Friday, February 27, 2009

Criticwatch - Ben there, done that

Erik Childress from Criticwatch responds to the Associated Press article on At the Movies:

The Ben Lyons Quote of the Week is in its sixth month of existence and in that time there hasn’t exactly been a groundswell of disagreement in its position (and the position of many) that Ben Lyons has no business being anywhere but on the publicity machine of E!, smiling away through puff pieces and being their official “film expert.” Which is like Rod Blagojevich winning a follicle award against Otto Kerner, George Ryan and Dan Walker. Congratulations! The only one who has come out with any sort of defense for Lyons has been Cenk Uygar, who was Ben Mankiewicz’s former radio show partner. Way to show that liberals won’t just defend anything, Cenk. Guilt by association is not always the fairest of criticism. Parents will speak up for their children, friends will play devil’s advocate when defending their closest and colleagues will command a professional respect for those in the same field. At least those they believe are professional.

This week, Associated Press writers Lynn Elber and contributor Caryn Rousseau have released a piece called “At the Movies critics dish it out, take it too.” I was interviewed for it several weeks ago, so the timing of it is rather circumspect. During Oscar week, Lyons and Mankiewicz were being trucked out on talk show after talk show giving their picks and having to listen to Joy Behar wonder if The Reader had too much sex for a Holocaust film. Even they don’t deserve such torture. But as the pair have had nearly as many reruns this year (of their Best, Worst and Oscar shows) as new broadcasts, it’s almost as if the Disney powers that be are hoping that getting their boys out there will help swing a little positive publicity their way between the talk show appearances (notice Lteno & Letterman haven’t come calling) and the live chat on their website that they conducted with “fans” who weren’t allowed to get in any tough questions. And Elber’s piece fits right into that mold. With minimal counter from myself and StopBenLyons’ Scott Johnson wedged right into the middle of it, this article is easily the most lengthy “in their own words” feature since they were initially announced (to everyone’s horror) as the new hosts of At the Movies. Lyons, you may remember, was scheduled to be interviewed for the infamous LA Times article, but ducked out at the last moment. But this is their moment. A chance to set the record straight. To answer the criticism and prove that everyone has been wrong about Lyons since they took the reins last September. But no dice. Oh, don’t be mistaken, they are trying to do all of that but in his defense of Lyons, Mankiewicz has sunk an even deeper hole. Lyons is certainly wielding a shovel as well, but Mank has received the benefit of the doubt more often than not, coming off as a reasonably astute television presence next to the head-shrinking banality of his co-star. But that honeymoon comes to an end once and for all as Mankiewicz has aligned himself with the devil and lost, for good, whatever credibility he had maintained up to this point:

"Nobody who meets him is going to doubt that this guy knows a lot about film and is thoughtful about it, is interested and wants to talk about it,” said Mankiewicz. “Everything came through this prism of presuming that he’s young and didn’t know what he was talking about."

Read the rest of Erik's response here

"At the Movies" critics dish it out, take it too

Below is an article published by the Associated Press on the criticism of At the Movies


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP)At the Movies critics Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons have been taking it as well as dishing it out since joining the show last fall.

That's especially true for Lyons, who's gotten heat from fellow critics and others for hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders and his alleged quest for blurb glory in movie ads. They don't like his reviews much, either.

While everyone's entitled to their opinion, Mankiewicz said, the thumbs-down for his colleague is "just wrong."

"Nobody who meets him is going to doubt that this guy knows a lot about film and is thoughtful about it, is interested and wants to talk about it," he said. "Everything came through this prism of presuming that he's young and didn't know what he was talking about."

Lyons said the attacks are inaccurate but leave him unfazed.

"It hasn't bothered me, hasn't affected me. I'm traveling, working, have a couple different jobs going on. I'm too busy to let it get to me," he said. "I do look at it as I criticize people's work, someone's going to criticize my work."

During lunch in a chic hotel (tuna sandwich for Lyons, chicken soup for Mankiewicz), they're as eager to discuss the Oscars as their show. The pair contrast sharply: Mankiewicz, 41, is low-key and droll, while Lyons, 27, is all boyish enthusiasm.

When Lyons mentions their different opinions of the dysfunctional family drama Rachel Getting Married, which he declares he "loved," Mankiewicz pulls a face.

"It's not over yet. I think it's 98 hours long and it's just about ready to wrap up," Mankiewicz quips.

Lyons, a Hollywood reporter and film critic for "E! News" and others, and Turner Classic Movies host Mankiewicz started last September on the show distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. They replaced Richard Roeper, who'd been working with guest critics since illness took Roger Ebert off the air in 2006. (Ebert's trademark thumbs up-down is gone, too.)

Lyons and Mankiewicz commute from Los Angeles to Chicago, where the show is produced, for tapings.

Viewership initially dipped, with 1.8 million tuning in compared to the nearly 2.4 million it was averaging last season. But there's been a steady uptick, to 2.3 million viewers in January, according to ratings released by Disney.

Lyons and Mankiewicz say their on-air chemistry still is jelling as they move at a fast clip through films, squeezing in an extra review — about six total, along with DVD critiques — in the latest incarnation of the long-running show.

Observers have criticized the revamp as a surrender to lightweight criticism, with Lyons bearing the brunt of the attacks.

"It's kind of mindboggling to me that we're at this point that Ben Lyons basically has become the face of film criticism," said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

He was willing to give Lyons a chance but "it seems every week he's out there saying something completely moronic," Childress said, adding that Mankiewicz is trying "to keep the spirit of the show alive."

Scott Johnson, a blogger who founded, said Lyons "seems more interested in kind of playing into what's the latest vehicle for hype and seeing if he can jump on the band wagon rather than being critical and offering an opinion that's going to challenge people."

Lyons takes issue with claims that he's angling to get quoted in movie ads and panders to the industry.

His reviews have been "blurbed" far less than those of other critics, he said. And mingling with Hollywood insiders is helpful as long as he keeps his reviews honest, Lyons said, insisting that he does.

"In the past, it might have hurt the show a bit that (reviewers) were isolated in Chicago. I enjoy the fact that I'm out here in L.A. and I know writers and directors and actors. I'm young and I'm going to be out and social and to meet people and develop genuine friendships with them and understand the (artistic) choices they've made," he said.

Mankiewicz's wry aside: "I'm not young, I'm not social and I don't enjoying going out. But I want to establish that we get along really well."

It's the latest twist in the journey of At the Movies, which had its roots in a 1975 PBS series with Chicago newspaper critics Ebert and Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) and became the leading national TV forum for film criticism.

Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Siskel offered brief but trenchant TV assessments of movies that they analyzed in greater depth and detail in print.

That was then and this is now, Mankiewicz and Lyons 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," Mankiewicz said.

Look at it this way, he adds: Would anyone suggest that NBC anchor Brian Williams write "750 to 2,500 words on the stimulus package before he discusses it on the air?"

That does not signal any less respect for films or those who make them, the pair say, and they produce family history as evidence.

Mankiewicz's grandfather, writer Herman Mankiewicz ("Citizen Kane") and great-uncle, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz ("All About Eve," "A Letter to Three Wives") both are Oscar winners.

Lyons, whose grandfather was New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons, went to screenings as a child with his dad, critic Jeffrey Lyons, who encouraged his appreciation of classic films.

When it comes to movie criticism, Lyons and Mankiewicz say tradition is giving way to the rising chorus of voices online. That gives them a sharp appreciation of their "high-profile platform," Lyons said.

"Everybody can be a critic but that doesn't mean that everybody takes it seriously or responsibly, and that's something we can do. It's our job, it's what we do and love, so we treat it with the utmost respect."

Slumdog Reality?

I loved Slumdog Millionaire, but I thought this was a pretty interesting critique. This article was written by Charles R. Larson and originally posted at

After all the international controversy about Slumdog Millionaire, if Hollywood crowns the film with an Oscar for the best movie of the year, Indians, I suspect, are going to have much to crow about. How ironic that a half a year ago the movie's investors feared that they had made a real dog—a film that would interest no one—and were considering dumping it directly on DVD with no release in movie theatres around the world. Can the movie moguls (mughals?) have been so myopic that they had no idea of the film's importance?

Then the slow release, mostly in art-houses in the United States and England, rather than the big cineplexes, and the increasingly positive word-of-mouth (still in the West), followed by the surprise Golden Globe Award as best film of the year along with several other significant awards for music and acting. And at the time Slumdog Millionaire hadn't even been released in India.

I was traveling in India when all the brouhaha about the film exploded. Many Indians were ecstatic about all the attention and the subsequent awards the film rapidly acquired: everything about Danny Boyle's film was happening so quickly. Reviews of the movie (which officially opened in India on Friday, January 23rd) were positive, even glowing. Pirated copies of the film were selling everywhere for as little as 40 rupees, less than a dollar. The Indian press was overflowing with articles about the film, photos of the actors, the director and the composer, and interviews with Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A, the novel that became the basis for the film.

A typical review—for example, Khalid Mohamed's in The Hindustan Times (Jan. 24)—began by proclaiming, "There's reason to dance on the streets." Mohamed gave the film five stars, the highest possible ranking, and ended his glowing evaluation by stating, "Literally every performance rocks. Still, your heart goes out most of all to Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali, the kids who portray the knee-high Jamal, Salim, and Latika. They're extraordinary just like the rest of Slumdog Millionaire. As one of the songs goes, Jai jo!"

Then the attacks on the film began, generally arguing that the unflattering representation of Mumbai—especially the poverty—lock India into stereotypes that Westerners are already too quick to assume. Arindam Chaudhuri, in The Times of India (Feb 2nd), excoriated that the film "sucks," describing the movie as "A phony poseur that has been made only to mock India for the viewing pleasure of the First World!!" The film "illogically shows every negative thing about India happening in the protagonist's life…slums, open-air lavatories, riots, underworld, prostitution, brothels, child labour, begging, blinding and maiming of kids to make them into 'better beggars,' petty peddlers, traffic jams, irresponsible call centre executives…."

The corrective to this barrage of negative attacks had already begun to appear, also in The Times (Jan. 26th). Santosh Desai titled his op-ed essay, "The slum is not the other India." It's the real India. Slumdog Millionaire depicts India as it is—with all its ills and foibles--arguing that Indians are not being honest with themselves if "We genuinely believe that Mumbai can be summed up by the Taj."

Yet, the controversy mushroomed, especially in the Western press. The people who made the film were accused of making a fortune out of India's misery, prompting the same people to announce that a portion of the film's profits will be given to India's poor. Others objected that the child actors in Slumdog Millionaire were given only a pittance for their labor—in effect, exploited. That criticism prompted further good deeds by the film's backers, who promise that the children will be supported in on-going ways.

The entire controversy of the film's phenomenal success pivots on someone making money off someone else's misery, distorting and exploiting another culture. Fortunately, Desai offers clarity here by stating, "If cinematic representations about India are stereotyped, so are those for all cultures." Right on. Desai has summed up the flaw of Hollywood (and Bollywood) itself.

I think of the times when my wife and I have sat through four or five previews of "coming attractions." All the movies blend together, blood and mayhem, everyone gets killed. Bodies are everywhere, which makes me recall the remark from an African student about the day he arrived in the United States, in New York City. Riding in a taxi, he said he was afraid to get out for fear that the streets were filled with gangsters who would kill him. Hollywood films shown around the world, certainly give that impression. Female American students I've talked to overseas have told me that men in the Third World assume that they are interested in the same non-stop sexual activities depicted in American pornographic films.

Well, those images about America are about as accurate as the poverty, violence, and greed depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, which is only to state that they depict certain excesses and extremes of life everywhere: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. If Hollywood crowns the film with an Oscar for the best movie of the year, I suspect that Indians everywhere will rejoice. And maybe we'll all think a little more seriously about the stereotypes we use and confront every day of our lives.

Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

He's just not that into their movie

Ben Lyons interviews the women from He's Just Not That Into You and asks what guys can take away from the film. Jennifer Aniston responds "What did you take away?" and Ben replies, "To be honest, direct, and to not be afraid to say something that's bad toward somebody."

Ironically, much of the interview is about how women want men to be more honest with them. But Ben--who agrees--refuses to be honest with them about his own assessment of the movie. In his original review, he said:

"For any real insights into relationships or good quality romantic comedy, turn elsewhere. You can skip it . . . To the films credit they [the male characters] are fully developed characters. However, I felt that they compromised most of their ideals that they stood for in the end just to help everything wrap up nicely."

There are also some complaints about text messaging, but little do they know that they are talking to the king of inappropriate text messaging. The rest of the interview has just as little insight into relationships as Ben claims the movie has, and even fewer insights about the film itself.

TONIGHT! Voices of a Peoples History performance in SF

Please join
for a special performance of

Thursday, February 26, 2009 7 PM
Mission High School Auditorium
3750 18th Street
San Francisco CA 94114

With a cast of readers and musicians including:


and others soon to be announced.

Haymarket Books

Voices of a People's History of the United States


KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio

KPFA 94.1 FM Pacifica Radio

Special thanks to hotel host and sponsor

General admission $20.00.

To buy tickets online (major credit cards, PayPal), visit:

Premium "VIP" reserved seating and the opportunity to make a donation
to the Haymarket Books Young Readers Fund is also available online,
at a variety of levels, including $100, $250, $500, and $1,000. For
more information about VIP ticket and donation options, please

This generous additional support will help Voices of a People's
History to organize performances in more communities and schools
across the country and Haymarket Books to donate educational books to
the students and staff of Mission High School.

Donations at the $250 level and above will also receive a signed copy
of the book Voices of a People's History of the United States by
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.

To buy tickets in person in the Bay Area, please visit these fine
independent bookstores:

City Lights Books
261 Columbus Avenueat Broadway

The GreenArcade
1680 Market Streetat Gough

Modern Times
888 Valencia Street

Moe's Books
2476 Telegraph Avenue


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I bet he didn't text through Jay-Z's show

Ben: Damn Dad, do I really have to go see another movie? I've got a show to check out.

The LA Weekly ran this yesterday--an interview with Ben Lyons about hip-hop. I give these guys great credit--they spend a whole paragraph slamming Ben before they get to the interview. I doubt he will be linking to this over at the Lyons Den. The article begins:

Perhaps if Ben Lyons' movie chops were as obvious as his hip-hop track record, then sites like wouldn't exist. Ever since the E! personality took the helm of the Siskel, Roper and Ebert's beloved At the Movies, Lyons has been berated with more thumbs down than a rookie gladiator in the Colosseum. Whether it's deriding his "frat boy good looks," MySpace photographs with the movie stars he's guarded with critiquing or calling I Am Legend "one of the greatest movies ever made," the critic's critics are numerous.

And while there are no judgments on his film reviewing prowess here, it's official that dude knows hip-hop. He's homies with world famous DJ Clinton Sparks. And working with Duck Down Records, a staple of New York's grimy true lyricism schism, carries a legitimate case of cred among "real" hip-hop heads. Of course, now that he's getting a little older, he's just trying to discover what's the hullabaloo over this Bruce Springsteen guy.

Reading the interview it is clear that his life's calling is listening to hip-hop and hanging out with cool people, with film coming in a distant third.

I hope nobody has a problem with Ben's interest in hip-hop, I certainly don't. And while there are several comments I am sure you can criticize--for example, "for me, Wu-Tang Clan is just the greatest story of, like, it's the American Dream in every weird way"--I was surprised how natural Ben seems in this interview compared to his prefabricated canned blurbs that he awkwardly strings together when he is talking about film. He actually seems like a guy who loves the hip-hop scene and knows what he is talking about. He even avoided mentioning Scene It? Box Office Smash.

He's so comfortable here, he even criticizes Ice Cube for not doing any decent acting since Three Kings--a far cry from his embarrassingly gushy interview with Kristen Stewart. But then you wonder why the hell he went to Sundance at all when he really wanted to be doing something else.

Finally, this article marks the first time that I know of that Ben has responded directly to the criticism of him:

Over the holidays, you, the critic, became part of the story, especially after the LA Times article. How'd you respond to that when word first came out about the story?
I was actually in Shanghai with some friends, celebrating New Year's Eve over there, my friend Clinton Sparks was DJing. It kind of put it all in perspective, when you see news like that in a foreign country with your friends, over the holiday and in a new year. I criticize people's work for a living and if they want to criticize me, then so be it. I love movies and it just comes with the gig, I suppose.

There is also a very bizarre story about Joaquin Phoenix, even more so than you would expect.

Read the entire interview with Ben Lyons here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Criticwatch - Less than the average film journalist

Erik Childress sums up his astonishment at a single, incredible comment by Ben Lyons last week. First we get the quote:

"This year I saw 5 movies, a few were pretty decent.”

Then the astonishment:

This isn’t an ironic counter to Ben’s insistence that he sees over 300 movies and brushes up on them thanks to xBox Live updates to Scene It: Box Office Smash. Nor is it an opportunity to comment on what Lyons has actually seen in full through all the texting he’s been reported doing time and time again during screenings. No, this week’s quote comes from the online chat that the At the Movies duo conducted with inquiring minds last Monday. (Their show this weekend was the third rerun of 2009.) And it’s in reference to what Junior did at the Sundance Film Festival this year. FIVE MOVIES!!!???

For those uninitiated to the film festival experience, the average journalist probably sees at least 3-4 movies a day. And that’s a conservative estimate. Everyone has different assignments. Some are doing interviews. Some find time to slack off in the evening to take in an industry party. Many are finding time in-between screenings to crank out a blog entry or even an actual review of something. My personal etiquette prevents me from doing much writing at the actual festival as I’m not bound to plunk down every thought I’m having at every moment. I like to let movies sink in as I formulate what I might want to say in a review and then write it at a later date so I can give the filmmaker as best a write-up as I can possibly deliver. I’m also doing live reports from the fest for back home with WGN Radio, so my goal is to manage my schedule to see as many movies as humanly possible. This usually means 5-6 movies a day for me – anywhere from 8:30 AM through sometimes after midnight. Then repeat the next day. This year I saw 26 movies in 6 days – and that includes the opening Thursday when they only show a single film. So that’s 25 movies from Friday-Tuesday. Ben Lyons saw 5.

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

Monday, February 23, 2009

The best speeches of the night

Just in case being called a "Commie homo lovin' son of a gun" twice isn't enough already, here it is again:

This one wasn't too bad either . . .

Commie Homo loving sons of guns UNITE!

This week, At the Movies was a rerun of the Bens giving their Oscar predictions. You can read my original review here.

As for the Oscars, the winners were fairly predictable--I think that Ben and Ben guessed every one of the major categories successfully. Which only leaves the question--why did the fake Oscar leak turn out to be so wrong? I don't know, but it shows what can happen when random people set up blogs with timely information and/or criticism that gets more media publicity than it deserves. Except this blog, of course.

As for the show itself, I don't have much to say about it overall other than it came in WELL under the predicted 4 hour time that Ben Lyons was predicting--looks like just under 3 and a half to me. But two things seem worth pointing out--

The Good: Speeches by Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn were both overtly in support of gay rights, at times loud, sensitive, and even somewhat defiantly. Granted, they were talking to a pretty sympathetic crowd--there was no chance that these two were going to be booed like Michael Moore was a few years ago. But considering past years have seen the Academy deny the Oscar to Brokeback Mountain and even show some embarrassment--remember Jon Stewart's opening?--about how out of touch they were with the rest of the country, I consider this a step forward.

The Bad: Long, gushy speeches given to each of the nominees for lead and supporting actor and actresses, although they couldn't be bothered to do the same for writers or even directors. But that's four awards with five noms each resulting in twenty speeches! Not that they all sucked--some of the personal ones were more heartfelt or funny, like De Niro's speech to Penn and Anne Hathaway's teary-eyed appreciation--with a generous off the cuff nod by Shirley MacLaine to her singing abilities. But the speech for Angelina Jolie only showed that nobody was really sure why she was being nominated in the first place. All in all, this is exactly what A. O. Scott was talking about when he said that the Oscars are less about what is the "best" and more about putting on a show about what Hollywood thinks of itself.

The huh?: What happened to Heath Ledger being appreciated in the recently deceased montage? I didn't see him in there--did I just miss it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

InTouch magazine enables Ben's Xbox gushing

I guess Branjelina was busy so they interviewed Ben Lyons instead. You can read the entire InTouch interview here.

There were only two parts that stood out. First, Ben still cannot shut up about Twilight:

Were there any films that you think totally got overlooked this year?
Ben: Yeah. Let the Right One In is at the top of my list. It's a Swedish film and should be in the foreign film category because it's hands down the best vampire movie of the year. Don't let Robert Pattinson's staring off into space fool you!

But I guess he is atoning for his Twilight gushing last year. A worthy excuse, except that he should have never gotten himself into this mess in the first place.

But speaking of messes he should have never gotten himself into--and digging himself deeper into a hole he should be trying to get out of--we come to the final question of the interview:

And I have to ask, how do you know so much about the movies?
Ben: I've been playing this game for the Xbox 360 called Scene It? Box Office Smash. It's not just for film critics, it's for everyone that loves movies. It really keeps me up to date on my movie trivia, which is great, since I get stopped all the time by people who throw random movie trivia at me!

Who asks Ben Lyons a question like this? Seriously, its more like, "Dude, why don't you know anything about movies?" And he answers "Sorry, but I could only make it to 5 movies out of 10 days of the Sundance Film Festival. I'm just not as well informed as I should be."

This question was obviously just a setup so that Lyons could get in yet another blurb about Scene It?, his corporate sponsor. So shame on you, In Touch magazine or whatever you call it. I used to think that you were a paragon of journalistic standards, but I know better now.

The return of the thumb?

Roger Ebert suggests so in a Movie Answer Man column earlier this week where he writes:

Another chapter to this saga will begin when Richard and I shortly announce a new movie review program.

Roeper hinted as much last summer, so this is not exactly news. But this is confirmation that the idea of a new show has not been abandoned (I assumed that it had) and could be exactly the sort of thing that kicks Ben Lyons off the balcony and back on the red carpet where he unfortunately belongs.

Originally posted by New York Magazine blog Vulture via Cinematical.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A tale of two political thrillers

Directed by Pierre Morel
Starring Liam Neeson
91 minutes

The International
Directed by Tom Tikwer
Starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts
118 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

AFTER SEEING the Republican Party get decisively rejected at the polls, a group of conservatives launched a movie review Web site, Big Hollywood, to much right-wing fanfare, including announcements by Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times.

Big Hollywood seeks legitimacy for conservative cultural criticism by printing not only movie reviews but articles by mainstream Republican politicians. Nonetheless, there is plenty of reactionary filth to go around, with this group's film criticism attempting to do what eight years of conservative ideology did for Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. economy.

The latest cause célèbre on the site is the action film Taken, starring Liam Neeson as an ex-CIA agent out to rescue his daughter from a sex slavery ring. Right-wing film critic Debbie Schlussel, lamenting what she sees as a lack of Muslim bad guys in today's movies, describes the film this way on the Big Hollywood site:

In Taken, retired CIA agent Liam Neeson's daughter is kidnapped by an Albanian Muslim sex slavery ring in Paris. And while the movie doesn't outright tell us they are Muslims, the filmmakers show us several quick close-up shots of tattoos on the hands of the men who head the ring--crescents and stars, the religious symbols of Islam.

Then, there are the people who "acquire" his daughter. They are obviously Arabs, who speak Arabic, and they are Muslims--their boss is "the Sheikh" on the yacht (Sheikhs are exclusively Muslim). And for once, they are the criminal thugs, the sex slavers, the murderers--without apology or excuse.

Just the way it was on 9/11.

It's partly for this reason that I liked Taken immensely.

In another review that Schlussel links to in this post, she explains further:

One of them is purchasing the women as concubines for his boss, a big, fat, ugly Arab Muslim Sheikh on a yacht...There is a great scene where all of these evil Arabic-speaking scumbags get sent to a permanent conference call with the 72 virgins. That is the kind of stuff people went to movies to see, and they don't get to see it much at all anymore.

Who needs Hollywood's vilification of Muslims when you have Debbie Schlussel?

Big Hollywood's editor-in-chief John Nolte agrees with Schlussel, and in a review of The International--a political thriller about an international bank and its criminal practices--he recommends that readers go see Taken instead.

I don't think that a film is simply made or broken as a piece of entertainment based on whether it chooses the right "bad guys," but unsurprisingly, in this case, Big Hollywood has it precisely backward.

Schlussel says that she liked Taken so much because, for her, it had the right bad guys. But this is actually part of the problem--Taken is all too simplistic and predictable. After some well-executed action scenes and some clever maneuvers by Neeson's character, it descends into a standard revenge flick, where no problem can't be overcome with a bit more senseless violence.

Whatever gratification Nolte and Schlussel get in seeing "their" bad guys portrayed, it's hard to deny that the movie relies on simplistic ethnic and cinematic stereotypes. The bad guys are at various times ugly, dirty, unshaven and fat, either living in immigrant slums or basking in gluttony. Even if making Albanians the bad guys is a trivially unique twist, the fear of dark-skinned people raping "our" virginal daughters is as old as American slavery.

This is simplistic crowd-pleasing fare that expects little from its audience other than hating what is all too easy for many viewers to hate. In spite of some decent suspense early on, Taken suffers from having little originality and few surprises.

After the Bourne series, Casino Royale, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, we have come to expect much more subtlety and complexity from an action movie.

The weaknesses of Taken do not rest solely in its selection of bad guys--although that aspect is certainly vile. Taken relies on the same sort of simplistic worldview that endorses smears and fear-mongering in American elections and sees any attempt to understand the Muslim world--or even attempt to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists--as a weak-kneed liberal appeasement that only makes America less safe from its enemies.

It should not be terribly surprising, then, that Taken finds no humanity in the Arabs and Muslims in the film, but plenty in the white CIA agents who brag about their exploits in the Middle East.

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

THE INTERNATIONAL, on the other hand, doesn't rely on crude stereotypes and base fears but a complex plot--which even threatens to leave some viewers behind--that not only delivers suspenseful action but creates paranoia based on the inability of the lead character to challenge the entire economic and political system.

The film starts out as an investigation that opens up several levels of corruption in the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), including the bank's funding of both sides of various rivalries because, we learn, the real spoils of war are not in who wins but who controls the debt.

The IBBC also has links with the Italian government and is involved in an assassination covered up by the Carabinieri--the Italian internal security force--who attempt to frame the left-wing Red Brigade.

The details of the investigation are meticulous but fascinating. The film doesn't worry about spelling out every twist and turn--most viewers will likely know nothing of the Carabinieri and Red Brigade, for example--but these provide a rich background to the story and there is plenty to engage most viewers.

The "bad guys" at the IBBC aren't ugly or dirty--rather, they are good-looking, well-educated and powerful. In another film, these same characters could have been heroes that we sympathized with. But this is what makes the story so much more insidious--they live happy lives as public figures with nice houses and attractive families, and yet find it within themselves to commit great crimes in order to protect their privilege.

The most wickedly evil moment in either film does not come out of the barrel of a gun but from a throwaway exchange of dialogue between the head of the IBBC and his pre-teen son. Two lines of dialogue between the two which are completely abstracted from crime and corruption chillingly suggest the criminality lingering beneath their ordinary lives and how the boy is being innocently trained to follow his father's path.

There are several moments like this that not only satisfied my left-wing sensibilities but created a rich texture for the world that the film occupies--which is, of course, a reflection of our own world.

While the action is choreographed with great suspense, Clive Owen as a burned-out Interpol agent finds that violence will only get him so far. Kill one banker and another will step in to take his place. The system is stacked in the bank's favor and in order to really challenge the bank you have to go outside of the system. This leads to an ending that is far more interesting than the all-too-neat package presented at the end of Taken.

In reality, many of the characters in The International would just as likely be complicit with government and corporate corruption as they would investigate it and the movie is no masterpiece by any means. Naomi Watts is fairly wooden as a Manhattan District Attorney and the films starts to run out of steam toward the end. But there is a great story in Owen's agent who can't stand to lose another case but slowly realizes that there may be no way he can win. This is so much more satisfying than Neeson's neocon-like self-assuredness that there is no way he can fail in his mission.

Originally published at

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A meeting of the minds between Lyons and Hasselbeck

Originally posted at Defamer:

Today on The View, Ebert usurper Ben Lyons took his place next to Elisabeth Hasselbeck in what could only have felt more like a Defamer-targeted Last Supper if Joaquin Phoenix had crashed it, rapping.

Lyons was joined by his At the Movies co-conspirator, Ben Mankiewicz, to walk the ladies through their Oscar prognostications. Here is the short version: Ben M. loves Marisa Tomei, on account of her breasts, and Ben L. loves Christopher Nolan and Slumdog Millionaire hottie Freida Pinto, neither of which are nominated. Also, Joy Behar hates The Reader. HATES it. If The Reader were, say, a perky blond co-host, she would scream at it, "I will burn you down," because of the hatred.

Also enjoyable: when the Bens are asked whether there's ever been a tie between actors at the Oscars (there has, famously), and they both sit there awkwardly drawing a blank until Whoopi Goldberg saves them. Guess they haven't added that trivia to the Scene It? Box Office Smash DLC yet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Criticwatch - Assassins as bad at Galaga as Ben is at Scene It?

Erik Childress at Criticwatch wonders whether Ben Lyons is getting better:

Readers of this column may feel let down that I’m not going to rip into him for not knowing women’s fashion or turning bad romantic comedies on their ears by referring to the men as mere props instead of the usual eye candy frequently used to draw us dudes in. Lyons even panned Friday the 13th without ever mentioning the horrifying presence of Aaron Yoo, who was seen in an even more terrifying role as Guest #3 at Ben Lyons’ Birthday Party . . . I was listening intently and nothing stood out to write about. Until they talked about The International.

Erik liked the movie much less than I did, but we agree that the worst thing you could criticize the movie for is the great shootout in the Guggenheim. Ben Lyons does just that, saying "I learned some things in this movie. Apparently bullets don’t hit people.” Erik continues:

Yet with all the problems the film has: wooden characters, lethargic pacing, clichéd confessionals and a finale that even God would be offended if referred to as one of his acts, Lyons goes after the Guggenheim massacre by saying he learned that bullets don’t hit people. As a so-called student of film and even going under the guise of “expert” from time-to-time, we all know that bullets don’t just NOT hit people. They don’t hit our heroes. If they did, films would tend to be a lot shorter. Bullets tend not to hit James Bond, which he’s had no problem in recommending. He was interested in seeing Max Payne shoot people but probably wasn’t quite as interested in Max Payne getting shot. At least a half-dozen people get shot in the Guggenheim. Some graphically so. True the relative shots connected to shots fired might give the assassins an embarrassing percentage on Galaga, but what does Lyons want here? More civilian casualties? Unnamed cops to show up and take a few rounds in the face? Did he already forget about the other stand-alone sequence in the film that dealt with a damn assassination? Where we see the target get shot, then one of the shooters and then we watch as our heroes determine HOW someone got shot. With bullets. You just picked the one argument you’re not going to win.

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

Monday, February 16, 2009

Lyons on live chat: Too busy to watch movies at Sundance

Ben was taping this crappy interview rather than watch movies at Sundace

If you joined the live chat with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz this afternoon, you will most likely have noticed that there was hardly a tough question thrown their way. Considering the flurry of criticism the show has seen--and there is more coming, as I am sure that the producers know--you would think that the moderator would think that at some point Lyons would feel it was necessary to respond. Unfortunately, he maintains radio silence and the moderators of the chat obliged by avoiding tough questions. Somehow, the moderators still let out this egregiously offensive exchange:

Q: . . . what was your favorite film of this years [Sundance Film] [F]estival?

Ben Lyons: This year I saw 5 movies, a few were pretty decent . . . Also I saw Adventureland which I liked, but would have been more interested in it had the leads been a little funnier. Overall it was a subdued year in Utah, but I had a great time as always.

Personally, I have never been to Sundance--it would be hard to get the time off from work, afford the trip etc. So I cannot speak from Sundance experience, but I went out to see three movies alone just this Saturday--and Sundance is a 10 day film festival! I remember that Roger Ebert once told a festival newbie that they should plan on watching 3 or maybe 4 movies at a film festival EVERY DAY.

I asked Erik Childress at Criticwatch, who is a regular at Sundance and other film festivals, and he replied:

5 MOVIES???!!!! That was my Friday, my friend. And, at least, my Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday this year (and EVERY year.) If he was there for TWO DAYS, that would be embarrassing. Precisely how many two-minute interviews did he film to only see five movies?

Even Mank said in the chat that he couldn't make it to Sundance and that we should all bug his producer to pay for him to go next year. I have an even better idea--next year (hell, next film festival) Ben Lyons should skip it and pay for somebody to go in his place who will actually go to the movies and appreciate them rather than spending all of his time yacking it up with celebs and DJing after-parties. I don't care if it is Mank, me, or some 15-year-old kid who spends entire weekends doing nothing but watching TCM. Anybody but Ben Lyons.

Seriously, this really pisses me off. I try hard not to get into flame wars, but this sort of thing really makes me want to do just that.

Here are a few more Lyons moments from the chat (the bold parts preceding each bit of dialogue are my own commentary):

Mank says "I try to avoid hyperbole" Lyons responds "Hyperbole is the greatest thing since sliced bread!"

Q: Do you think it is safe to say that Heath Ledger's Joker is the most talked about perforamce of the decade? If not, who comes close?

Ben Mankiewicz: I'm always hesitant to say anything is the 'Most talked about . . .' or 'Best . . .' Hyperbole is a dangerous weapon in film criticism. But Ledger's performance obviously has the film world buzzing. . . and deservedly so, though the chatter was clearly enhanced by his tragic death . . .

Ben Lyons: If not THE single most talked about, buzzed about, speculated about, whatever you want to call it, there's no question it's right up.

Disappointed with his own lame expectations

Ben Lyons: Most overrated, overhyped and disappointing film of the year: Twilight. I understand the fanaticism surrounding the books, and why young audiences love Rob Pattinson. But for someone who does not hold the characters near and dear to my heart, but was excited to see it, I felt very cheated.

Don't believe the hype(rbole)--the Star Trek trailer looks even better than the Twilight trailer!

Q: . . . my question is what movie both of you guys looks foward to this summer and why

Ben Mankiewicz: I honestly try not to get too excited about anything because I dont want raised expectations to detrimentally affect my enjoyment of the film. Its not a cop out. Its true.

Ben Lyons: I am so looking forward to star trek from director JJ Abrams. From the few scenes Ive looked at so far, Ive been really impressed. I'm not a huge Star Trek fan by any means, and don't hold the franchise near and dear to my heart as many people out there do, but I love an incredible event movie, and I'm hoping this lives up to the hype...

Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to Star Trek as well, it just seems like Ben has not learned his lesson. There were a few other choice moments. One guy asks Mank if he would ever write a screenplay like his grandfather, Lyons says "If he did write a screenplay, I'd give it a rent it."

Finally, the sharpest question was a lengthy comment that ended:

"On a side note.... Lyons.... Benjamin Button??? REALLY????"

Live chat with Ben Lyons

The Ben's announced once again this weekend that they will host a live chat later today at 4pm ET/1pm PT. Anybody have a question they would like answered? Ben Lyons refused to talk to Chris Lee from the LA Times but maybe he'll answer one of your questions on the chat. I highly doubt they will answer silly questions like "Why are you such a douchebag?" but Lyons may be forced to answer a more serious question like:
  • Do you really think that I Am Legend is one of the greatest films ever made?
  • Is it true that you send text messages during film screenings?
  • Why do you feel that it is OK for a film critic like yourself to attach your name to a product like Scene It?
  • What do you think about Roger Ebert's Little Rule Book?

At the Movies - Confessions of a Blurbaholic

Ben Lyons starring in Confessions of a Blurbaholic
Mank: Did you just Google "What is good film criticism"?
Lyons: Yes. I Googled.

Do you want to see an interesting, complicated, and exciting action film that both delivers on suspense and finds the hero unweaving a complex set of corrupt relationships that give the action an even greater sense of purpose? Look no further than The International--I'll have a full review near the end of the week. Want a really lame reason not to like it? Look no further than Ben Lyons on this week's episode of At the Movies.

Ben Mankiewicz introduces the film by mentioning childish releases like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Bride Wars and My Bloody Valentine and saying how he was looking forward to this more adult movie (which he recommends). His cohort responds,

Lyons: You mentioned some of the stinkers that came out in recent weeks and I too was in the mood for a smart, intelligent, adult movie, and this was that at time.

Actually, what Lyons doesn't mention here is that he said "See It" for Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which he apparently thought was better than The International. He continues,

Lyons: But I learned some things in this movie. Apparently, bullets don't hit people . . . Our lead who is supposed to be in peril obviously isn't.

This coming from the guy who said that all he really wanted out of Max Payne was to see him shoot people rather than learn about Payne's back story and motivation. Apparently, all he wanted out of The International was to see Clive Owen get shot.

After Mank says that there is always a plausible explanation for Clive Owen escaping danger,

Lyons: A little too conveniently. There is always a reason for him to get out.

Yes, Clive's character is extraordinarily lucky, but part of that luck comes from getting help in an entirely unexpected way in a really fantastic shootout. And he survives only to discover that he is isolated and trapped by the unwillingness of democratic governments and powerful institutions to do anything to help him prosecute corruption. He can survive a gunfight, but he can't challenge the whole system--that is both surprising and engaging, and Mank sees well enough to compare it to the likes of Three Days of the Condor. Lyons says "Skip It."

Speaking of Mank's superior critical faculties, he threw out a couple of hilarious lines that Lyons could never say because they are not only clever but will never end up on a movie poster. Displaying a level of snark that would make David Denby cringe--and make me laugh my ass off--he takes down all of the contrivances and confusion of Confessions of a Shopaholic, which he says could be eliminated by a few simple converstaions:

Mank: It seemed like a long, bad Three's Company episode. Just tell Mr. Furley you're not gay and get it over with.

Mank, I swear. He then recommends Religulous as his DVD pick.

Mank: See it with a loved one, then afterward you can have a really uncomfortable argument.

Speaking of DVDs, the show has finally decided that they should not simply advertise the latest DVD releases but also include the critics' own ratings alongside them. That's certainly a step forward. In a more nit-picky vein, the segment was introduced as DVD "Out Now" List, possibly a result of air-quotes taken literally by the same overworked staffer who wrote the title of Rachel Getting Married. Forget snark--Denby should write a book about this in the tradition of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. He could put John McCain on the cover and call it "Health" of the Mother, And Other Unnecessary Air Quotes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The best 3-D movie Leonard Maltin has ever seen

Directed by Henry Selick
Starring Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, and Dawn French
101 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

There is little question that Coraline is a visual feast, using an innovative animation technique and shown in 3-D where available. It will likely be remembered for some time--and rightly so--for the cinematography which takes the movie quite far and for many viewers will be more than enough to satisfy them. There are also great moments of charm and atmosphere that really show the potential of the film which is somewhat more lacking in its story.

The movie begins with Coraline and her parents moving into a creepy old house. There are a number of interesting neighbors and mysteries that Coraline spends the entire first half of the movie discovering. The most peculiar of these is a door in the house that takes her to a parallel world where her parents are much nicer than her "other" parents but also have buttons for eyes. This other world will eventually portray its darker secret which becomes the thrust of the story itself.

While all of this is very attractively and inventively animated, too often--especially in the first half--we are left watching Coraline being entertained by the events around her rather than being entertained ourselves. As much as the visuals are a great achievement, I think there is both a lack of real wonder and a lack of terror in this movie even though it is really about wonder and terror. Not that either of these are missing entirely--there are some fine moments, especially the terror as Coraline discovers the drawbacks of the new world she has found. And there are certainly a few moments that will be too scary for younger children--I brought a 6-year-old who stayed through the entire movie but was definitely pushed to her limit, and I know another person who had the same experience with a similarly aged child

The movie doesn't need to be scarier but really could benefit from being creepier. Drawing out the horror that Coraline eventually finds would be one part of this--actually lingering over the what makes her discovery so frightening rather than discuss it in one scene and then follow with some other scary moments. There is some dark humor in Coraline--especially around one the neighbors' collection of stuffed dogs--but not nearly as much as it could have delivered.

It is hard to explain this without giving away the plot, but consider other films that have succeeded or failed in the same way. The Golden Compass, for example, holds a secret about what the adults plan to do to the children in the movie, but again does far too little to linger over the real creepiness at play--although I thought the movie was entertaining in other ways. On the other hand, the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds exactly where these two fall short. Remember how Willie Wonka feigns concern over these awful children but clearly delights in watching them get their just desserts, so to speak. The dark and malicious humor in many of his lines--"The suspense is terrible . . . I hope it'll last!"--are what give us a stake in not only appreciating the scenery but in wanting to know how this morality tale will play out--and enjoying every moment of well-deserved suffering by the children.

Roger Ebert in his review says that Coraline "is not a nice little girl. She's unpleasant, complains, has an attitude and makes friends reluctantly." Actually, I think her biggest problem is that she has parents who don't really pay any attention to her. I would have found her more interesting had she been a bit more of a thankless brat who was seduced by the "other" world because she didn't appreciate the real world enough. I don't so much care about whatever lesson may or may not be learned, but I think this would have been more effective at creating the sort of tension that Coraline is attempting. It is much more fun when we the audience get to be Willie Wonka, devilishly looking on the guilty as they struggle with their little moral dilemmas and can only hope to claw their way back to humanity. Hitchcock understood this, and so did the Ancient Greeks--although unlike Hitch, they were much less open to allowing their heroes to find redemption and a happy ending.

Instead, the first half of the film is surprisingly slow and unnecessarily long. I saw the movie opening weekend at the only screen showing it in 3-D in San Francisco with an audience largely of adults--likely people who were looking for a unique movie-going experience. In some ways, they found it--the film really is a visual treasure and that for many people will be enough to make it worth viewing. I was surprised, though, by how quiet the audience was throughout most of the movie.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Feb 26: Voices of a Peoples History performance in SF

If you live in the Bay Area, check out this great event coming up in a few weeks. If you do not live within driving distance of San Francisco, check out the Web site for more info about future showings.

Please join
for a special performance of

Thursday, February 26, 20097 PM
Mission High School Auditorium
3750 18th Street
San Francisco CA 94114

With a cast of readers and musicians including:


and others soon to be announced.

Haymarket Books

Voices of a People's History of the United States


KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio

KPFA 94.1 FM Pacifica Radio

Special thanks to hotel host and sponsor

General admission $20.00.

To buy tickets online (major credit cards, PayPal), visit:

Premium "VIP" reserved seating and the opportunity to make a donation
to the Haymarket Books Young Readers Fund is also available online,
at a variety of levels, including $100, $250, $500, and $1,000. For
more information about VIP ticket and donation options, please

This generous additional support will help Voices of a People's
History to organize performances in more communities and schools
across the country and Haymarket Books to donate educational books to
the students and staff of Mission High School.

Donations at the $250 level and above will also receive a signed copy
of the book Voices of a People's History of the United States by
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.

To buy tickets in person in the Bay Area, please visit these fine
independent bookstores:

City Lights Books
261 Columbus Avenueat Broadway

The GreenArcade
1680 Market Streetat Gough

Modern Times
888 Valencia Street

Moe's Books
2476 Telegraph Avenue


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ebert given honorary award from the Director's Guild

Roger Ebert was awarded with Honorary Lifetime Membership in the Directors' Guild of America on January 31. In cast you missed it on his Web page previously, his acceptance speech is posted below. Note how he cannot but help himself from slamming the Ben Lyon-ization of film criticism.

To begin with, thank you. I am so grateful for his enormous honor. And I am no less grateful that it has been presented by the great director Michael Apted, whose "Up!" documentaries strike me as one of the most noble achievements in film.

The person responsible above all others for the gift of a motion picture is the director. That is why it means so much to be honored by you. In countless ways you have directed my education as a film critic. You have allowed me to hang around on your sets. You have invited me to your locations. I was on the beach with Fellini, in Mexico with Peckinpah, in a Western saloon with Henry Hathaway, in a psychiatrist's office with Bergman, in Venice with Visconti, beneath Juliet's balcony with Zeffirelli, at a poker game with Billy Wilder, in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory with Mel Brooks, and in a Chicago whorehouse with Norman Jewison.

Thinking of tonight's nominees, I discussed his first film, "Grand Theft Auto" with Ron Howard. I met Chris Nolan and Jonathan Nolan after the premiere of "Memento" at Sundance. Gun Van Sant was willing to discuss the thinking behind his challenging film "Elephant." I went through David Fincher's "Fight Club" a shot at a time for a week with students in Boulder, who patiently explained to me why I had completely misunderstood the film. I was ble to show Danny Boyle's "Millions" at my film festival at the University of Illinois.

Of course sometimes my reviews have not been favorable. Robert Altman once told me, "If you never wrote a negative review, what would your positive reviews mean?"

"That's true," I said.

"Unfortunately," Altman said, "in my case, all of your negative reviews have been mistaken."

In this age when worthless celebrity gossip is replacing serious film criticism, I may be peculiar when I find myself on a set, because I'm usually more interested in the directors than the stars. So many of you have explained things to me, and taught me. I remember Brian de Palma diagramming a shot strategy. Marty Scorsese telling me how when he was a kid, he was fascinated by one single shot in a Michael Powell film that may have led him to become a director.

Werner Herzog and I have been in conversation since the 1970s. He is joining us at our table tonight, along with our Chicago friends Virginia Madsen, Andy Davis and Harold Ramis. Also my stepchildren Sonia and Josibiah.

To all of these people and countless others in the film industry, I owe a debt. You have given me a worthy vocation. When I look at Michael's great series between "7-Up" and "49-Up," and follow those lives as they unfold through the years, they lead me to think of the movies as an Empathy Machine.

We are born into a box of space and time, and the movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us. They also thrill us and make us laugh and cry, and for that gift, and for this honor tonight, I am very grateful.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Criticwatch - No small people, only small film critics

Erik Childress at Criticwatch gives his take on this week's At the Movies, quoting Ben Lyons:

On his choice of Penelope Cruz: “And I believe the Academy will select her as well.”

On his choice of Heath Ledger: “And I think the Academy will agree with me.”

On his choice for Best Actress: “My pick this year is Kate Winslet and she will go home with the Oscar on Feb. 22”

Chicken and the Egg alert. Is he giving the Academy validation for choosing what he believes are the best or is he using the Academy to validate his own choices?

Maybe Ben should have said "I am sure that the Academy will validate my ability to predict who is going to win an Oscar by giving it to the people I think they are going to give it to. Then I can take credit for sounding smart." His comments may be more effective if he did not pick fairly uncontroversial choices. But you can't possibly do worse then 20% since every category has only five nominees, so there is not a whole lot of risk here. He should have said that he predicted that The Dark Knight was going to win for Best Picture, just to keep the whole thing interesting.

Finally, Erik takes on Ben's getting out from behind his Goldeneye game controller and getting in front of the marketing for Scene It, quoting Ben:

“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.”

The homies? No props to the peeps or the brosephs? Let me tell you something about Scene It?: Box Office Smash. I own the game. I really enjoy the game. In no way do I use it to “improve my movie knowledge” any more than I use Monopoly to plan my portfolio. Scene It is a fun, party game with an edge to people who already know a little something about movies. To balance it out, it uses visual puzzles, scrambled letters and five questions after movie clips that invariably features one asking what color the character’s tie was. That’s not movie knowledge. That’s the power of observation. Doesn’t make me a detective any more then it makes Ben Lyons a student of film history.

By the way, there is another way to improve your movie knowledge--watch a lot of movies or read some books on film history. But that might have the unfortunate side-effect of making you a better film critic.

Read the entire Criticwatch Ben Lyons quote of the week here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

At the Movies, 2/8/09

Ben Lyons starring in Taken: If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I make way more money than I have a right to. But what I don't have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have not acquired over a very short career. A lack of skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you don't let me host At the Movies, that'll be the end of it. But if you do, my reviews will find you, and they will kill you.

Lyons and Mankiewicz gave their picks for the Oscars on this week's episode of At the Movies. As usual, Lyons' picks are much better than his commentary. First, they gave their choices for Best Actor and Actress (including in a Supporting Role) and they all seem respectable. But then they get to their choice for Best Picture, for which Mank chooses Frost/Nixon, a pretty good movie but certainly not a better one than Milk or Slumdog Millionaire--which he continues to believe is overrated.

But all is forgiven for Mank when Lyons gives his choice--The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This should be no surprise for regular viewers, he reminds us. Mank, once again, however else you may fault him, comes in as the voice of reason:

Mank: Regarding Benjamin Button, I'm finding myself liking it less and less the further I get away from it. I'm starting to see it more as technically astounding, no question, as you mention, but I see it as a gimmick. Well executed but not much more than a gimmick.

Lyons: You just brushed off technically astounding. I think that needs to be appreciated. And I think it was a premise, not a gimmick, and I kind of fell in love with the characters.

Well, what is a gimmick but a catchy premise without depth? A screenwriter comes up with a gimmick, but they describe it to the producer they are selling their screenplay to as a premise. Of course, what would really make Button more than just a gimmick movie is if Lyons could explain how the movie uses this "premise" to express something, which he has never done.

But I don't want to get too caught up on Button, especially since last week turned into anti-Button week (and I suspect there may be more of those to come through the Oscar pre-season). So here are a few other unfortunate Lyons-isms:

On Robert Downey Jr.'s nomination for Tropic Thunder, Lyons says: "I appreciate when the Academy honors comedic performances because it doesn't happen too often." This was right after they finished talking about the noms for Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny.

On predicting the Oscars: "Lately, when actors win the SAG awards for playing real life people, they usually go on to win the Oscars". Take two obvious Oscar insights--early awards tend to predict the Oscars, and the Academy likes biopics--and turn into a "new" one. Brilliant!

Finally, there is Mank's poor attempt at pun, much less successful than his previous efforts. Referring to the way that all great baseball players are immediately compared against Babe Ruth, Manks says "There's a new Babe in town, and her name is Kate Winslet!" Thanks Mank, maybe you'll be a bit more successful next time.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

People who get paid to recommend things recommend . . .

Last week I mentioned Bill Gates' megalomaniacal behavior. Today I find through a friendly informer that Ben Lyons continues in his quest to sell his soul to said megalomaniac. The online site The Daily Beast has a feature called "The Buzz Board: Smart People Recommend," which quotes Ben Lyons (and I think the Beast is being a bit creative with the term "smart people."):

I recommend Scene It? Box Office Smash for Xbox. 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. With Xbox Live it downloads new questions all the time over the Internet, so no matter how many times I play it, it always has new puzzles and questions. The material is sometimes really challenging, even for someone like me who watches about 300 films a year. Even if you're not as big a fan of movies as I am, the anagrams and games within the game are a lot of fun. I challenge anybody who dares to step into The Lyons Den to a game of Scene It? on Xbox... Let's get it on!

This is not the first time Ben has blurbed for Scene It--a few months back he attached his name to a press release for the game.

I keep thinking Ben is going to back off some of his more egregious activities, but his continued breaking of this rule in Roger's Little Rule Book suggests otherwise.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Stuck inside of Oregon with the Alaska blues (again)

Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring Michelle Williams
80 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

It is always a pleasure to watch an actor transform into a character and embody a completely different persona. This does not need to be over stated, like pretending to be a larger than life figure, and is often better when it is not. Take Mickey Rourke, for example, in The Wrestler--he simply lives in the skin of an entirely different character, utterly believable not just because he hits all of the emotional notes correctly but because he inhabits Randy "The Ram" Robinson's skin with completely convincing authenticity. Sean Penn succeeds similarly in Milk. Frank Langella as Nixon, on the other hand, performs quite well but we are always aware that this is a guy trying to act like Nixon.

Michelle Williams' performance in Wendy and Lucy fits into the naturalistic mold of Rourke and Penn. Her performance does not reach the heights of the other two, but there was never a moment that I thought of her as anything but Wendy, the young woman who lives out of her car in a small town. There are a lot of young people like her where I live in the Bay Area, especially in Berkeley, and if I saw her walking down the street on Telegraph Avenue with a bunch of homeless street kids I wouldn't think twice about whether she belonged.

Williams as Wendy is temporarily homeless and on her way to Alaska. If you saw Into the Wild--or even just paid attention to the presidential campaign late last year--hearing this will probably send shivers down your spine. But that is not what this film is about. Wendy is simply down on her luck, broke, and stuck in a small town with a broken down car and a dog to take care of.

It is hard to say much about the plot without giving anything away--although there are not exactly huge spoilers in the movie--because the story develops slowly and meticulously. The time is often passed with long, contemplative shots as Wendy makes her way from one difficulty to the next. I suspect that the director thought this would make the film feel "artsy," but there is not a lot to contemplate along the way. The key to the movie is Williams herself, who is not only convincing be very likable--it is hard not to care about her and hope that she succeeds. And she faces real challenges--not boyfriend problems, or gossipy drama at her high-income job in Manhattan, but the sort of challenges broke young women face. More of her in the time allotted would have made the film much more enjoyable, although I think it succeeds based on Williams' performance alone.

It is really a shame that the economics of filmmaking require that most movies be roughly 90 to 120 minutes. Read any screenwriting book and they will all tell you that scripts should be roughly 90 to 120 pages, assuming 1 page per minute on average. There are obvious exceptions to this--the occasional 3 hour movie, but all those shoot for greatness, usually on an epic scale, sometimes successfully (The Godfather, Reds) sometimes not (Che, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

The reason for this is that successful movies hope to make it onto television, and a movie over 2 hours can easily last 3 hours on TV with commercials, which is far too long (presumably) for today's short attention span audience. Even worse, longer movies can be shown fewer times through the day, occupying valuable screen real estate. When I saw the 4 hour Che, for example, the price was $15 instead of the usual $10 so that the theater could make up some of its lost revenue.

The converse, of course, is also true--moviegoers would feel cheated paying $10 for a movie that is less than one hour. I cannot say for sure, but I imagine that the film festival circuit, which is looking for the next big indy "hit," probably looks down on shorter films as well. I have never really understood why big studios looking for a cheap buck never take a few short films or even two one hour films and distribute them in a single package, made on the cheap by indy directors looking to break in. Is there no audience for this? It could be done maybe a few times a year and billed as a mini-film festival and at least distributed to the art house and independent thaters. Hollywood once distributed double features, with one of the films being as short as an hour long, although this was before the prominence of television, but personally I would love to see this.

Unfortunately, without this, a film like Wendy and Lucy is forced to stretch itself into a running time long enough to be taken seriously. At 80 minutes, it is flirting with the lower bounds of acceptable running times--I imagine the filmmakers thought that 78 or 79 minutes was just too short and they made sure that it at least hit 80 and then stopped stretching. Even though it was enjoyable, a slightly shorter film--perhaps one hour long--could have been a real classic.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Megalomaniac unleashes swarm of diseased insects on unsuspecting audience

This is crazy. According to this article, while Bill Gates was speaking at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference on the subject of malaria, this occurred:

"Malaria is spread by mosquitoes," Gates said while opening a jar onstage at a gathering known to attract technology kings, politicians, and Hollywood stars.

"I brought some. Here I'll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected."

Gates waited a minute or so before assuring the audience the liberated insects were malaria-free.

TED curator Chris Anderson fired back at the legendary computer software maker, joking that the headline for the video of his talk to be posted online at would be "Gates releases more bugs into the world."

The whole episode has the air of the Joker or some crazy James Bond villain letting loose some bio-terror attack on the UN in order to control the world. Once the mosquitoes were set free, I am sure several people in the audience thought "Oh shit, I KNEW this would happen!"

Props to Bill for scaring the crap out of a bunch of rich people and bringing some attention to a worthy cause, although he is so rich I am sure he looks at an audience like this with the same contempt he would look on an audience of janitors.

Criticwatch - Help us Roger Ebert, you're our only hope

Erik Childress gives us the Ben Lyons quote of the week:

"I love special effects movies that don’t take place in modern times or in the future. I like a special effects movie that really is groundbreaking for a story that takes place in the past."

Erik continues:

Read it to yourself aloud and try to decipher it. Lyons is breaking down his preference for special effects movies and seemingly prefers them to take place in the past. Why? Because in those times special effects didn’t exist yet and its cool to see them interact with a time and place that now only exists thanks to the special effect of the motion picture? No, it’s just another attempt for Lyons to sound all smart and critical because he probably heard someone talk about the banality of FX pictures - and by applying an antiquated timeline to the argument he can then attempt to drone on about the way FX are “used” for the better service of the story. No? OK, then you tell me . . .

Effects have evolved. Transformers has incredible effects. Doesn’t make it better than Blade Runner. Oh, but why not? On the timeline the Autobots come before the Replicants. And while we’re on the topic of robots, isn’t it time that At the Movies recognize they have an R2 unit with a bad motivator and upgrade it presently so movie criticism can have some hope for the future?

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The curious case of putting the audience to sleep

In case you missed this at the Official Anti-Benjamin Button Club or Defamer, more evidence that you are not crazy and the Academy is. Not hard evidence, but fun to watch anyway.