Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Criticwatch - If I had a hammer . . .

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

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


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

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

Monday, July 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Lyons: [agreeing] An ok scene.

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

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

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

After which Mank lights up and smiles, saying,

Mank: It's a horror movie, Ben!

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons: Cambridge police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted at The Huffington Post

At the Movies: Growing old gracefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Criticwatch - Who's he crappin'?

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

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

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

Read the entire Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 6, 2009

So good it's bad

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

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

Erik continues:

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

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

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