Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - Virginia Foxx

What is an unknown Republican Congressperson supposed to do when their party is in a shrinking minority and they want get their name out to the broader public? Well, there are two options. One, do something beneficial for all of humanity so that maybe your name will be associated with some great deed and maybe even you will be remembered in history as somebody important. Or, two, take a page out of Michelle Bachman's book and say something crazy.

Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) took the latter option, claiming that gay-bashing victim Matthew Sheppard was not killed because he was gay at all:

I was in college in 1998 at San Francisco State University at the time Sheppard was killed. In response, some of us organized a speak-out about homophobia on campus and a march at Castro and Market on Halloween of about 1,000 people. Granted, it's not hard to get a bunch of pro-gay people together at that place and time, but it was important to speak out, even in SF. But there was also an outpouring of opposition to homophobia with small rallies all across the country.

Foxx's lunacy--not just calling it a "myth" or a "misunderstanding" but a "hoax"--sounds all too much light nutty paranoia. The only reason to say this sort of thing on the floor of Congress--even if she believed it were true--is to rally a voting base of ultra-right homophobes.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A vacation from Ben Lyons

Sorry for the delay in posting today. I spent the weekend on vacation in Santa Cruz, CA, and had every intention of posting about the latest episode of At the Movies today. However, it appears that Santa Cruz residents--not only a major NorCal tourist spot but also the home of the University of California, Santa Cruz--do not have access to the show!

The hotel I stayed in has a very good cable package and even gets the same ABC channel 7--with the same local newscast from San Francisco--that I get at home in Oakland. But when At the Movies is supposed to appear, inexplicably, there is an infomercial. The local TV listings do not provide any other alternative time to watch the show. Apparently, there has not been a sufficient outcry from the locals to change this state of affairs, and you can imagine why.

I've left Santa Cruz as of Monday afternoon, but I have not yet made it home to my DVR as I am spending the day doing research at a library to prepare for my presentation on Charlie Chaplin later this summer. So I will leave you with Erik Childress' review of At the Movies.

We start with the quote of the week:

Lyons: "See for me a great documentary really exposes something you hadn’t seen before, you didn’t know existed.”

And then continue with Erik's commentary:

So it’s that simple, is it, Ben? You can like a documentary if you’ve seen the subject matter before. But if you haven’t it automatically achieves greatness. I see. Appropriate that last week’s juxtaposition of the old school vs. the new school (Lyons framed with Ben Affleck and Mank with Russell Crowe during their State of Play review) has given way to this week’s photo with Mank sitting in front of Robert Downey as a down-on-his-luck journalist and Lyons in front of the mentally disturbed character he’s desperately trying to assist.

Wow, I thought last week's juxtaposition was stark, now I'm wondering if the AtM staff aren't just messing with these guys. Good catch, Erik. But wait, it get's better, like when Lyons talks about the new movie Every Little Step:

Lyons: “There’s so many talking heads spread throughout the film that I never really bonded on any level with the dancers or producers that are profiled. It takes place in dimly-lit dance studios and dark and empty theaters.”

As opposed to those theater auditions we’ve all seen in front of a packed house, Junior? This guy prides himself on his knowledge of growing up in New York but doesn’t realize this wasn’t just some style choice on the part of the filmmakers?

LYONS: “I mention the dimly-lit theaters. It could have been shot a lot better…”


LYONS: “But that’s not where you perform. You perform on stage in Broadway and I didn’t feel the sort of grand importance of what this was all about. Maybe it’s the fact that American Idol…we see people audition every night. The idea of auditioning is not really interesting in a documentary.”

Oh boy, looks like I missed a good one. Lyons not only has difficulty critiquing a movie but also has trouble discerning differences in time and space.

Read the rest of Erik's Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Socialism 2009

The Socialism 2009 conference will be held this year in Chicago and San Francisco. Here are a few of the talks at the SF conference (which I will be attending) that might be of interest to readers of this blog:

Of course, there is no reason why you wouldn't also be interested in the economy, the anti-war movement and other issues, so take a look at the Socialism 2009 site for yourself if you would like to see the full schedule.

Finally, I'll leave you with videos of Sherry Wolf and Dave Zirin from previous conferences.

Note: I've had trouble getting these to work correctly on Windows/Firefox, but on Windows/IE and Mac/Safari the videos work just fine.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

SAG Should be Praised, Not Assailed

This article was originally posted at

The Perils of a Faithless Membership
SAG Should be Praised, Not Assailed


On Friday, April 17, after nearly a year of negotiating, a humbled and restructured Screen Actors Guild (SAG) reached tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on a two-year contract. The following Sunday the 71-member board voted to recommend the agreement to the membership.

This contract is said to be no better than the one that’s been sitting on the table since last summer and virtually identical to the one accepted by Hollywood’s writers, directors and competing actors’ union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

Because the original team (headed by SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen) couldn’t get the deal it wanted, Hollywood is now piling on, accusing the previous leadership of having under-estimated the Alliance, misread its membership, and failed to anticipate the recession. Indeed, people are now saying the negotiations were an exorbitant waste of time and money.

Those people are wrong.

First, to criticize SAG for not accepting essentially the same contract that was accepted by the writers, directors and AFTRA is to miss the point. Yes, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) signed the contract, but they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. Don’t forget: They took a 100-day strike to avoid signing it.

Why did they strike? Because the AMPTP’s offer didn’t adequately address critical issues, including New Media jurisdiction—an area which happens to be (along with residuals) one of SAG’s key agenda items. And Rosenberg’s committee believed the Alliance’s “last, best and final offer” was still inadequate. Second-guess them all you like, but don’t say they were wrong for wanting to secure the membership’s future.

Second, a quick look at the dynamics of contract negotiations tells us that there are two (and only two) considerations that matter: fairness and attainability. Obviously, what is deemed “fair” is subjective and is going to depend, by and large, on where you’re sitting. What’s fair to the union may not seem fair to management. That’s why you bargain.

As for “attainability,” that can never be known in advance, because a union never knows what can be gotten until it sits down at the table and tries to get it. Bargaining is not about sharing new ideas or reaching a consensus; it’s about trying to get very powerful and selfish people to part with their money.

Also, it’s important to remember that if organized labor had routinely accepted management’s “last, best and final offer”—if they took as gospel management’s assurance that such-and-such was simply unobtainable—we’d still be working 12-hour days with no health insurance or overtime premiums.

Third, management will use any excuse to avoid sweetening the pot. When there’s a recession, they’ll use the recession; when there’s a hurricane, they’ll use the hurricane; and when the economy is healthy and everyone is prospering, they’ll give you ten reasons why that prosperity is irrelevant to your negotiations.

And finally, the union knows what to expect. It knows that taking a hard line can be tricky, especially if management chooses to take an equally hard line. On one side, you have management, fully mobilized and dug in; on the other, you have your usual mix of union people: loyal members ready to battle, puzzled members wondering what’s going on, and nervous members ready to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. It’s Negotiations 101.

Similarly, union bargainers will be regarded as either weak and gutless, or belligerent and stubborn. Unfortunately, there’s very little middle-ground. If a negotiating team puts the membership in jeopardy by asking for a strike vote, they’re militants; if they bring back a lousy contract and recommend ratification, they’re wimps.

So let’s get it right, people. Labor relations is a contact sport. Unless you take the view that your union should never fight, or that it should fight only when it’s assured of winning, you’re always going to risk having your butt handed to you in a sling. But if you’re not willing to fight for a decent contract, you don’t deserve one.

And not to rehash the past, but if SAG’s membership had remained faithful—if some of its big-name stars had not seen themselves as deputy ambassadors, and set off on their own bizarre, diplomatic mission—this bargain might have turned out differently.

Actually, it’s not over yet. SAG’s membership could still reject the offer, which would put the AMPTP in a bad spot. The Alliance can posture all it likes, but a membership rejection, particularly after a board recommendation, would be a body-blow.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was former president and chief negotiator of the AWPPW, Local 672. He can be reached at

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Real Ben Lyons!

Those of you who followed the link to Erik Childress' page about Ben Lyons yesterday will already know by now that there is a new player in the "Ben Lyons Hate Storm". This one is BenLyonsforreal, a fake-Lyons Twitter account that is pretty damn funny.

I actually first found out about this Twitter page--is it called a page, like a Facebook/MySpace page?--from Ben Lyons himself, who "Tweeted" about it to let people know that it was an imposter. Not sure why he thought we wouldn't figure that out ourselves--all he really did was let us know about this Twitter-er, who we very well may have never heard of otherwise.

Anyway, here are my favorites "Tweets" so far:

  • I gave 17 Again a rating of "rent it" because it's easier to talk about how cute Zach Efron is when you're in your own home.

  • State of Play is an amazing movie about staying relevant in newspapers...LOL/JK, who reads newspapers? It's like twitter for geezers.

  • Who remembers Gummybears? That'd be a great film! Gummybears: Premiering here and there...and everywhere.

  • Fast and Furious should be renamed "Best and Bestestest". It took literally dozens of people to make that movie!

  • Inglourious Basterds is going to be a riveting thrill ride about men transformed by mustaches. Best WWII movie ever!

  • Many people call me a visionary. I respond with, "are you famous? let's take a picture together"

  • I'm a movie dude! What the fuck does that mean? I don't know but it's better than being some fat fuck who's partner is a dead bald fuck

Read the BenLyonsForReal Twitter page here

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Criticwatch - Ben Lyons finally asks for help

A snippet from this week's Ben Lyons Quote of the Week from Erik Childress at Criticwatch:

Lyons: "It’s the old school vs. the new school here which is really interesting. As much as it is a political movie, it’s a movie about journalism and how technology has affected journalism and the world of blogs and the internet and being credible in that world. And its really interesting to look at it from that angle.”

Yes, technology has expedited the world of journalism. Stories are released faster than ever. Or, at least, rumors travel faster. It’s certainly given credence to the old adage that everyone is a critic. All you need is a message board, blog or a website of your own creation. And if its fancy enough you could even wind up on Rotten Tomatoes. Before you throw the first stone though, at least most of those people (young and old) express their thoughts through a keyboard. Some, like our buddy Ben Lyons, have the benefit of just saying something on television and having a quote pulled for the website, likely by one of the show’s handlers. Who needs the Quote of the Week when you can take your pick from Rotten Tomatoes? If you really want the Ben Lyons Written Experience though, you can always follow him on Twitter. My personal favorite Tweet of his in the last few hours:

Lyons: “After a long weekend in Vegas, I'm back on my TWITTER grind people. Off to NYC to interview Beyonce & Idris Elba. Send questions?”

I guess he’s looking for some objective queries to ask his household name on a film that’s not even being screened for critics. When are journalists going to get it through their thick heads not to provide free press for films they won’t even bother to show us? Sorry, did I just call Ben Lyons a journalist?

Read the entire Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, April 20, 2009

At the Movies: 27 Again?

Lyons and Mankiewicz had a discussion on this week's episode of At the Movies which was surprisingly relevant but, unfortunately, only to the perceptive viewer as they did not follow the discussion through to its logical end.

Talking about the new movie State of Play, Mank says it is "a political thriller chronicling the uphill battle newspapers are facing to stay relevant in a Twittering world." Yes, there is much to be said about the decline of the newspaper, especially in the world of film criticism, where the center of gravity has shifted from the newspaper film critic to the Internet and, well, the TV critic. Of course, what is not mentioned is that these two critics we are watching are hosting a show which abandoned three newspaper writers in favor of TV personalities, especially for the not-ready-for-newspapers Ben Lyons in particular. Don't forget that his boss Brian Frons pumped him up by saying:

Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see.

Unsurprisingly, none of this is mentioned in their review, although it is hard to miss the image of Lyons and Mankiewicz juxtaposed against the poster of Ben Affleck and Russel Crowe (above), suggesting that these two are really talking about themselves. Then there is this exchange at the end:

Lyons: As much as it is a political movie, it's a movie about journalism and how technology has affected journalism and the world of blogs and the Internet, and being credible in that world. And it's really interesting to look at it from that angle.

Mank: Crowe and McAdams are working the story together, and he comes from the world where you hold the story and hold it for days and days and days until you get it right and put it in the paper. Meanwhile, she's blogging three or four times a day on the papers Web site, there's nice contrast there . . .

Lyons: Yeah, good movie, absolutely, you should "See it".

It is hard not to think about Ben Lyons' role--small though it may be compared to larger economic forces, but it is a role nonetheless--in the decline of the newspaper critic and the effect that has on film criticism after hearing this. It is especially hard not to think about him when he refers to "journalism and the world of blogs and the Internet, and being credible in that world," since it is this sort of credibility that Lyons has been able to sidestep completely. But in case you missed that, immediately after Ben's "See it" recommendation which occurs seconds after his mention of journalistic credibility, without missing a single beat we get this:

Ben puts on his signature big, cheesy, gushy smile and we get:

Lyons: "Current pop culture phenom and High School Musical alum Zac Efron stars alongside Mathew Perry in 17 Again . . . While movies like Big and the sometimes forgotten Vice Versa from the late 80s tackled this theme more effectively, 17 Again is sweet and young Efron maniacs will enjoy seeing him take the next step in his career. But for the adults you can 'Rent it'."

Vice Versa? How about Like Father Like Son, while we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. But once again, we find Ben stuck 'tween adult moviegoers--like the long-time fans of Siskel & Ebert--and his own teeny-bopper fan base. HSM fans will want to see Efron's career evolve--although there is no sign from Ben that his acting skills are evolving--and adults, well, won't. So split the difference and say 'Rent it'.

As problematic as the "Rent it" rating is, it has been horribly abused by Lyons. By saying "Rent it," he can have things both ways--he doesn't have to tell serious film buffs to "See it," but he can give a wink-and-a-nod to his E! fans by not dissing their "pop culture phenom". But again, it is hard to see from Ben's review why anybody should want to see it unless, of course, they already want to.

Finally, last week Lyons gave his 3-to-See, which were Adventureland, Lymelife, and Sugar. At the time I said, "Missing is the movie that both Ben's called the best movie of the year so far, Sin Nombre. In its place is Adventureland, a movie that Ben previously said was on the verge of a 'Rent it' but was just pushed over the edge by two very funny side characters."

Mank basically made this point with his own 3-to-See picks this week, which included: State of Play, The Escapist, Sin Nombre.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is Charlie Chaplin's 120th birthday. In honor of this I wrote an article about Chaplin's movies and politics.

Never afraid to stand up
by Scott Johnson

CHARLIE CHAPLIN did much of his best work as an actor, director and even composer in films such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights.

Playing "The Little Tramp"--dressed in an ill-fitting suit with a toothbrush mustache, cane and bowler hat--he was not only a brilliant physical comedian, but also conveyed a great sense of pathos with moments of loneliness, heartbreak and failure. This Chaplin--who would have been 120 years old this month--is well worth remembering, and his films well worth discovering.

Chaplin also held socialist ideas and surrounded himself with a number of left-wing friends and acquaintances. Though he often held his tongue, after City Lights was released in 1931, Chaplin made a series of films with explicit political statements in them that eventually found him hounded out of the country by the rise of McCarthyism.

Several years into the Great Depression, which left millions unemployed, Chaplin made his film Modern Times (1936) between the great labor upsurges of 1934--which saw mass strikes in three cities--and the wave of sit-down strikes in 1937. Chaplin's Little Tramp, the most recognized impoverished character in all of American film, could not help but be affected by these events.

The movie begins with the Tramp slaving over a factory line, constantly struggling to keep up with the pace as the boss sits in a quiet office reading the comics in a newspaper. Chaplin's physical comedy is on full display as he works harder and faster to no end other than uncontrolled twitching due to a repetitive stress disorder.

He is eventually driven mad by the stress and finds himself accidentally leading a demonstration of Communist workers, who are beaten and imprisoned by the police.

Chaplin's wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, is his female co-star, playing a young woman in even worse poverty than the Tramp. The two meet and fall in love, spending the rest of the film searching for the American Dream. They move into their dream house--a typically Chaplin-esque run-down shack--and find work again, but they can't avoid either their past or the continuing turbulence in society. The two eventually walk off together, destitute but happily in love.

Modern Times doesn't convey a consistent political message about workers' struggle, other than to generally take sides with the downtrodden working class and their efforts to retain their dignity in the face of economic collapse.

This is a perfect theme for Chaplin, who had been telling this story for two decades, and it gave him the opportunity to sharpen the political issues confronted by the Little Tramp. The film is ultimately more about two people in love struggling to keep their heads above water than it is about challenging capitalism, but it succeeds on these terms.

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CHAPLIN'S NEXT film was his most consistently and overtly political. After spending decades as the world's most popular silent comedian, The Great Dictator (1940) saw Chaplin create one of the classic vocal impersonations of American cinema.

Chaplin stars in two roles, most notoriously as "The Phooey" Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania--based explicitly on Adolph Hitler. Hynkel's hate-spewing speeches in mock German are so full of vile epithets that they can't be "translated." At times, he snorts and snarls his anger and desires, and, at other times, he performs a ballet with a beach ball-like globe that he tosses through the air, joyfully anticipating world domination.

But beyond the silliness, the story sharply examined at some of Hitler's most despicable practices. For example, while Hynkel openly discusses his desire to eliminate the entire Jewish race, his storm troopers engage in pogroms in the Jewish ghetto and paint "Jew" on their shop windows. This was not only before the U.S. had declared war against Germany--and still maintained diplomatic relations with the country--but also at a time when anti-Semitism was a regular part of American life.

Some of the residents of the ghetto express their desire to rebel against the fascist regime and eventually decide to organize a suicide mission to assassinate Hynkel. This leads to one of the funniest moments in the movie when Chaplin, in his second role playing the Little Tramp as a Jewish barber, does everything he can to avoid being chosen for the mission.

It's classic Chaplin--we can't help but laugh at the Little Tramp's selfish maneuvers to avoid his responsibility, while, at the same time, recognizing the great burden that he is about to carry. In this case, the burden involves ending up in a concentration camp.

The final scene--in which the Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel and giving a lengthy speech denouncing Nazism--is hotly contested among critics. Many consider it to be unnecessarily preachy, but that seems to be a tedious criticism considering what Hitler was engaged in at the time. It took great courage for Chaplin to have the Little Tramp, the most recognized character in all the movies, give a rousing speech against the spreading Nazi menace in his final screen appearance.

In the speech, the Jewish barber articulates a progressive worldview, denouncing the "greed" that "has poisoned men's souls...has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want." But all is not lost:

You the people have the power...then in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world, that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age security...Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance!

This moment is far more subtle and heartfelt than Chaplin is often given credit for. When the Jewish barber gives this speech, there is some confusion and it's unclear what effect it is having on the audience of Nazi soldiers. The barber worries that he is turning into an angry demagogue--exactly what the film's critics accuse him of--and so he speaks out directly to one of his Jewish friends, hoping to keep her spirit of resistance alive. The film ends with a sense of great hope for the future in spite of what must have been an incredibly bleak outlook.

What Chaplin does deserve criticism for is that he neither joined the Communist Party nor broke with its politics of Stalinism and the Popular Front--uncritically supporting liberal efforts, especially insofar as they supported Russia. As the U.S. entered the Second World War, he actively supported the Soviet front and encouraged American intervention, not to mention the New Deal programs that preceded it. But it never appears to have dawned on Chaplin that the police who brutally attacked workers in Modern Times very well could have been Roosevelt's National Guard.

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

NONETHELESS, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was not about to give Chaplin credit for his pro-war efforts. On the contrary, they continued to see him as a dangerous radical, and his FBI files are filled with half-truths and paranoid Cold War hysteria.

The two most famous gossip columnists at the time, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, both cooperated with the FBI to collect and distribute information that would be damaging to Chaplin. Another fierce anti-Communist, a pre-variety show Ed Sullivan, would spread the rumor that Chaplin was on the verge of defecting to Russia.

Rather than back down, Chaplin continued to defend and support his friends, giving his name to efforts to oppose the investigation of suspected Communists in Hollywood and supporting many who were forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

After being subpoenaed himself, Chaplin invited the Committee to see his latest film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947). A suspenseful comedy about a man who marries and then kills several women for their money, Verdoux ends with a harsh denunciation of Western imperialism. The title character, played by Chaplin, defends himself by saying,

As for being a mass murderer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and children to pieces, and done it scientifically? As a mass murderer, I am an amateur by comparison.

He later comments, "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."

Inviting HUAC to hear this commentary was a shot across the bow and an announcement that he was fully prepared to defend himself. Furthermore, Chaplin was independently wealthy and part owner of the United Artists movie studio, so blacklisting him would be essentially impossible. HUAC got the message, and his "invitation" to testify was quickly dropped, but he would later assert that he was prepared to appear dressed as the Little Tramp and make a mockery of the proceedings.

For several years, he would continue to be watched by the FBI and hounded by the press. Often there was a spotlight on his numerous affairs, occasionally with women who were far too young, leaving him open to charges of "moral depravity." Many asked aloud why the British-born Chaplin, who never expressed any interest in citizenship, should be allowed to remain a "guest" in the U.S. Increasingly, right-wing veterans groups like the American Legion and Catholic War Veterans picketed showings of his films and sometimes succeeded in getting them canceled.

In his next film, Limelight (1952), Chaplin starred as a washed up, aging stage comedian. This was not only one of his best films but also one of his least political. He also seems to have toned down his radical rhetoric in the years preceding its release. But once again, he would get no credit for taming his politics.

Immediately after heading on a world tour to promote Limelight, his re-entry visa was revoked by Truman's attorney general. After living in the U.S. for most of his life, he would not be allowed to return for another two decades when the political atmosphere had cooled.

Chaplin was a contradictory figure--a Communist sympathizer who was both a studio owner and a notorious womanizer--and leaves an inconsistent political legacy tinged by Stalinism and his own personal foibles. At times, he shook his fist at the system and at others he hid behind the slogan of being "an artist, not a politician." Nonetheless, this is a legacy worth remembering and, at its best, worth defending. His films, however, need no qualification and deserve to be seen and treasured for generations to come.

Originally published at

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

One crappy TV show isn't enough

In a series of Tweets on April 8, Ben Lyons wrote:

I'm more inspired now than I've ever been! If you think seeing me on E!, At The Movies, Good Morning America, Nickelodeon, & ESPN is a lot..


I am more focused than ever to crush all the haters! As Clinton would say...GET FAMILIAR!

New chester French Mixtape! ! Have you ever heard of a film critic on a mixtape with Diddy & Common?

I didn't think so! I am changing th game! So should you...Be your own person, only place it's cool to follow someone is here on TWITTER!

If you listen to Ben's part on the mix tape, he basically plays a parody of himself--an over-hyping red carpet interviewer. Which would be funny, except that is who he is in real life. Also, he forgot to mention this appearance, which will probably do little to "crush all the haters":

Ben belatedly denounced Twilight as a movie-length CW episode, which I thought at the time was very accurate, although now I am wondering whether or not that was meant as a compliment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Criticwatch - A rage-fueled thrashing

Erik Childress at Criticwatch observes and reports on At the Movies, starting with a quote from Ben Lyons:

Lyons: “Often times, Mank, on the festival scene as you know, movies like this sorta get overhyped at Sundance or Toronto, these American stories of dysfunctional families, but here I think all this excitement surrounding Lymelife is deserved because this is a film that really builds to these awkward, uncomfortable places naturally, organically. It takes its time to establish the character dynamic and then you sorta take a breath as the audience, we say, this is really twisted and morbid these situations that they’re in.”

There Lyons goes again – paying attention to the hype from film festivals he couldn’t be bothered to see more than five movies at. And what’s his obsession with organics? Just two weeks ago the quote of the week focused on that very thing when he said that the script for Spinning Into Butter "kinda feels contrived and setup for certain power struggles instead of organically coming to that moment.” Then on The Cake Eaters he said, “the film establishes the intricate character dynamic with a guiding hand, not a forceful one, which I appreciate.” Nothing like recycling your indie review checklist, Lyons. But let’s take a breath for a moment and look at his Lymelife review a little more closely. It seems, according to him, that once that film established who its characters are he was able to take a moment and recognize that he was dealing with a film that he never expected would be so “twisted and morbid.” Imagine that! Lyons was able to organically come to that moment despite us having setup his less-than-intricate character dynamic (or entire lack of character.) And yet Observe and Report is stuck with a skip it. Way to look past your expectations, Junior.

Read the entire Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, April 13, 2009

At the Movies - The worst of both worlds

Finally, a tween movie that Ben can't recommendIs Ben Lyons learning his lesson?

I am forced to ask that question from time to time, especially after watching an episode of At the Movies which is not quite so dreadful as the previous week. The case in point this week is with Hannah Montana: The Movie. He said that the kids will love it, but the rest of us can "Skip it."

Now, compare this to his review of High School Musical 3--he said you should "Rent it," because your kids are going to force you to see it anyway, "Even though it may be cringe inducing for the rest of us".

Also, compare this to his review of The Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience--he said you should "See it" because it is cheaper than going to a real Jonas Brothers concert, and deserves more than a "Rent it" because "you can't watch it in 3D on television."

So I guess the real lesson here is that maybe Montana should have been shot in 3D.

But has Ben learned his lesson? Probably not--sometimes it is hard to tell when Ben is being "better" or "worse," rather than just inconsistent. Take his "3 to See," on which he includes Adventureland, Lymelife, and Sugar. Missing is the movie that both Ben's called the best movie of the year so far, Sin Nombre. In its place is Adventureland, a movie that Ben previously said was on the verge of a "Rent it" but was just pushed over the edge by two very funny side characters.

But he continues to find the need to justify his recommendation this week saying, "Going into this movie, I expected it to be a lot funnier, because it comes from the director of Superbad, Greg Mottola. But its intent was to be more heartfelt than hilarious." Actually, coming out of this movie he still felt that way, and continued to say so months later, but in the last two weeks he has changed his tune.

Lyons, it seems, feels an eternal debt of gratitude toward people like Greg Mottola who put him in their movies. Anybody else? Well, there is also Anna Faris--remember that Ben had a non-speaking role in The House Bunny. Faris gets singled out for praise by Lyons for her role in Observe and Report this week--which he said is otherwise worth skipping.

Now, is this nepotism or just an honest appraisal? Who knows--Ben's past behavior makes it hard to tell. That is exactly why getting too cozy with celebrities is a problem for critics. But I'll leave you with the following video so that you can make up your own mind about Lyons, Faris, and The House Bunny:

I cannot imagine why Richard Roeper refused to work with this guy . . .

Friday, April 10, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - AMCHD

I recently purchased a High Def LCD television and I have been pretty happy with the results. Unfortunately, some channels seem to have a hard time with the whole HD thing, and I am not referring to channels like MSNCB which are not yet producing an HD signal. No, I am referring to the ones that are and don't seem to know how to do it. Watch just about anything on the Food Network, for example, and you will notice faces stretched and distorted all out of proportion. Switch over to the non-HD version of the Food Network and everything looks just fine.

But the worst offender in my book has to be AMCHD, not because everything looks awful but because, well, far too often it does and they should know better. In particular, some movies that appear on AMCHD actually look better when viewed on the regular, non-HD channel. For example, look at the first scan at the top (actually, it's a picture I took with my camera) from The Ox-Bow Incident. The faces of Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan look stretched out horizontally. Now look at the picture below it--this is the same image but with my TV set to the 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, which is the standard for HD. The 4:3 image looks better!

But it gets worse. The problem comes from the fact that stretching appears at the sides of the screen and not so much in the middle. Since the images above do not have anything in the space in between the two actors, the non-HD version (not pictured) looks about the same as the HD 4:3 version . But if altering your aspect ratio was all you had to do to fix this, then it would simply be a minor annoyance. So lets take a look at a picture where there is something on the edges AND in the middle. That would be the image to the left, which is from AMCHD at 16:9. If you notice, Henry Fonda (on the right side) looks a bit stretched out, and the fellow on the left side of the screen does as well.

Now let's look at the same image on AMCHD at 4:3. The figures on the sides of the screen look better, but now the two men in the middle have their heads squished and narrowed. So on AMCHD, this image (and many others from this movie) don't look correct at either aspect ration. According to IMDB the movie was shot at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which is essentially the same as 4:3. What appears to be happening is that the HD version is stretched out of shape in order to fill out the standard 16:9 HD screen size, so much so that when you set your HD TV to shrink it down back to 4:3 it still looks distorted. That means that you cannot get a consistently decent image from the movie in HD regardless of which aspect ratio you choose. You especially notice this distortion when something moves into the picture from the edge of the screen--you can see it squeezing itself into the image as it goes from being more to less distorted.

If you take a look at the non-HD version of this movie on AMC, IT LOOKS BETTER THAN THE HD VERSION IN EITHER ASPECT RATION! It is not distorted at the sides or in the middle. It is, oddly enough, the best of both worlds.

C'mon AMC, get your act together. I have seen HD channels show non-HD, 4:3 content with vertical letterboxing. This may seem like a waste of space, but for movie fans the letterbox is the way that you are used to watching a movie on TV. In properly formatted HD seen at 16:9, movies are often still letterboxed because they are typically shot in either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, both of which are wider than 16:9. But AMC prefers to punt and give the viewer a distorted image so they feel like they are getting their money's worth and not "wasting" any real estate on their fancy HD TV.

But they aren't getting their money's worth--they are actually just getting a crappier image. If viewers want to do something stupid like stretch out a 4:3 image to a 16:9 ratio, they can set their TV to do that. But the rest of us should just be given the image in the correct ratio so that we can enjoy it as it was meant to be seen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dropping knowledge 140 characters at a time

What would an overhyped fad be withouth Ben Lyons jumping on the bandwagon? I don't know, but it wouldn't be Twitter, because Ben Lyons recently signed up.

The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree.His screen name is iamBenLyons--possibly a reference to his favorite movie?--and he has taken to posting pictures of his father posing with famous people (see picture at the right, snagged before it was removed).

I apologize in advance for any misrepresentations of Twitter I might convey, since I have not really gotten into it. Twitter basically looks like Facebook minus the good parts. But suddenly the media are all a-Twitter over this latest fad, especially after a number of members of Congress got caught "Tweeting" during Obama's speech to their entire branch of government. Or rather, their staff members were caught "Tweeting", which is just as bad since the whole point is for a person to give their own personal commentary to a broad audience. You'd think that would be the end of it, but you would be wrong.

There is something quite amusing about Lyons, who has never written an article or film review that anybody can account for, signing up for a service that requires him to constantly put his thoughts to text. I was going to say that he should just put all his tweets together and call it an article and be done with it--but then I read them, which include the following nuggets of wisdom:

  • Watching THE PERFECT STORM. John C can do balance comedy and drama as good as anybody. Who else?

  • My LA TWEETERS!! At 630pm on ABC please check out 'At The Movies'. We've got reviews of SUGAR, FAST & FURIOUS, and DVD picks. What up Mank!?

  • Efron told my Footloose didnt happen cuz he wants new roles, new challenges, and to stop with the dancing! For now at least...

  • 'Sorority Row' crew just arrived. Trailer reminds me of I Know What You Did Last Summer..

Yes, these are copy-and-pasted quotes. We can only wait for the moment when Lyons is caught tweeting in the middle of a movie . . . anybody want to start a pool?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Criticwatch - The guy who blurbed me

Erik Childress breaks down this week's At the Movies:

Ben: Hey, aren't you Roger Moore?
Sean: Guess again, junior.
Lyons was on my side of the fence [on rating the movie Gigantic] and you’ll notice that he wasn’t quick to label it as one of those Sundance-type movies. Probably because it never played at Sundance and Lyons wouldn’t know how to label it any other way, despite this week reviewing (or re-reviewing) three films on the show that played at the Park City festival. Just a few weeks ago he said Sunshine Cleaning was “a Sundance movie in every sense of the word…that quirky, American indie that’s looking to find moments of humor set against the backdrop of some dark, tragic moments.”What does he have to say to Mank in defense of Gigantic?

Lyons: “Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano, sure, they play quirky indie characters and nobody does it better than them. And I think pairing them together really works. It’s the first time I’ve seen them on screen together and I really enjoy their chemistry and that’s the heart of this movie.”

Nobody does it better than them? From the female side, Deschanel has certainly done her share of independent quirk and few would argue that she hasn’t earned the right to be in the argument. With all due respect to Paul Dano though, Lyons has probably got Little Miss Sunshine (and ONLY Little Miss Sunshine on the brain) where referring to Dano’s indie resume. I somehow doubt he saw Weapons from Sundance a few years back or Explicit Ills which they couldn’t find time to review on the show just last month so they could do early reviews on I Love You, Man and Adventureland; Jesse Eisenberg being one of many who might have a beef (along with Sam Rockwell, Peter Sarsgaard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) over Lyons’ “nobody does it better” designation. Kinda makes me feel sad for the rest.

Read the entire Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, April 6, 2009

At the Movies - Indy-ana Lyons and the Kingdom of the Empty Skull

Lyons. Why'd it have to be Lyons?A few weeks ago on At the Movies, we heard Ben Lyons gush all over the movie Sunshine Cleaning as "a Sundance movie in every sense of the word. It's that quirky American indy that's looking to find moments of humor set against the backdrop of dark, tragic moments," after which he recommended that we merely "Rent it." This week, he further attempted to improve his "indy" street cred--which is especially in danger since he admitted to seeing only 5 movies at the Sundance Film Festival. He did this by, well, saying the word "indy" more often than really necessary in his review of the movie Gigantic.

You can't help but wonder whether this positive review is simply an attempt to bolster his tarnished image as a "stupid person" according to Richard Roeper. Unfortunately, he could have done better to disprove Roeper's point. Some of his comments about this movie included:

First time co-writer/director Matt Aselton brings us Gigantic, starring young indy film vets Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel . . . Sure, they play quirky, indy characters . . . For me, I was along for the indy ride and I enjoyed it.

Did he mention that it's an "indy" movie? Good thing it's not November, or you could replace "indy" with "Oscar-worthy."

But the real critical sin in this week's episode is Ben's ever-evolving attitude to Adventureland. In the live chat on the AtM Web site back in February, Ben called it a movie he "liked, but would have been more interested in it had the leads been a little funnier."

On last week's review, Ben said:

"I was on the edge of saying 'Rent it', but because of the strong performances of [supporting actors Bill] Hayder and [Kristin] Wiig, I'll say see it."

Ok, fine. But this week, he says:

"We had an early review on last week's show, it opens this weekend, and I say 'See It'. I had a lot of fun with Adventureland."

Then Mank goes on to say that this movie should not be confused with the director's other movie Superbad, a raunchy teen comedy. Lyons responds:

"It's definitely not. It's a lot more heartfelt and it's a little bit more understated in its approach to comedy. The leads really don't have the jokes here, the supporting actors do. I said last week Kristin Wiig and Bill Hayder, they are tremendous, and the best on-screen couple to possibly run an amusement park. It just worked. But Eisenberg and Stewart are much more serious and that's where the film really has its voice."

It sounds like Lyons is trying to prove that he is not confused by the trailer, something that he is embarrassingly notorious for doing. But this is a complete reversal in his explanation of his critique. The movie went from being mildly recommended because the leads just aren't funny enough, to a recommendation based on the leads' more serious approach to the material! Let's hope that next week he doesn't downgrade his rating to "Rent it" because, well, let's be honest, Wiig and Hayder made light of the seriousness of the material as portrayed by Eisenberg and Stewart.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Roeper didn't want to work with "stupid people"

I personally don't listen to the Howard Stern (nor do I recommend it) but a friend of mine caught an interview Stern did with Richard Roeper last week and made it available for me. They talked a lot about Roeper's new book, but there was a very interesting snippet of the conversation about why he left Ebert & Roeper:

Roeper: You get these geniuses [TV producers], Howard, who say after 30 years, they're like, "You know, that balcony set, that's not really a great idea. And we don't really need two thumbs up or two thumbs down. Let's do a different kind of show, let's make it zippier and have stupid people on there reviewing the movies."

Stern: Who was the stupid person?

Roeper: Well, you can watch it now, and find out for yourself. But I left, I thought I'm not going to stick around . . .

Stern: Who'd they try to team you up with that you didn't like?

Roeper: (sighs, pauses) Well, they wanted to bring in Ben Lyons, from the E! Channel. Who's a nice kid, but I don't think had ever reviewed a movie in print or written an article in his life.

Stern: Oh, that's Jeffrey Lyons' kid. His Dad was a movie reviewer so he's becoming one . . . And so you felt he didn't have a legitimate, like, you have a writing background and this kid was not a legitimate movie critic.

Roeper: And you know, honestly it wasn't anything personal against him, it's just not a show that I wanted to be a part of. And it was some of the people who they put in charge of the show who just didn't have any respect for the legacy you just mentioned. You know it's been 10 years since Gene Siskel died? I was on the show with Roger for almost 8 years. And I just felt like Roger, as you just mentioned, he's still doing well and he's writing all his reviews but he can't go on TV anymore, and I thought "I'm not going to go and stomp all over the legacy of the show these guys created." So we moved on and Roger and I are working on another show now, it's going to be coming out soon, and he's going to be behind the scenes as an executive producer. We're going to restore the legacy of the show.

Most of that is known from Roeper's blog post a few weeks ago, except this is the first time that I know of that either Ebert or Roeper have publicly dissed Lyons (although Roger all but called him out by name a few months ago). This is also the first time that Roeper has stated that he left in part because the producers wanted to bring Lyons in--to replace Michael Phillips!

Until now, it just seemed like Roeper left because he didn't like the "new direction" the show was taking, and then Lyons was just one of the guys who happened to replace him. On the contrary, it turns out that Ben Lyons has been a willing participant to "stomping on the legacy" of Siskel & Ebert and has in fact had the entire show upended simply on his account! What a spoiled fucking brat.

This also does not exactly reflect well on Mank, who now looks like the one guy who was actually willing to work with Lyons (unlike everybody else). And any idea (which I admit to having in the past) that either A) the show might dump Lyons and have Mank host with somebody else, or B) Mank would leave the show, both now look highly unlikely.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April fools!

Ok, I think most people have figured it out, but my post yesterday about Mank "storming off the set" was an April fools joke. I required all comments to be moderated so that nobody would get the joke without having to figure it out for themselves. Good thing, too--the first comment at 5am gave it away! I hope this doesn't discourage anybody from commenting in the future, so I'll turn comment moderation back off (so comments should show up instantaneously) and allow all of yesterday's comments to go through. That way, nobody will read that post six months from now and wonder what it was all about.

By the way, I'll have an interesting post tomorrow with a bit of behind the scenes dirt from At the Movies. I promise, this one is real, although not quite as breathtaking as "Mank storming off the set". In fact, it explains why that will probably never happen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mank "stormed off the set" of At the Movies

CHICAGO (AP)--After several months as the co-host of the syndicated movie review show At the Movies, film critic Ben Mankiewicz stormed off the set Tuesday following a series of heated exchanges between himself, co-host Ben Lyons, and several staff members.

"Hosting At the Movies, the show previously helmed by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, has been a real honor," Mankiewicz told the Associated Press. "But let's be honest, this isn't Siskel & Ebert. I don't know if that is even possible anymore, film criticism has changed so much with the Internet. At the very least those are the standards that we should strive for. But I feel like the producers of the show have just stopped trying."

Mankiewicz declined to comment specifically about Lyons, other than to say that he is "a nice kid." As to his future with the show, he said simply of the producers that "the ball is in their court".

Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story.

Since the show parted ways with previous hosts Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, speculation has been rampant for some time that the show was on the verge of either cancellation or the firing of Lyons or Mankiewicz. A number of highly critical articles in the mainstream press and the blogosphere since the new hosts were hired have helped to cement the opinion among many that the program was in decline along with film criticism in general.

Ironically, after a shaky first few months in which ratings dropped by 23%, the show's viewership rebounded during the period leading up to the Academy Awards. But the story behind the scenes has been far different from the rosy picture painted by the improved ratings.

"Lyons and Mankiewicz have had a very stormy relationship off-screen," says one production assistant for At the Movies who asked to remain anonymous. "Most episodes, there are at least one or two takes which have to be scrapped because Mankiewicz throws up his hands in frustration, rolls his eyes, or just lets out a long sigh. He really hasn't been a team player."

Brian Frons, the ABC/Disney executive in charge of the show, expressed disappointment with the behavior of Mankiewicz but assured the Associated Press that the show would continue with or without him. "There are literally dozens of laid off film critics who would jump at the opportunity to sit across the aisle from Ben Lyons. I am sure that we will have no trouble finding a replacement for him," Frons said in reference to Mankiewicz.

"I produce a hit show," Frons continued. "What did he ever do?"

Nothing official has been announced as to whether or not Mankiewicz will remain, but the anonymous staffer suggested that interviews may have already occurred. "Both Lou Lumenick [of the New York Post] and Roger Moore [of the Orlando Sentinel] have been in the office to talk to Frons. On the other hand, I hear that Lyons has been talking up Shawn Edwards [of WDAF-TV in Kansas City]."

Critics of the show predicted that this is the beginning of the end of At the Movies in its current form. "Hopefully this will now free my Tivo from the Sunday morning recap of At the Movies and restore our faith in the Lord," said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Association, who also writes a feature called "Ben Lyons Quote of the Week" that ridicules Lyons' critiques.

"The chickens have come home to roost," said Scott Johnson, the blogger behind the website "Maybe now Brian Frons can get back to his first love--ruining daytime soap operas."

Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have both made references on their blogs about starting a new television show. Roeper declined to comment for this article and Ebert did not immediately return a phone call from the Associated Press.


On the Net:

At the Movies

Ben Lyons' Written Movie Review Archive