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 StopBenLyons.com 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.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Criticwatch: Hyping till the end

Just as Ben Lyons is about to go off the air, I find myself on vacation in smoky Santa Cruz, CA, and I have not yet been able to watch this weekend's episode of At the Movies. So I'll hand it over to Erik Childress from Criticwatch to sum things up with his Ben Lyons Quote of the Week:

Lyons: And until next week, as always, we’ll be At The Movies.

Erik then continues:

There is something perfectly poetic if those are the final words we ever hear from Ben Lyons on this show. Hyping something that cannot possibly be, said before all the facts are in. As of the Aug. 15 airing we are now officially in the two-week period before the new season of At The Movies begins with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Traditionally a period where Siskel & Ebert took a couple of weeks off and either ran reruns or taped a special recap show to air, could the same be true of the now defunct coupling of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz? My Tivo, too dumb to recognize reruns of The Daily Show but smart enough to notice an At The Movies repeat when it sees it, is showing just that. The Aug. 22/23 airing is slated to be a rerun of their Aug. 7 show. You know – the one where they had twice promised a G.I. Joe review only to be shunned from the screenings like the rest of us. If this stands that only leaves Aug. 29. Will it be a repeat, a special show, or have we indeed seen the last of Ben Lyons under the title first made famous by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel? If it is, Junior gave us quite a sendoff, delivering his own brand of a greatest hits package reminding us why no one has anything positive to say about his tenure.

Click here to read the entire review

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Criticwatch: One season wonder

Erik Childress from Criticwatch gives us the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week:

Lyons: This is a true story so if she is a little whiny that is the character she's embodying.

Erik then continues:

Basically what you're saying then, Ben, in your review of Julie & Julia is that because the film portrays the real-life Julie Powell as she is we should just accept that person, flaws and all, since it remains true to them - no matter how self-centered, dim, or flaccid they come off when trying to relay their thoughts on a subject. Awwww, has someone been hard on Ben lately?

Not precisely sure when the big news came to Ben Lyons, but the public became aware on August 5 that he and co-host Ben Mankiewicz were being replaced on At the Movies. After just under a year on the air, Lyons and Mank officially aligned themselves with the Jean Doumanian season of Saturday Night Live. One and done. Cut short. After the PR tour during Oscar season to counteract all the bad publicity the show had got, the Associated Press article they finally opened to, the spin that the ratings were not on the downswing, attempts to localize them as Chicago celebrities and rumors that it would be cheaper to keep them on for another year to fulfill syndication contracts than to dump them, the Bens will be no more on the show come September. Replacing them will be hometown boy, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, and New York's A.O. Scott who will be flown in every couple of weeks to tape a pair of shows. Funny that the reason Scott was initially taken off the guest host roster is because producers didn't want to have to fly him every week. No, they chose instead to fly in Ben Lyons every week. Well now they can fly him out.

Click here to read the entire article

Monday, August 10, 2009

At the Movies: Ben & Ben

Julie & Julia: A movie about a more experienced and knowledgable--if less attractive--chef and a younger, better looking newcomer who is utterly incompetent. Now that sounds so familiar . . .Just because Ben Lyons has been fired, that doesn't mean we won't have him to kick around for a few more weeks. Phillips and Roeper continued several weeks after their replacements were announced and we can expect the same this time around.

But wouldn't it be terribly ironic if just as his tenure was coming to the end, Ben Lyons delivered an intelligent, subtle, thoughtful commentary about a film, that enlightened us as to how the film works, displayed a deep grasp of film history and theory, and dazzled us with a poetic display of criticism that redeemed all of his past transgressions? Yes, that would be terribly ironic, but it hasn't happened yet. Don't keep your fingers crossed.

This episode was filmed on August 4--the day before the firing was announced--as Lyons mentions on his Twitter page. The shows are filmed two shows at a time, so it will not be for another two weeks before we see Lyons' sad, post-firing face on the show. In the meantime, we get these nuggets of un-knowledge.

On Julie & Julia:

Lyons: First off, I think we are both keen observers of the obvious when we say that Meryl Streep is terrific.

I hate to say it, but that just might be a bit of an overstatement. Forget I Am Legend for a moment. I know it's hard, but just try. Now, let's take Ben's critique of the G.I. Joe movie. First, his positive reaction on Twitter:

Just saw the new G.I. Joe trailer on ABC during the Mavs vs. Nuggets game...WOW! That ish looks crraaaaaaaaaazy...Go Joe! Look forward to it

I don't know who in their right mind would have that reaction to the trailer--much less the ridiculous thought of even having a G.I. Joe. But Ben later backtracks and says that he does not have high hopes for the movie because it does not have the "heart-and-soul of G.I. Joe."(Devin Faraci, the critic sitting next to Lyons in the interview--who later went on to give the movie a positive review--commented that he did not realize G.I. Joe had a heart-and-soul)

Now, those are two contradictory opinions on the same movie which he has not seen, and yet I think both of these are evidence that Ben Lyons is not a "keen observer of the obvious."

But speaking of stupid comments with the word "soul" in them, let's try Lyons' comment on the movie Cold Souls, taking on Mank's defense of the concept of the movie:

Lyons: I agree with you, a terrific premise, but I'm not so sure about the execution of the film. When you have a film that's dealing about people's souls and trading souls, the movie's got to have a soul. It's gotta have some heart and some compassion behind the lens.

Oh dear, you didn't really go there, did you? He even has a bit of a smirk on his face--slightly concealed by the director's generous cutting to a side view of both critics away from a close-up of Lyons--which seems to express how self-satisfied he is with such a clever turn of phrase. This side shot also shows Mank in his standard, steely-eyed stare across the aisle that seems to say "shut up you idiot before I smack the hell out of you!"

Friday, August 7, 2009

Malicious attacks from behind a computer screen

I did not write this and no, it is not real (other than the part about the Bens getting fired) but it is pretty funny

Lyons And Mankiewicz Fired From At The Movies
5 August 2009 (celebrityfreakshow.com)

Disney and AMC Media Productions today announced the firing of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz from the movie review show At The Movies. The show, a descendant of the popular Siskel And Ebert At The Movies show from the eighties and nineties, suffered poor ratings and the scorn of thinking people everywhere due to the complete vapidity of its hosts.

Of the firing, maligned host Lyons managed to maintain a typically enthusiastic outlook. “This firing is the best thing that ever happened to television, movies, or entertainment media in general!!!” said the deposed host with his trademark big toothy grin.

Lyons’ co-host on At The Movies, Ben Makiewicz, greeted the news with relieved exhaustion. “If I had to sit across from that fucking dumbshit for one more week, I swear to God I was planning on detonating a tactical nuke,” raved Makiewicz. He added: “I’ve actually heard K-Mart mannequins give more insightful film criticism than that grinning asshole.”

A spokesperson for Disney said that the move was inevitable given the rapid decline in ratings. “We tried everything in an effort to make this show work. We tried teleprompters, sock puppets, and casual Fridays. We even attempted to replace him with a CGI version of Ben Lyons giving marginally decent reviews. In the end, we realized that the guy simply knows nothing about film whatsoever,” said Janine Freese of AMC. “In response to this catastrophe, we have also fired our entire development team. They should have known that Lyons was a wet hamburger during the first interview.”

The response from show founder Roger Ebert, still recovering from salivary cancer, was predictably effusive. When asked for a comment, Ebert replied, “FFfffflllluccgkkking rllrlrright!”

Makiewicz said that, with his new freedom, he intends to review films that contain no CGI effects whatsoever in an attempt to “clear his palette.” As for his counterpart, Makiewicz offers this advice: “Rot in hell, you stupid fucking retard.”

As for the unpopular Lyons, he says that the unexpected sabbatical will do some good. “The most popular aspect of my career was being pushed aside by this reviewing thing,” said Lyons with a smile. “Now I can get back to doing what fans expect of me, namely, posing for photographs with the marginally famous.”

No word yet on whether he knows how to spell the word “film”.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

This should be awkward

Heads up L.A.--this is coming at you tomorrow. Talk about bad timing . . .

5th Annual HollyShorts film festival opening night celebration at DGA theatre hosted by E! Entertainment Television personality and co-host of the nationally syndicated, “At the Movies” Ben Lyons

July 28, 2009 Hollywood, CA—Ben Lyons, E! Entertainment Television personality and co-host of the nationally syndicated, “At the Movies,” will host the 5th annual HollyShorts Film Festival (HSFF) opening night celebration, which takes place on Thursday, August 6, 2009 at the DGA Theatre in Hollywood. NBC’s “Open House” and “1st Look” correspondent, Viviana Vigil, will be the special guest presenter. The announcement was made today by Daniel Sol, Festival Director, HollyShorts Film Festival.

“We are delighted to have Ben Lyons, one of the sharpest correspondents in the industry today hosting the HollyShorts Opening Night Celebration and can’t wait to gather the top and fastest rising talent in Hollywood all under one roof,” said festival organizers Theo Dumont and Daniel Sol.

Ben Lyons is one of the most sought after television personalities in Hollywood. At the age of 27, Ben is the resident film critic and an entertainment correspondent on E! Entertainment Television, co-host of Nickelodeon’s “My Family’s Got Guts” and co- host of televisions most popular and respected movie program, “At the Movies.” Ben is also a regular correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America.

“It is a great honor to be involved with the HollyShorts Film Festival this summer. I have always respected and admired short films and find that they are a great way to get familiar with the next generation of talented filmmakers,” said Lyons.

. . .

BREAKING NEWS: Ben Lyons fired!

Seriously, I am not making this up

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, N.Y. Times' A.O. Scott take over 'At the Movies'; Ben Lyons, Ben Mankiewicz out

by Phil Rosenthal, Chicao Tribune (Tower Ticker blog)

A year after its extreme makeover of "At the Movies" went over like "Land of the Lost," Disney's ABC Media Productions said Wednesday it is overhauling the Chicago-based syndicated TV program yet again in hopes of reconnecting with its respected past.

Gone are Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, the cable hosts Disney chose last summer to front what it called "the next generation of the series," in favor of a return to dueling newspaper film critics, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of the New York Times.

Both Phillips and Scott filled in for Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert opposite fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper in the earlier incarnation of the program, which traces its roots to Chicago public broadcaster WTTW-Ch. 11 in 1975, when Ebert was first paired on-air with Gene Siskel, the late Chicago Tribune reviewer.

The new pair will make its debut when the series begins its new season Sept. 5 on ABC-owned WLS-Ch. 7, where the show is produced for syndication by Disney-ABC Domestic Televison.

“We are thrilled that A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips will be lending their well-respected and influential voices to At the Movies,” Brian Frons, who oversees ABC Media Productions as president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, said in a statement. “They are regarded by millions of people as authorities in film criticism and will take the series back to its roots of one-on-one film debate that was established when the show first began with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.”

Ebert and Roeper split with Disney last summer as their old show underwent several changes. Some such as a new theme song and set were minor. Others, such as the hiring of Lyons and Mankiewicz and including the input of other critics, were major. Very little of it seemed to gain a foothold, particularly with those who had been drawn to the original show.

Siskel and Ebert and later Roeper and his counterparts engaged viewers by talking about films -- both big and small, domestic and international -- in a sophisticated way that allowed them to share both their obvious love of movies as well as for spirited, well-considered debate.

Mankiewicz would escape much of the criticism directed at the revamped "At the Movies," most of which targeted Lyons, whose inability to articulate his opinions undercut his cinematic knowledge and critical skills.

Too often Lyons sounded as though he were dictating a blurb for an ad, rather than giving serious counsel as to whether a consumer should buy a ticket, rent a DVD or skip a film altogether.

“We tried something new last season and we think the world of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz," Frons said. "They did everything we asked of them and they have been complete professionals. However, we’ve decided to return the show to its original essence – two traditional film critics discussing current motion picture and DVD releases. We thank them for their hard work and dedication this past year and wish them nothing but the best on all of their future endeavors.”

Phillips has been the Chicago Tribune's film critic since 2006. He has written for about entertainment and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dallas Times-Herald and the Twin Cities weekly City Pages, and also covered movies for Minnesota Public Radio, WGN-AM and MSNBC.

"I can't wait to mix it up with Tony, who's one of the sharpest critical voices in the nation," Phillips said. "To co-host a show with such an extraordinary legacy is a privilege and an opportunity. I know we're both humbled by that legacy, and we're eager to get people thinking--really thinking--about movies and to guide cinema lovers in the right direction. And perhaps some unexpected directions."

Scott has been a film critic at the New York Times for nearly 10 years and been a frequent guest on PBS' "Charlie Rose," NPR’s "Talk of the Nation" and other radio and television programs. Before joining the Times, Scott was the Sunday book critic at Newsday and a freelance contributor to dozens of publications, including the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and The New York Review of Books and Slate.

“I’m overjoyed and honored to be joining 'At the Movies,' and especially excited to be working with my colleague Michael Phillips, one of the most intelligent and wittiest critics around,” Scott said in the announcement. “This show, with its long history and rich tradition, stands for the idea that there is a place on television for vigorous argument and independent thinking about movies.”

Phillips, 48, and Scott, 43, have the respect of readers and their peers, but whether the new team enjoys the same kind of chemistry that Ebert shared with Roeper and can engage in the show's old brand of lively give-and-take will be among the challenges in regaining the show's standing.

"I have the highest regard for both Michael Phillips and Tony Scott," Ebert said by e-mail.

Siskel and Ebert were anything but polished themselves when they made their WTTW debut, but that may have been part of their charm. The pair went national on public TV in 1978, moved to commercial syndication with Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. in 1982 and then to Disney in 1986. Siskel died in 1999 and Roeper was named his successor the following year.

Ebert had to leave the program in 2006 because of health issues that have robbed him of his voice, but his name and imprimatur remained with the program until the split with Disney last summer.

A sign of trouble had surfaced a few months earlier as the show dropped its use of "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" as shorthand for a recommendation or rejection of a film. Ebert and Siskel's estate owned the trademark on the thumbs.

"At the Movies" will continue to employ the “see it,” “skip it,” or “rent it” ratings system it adopted at that time.

“I loved working on this show, every moment of it,” Mankiewicz said through Disney. “It was an honor to continue a broadcast legacy not merely started by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but created by them. No doubt the show is in good hands."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Criticwatch: Party pooper

Erik Childress sums up this weeks episode of At the Movies, starting with Ben Lyons' dismissal of Thirst:

This week’s show was a happy affair. 9 out of 10 “see it”’s and certainly some great movies to boot (Funny People, In The Loop, World’s Greatest Dad). Lyons turned out to be the party pooper this week, delivering the one “skip it” on the final film they reviewed, Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst. In fairness, I would have pooped on the perfect show too. According to the show’s review aesthetic, I would have gone with “rent it”, but I am certain that I could back it up better and maybe bring something to the discussion about why I thought it ultimately failed as a film rather than an experience. After all, we know how Lyons feels about horror fare.

Looking over his Quote of the Week you might think he’s still reviewing Orphan from last week. Thirst is an entirely different beast though. Anyone familiar with Park’s previous work, particularly his Vengeance trilogy (Old Boy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance), knows he possesses a rather dark sense of humor amidst the violence. Some critics have even gone so far as to call it a black comedy. Suggesting Thirst is unintentionally funny is so off the mark it boggles the mind, although Lyons tries to cover himself by wondering if some of the jokes were lost in translation. Yeah, that Korean vampire humor always goes right over my head too. It might be hard to label it in the video stores as anything but horror, but any student of even a decade’s worth of film is aware that there are various subsets of the genre and not all of them require giant scares. Never during Thirst was I thinking “hey, I’m not scared at all here.” Park was chasing something more than just making us jump in our seats and if that’s all Lyons was focusing on, maybe that’s why he was so bored.

Click here to read the rest of the story

Monday, August 3, 2009

At the Movies: Forgetting Ben Lyons

We got a fairly uneventful episode of At the Movies this week, but next week's episode promises the review of the highly unanticipated G.I Joe movie. Recent evidence suggests that Ben will play it safe and pan the movie, but it might be fun to see what sort of mental gymnastics he might pull to defend it.

Summing up his review of In the Loop, Lyons says:

Lyons: Stay in the loop on good movies this summer and "See" In the Loop.

Oh, please don't. One Gene Shalit is at least one too many.

At the end of the show, the Bens gives their DVD picks inspired by the newly released Funny People:

Lyons: The Cable Guy is a bizarre and twisted character driven comedy that still remains one of Apatow's best.

Now, I liked The Cable Guy, but it was produced by Apatow, who neither wrote nor directed. It doesn't even feature the standard Apatow ensemble--like Apatow-produced films such as Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It's really a Ben Stiller/Jim Carrey movie. And it's not as good as any of the "real" Apatow movies, which are just as--or perhaps more--crude but also more grown-up and intelligent.

If he really wanted a blast from the Apatow-ian past, he might have recommended something a bit more obscure like the DVD for Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared. This pick just seems a bit poorly thought through, which leads to the somewhat hyperbolic "one of Apatow's best" comments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Criticwatch - If I had a hammer . . .

Erik Childress discusses the exchange from this week's At the Movies on the movie Orphan (among other things):

LYONS: “For me I don’t know what’s really fun about seeing a nine year-old girl take a hammer to somebody’s head over and over again. That’s not enjoyable for me at the movies.”


Thank you Mank for shouting out what so many of us have wanted to spit back in his face through all his stomach-churning logic and overly biased attitude towards horror films during this last year on the air. Oh boy, so you liked Drag Me To Hell. That PG-13 rating suits you, does it? You gave a positive review to Let the Right One In? Only three people on Rotten Tomatoes (out of 144) gave it a negative. (For the record those three morons are Amy Nicholson from Box Office Magazine, Prairie Miller and Owen Gleiberman who should have his “top critic” moniker erased on the basis of this one review.) You want to knock Orphan – have at it, sir. There’s a lot to pan it for. I recommended it on the basis of pure comedy and not as a horror film. But within my review I knocked how poorly directed it was if it really had aspirations to be a true-red horror flick. All you can say is how uncomfortable you get when little Esther bashes in a skull with a hammer.

Click here to read Erik's other musing about this week's episode

Monday, July 27, 2009

At the Movies: He had me, then he lost me

This week's episode of At the Movies gave us a repeat of two of Ben Lyons' weaknesses--folding under criticism and objecting to horror elements in movies.

First, on The Ugly Truth, Ben comments on the notorious vibrating underwear scene:

Lyons: There is some physical comedy, but it seems like stuff we've seen before. There's a scene at a dinner table that is completely ripped from When Harry Met Sally . . .

Mank: Yeah, I thought that was an ok scene.

Lyons: [agreeing] An ok scene.

Sorry, dude, you had me and then you lost me.

Later, we get a disagreement in the review of Orphan, which Mank liked because it had some funny elements in it, but Lyons (who hates horror movies) did not:

Lyons: For me, I don't know what's really fun about seeing a 9-year-old girl taking a hammer to somebody's head over and over again. To me, that's not really enjoyable.

After which Mank lights up and smiles, saying,

Mank: It's a horror movie, Ben!

At first I thought Lyons had a decent point, but this time around Mank actually won me over: I've laughed my ass of at over-the-top horror movies with scenes like this plenty of times. It's all fun and games until somebody gets bludgeoned to death by a 9-year-old girl. Then it's just fun.

Finally, Mank gives us his 3-to-see: Harry Potter, Orphan, and The Hurt Locker.

He even says "This is my favorite Potter movie and the most adult Potter." If by "most adult" you mean "lots of silly flirting" and by "best" you mean "worst," then I completely agree!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons: Cambridge police

"Driving While Black" is a "crime" for which many African-Americans are pulled over. To this we can add the "crimes" of "Swimming While Black" (from a recent incident in Philadelphia) and "Breaking into your own house while Black." To make matters worse for the Cambridge police, the victim of this racial profiling is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a highly respected Harvard professor.

BOSTON — Police responding to a call about "two black males" breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there – Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar.

Gates had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry."

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates – the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research – initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.

"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.

Gates said he turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID – both with his photos – and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He said he then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, Gates said in a statement released by his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, on a Web site Gates oversees, TheRoot.com
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He was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior." He was released later that day on his own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26.

Gates, 58, also refused to speak publicly Monday, referring calls to Ogletree.

"He was shocked to find himself being questioned and shocked that the conversation continued after he showed his identification," Ogletree said.

Ogletree declined to say whether he believed the incident was racially motivated, saying "I think the incident speaks for itself."

Some of Gates' African-American colleagues say the arrest is part of a pattern of racial profiling in Cambridge.

Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 25 years, said he was stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers in 2004 after being mistaken for a robbery suspect. They threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification.

"We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if professor Gates was white," Counter said. "It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened."

The Rev. Al Sharpton is vowing to attend Gates' arraignment.

"This arrest is indicative of at best police abuse of power or at worst the highest example of racial profiling I have seen," Sharpton said. "I have heard of driving while black and even shopping while black but now even going to your own home while black is a new low in police community affairs."

Ogletree said Gates had returned from a trip to China on Thursday with a driver, when he found his front door jammed. He went through the back door into the home – which he leases from Harvard – shut off an alarm and worked with the driver to get the door open. The driver left, and Gates was on the phone with the property's management company when police first arrived.

Ogletree also disputed the claim that Gates, who was wearing slacks and a polo shirt and carrying a cane, was yelling at the officer.

"He has an infection that has impacted his breathing since he came back from China, so he's been in a very delicate physical state," Ogletree said.

Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, said he met with Gates at the police station and described his colleague as feeling humiliated and "emotionally devastated."

"It's just deeply disappointing but also a pointed reminder that there are serious problems that we have to wrestle with," he said.

Bobo said he hoped Cambridge police would drop the charges and called on the department to use the incident to review training and screening procedures it has in place.

The Middlesex district attorney's office said it could not do so until after Gates' arraignment. The woman who reported the apparent break-in did not return a message Monday.

Gates joined the Harvard faculty in 1991 and holds one of 20 prestigious "university professors" positions at the school. He also was host of "African American Lives," a PBS show about the family histories of prominent U.S. blacks, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1997.

"I was obviously very concerned when I learned on Thursday about the incident," Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. "He and I spoke directly and I have asked him to keep me apprised."

Originally posted at The Huffington Post

At the Movies: Growing old gracefully

This week on At the Movies, Lyons and Mankiewicz give their lists of the five best films of the year so far (plus the single worst film so far):
1. Sin Nombre1. Sin Nombre
2. Tyson2. The Hurt Locker
3. Up3. Every Little Step
4. (500) Days of Summer4. Sugar
5. Star Trek5. I Love You, Man

Ben Lyons' view of a 40-year-oldOn Mank's number 5 pick, Lyons says "When comparing it to the The Hangover, both very funny, both incredibly well written, and also both starring older cast members. They don't play like frat-boy comedies."

Oh boy. "Older cast members?" Meaning in their 30s? Both are about guys who are about to get married--are they supposed to be just out of high school? Now, I'm not one to put Lyons down for his age, but this does not exactly help his credentials as a "mature" film critic. And by the way, The Hangover doesn't play like a frat-boy comedy? Not sure about that.

Lyons also mentions--twice--the "grace" in Star Trek. First saying that the two lead actors "take on iconic roles with an ease and a grace that will surely drive the franchise for years to come." Later, he adds that it is "really difficult to walk that line of the hard-core fans of the franchise and people who are not familiar with the franchise, but [director J. J. Abrams] did so gracefully." Of all the adjectives that I might use to describe the movie, that is probably one of the last.

Their "worst" movies were Bruno (Mank) and I Love You, Beth Cooper (Lyons). After listing these, and wrapping up the show, Lyons and Mank discuss the new rule for the Oscars which will result in ten (instead of five) nominations for Best Picture. Mank adds,

Mank: So I think a movie that just opened a few days ago, the sixth Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, it's dark, it's much more grown up, I think that's also a possibility for a nomination.

First off, Half-Blood Prince is doing crazy business, so it does stand a good chance for a nomination. But does it really deserve it? Everybody I know thinks that it is by far the most mediocre--and boring--in the Harry Potter series.

But they also provide no commentary about the economics behind the decision. Clearly, the Academy hopes that expanding the number of films that get a nomination will improve their success at the box office and improve DVD rentals. But how about improving the movies themselves? The big blockbusters this year have been retreads based on already established brands outside the movies and are sequels--Harry Potter and the Transformers.

How about some motivation for something unique and different? I would hope that expanding the number of nominations actually helps smaller films that have a more difficult time finding an audience--like The Girlfriend Experience, my pick for the best movie so far this year. If the new rule just benefits Harry Potter, it is hardly worth it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Criticwatch - Who's he crappin'?

Erik Childress cites many of the moments that I cited in this week's episode of At the Movies, so I'll highlight one of Erik's points that I did not mention, regarding a movie I did not see:

Lyons (on I Love You, Beth Cooper): It condones drinking and driving.

Really, Benny? Are you really going to go there? The guy who praised The Hangover to the hilt? The guy who put it second on his list of 3-To-See on the June 20 show? The film where three completely messed up guys in Vegas steal a police car, drive it to Mike Tyson’s house, steal his tiger, put said tiger IN THE CAR and then drive back down the strip to Caesar’s Palace. You mean drinking and driving like that? Beth Cooper has maybe a beer or two by comparison and is shown to be primarily the worst teen driver since Kelly Jo Minter in Summer School. Anyone? Whomever was driving the police car in The Hangover had not only been drinking all night, but jacked up on rufies. But I guess you don’t care if it’s real or if it’s fake. You just wanna find out if it’s funny. Ben Lyons, who in the hell do you think you’re crappin’?

Read the entire Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

At the Movies: Ben Mankiewicz and the Half-Wit Prince

On this week's episode of At the Movies, we get an early review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Mank tells us how the movie is much more rooted in the lives of real-life teenagers, and Ben Lyons agrees:

Lyons: Mank, I love how this film establishes that it takes place in the real world. It opens in London, but then of course goes to the world of Hogwarts and wizards.

No shit? It starts in the Muggle world, and then moves into Hogwarts later? Wow, that would make it EXACTLY LIKE EVERY OTHER HARRY POTTER MOVIE. A stunning grasp of the obvious there, Ben. Next you are going to tell me that "the Transformers do something really cool. They are these giant robots that transform into cars! And they make a cool sound when they do it!" Ben Lyons gets early access to not only seeing but reviewing the movie, and he tells us something we already know--even if we have not already read the book.

Then we get to Bruno, which has a surprisingly high 70% rating on the Tomatometer. Although it is worth pointing out that the Top Critics rating is only 53%, a surprisingly vast difference compared to most movies' Tomato ratings.

Anyway, Mank, like me, loved Borat but hates Bruno and rightfully tears it apart, saying that it is offensive and simply drags innocent bystanders into scenes with Bruno's crude actions. Some of these people are homophobic, but all too often they're just disgusted and often rightly so.

Ok, I didn't hate it quite as much as Mank did. I thought about two-thirds of the movie was exactly what he says, and about one-third--mostly in the latter part of the film--has Bruno mocking homophobes and other idiots--people who will do anything to get their babies into modeling and a couple of celebrity charity consultants who are total morons. But the rest is, yes, stupid.

Ben Lyons would disagree with me--as he did with Mank:

Lyons: I think you and I are looking at it differently. While you are maybe sympathizing with some of the people that you say he exploits on camera, I'm holding those people accountable for their actions and what they say and how they conduct themselves. And I'm laughing at Bruno more so than I'm really laughing at their ignorance. I mean Borat, you're really looking at the people around him as much as him.

So which is it? Are you holding those people accountable or are laughing at Bruno? And who are you holding accountable, exactly? There are some who really deserve to be mocked--the people I mentioned above, the Israeli lynch mob, the Fred Phelps "God Hates Fags" neanderthals, even Ron Paul. But what about the hotel workers who are asked to untie Bruno and his friend from each other after a night of S&M? Or the unsuspecting focus group forced to watch Bruno's crude, penis-wagging TV show? Or, worst of all, an African-American audience rightly outraged at Bruno's carrying around an adopted African child as an accessory, a la Madonna?

Sorry Lyons, you are not making much of a case for your opinion here. It seems more like you are just more willing to laugh at crude stereotypes than Mank is.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Jermaine Jackson sings what Brooke Shields called Michael Jackson's favorite song: Smile, written by Charlie Chaplin

As a Chaplin fan, I couldn't help posting this. But I have also been deeply moved by Jackson's death--after years of seeing the increasingly erratic behavior and unnecessary cosmetic surgery, his death is a reminder of what incredible talent he had. I was only 5 or 6 years old when Thriller was released, and not interested in music at all at the time, but this was a different sort of phenomenon. Listening to his music again today is a revelation, stripping away all the negative press and accusations to reveal something far too extraordinary to ignore.

If you have any doubts or lingering hostility toward Jackson, watch the clips from the making of the Thriller video where he appears with a Mickey Mouse sweater and a huge smile, clearly loving every beautifully creative moment of the experience. Perhaps that was just hiding deeper insecurities that would be more clearly revealed and enhanced by years of media scrutiny. But if you were young in the early 1980s, I defy you to listen to this music or watch the videos and not remember a time when this beautiful, extraordinary young man stole our hearts.

It is fitting that Jackson loved Chaplin's song, as the two have much in common. Both came from quite modest working-class backgrounds looked down upon by society at large--African-American in Jackson's case, Cockney in Chaplin's. Both became performers at a young age, displaying an innate ability to entertain people on the stage, later trailblazing new media and becoming the greatest international stars of their eras. After their meteoric rise, both were dogged by scandal and saw their popularity drastically decline as a result, with many calling for legal action against them.

Those not familiar with Chaplin's life will probably scratch their head in wonder at what all this could have been about, and while Chaplin was a deeply flawed individual, there is no question that the campaign against him was hysterical, short sighted, and utterly reactionary. It is a shame that it took exile and a changed political climate for Chaplin to win the hearts of American movie-goers again, but at least he was able to live a long life with his family while attitudes change.

Jackson has not been nearly so lucky, succumbing to the pressure of success with a drug addiction that appears to have killed him. He will not live to see the warm acceptance that might have been bestowed upon him late in life, nor the changing tone from a press that has dogged him mercilessly for decades. The vultures that devoured and destroyed him will likely be none the more introspective about their future victims, but the rest of us will at least have the privilege of enjoying his work for the rest of our lives.

Monday, July 6, 2009

So good it's bad

I spent all weekend at the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, and though I finally got a chance to watch At the Movies on Monday night, I'll forgo my own lengthy commentary about the episode and hand it over to Erik Childress. His Ben Lyons Quote of the Week is:

Lyons: Depp is so good that in the moment he holds your attention and I’m along for the ride and it’s a good adult summer movie. However, I wanted an awards show contender and its just not that.

Erik continues:

Lyons was brutal this week. On the movies. Without the immediate benefit of a show-by-show breakdown, this may have been the first time during his tenure on At the Movies that Junior failed to recommend a single title; a prospect that even surprised Mankiewicz during their recap. The closest he came was on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies which got the dreaded “rent it” despite Lyons calling it a “good adult summer movie.” Having spent a part of this weekend on the other side of Criticwatch determining the correct use of the word “masterpiece”, here we have another lesson in choosing your words carefully.

I concur--if you ever wanted to watch 22 minutes of a grumpy, furrow-browed Ben Lyons with little positive to say and struggling to maintain his fake smile, this was the week to watch. Not that I would recommend it. As Erik quotes Ben in the Quote of the Week, he even raised his usually low standards, giving a "Rent it" to a movie just because it wasn't Oscar worthy. Well, we'll see how Ben's turn to high standard maintains itself in the future . . .

Read the rest of the Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Criticwatch: Revenge of the sequel

Erik Childress gives us the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week:

Lyons: I found that the filmmakers were really irresponsible in ignoring the younger fanbase of this franchise. You mention the 14 year old boys love the action and Megan Fox but the language and drug references completely unnecessary.

And then continues with his own commentary:

Hearing statements like that from Ben Lyons is enough to make you want to watch a reality show of his exploits at the Hard Rock in Vegas. The movie in question is not Land of the Lost, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that only accentuates everything that passed as action and humor the first time around. Why didn’t those PG-13 elements violate his delicate sensibilities back in 2007? Maybe because he was just on the E! Network then and not playing to a more adult audience on ABC that has found ways to work his age into the criticism of him?

Click here to read the rest

Monday, June 29, 2009

At the Movies: Becoming numb to the noise

Ben Lyons has not been so egregious lately in gushing over his friends--or rather, "friends"--at least not at every possible moment. Take this week's episode of At the Movies, in which the new Transformers movie is reviewed. Lyons doesn't even let on that he and Shia are buddies--or "buddies," as in Lyons says "See, we are totally best friends, look at this picture we took together," and Shia says "Ben who?" He has even removed the link on his Web page to the "Ben Lyons Poses with Famous People" gallery that he was so ridiculed for. The gallery, however, still exists.

But we do get this exchange on the movie:

Lyons: I was a fan of the first film, and I think part of the reason why it worked is there was so much anticipation to see these robots for the first time. And Michael Bay and the team at ILM, the graphics studio that does the special effects, really delivered in that first movie. Here it's excessive, and overkill, and your eye and your brain becomes rather numb to it rather quickly . . .

Mank: Particularly your brain.

Yes, so much anticipation. Just like he said last week that this is the most anticipated movie of the summer. Lyons continues:

Lyons: Oh my goodness, because it's endless, and it just sort of looses the mystique that the first one had of seeing these things for the first time. You become numb to it. And I found that the filmmakers were really irresponsible in ignoring the younger fan base of this franchise. You mentioned the 14-year-old boys loved the action and Megan Fox but the language and drug references, completely unnecessary. [my emphasis]

Wow, what a noble and controversial statement. Alright Hollywood, listen to this important message from Ben Lyons: We need less drugs and more female eye candy! Hey, anything less would be irresponsible.

Mank, who to his credit has generally been better at pointing at sloppy, stereotypical content in Hollywood films, put it a better:

Lyons: Dude, Megan Fox is so hot!Mank: I know why Megan Fox is in the film, no question. But at some point as you're trying to save the world and you're in the Egyptian desert, maybe jeans and a t-shirt. I mean enough, I get it, she's literally just there to run in slow motion and to be eye candy.

Unfortunately, we get this frat-boy grin (left) from Lyons as Mank is making this comment.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Criticwatch - Blurbing 2009 into a vintage year

Erik Childress from Criticwatch gives us the Ben Lyons quote of the week:
Lyons: This is vintage classic Woody Allen. Like you said, not his best work obviously but a return to form in a lot of ways.
And follows with his own commentary:

Then how about we don’t use the words “vintage” and “classic” to call it then? This is becoming an increasing problem in the Twitter culture that we live in. What is Twitter precisely if not an opportunity to provide your own ready-made 140-character blurb for a movie? Forget writing a whole review or 140 words. You can just walk out of a movie and post your reaction for all your followers to see. Oh, but you must get their attention, right? You can’t just say that Whatever Works is one of Woody’s better efforts over the last decade. You need to get everyone’s attention. So you say it’s classic Woody Allen, more or less suggesting that it ranks with the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Yes, there’s a bit of assumption on our part. But there’s a difference when you call something classic and tap into our own memories of what constitutes the meaning of “classic” (whether it be for a genre or filmmaker) and my friends and I saying that Megaforce is the greatest movie ever made.

Read Erik's entire commentary here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

At the Movies: Some rules are sacred

Ben Lyons: Less than meets the eye
On this week's episode of At the Movies, Ben Lyons shows us that he knows some rules and not others.

He slams the new "Norwegian Nazi zombie movie" Dead Snow, saying:
A lot better zombie movies in recent years, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later. I thought those were really effective because they establish the rules of zombies. How do you kill a zombie, if a zombie bites you does that turn you into a zombie. They were not consistent here with these parameters.
Whether being consistent with the rules of zombies--rather than providing interesting characters or just effectively terrifying scenarios--is what makes a good thriller, I'll put aside for the moment. Just to say that I'm not sure that The Blair Witch Project particularly followed the "rules of witches," nor was it any worse for it. More unfortunately, though, is that he does not seem to know the rules of film criticism nearly so well as the rules of zombies.

And I don't just refer to Ebert's Little Rule Book (aka How Not to be Ben Lyons). Let's just take a very simple "rule": don't play into the Hollywood hype machine. This is one of Lyons' worst offenses which he never seems to learn from. And he does it again this week, calling the new Transformers movie, "the most anticipated movie of the summer!"

Really? By whom? I mean, is it more anticipated than Up, The Girlfriend Experience, Moon, Whatever Works, Public Enemies, Bruno, or Inglorious Basterds? Certainly not by me--even though I don't have particularly high hopes for the last two, I still have some hope that they will be pretty good, certainly more than the new Transformers movie. And I am not the only one. But until recently, Ben had G.I. Joe as one of his most anticipated movies of the summer.

Based on the last one, I have little anticipation for the sequel. But even according to Ben Lyons, "It's one of those movies, the more I go back and watch the first one, it's less and less impressive to me. I find myself not enjoying myself as much as I watched it in the theater." So why hype the sequel? Maybe it is because he, like Hansel in Zoolander, is a rogue with an attitude that says "Who cares? It's only film criticism." Or maybe he just lives and breathes the Hollywood hype machine, in spite of his better instincts and contradictory comments.

Finally, Mank gives his DVD pick of the week: Waltz with Bashir, which he says was "a surprise at the Oscars, a surprise because it did not win." I completely agree--I thought it was a front-runner at the Oscars and I thought it was a great film.

But that is why it makes it even more of a mystery that they did not review the film when it was originally released.

Monday, June 15, 2009

At the Movies: An imaginary critic

Dude, don't you think Spaceballs is, like, the best movie ever?Erik Childress is taking the week off, so I will give you the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week from At the Movies. But first some context: the movie being discussed was Imagine That, where Eddie Murphy plays a businessman who gets financial advice from his daughter's imaginary friends. After telling us why it is a lame movie, Lyons adds:

I felt the film really could have benefited from exploring her imagination. I would have liked to have seen those princesses. That would have been an element to the film that would have made it feel a little bit bigger and a little bit different.

Really?! This just seems like an oddball comment from somebody who has no idea what to say. "Umm . . . I think it needed . . . more princesses! And how about a chase scene?"

It is not unlike his comment about Doubt that he wished the boy--who may or may not have been molested by a priest--could have told us his story himself. In a movie called Doubt. Not to mention that he criticized that movie--which was originally a play--for not being cinematic enough. Yes, that would be more cinematic--another talking head telling us something, when we basically already knew how he felt just from looking at him.

But in an otherwise decent episode, we also get Ben's DVD pick of the week: Spaceballs. I'll admit, I wasted endless hours of my life watching this movie on video--when I was eleven years old. I saw it again a few years ago and, well, it is one of those movies that doesn't quite survive the test of time. Not for Lyons, though. He called it "One of the greatest spoof movies ever made!"

Really?! I thought we were beyond that kind of talk. Compared to all the "spoof" movies that are made these days, maybe Spaceballs comes out on top. But at the very least, it has nothing on much superior Mel Brooks spoofs, Young Frankenstein in particular.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Critic Fail - Mark S. Allen

Recent TV ad for The Hangover:

Um . . . no . . . probably not. But it looks like Ben Lyons may have competition for the "Stupidest thing ever said about a movie" award.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You suck, Twitter!

Yesterday, I received this email from Richard Verducci, the originator of the BenLyonsFoReal Twitter page:

Hey Scott,
I feel awkward writing this but I wanted to thank you for shouting out Benlyonsforeal's twitter on your webpage. Unfortunately, it seems my little joke won't be able to continue. On May 28th Twitter suspended my account. I've submitted two tickets regarding the matter. The first was closed without answer, the second is still open and unresponded too. I don't think it takes a genius to figure with the current Tony La Russa case Twitter is probably cracking down on celebrity "impersonators" (though if anyone took that account seriously for a minute, I feel they deserve to be misled). Anyhow, just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the support and that I didn't just run out of steam or close up shop. Thanks for the support and for the Stop Ben Lyon's blog.
-Rich (BenLyonsFoReal)

So long, BenLyonsFoReal, we hardly knew ye . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Criticwatch - The seedy underbelly of Ben Lyons

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Except for Ben Lyons, unfortunately.
Erik Childress finally gets his chance to tear apart The Hangover--oh yeah, and Ben Lyons, too:

Last week I was unable to counter the Bens’ early positive review of The Hangover due to constrictions of an embargo. And the fact that its seriously one of the worst films of the year. Laughter can vary from person-to-person, but I’m rather shocked that more professional students of film have been unable to call Todd Phillips out on his utter inability to setup or payoff a gag, punchline or comic situation. Continue reading on to last week’s column where you can see some of the “intelligent” and “sophisticated” humor to be found in The Hangover. This week we had the painful reminder that they believe this “strong script” to be “one of the funniest comedies this year so far.” It got more painful as Lyons tried to sell the idea that this was somehow a darker and edgier piece about Vegas.

Ok, full disclosure, I actually thought it was pretty funny, unfortunately most of the characters are unlikable and it falls back on crude stereotypes and just crudeness for crudeness sake. Oh yeah, and the closer we get to the end of the mystery, the more absurd and unbelievable it gets. On the other hand, it actually doesn't descend into the grittiness of Las Vegas at other moments, which is what Ben Lyons held it up for, and where Erik rightly takes him down, starting with this quote:

Lyons: A great slice of authentic Vegas. This is not Oceans’ 11 with slick suits and gorgeous casinos or even a movie like 21 which tried to glorify Vegas.

And then this exchange:

LYONS: “This is modern Vegas. It shows you the good, the bad, the ugly. It really captures the feeling of sin city being tucked away in the desert.

MANK: Little bit of the despair.

LYONS: A LOT of the despair.

To which Erik responds:

Selling this idea that Phillips succeeded in making The Hangover worthy of the title of a “dark comedy” is profoundly absurd. How many down-and-out losers end up at MIKE TYSON’S MANSION??? How dark can a movie be when it channels Rain Man - and I say “channel” instead of “satirize” since Phillips doesn’t understand how the scene doesn’t come as funny but rather as something straight out of 21, which Lyons scoffed for glorifying Vegas - and has our characters go off on a blackjack streak that even William H. Macy in The Cooler couldn’t ice with the most golden hearted stripper/escort who looks like Heather Graham on one of their arms? Todd Phillips’ Vegas – the place where dreams go to die.

Click here to read the entire article

Monday, June 8, 2009

At the Movies: Rent it over and over again!

Last week, Ben Lyons told us that the movie Spring Breakdown "is hit or miss, so I can understand why it wasn't released in theaters." Then he recommended that we go out and rent it as his DVD pick of the week.

This week, after filming the video above for E! on his way home from the preview of Land of the Lost, he says that it spirals out of control and is "not that good". But on a different (presumably later) review he filmed for At the Movies, Ben Lyons tells us why we should "Rent it":

Lyons: I think this is one of those Will Ferrell movies like so many of his previous films that has the potential to get funnier the more you watch it on DVD. Five years from now, you're catching it on a Saturday morning it's on cable, on DVD, you might notice little things that make it amusing.

To which we get the appropriate response:

Mank: I don't know what I'm going to be doing in five years, but my hunch is I'm not going to be watching Land of the Lost on DVD or on television or anywhere. Obviously, I think you should "Skip it."

What Lyons seems to be suggesting is that this movie has the potential to get funnier as you become more accustomed to it, noticing bits of humor that you missed the first time. Actually, I find that seeing a movie in the theater with an audience helps make you more aware of subtle bits of humor that you might miss only watching it on DVD or video. More importantly, Lyons is essentially making a bet--it "has the potential" to get funnier with age, but he cannot say for sure that it will.

But to make this sort of "bet" with a movie you wholeheartedly recommend--"I think we will be enjoying this as a classic for years to come"--is quite different than saying you should rent a movie that is "not that good". In fact, on his Lyons Den Web page he says:

Can a Will Ferrell movie get too ridiculous? Yes, sadly, and that's what happens when Land of the Lost goes off the rails. (Costar Danny McBride, though, killed it—in a good way.)

He seems to have lightened up between posting this review for E! and filming his softer criticism of the movie on At the Movies. But guess what? This same page also featurs an interview Ben did with Danny McBride (see the video below). I can't help but think that the existence of this interview affected his softening attitude toward the film and his glowing review of McBride.