experience." This is the second time in recent memory (the other was the Frost/Nixon review) that he has talked about how a movie's deeper message somehow caused him to reflect on his life.

This certainly isn't a terrible comment to make about a movie. When Ebert talks about seeing the Third Man as a young romantic at a flea box theater in Europe, or how he has watched La Dolce Vita through various points in his life and seen himself in it, it really reflects the richness of the movies and how they become a part of our lives and personalities as we grow older. Coming out of Ben's mouth, though, comments like these just seem silly. Sorry Ben, but you just don't carry the same kind of weight to provide these insights--they simply come off as trite and pretentious.

Finally, Mank's 3 to See once again leaves us confused. He recommends The Wrestler, Gran Torino, and Seven Pounds. The first is his favorite movie of the year, the second he clearly liked but had some criticisms, but the last he basically said sucked and gave very few reasons to like it--other than it gets good in the last 3/4 although even that doesn't hold up. That means leaving off recently released movies like Doubt--which he said was a great movie except for the very last line--and Frost/Nixon. Has Mank forgotten these films already (I certainly haven't) or is 3 to See just being shaped to appear more "relevant" to the youth of today with their supposedly short-term memories? "Dude, Doubt came out like last week, why would I want to see old stuff? Let's go see that Will Smith movie instead--maybe he'll beat up some aliens."

Friday, December 19, 2008

MTV's fangirl of the year

MTV news has released their long awaited "Man and Woman of the Year" lists. Having a separate list for women and men, you might think, would be a sign they were trying to put forward encouraging role models for young women.

Sadly, no.

"MTV News' Woman of the Year 2008 is Twilighters!" According to the article,

"Twilight" is a franchise driven by sincere, shrieking and borderline-stalker female fans. Every list is controversial, and MTV News' Men and Women of the Year rankings are sure to get people talking. But ask yourself this: Can Britney Spears (#2) open a feature film at $70 million? Is Aubrey O'Day (#7) causing riots at your local Hot Topic? I don't think so.

Not too controversial, though. Twilight "Broke the existing MTV Movies Blog record for most commented-on item." Way to buck the trend, MTV, I almost forgot how cool and non-conformist you are.

One of the Twilight fans has this to say about their success:

Now the haters can see the strength of what the Twilight fanbase is about. It's strong and passionate. People just don't understand until they read the books. There were movie critics like [Ben] Lyons out there talking about the story, and you can tell that he had no understanding of the characters.

Look out, Ben, you are watching your fan base slowly wither away. Not a bad thing, but it is sad when the first critic a young person can think of is Ben Lyons, although that is more likely because of E! than At the Movies.

There were other notables on the list as well. Britney Spears came in at number two--great come back, Brit! We all thought you were an overpaid loser but you proved us wrong.

Better yet, Beyoncé is included twice. First, she comes in at #10, then again as her alter ego Sasha Fierce at #6. According to the article, Sasha was "Created by Beyoncé as a marketing tool/ psychological id for her I Am ... Sasha Fierce album ... Despite being completely fictional, may actually be more interesting than the actual Beyoncé."

Listen up, teenage girls. According to MTV, you are better off with a fake, affected personality rather than just being yourself--not unlike Whitney Port of MTV's The Hills--because then more people will like you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Peaceful alien or Communist threat?

The classic 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still may not be a great movie, but it is certainly a very interesting one--and many times better than the recently released remake starring Keanu Reeves.

Released in the midst of an anti-Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood, the film used a science-fiction story to criticize the madness of a nuclear arms race that guaranteed the destruction of humanity.

The film begins with a human-like alien named Klaatu who emerges from a UFO that has landed in Washington, D.C. In a very tense moment, he takes out a gift to hand to a human and is shot by a nervous soldier--an unsurprising outcome of knee-jerk U.S. imperialism and a Cold War hysteria that sees diabolical threats in the most mundane places.

After being treated, Klaatu refuses to talk to the U.S. leaders readily available to him in Washington and demands to address the leaders of all countries--a slap in the face to anybody who thinks the U.S. has a God-given right to rule the world.

"It's not that easy," he is told. The Russians demand the meeting take place in Moscow, and the British demand it be in London. "You have to be patient," he is told again. "I'm impatient with stupidity," he responds, denouncing all the imperial gesturing as "childish jealousies and suspicions."

In another scene, a group of humans are sitting around the dinner table suspiciously talking about the alien arrival. "If you want my opinion," says one, "he comes from right here on earth. You know what I mean," implicitly suggesting that he is a Communist--and ridiculing what must have been all-too-common dinner conversation at the time.

Even though too much of the movie is consumed by a series of much less interesting side characters, it is moments like these that give The Day the Earth Stood Still a lasting appeal. In fact, it is the depth of the McCarthyist hysteria of the period that gives this material some dramatic impact.

The Day the Earth Stood Still has what may now seem like a fairly mainstream liberal message--world leaders should work out their problems through the United Nations rather than raise the stakes with an arms race. But it needs to be remembered that the film was released just a few years after the Hollywood Ten--a group of filmmakers investigated for their support of the Communist Party--were prosecuted.

The hysteria was not over--shortly after the film was made, Sam Jaffe, an actor who portrayed a scientist entrusted by Klaatu, was blacklisted and did not work again for seven years. When everybody from actual Communists to mere pacifists was being investigated in Hollywood, it took some courage to make a movie with this message.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This material is ripe for a remake in the current political climate and with today's far more advanced special effects. Unfortunately, the people behind the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still have stripped the film of the political insights that made the original worth seeing in the first place.

A number of fine actors are utterly wasted--Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates and John Cleese, none of whom have anything exciting to do. Keanu Reaves as Klaatu is stony-faced and dull--the faceless, voiceless robot Gort in the original film is far more interesting.

And the new Gort is a computer-animated monstrosity--with no insight into what to do with this character, the film takes the exact same design and simply makes him 10 times the size of the original. Gort then becomes a 1950s robot blown up to ridiculous proportions who exists for no other reason than to appease fans of the original--who will certainly be disappointed.

Instead of demanding an end to nuclear armaments, Reaves's Klaatu has come to eliminate the human race before it has destroyed the Earth. "If the Earth dies, you die," he says, "but if you die, the Earth survives." This creepy line of dialogue is about all we get out of Klaatu's intentions. Rather than play up the real threat of climate change in an exciting way--like The Day After Tomorrow, for example--it's just a minor point to explain why Klaatu is destroying everything.

The devastation that ensues is rendered meaningless. Without an overarching theme that gives some insight into the state of our world--or a reason to care about Klaatu's mission--the new version of the film becomes just another disaster movie, and not a very good one at that. The film doesn't do anything with the threat of environmental devastation--either visually or dramatically--to make it worth watching.

The original Klaatu, on the other hand, is a messianic character who brings a message of hope--or destruction, but at least there is a choice. Klaatu's quest to explain his message and understand the human race creates many moments of suspense and even comedy. It's more than just an excuse for an alien invasion.

Whether the human race decides to accept Klaatu's demand is never resolved in the original film, which is an open-ended challenge to humanity to save itself. It may seem odd that the original Klaatu represented peaceful alien civilizations that threatened humans with annihilation if they did not also accept peace, but his threat was really a metaphor for nuclear weapons themselves. The real point of the movie is that, if humans do not give up nuclear arms, they will destroy themselves without the help of an alien civilization and their laser-wielding robots.

The disappointing resolution of the new film, on the other hand, only shows how pointless the new Klaatu's trip was in the first place. Humanity has nothing to do but wait for him to change his mind, which you would hope he could have done before traveling so far and inflicting so much damage.

If you are looking to see a clever sci-fi movie, save your $10 and rent the original--whatever its faults, it is far more entertaining and enlightening than the version currently in theaters.

This article originally appeared at

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wal-Mart makes cake for Hitler

Adolph Hitler Campbell, that is, an unfortunately named 3-year-old child whose Mom wanted a cake for little Adolph's birthday. "Hell no!" said ShopRite, so they went to Wal-Mart instead. Even though they refuse to carry some CDs because of supposedly objectionable content, Wal-Mart obliged. Take that, Sheryl Crow! According to Wal-Mart, you are worse than Hitler.

EASTON, Pa. – A supermarket is defending itself for refusing to a write out 3-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell's name on his birthday cake. Deborah Campbell, 25, of nearby Hunterdon County, N.J., said she phoned in her order last week to the Greenwich ShopRite. When she told the bakery department she wanted her son's name spelled out, she was told to talk to a supervisor, who denied the request.

Karen Meleta, a ShopRite spokeswoman, said the store denied similar requests from the Campbells the last two years, including a request for a swastika.

"We reserve the right not to print anything on the cake that we deem to be inappropriate," Meleta said. "We considered this inappropriate."

The Campbells ultimately got their cake decorated at a Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania, Deborah Campbell said Tuesday.

A Wal-Mart spokesman told The Associated Press on Wednesday that in light of the incident, the company would review its guidelines regarding cake decorations and other requests.

"It's clear that in serving this customer, some people were offended," spokesman Greg Rossiter said. "As a result, we're going to review our policies."

Heath Campbell said he named his son after Adolf Hitler because he liked the name and because "no one else in the world would have that name."

The Campbells' two other children are named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, who turns 2 in a few months, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell, who will be 1 in April.

Campbell said he was raised not to avoid people of other races but not to mix with them socially or romantically. But he said he would try to raise his children differently.

"Say he grows up and hangs out with black people. That's fine, I don't really care," he said. "That's his choice."

He said about 12 people attended the birthday party Sunday, including several children of mixed race.

Final note: maybe next year one of these children will find the following, much happier, scenario.

Criticwatch - A full hour of At the Movies

Erik Childress from Criticwatch found that avoiding At the Movies has unintended consequences--you just have to watch a full hour of the show later. I can definitely sympathize--I try to avoid taping the show out of fear that I'll waste my life away watching it multiple times just to get the quotes right.

First, Erik catches another name-drop that I missed. On Cadillac Records, Ben says, "I thought Columbus Short was very authentic as the harmonica player, Little Walter, in a really breakout performance . . .”

Would you believe that Ben and Columbus are buddies in real life! Of course you would . . .

Erik continues:

Another new regular to watch out on the show is breaking bad on the trailers they hyped weeks earlier. This may never happen again considering all the criticism they’ve received for the Twilight “3 to see” debacle. But this week they came down hard on Oscilloscope’s Wendy and Lucy.

That's correct--after recommending we watch the trailer for Twilight, they actually showed the trailer for Wendy and Lucy, only to tell us later that the movie sucked. Thanks guys, way to make good use of the time on your show.

Finally, Erik quotes Ben on Doubt:

“You know what’s frustrating in the film though, Mank? You don’t get to hear the little boy’s side of the story at all and I felt like he was kinda pushed to the side and was almost an afterthought even though he’s the subject of the film.”

Erik responds:

We don’t get to hear the little boy’s side of the story? The subject of the film? . . . Did you feel cheated when JFK didn’t tell you who the killer was? I don’t believe the movie’s title was Spelled Out. The whole point of the film is that we don’t know what happened. If we heard it from the boy’s mouth, then the film has no point . . . This may go down in 2008 as the dumbest specific thing you have ever said about a singular film.

I have to say, I think it is hard to beat saying that Goldeneye is his favorite Bond movie because he liked the video game. But it's a good point--it sounds to me more like a bad excuse to dislike the movie than anything else. And on that point--we don't need it spelled out for us! The boy's feelings are written all over his face and it still doesn't tell us what really happened. That is what is so deceptive and painful about the whole thing.

Read the full article here

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Romantic comedies will ruin your life

No shit. Although it doesn't look like they included really good "rom-coms" like Bringing Up Baby, so their results may be suspect.

Rom-coms 'spoil your love life'
BBC News
10:02 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Watching romantic comedies can spoil your love life, a study by a university in Edinburgh has claimed.

Rom-coms have been blamed by relationship experts at Heriot Watt University for promoting unrealistic expectations when it comes to love.

They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner.

Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them.

Psychologists at the family and personal relationships laboratory at the university studied 40 top box office hits between 1995 and 2005, and identified common themes which they believed were unrealistic.

"The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realise"
Dr Bjarne Holmes
Heriot Watt University

The movies included You've Got Mail, Maid In Manhattan, The Wedding Planner and While You Were Sleeping.

The university's Dr Bjarne Holmes said: "Marriage counsellors often see couples who believe that sex should always be perfect, and if someone is meant to be with you then they will know what you want without you needing to communicate it.

"We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people's minds.

"The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realise."

As part of the project, 100 student volunteers were asked to watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while a further 100 watched a David Lynch drama.

Predestined love

Students watching the romantic film were later found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. A further study found that fans of romantic comedies had a stronger belief in predestined love.

Kimberly Johnson, who also worked on the study, said: "Films do capture the excitement of new relationships but they also wrongly suggest that trust and committed love exist from the moment people meet, whereas these are qualities that normally take years to develop."

The researchers have now launched an online study on media and relationships.

Monday, December 15, 2008

At the Movies, 12/14/08

Ben Lyons, report to Sister Aloysius regarding you review of Doubt. Now!

For weeks, Ben Lyons has wielded the "Rent it" rating like the blunt object that it is--using it far too often and unnecessarily when a more efficient tool would do the job better. But his latest "Rent it" is simply unconscionable. Sometimes what he says is just foolish, but when Ben disses one of my favorite movies of this year, I take it personally.

Ben tells us that Doubt was probably good as a play but there is no reason why it needed to be filmed or, for that matter, why we need to see it in the theater, so "Rent it." Lyons doesn't seem to realize the utter lack of logic of this statement--if it works better in live theater than film, then it will certainly work better in a movie theater with an audience than watching it at home by yourself on a TV screen (or on an iPod or in a plane). But that is hardly the point--I can think of five great reasons to recommend Doubt: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and writer John Patrick Shanley. Of those four great performances, Ben says he was only impressed by one (Davis)!

This is a film that defies expectations, showing us how Catholic priests got away with child molestation for decades (or did they?), not in a didactic way but in a subtle, character driven drama. No, this is not a terribly "cinematic" film--the story is told through dialogue and not pictures, although the scenery of a working-class Catholic school in the Bronx is perfect--but there is such a keen sense of drama and mystery in this story that makes it incredibly riveting. Really, more screenplays should have this sense of questioning and curiosity about their characters, continually catching us by surprise and showing us how complicated such an open-and-shut case really is.

Unfortunately, Mank's "See it" helped very little, saying that it was a great movie "Until the final line which absolutely made me wince," which made it merely a very good movie. Incredible! The ending is stirring and encourages you to rethink the entire subject of the film. If this made Mank wince, he must have rolled his eyes at "Jack, I swear."

But only to prove the silliness of encouraging us to "rent" Doubt is Lyons's 3 to See recommendation. Because there was not enough time for DVD recommendations (which in recent weeks have included just telling us DVD's that are out, regardless of whether they are even worth seeing), he decided to include the new DVD for Horton Hears a Who in his 3 to See (the other two were Frost/Nixon and The Reader). That means that not only was Slumdog Millionaire kicked off the 3 to See, but we are encouraged to rent Horton instead of seeing Doubt.

Finally, we cannot forget another tongue-lashing by Mank regarding Nothing Like the Holidays, against Lyons's "Rent it" (again?) rating. Mank, citing Lyons, says "'Harmless. Predictable. Contrived.' If that's the best thing you can say, you got to say 'Skip it.'"