Friday, January 30, 2009

Two, three, many hours too long

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
Starring Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir
257 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

I recently watched William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a nearly three hour long 1946 drama about three soldiers returning from the war to the same small town. I am sure that Wyler could have made a much shorter film that was still quite good, but the length of the film is not wasted for a moment. Without any fancy cinematography or stunning plot twists, Wyler carries us along with these characters as we watch them attempt to adjust back to civilian life. Even as the film was coming to a close, I felt connected with and interested in the characters and their lives and would have been happy to watch another hour.

I cannot say as much about Stephen Soderberg's 4 hour epic Che. The first two hours are worthy enough with Fidel Castro's guerilla army in the Cuban jungle, along with flashbacks to Che's trip to the UN as a Cuban official giving a fiery speech to the assembly, as well as a few scenes in Mexico City with the revolutionarys gathered in an apartment wearing suits and ties, discussing their plans to overthrow the Cuban government. The highlight is the final successful battle of the Cuban revolution in a series of exciting scenes that gives a sense of how such a small group could have defeated a state army.

There are also a number of characters to give the material some life, including Benicio Del Toro's Che Guervara, who is entirely convincing. Even more of a surprise, though, is Demián Bichir's Fidel Castro, who possesses the self-assured enthusiasm that a young Fidel must have had. We can see why this group would look to him for leadership and inspiration in the pre-revolutionary years, before he became a powerful lifelong bureaucrat who gave 7 hours long speeches.

The second two hours--the last year or so of Che's life as he attempted to lead another revolution in Bolivia--falls utterly flat. Supposedly it was filmed in a different aspect ratio and with washed out colors in contrast to the richer visuals of the first part. Unfortunately, hardly anything interesting happens and the characters are drab and lifeless. This includes Che, whose quiet in the first section gives him an air of brooding and mystery, considering everything else that happens. In the second part, he is just as dull as everything else.

But what is the point of all this? To show that the the period leading up to the successful revolution was exciting while Che's Bolivian campaign was much more dreary? That is hardly the recipe for a good film, could surely have been communicated in a shorter period of time, and is not all that enlightening.

But the dull pointlessness of the second half only points to problems in the first half. There is not much said about Che as a man or the revolution he was participating in. Certainly, the structure points to ways that the mini-society the guerillas built in the countryside was a precursor--for better or worse--to the society they took control of. But was it better or worse, and why did it turn out that way? Soderbergh does not say. With the first half as a standalone film, this may have worked fine. But as a piece of a larger film it only begs the question of what it is doing there at all beyond convincing us to stick around for another two hours.

Somewhat infuriating is the transition to the second part. We are transported from the end of the successful battle leading to the seizure of power to Che in Bolivia. But what happened in between that led Che to disappear from Cuba? Could he have been disillusioned by Fidel's Cuba or perhaps working with him as part of a larger plan to transform Latin America? Both of these seem possible in Soderbergh's Che--at one point we are told that Fidel is sending money to help Che, at another one of Che's Bolivian prison guards asks what it feel like to be slogging it out in the jungle while Fidel is having fancy dinners in Cuba.

At one point, a Frenchman named Régis Debray arrives to support Che. Debray was the author of the classic Sixties text Revolution in the Revolution? Presumably, Debray and Che would have much to say about each others respective theories of guerilla warfare--what a fascinating discussion that would have been! Unfortunately, Soderbergh treats Debray as just some French guy who got caught, hardly more than a footnote in the history Che's Bolivian campaign and meaningless to anybody who does not already know who his identity.

The only mystery these issues create is why Soderbergh seems so ambivalent about these questions. By skipping over Che's life as a leader in the Cuban state, he avoids one of the most difficult questions of Che's life and the life of any revolutionary: how do you reconcile the battle to change society with the humdrum--and often compromising--reality of building a new bureaucracy while attempting to liberate ordinary people? Presumably Soderbergh is telling us that Che was really a fighter and not a bureaucrat, more comfortable organizing a guerrilla army than leading a bureaucracy.

But this adds little to the mainstream view of Che as the romantic revolutionary. There is some subtlety for those looking for some details, but little depth to explain his actions, what he was fighting for, whether Cuba became what Che hoped it would, and why the Bolivian campaign was such a disaster.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"No problem, you suck!"

I don't condone acts of violence against Ben Lyons--you would be surprised how often that comes up in comments in the blogosphere. Ok, maybe you wouldn't. But the last thing I need is for some fool to take a tire iron to Lyons and then send me a picture--don't bother, I won't publish them.

However, there is nothing wrong with a bit of good-natured heckling. In that light, here is a story sent to me by Phillip, a reader of this blog:

My gal scored tickets to the SAG Award bleacher seats for the red carpet. We brought along two of our friends since our tickets seated four. As we sat down, my buddy pointed out to me "Hey, that's Ben Lyons." Mr. Lyons proceeded to walk across the red carpet to which I heartily shouted "BOO, You suck!" He seemed to slightly turn his head away from me as he walked over to the other E! booth. Later on, he did the same thing, only this time he turned and looked at me very sternly. Yet again, I boo'ed and this time he shouted (rather rudely) "Thank you!" 'No problem, you suck!' I retorted. Suffice it to say, outside of Tracy Morgan I didn't see much of anyone other than his producer talk to the guy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The End of Televised Film Criticism?

I happened to catch The Charlie Rose Show last Friday and what a breath of fresh air. Two intelligent, experienced film critics (David Denby and A.O. Scott) talking about some of the best movies of the year on television. Is that even possible any more? Of course it is. (Above--start watching at about 14:00)

Now, why couldn't At the Movies have hired these guys--or any of a number of men and women who write prolifically and intelligently on film?

Oh yeah, it wouldn't make for good television--unlike the first 30 years of the show, apparently.

This blog posting from the LA Times sums it up very well, I think

Top critics wallop Oscar nominees
by Patrick Goldstein, LA Times

Having heard all the dismissive talk about the hapless new At the Movies team of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, I have a suggestion: If you want Must See Movie Critic TV, it's time to dump those lightweights and hire the New York Times' A.O. Scott and the New Yorker's David Denby, who put on a heady demonstration of critical fireworks Friday night on the Charlie Rose show. Although clearly a bit taken aback by the critics' rough treatment of the hallowed Oscar nominees, Rose still knew he'd seen two cultural observers at the top of their game, saying at show's end that it was "the best conversation about movies that's ever taken place at this table." For once, Charlie was actually understating the case. Eager to hear about the Oscar best picture and actor nominations, Rose got an earful from Denby and Scott, who both thought the best picture category would've been a lot stronger if it had a few films with real bite and depth, like Rachel Getting Married or Wall-E.

Scott perfectly grasps the underlying flaw of the Academy Awards, which has led to oh-so-many dazzling films being ignored in favor of middlebrow crowd-pleasers like A Beautiful Mind. As he put it: "I think the Oscars are an odd phenomena because what they're really about is not the best movies of a given year, but the American film industry's image of itself." After sharing solid enthusiasm for "Milk" and engaging in a fierce debate over The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the critical duo--Denby looking like a natty college professor, Scott like a brainy Rand analyst--proceeded to strafe the remainder of the best picture field, damning best picture favorite Slumdog Millionaire with the faintest of praise (Denby called it "fun and sentimental, but not a great film in any way") before dismissing Frost/Nixon (Scott calling it "a well-done minor film that should allow itself to be minor") and heaping scorn on The Reader. And what scorn!

Scott: "It's not a serious film. It's a self-serious film. The novel [it's based on] is a pretentious, sentimental consecration of an idea of literature that is just nonsensical and preposterous."

Denby on Ralph Fiennes' dreary performance: "What you got was his handsome face looking into nowhere for an hour. I wanted to give him a kick. Just do something!"

But it was their lively, biting exchange over Benjamin Button that really hit paydirt.

It all started when Scott teased Denby, saying "I don't adore Button, but I certainly didn't think it was the worst movie of the year [gesturing toward Denby] as you did." Denby laughed, saying, "Well, that was a little bit of a riff," with Scott shooting back, "You obviously didn't see The Love Guru."

But that was just the beginning. How brutal was Denby's dissection of Button? Keep reading:

Denby really was insulted by Button's entire filmmaking stance. "It took a playful science-fiction conceit of a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald and literalized it and monumentalized it and solemnized it. The level of the craft is extraordinary, but I don't see anything dramatic going on there.... Brad Pitt doesn't take a close-up well. The camera doesn't discover anything in his eyes. He doesn't know how to dramatize thought. I mean, how can we have deep, profound thoughts about what's essentially an artificial conceit?" Scott retorted: "You could say that about any movie that takes place in a world of fantasy or unreality. You could say that about Wall-E. That movie is a conceit and it's still the most profoundly moving movie of the year."

Denby was unmoved: "This movie never came alive dramatically. It was just absorbed in its own mechanics." Scott gave him a sidelong look, like a guy in a bar who just heard someone say that Willie Mays really wasn't such a great center fielder. "Actually," said Scott, "the more I hear you say that, the more I find myself actually liking the movie. For me, it had a structure that was almost like a piece of music. It just flows."

Scott acknowledged that he was dreading making the trek to the screening room to see Button, having heard that it was nearly three hours long. "To tell the truth, I was not looking forward to it. I sort of fought it for the first half-hour and then, well I didn't look at my watch for the rest of the film." With great timing, at least for a critic, Denby waited a beat and then sniffed: "I developed a love affair with my watch."

I know the great age of criticism is supposed to be over. But this was a wonderful throwback to the glory days of film criticism, hearing two wonderful practitioners of their trade sharpening their stilettos, separating the wheat from the chaff and actually sounding like they still enjoyed their jobs. But don't take my word for it. Watch for yourself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Criticwatch: Where in the world is Ben Lyons?

Why Ben Lyons goes to Sundance: to take pictures with famous people!

Erik Childress reviews Ben's performances from last week--at the Sundance film festival, then at the Oscar nomination ceremony:

Seriously, did Lyons see ANY movies at the festival? I understand that he works for the shallow void of entertainment journalism that is E! and that he has a priority to file celebrity interviews, but that’s not an all-day affair. Neither is the party he DJ’d sponsored by the Hard Rock Vegas. Just by accident people see other colleagues they know at two or three screenings. At least. I was at 28 different screenings during my six days there (27 from Friday-Tuesday.) Both press and public ones. Not once did I see Ben Lyons. Even a screening he was slated to attend for his main man Spike Lee’s new music documentary proved to be a no-show. If you can’t get Lyons to show up at a PRIVATE screening for one of his icons (Christ, even Miracle at St. Anna made his Top 10 list. Check the repeat if you doubt it), then what hope do the indie filmmakers of the world have? Ebert & Roeper used to do reports from Sundance talking about these great new movies called The Blair Witch Project and Memento among others. What is Ben Lyons bringing back with him from Sundance other than swag and a few new photos for his celebrity blog? Seriously, anyone who can place Moby Dick at an actual screening at this year's Sundance, please get in touch.

Erik also takes up some of Ben's quotes from the Oscar noms:

“Taken from the stage to the screen. That’s why it’s really well-acted.” – Ben Lyons on Doubt.

“…partly for use of the great archival footage in that.” – Ben Lyons on “part” of the reason why Gus Van Sant was nominated for Best Director for Milk.

I’m sure Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne are happy to hear that about Doubt considering they originated the roles now populated by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman on stage. The superior acting on display apparently has nothing to do with the unsparing talent of these four terrific performers, but simply through the magical powers of the roles being originated on the stage. “That’s why,” according to Junior. And considering how much archival footage Ed Wood used in his films, I’m now thinking it’s a crime he was never nominated for an Oscar while that hack Gus Van Sant was for pulling the same trick. But it’s the quote of the week that truly takes the cake.

Finally, he mentions that Lyons likes Penelope Cruz for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar:

So why does Lyons go with Cruz?

“I’m a Knicks fan. Woody Allen movie.”

Not since Dwayne on What’s Happening predicted the weekly football pool by choosing which team’s helmet he liked the most has there been a more arbitrary reasoning for picking a winner. I may as well just say that hometown boy Michael Shannon is going to beat Heath Ledger because I love the Chicago Cubs. Do us all a favor, Ben. Take yourself to Vegas and stay there. And be sure to wear a pretty helmet so you don’t hurt yourself.

By the way, I'm a Woody Allen fan. Does that make me a Knicks fan?

Read the entire Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, January 26, 2009

At the Movies, 1/25/09

This week's episode of At the Movies was a rerun, so I have little commentary to add from my previous discussion of this episode--where the Bens discuss their top ten lists for 2008--which you can view here.

But where Ben did appear last week was on the E! coverage of the Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, I missed it and I have not been able to come up with any video to either post or review, so I'll have to settle for a few quotes from others.

Gawker: Ben Lyons called Benjamin Button "a benchmark of cinema" because he is as big of a goddamned idiot as his father. He also said that Button will win Best Picture because it made lots of money. "You gotta make some coin." Why is this person on television? I wish Julianna Ranci-whatever would hit him with a sack of doorknobs. Was E! ever credible as an actual decent reporter on the entertainment industry? Did they ever try to be?

Dave McCoy, MSN Movies: Nobody should have to see "film critic" Ben Lyons break down ANYTHING at 5:30 in the morning. Or anytime. I shouldn't have watched the nominations on E!. "I've been at Sundance... it's great to be here." ... "It's gonna be a 'Slumdog' morning!"... "Marisa Tomei... naked at 40! Whoo!"... This guy is brutal and an offense to his profession.

I promised myself that I would not waste my life away watching Ben Lyons on E!, but between this and the recent Kristen Stewart review, I am afraid I am going to have to keep a closer eye on the channel. But I still hope to avoid the Nickelodeon game show.

Ben has clearly tried hard--although not entirely successfully--to look something like a serious film critic on At the Movies, but still seems to think he can act like a fool on E! We should not let him.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ben still gushing about Twilight

Above is a brief interview that Ben Lyons did on E! with a visibly annoyed Kristen Stewart, the star of Twilight. He starts by saying she must be sick of talking about Twilight and then spends the rest of the interview talking about it. She is there to push her new film Adventureland at Sundance and is clearly annoyed and confused by his idiotic line of questioning.

Perhaps she knew that he put the movie on his list of the ten worst films of 2008, although there is no sign of that here. In fact, he talks about how cool the movie is and how much he is looking forward to the next installment in the series. She was probably just thrown by his stupid questions and perhaps worried that she would be asked to have her picture taken for his poser page. Either way, this is a very awkward interview for everybody except Ben Lyons, who seems to be enjoying himself.

Sorry, Ben, you can't play serious film critic on At the Movies and continue to play starstalker on E! You will only make a fool out of yourself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

SAG Watches It All Slip Away

This was originally posted at

Capitulation in Hollywood:
SAG Watches It All Slip Away


While American labor unions are having their usual rough time of it (not to mention the additional burden of having weathered eight brutal years of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is facing not only potential defeat in the form of getting jammed with an inferior contract, but stands to be dealt a bitter humiliation. And the entity applying that humiliation isn’t its long-time adversary, the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). It’s SAG’s own membership.

Typically (and understandably), a union membership wants it all. That’s the standard dynamic. The members want a first-rate union contract, with all the goodies; but, because of the dangers involved, they want it to come all neatly wrapped up, without any risks. There’s a baseball analogy. The manager goes out to the mound and glibly instructs the pitcher on how to pitch to a dangerous batter: “Don’t walk him, but don’t give him anything to hit.”

What SAG’s rank-and-file wants from its leadership is much the same thing. Bring us back a good contract, a substantial contract, an improved contract, but don’t ask us to join you in a battle or otherwise sacrifice anything important to get it. Above all, don’t ask us to get tough.

Granted, this isn’t true of everyone. There are many defiant SAG members willing to stand up to the AMPTP and fight for what they feel they deserve. But there are many (too many) more who’ve lowered their expectations. Because they are so spooked by the prospect of a strike, they’ve abandoned any hope of a decent contract and now simply want to come out of this thing with signatures on a 3-year agreement—any agreement.

To avoid the trauma of a possible strike, they’re willing to settle for crap. Despite SAG president Allen Rosenberg’s pleas to stay united and focused, in order to help the union’s negotiating team obtain a fair share of revenue created by digital technology (SAG feels it got cheated on revenue from previous technological innovations, such as VHS and DVDs), the membership has chosen open rebellion.

There are simply too many things out there that scare them, too many things that prevent them from falling in line behind their union. The Alliance scares them; the recession scares them; the recent WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike scares them; Bernie Madoff scares them; and, most of all, the union’s strident militancy scares them.

Unfortunately, because SAG has been unable to keep its internal bickering a private matter (when you take out a newspaper ad, you’ve pretty much tipped your hand), the AMPTP has been watching this whole, shameful burlesque from the sidelines, and is licking its chops in anticipation of profiting from it. In truth, as greedy and dissembling as the Alliance is, who can blame them for wanting to take advantage of so easy a mark?

A union in such a state of disarray—with the membership running a newspaper advertisement pleading with its own executive board to “lighten up,” and its own board members trying to get their chief negotiator fired because he’s “too mean,”—deserves every bad thing that happens to it. (That sound you hear in the background is Jimmy Hoffa spinning in his grave.)

On Tuesday, January 13, a group of self-proclaimed “moderates” on SAG’s executive board tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a resolution to get executive director/chief negotiator Doug Allen removed from his job. It was only by means of some slick parliamentary maneuvering (i.e., stalling) that Rosenberg and his cohorts were able to deflect the motion. But it was a horrendous blow to the union, even with Allen managing to hang on to his job.

Based on what’s been widely reported, Doug Allen, SAG’s point man, seems to be one tough bird. A former official of the NFL’s Players Association (as well as a former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills), Allen probably falls into that category of negotiator labeled “difficult.” He fights hard, he fights to win, he isn’t easily intimidated. In other words, exactly the sort of negotiator management dreads and a union needs.

If SAG’s 120,000 members really wanted to come out of this thing with a good contract they would have done the opposite of what they’re doing now. Instead of wetting their pants, they would have come out publicly and defiantly in support of Rosenberg and Allen’s leadership—no matter what their personal feelings—and put the fear of God into the AMPTP.

When you reach this point in a bargain it’s absolutely imperative that you show solidarity. When you reach this point, you need to demonstrate publicly your support of the leadership. You’re on stage now, and everyone is watching. What management fears more than anything—more than rhetoric, more than threats of lawsuits—is evidence that the members overwhelmingly support their leaders. Union solidarity is a scary thing.

Taking out a splashy newspaper ad that’s critical of your own leadership—an ad for all the world to see (particularly the opportunistic Alliance)—is tantamount to economic treason. Even given Hollywood’s storied reputation for bombastic egos and towering self-aggrandizement, what could have motivated someone to pull a bone-headed stunt like that?

If you’re a longshoreman, steelworker or paperworker, and you take out a newspaper ad like that, you’re likely to be picking up your teeth off the floor or finding your car on fire. In “real” unions, you do you’re bitching at the union hall, not in the media. You want to be an “independent,” fine, go it alone. But if you’re a union member, you stay united.

Of course, the fact that A-list actors like Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Alec Baldwin support the rebellion and were the ones who instigated the ad means that no one’s going to make their lives miserable. They’re too big; in fact, they’re bigger than the union. And, frankly, this kind of foppish behavior is precisely why many hardcore labor people view SAG as a “boutique” union.

All that Rosenberg and Allen are asking for is strike authorization. They need something to prove to the AMPTP that they still believe their contract demands are reasonable and that the membership is serious about getting them. No one is promising to shut down Hollywood. A strike vote isn’t the same thing as a strike. Strike authorization is simply a way (arguably, the only way) of raising the sperm count.

But with all that’s already happened, it might be too late for Rosenberg and company to regroup and put together a decent offensive. Unless things change quickly and radically, it will be close to impossible for SAG’s e-board to get strike authorization, assuming they’re still considering taking a vote. A 75% mandate is required, and getting it will be a tall order.

SAG membership had a chance to assist their negotiating team; they had a chance to help move the AMPTP off the dime. By publicly and enthusiastically supporting SAG’s e-board, they could have altered the course of the bargain. Instead, they capitulated. That decision is likely to haunt them for years to come.

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Selling his sole

Ben: "These are nice dude, but I'm going to need, like, TWO of these shoes. Do you think you can handle that, Mr. Shoe salesman? Hey I'm Ben F-ing Lyons, who the hell are you! Do you even know who my father is?"

Monday, January 19, 2009

At the Movies, 1/18/09

Stop that "film critic"!
I have always said that I would be much more willing to give Ben Mankiewicz a chance on a show with a better film critic than Ben Lyons--not that he would be my first choice, but he seems reasonably informed and willing to defend his strong--if sometimes unusual--opinions.

Unfortunately, on the current show he often finds it difficult to complete a thought, not to mention an entire sentence. Lyons is so quick to jump in and get his face time with his inane comments, sometimes sitting there with his mouth open, foot shaking, leaning forward and just waiting to interrupt him. Mank doesn't stand a chance.

I noticed this during the review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop more than any time in the recent past. Lyons started the review and gave his rating, then Mank tried so hard just to complete his thought that by the end he just seemed annoyed--which is pretty endearing, because at least the audience can sympathize with him--with his clenched teeth and stone-faced stare attempting to hide how pissed he is getting. Unlike Lyons, Mank is trying to develop a conclusion out of several insights into the movie, positive and negative, each of which Lyons sees as a chance to say "Oh, yeah, that was so funny when . . ." etc. Obviously Lyons is the only person--excluding the few who still watch the show--who cannot seem to tell that Mank isn't finished yet.

Even worse, when Mank is done and says "Skip It", Lyons says, "I'm glad, though, that you see the talent in Kevin James. I do think he's one of the funnier guys working today." A fair enough comment, but after interrupting Mank three--three!--times, it is a bit much for Lyons to congratulate him on making a single point when he in fact struggled to get out several.

As for Lyons' opinion on the movie, he says "I don't think there is anything wrong with taking [your family] to See It."

That is a "See It" in capital letters, which would be Ben's rating for Paul Blart: Mall Cop. This is becoming a recurring event for Lyons on this show--if a movie is relatively sweet and innocent, then he says you should "See It". Pretty much regardless of the quality of the movie, which he cannot defend at all, and which Mank always calls him on.

This explains Ben's defensive "I don't think there is anything wrong" with going to see it. Fine. But is there anything right with going to see it? A reason that people should take the time and the money to go to a theater to see it? If not, THEN YOU SHOULD NOT RECOMMEND THAT WE SHOULD "SEE IT" no matter how much you want to stay on Kevin James' good side so that you can set up an interview with him later.

He makes the same sort of comment--although this time, even worse--when he says of Hotel for Dogs that there is "nothing wrong with renting this [ie Rent it] if you have to take care of the kids and want something to put on for two hours." So not only is there "nothing wrong with renting" the movie, you don't even have to watch it! When did the possibility to get a kid to sit in front of a TV become a criteria for a rating? If that is your criteria, there is plenty of stuff a kid is willing to tolerate on TV, why bother with renting?

And if you are going to the video store--or Netflix, or whatever--and you have the possibility of renting just about anything, why not try something unique or different, an old classic that will open your kid's horizons? Because Ben Lyons said Rent It, rather than encouraging you to find something better. Thanks Ben, lowering the country's standards one "Rent It" at a time.

By the way, I am sure there are 10-year-olds who, when given the chance to rent Hotel for Dogs would respond, "No thanks, I'd rather watch Wall-E again."

Finally, I have to give props to Mank for his snarky comment delivered with a sneering grin: "Hotel for Dogs is about, and this may surprise you, five kids who start a hotel . . . for dogs! Sometimes the script just writes itself."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Top Ten films of 2008

I once held the top ten list in a near mystical esteem. Somewhere between the lists compiled by Siskel and Ebert--and I always leaned more toward Ebert--it seemed that the objectively true list could be found. When both picked Fargo as the best film of the year, it was clearly an unattestable fact and the argument was over.

I have a bit more of a skeptical view of this now, as does Ebert, who published his top twenty of the year in alphabetical order---just to bug the crap out of everybody--and then a completely distinct list of the top ten foreign films of the year. I can't blame him for breaking the rules--after all, how do you really choose between the third and fourth best movies of the year? Ask me again next week and I would probably give you a slightly different list, especially towards the bottom.

To compound matters, I am not a professional film critic and have only seen an infinitesimal fraction of the 650+ films that came out this year. Nonetheless, with this disclaimer, here is my best attempt at a list of the top ten films of the year:

  1. Synecdoche, New York: You don't need to be a part of a cadre of eggheads to appreciate this film, but it sure helps to have an open mind. Buried (for some) in a self-referential story of life turning into art (or vice-versa?) is the downfall of a great mediocrity--Caden Cottard, who always thought he could be more than a well know theater director in Schenectady, but ended up being miserable forever grasping at an impossible ideal. Intellectual, bizarre, self-effacing, and painfully poignant (especially the scenes regarding his daughter), Synecdoche, New York is the best film of the year.

  2. Doubt: I know that I am in the vast minority on this film which has as many detractors as supporters--although it has not polarized critics quite like Synecdoche. "Meryl Streep is hammy"--hogwash, it's a fantastic performance. "The ending is awful"--maybe for some, but I found myself profoundly moved. "It's not cinematic enough"--OK, this one hurts a bit, as I love a film told visually. But the sparse scenes of the urban Catholic school mixed with the ancient rituals of a slowly reforming church tell us so much about the environment these characters inhabit. More than that, we see the real obstacles within the church bureaucracy that restrict Sister Aloysius--otherwise a fearless disciplinarian--from protecting her students. Of course, it is never entirely clear what has happened, but the battle of wills between two giant figures--and the underlying theological issues each has on their side--is as intense and engaging as any cinematic experience this year.

  3. The Dark Knight: The best action movie of the year--and quite possibly the best superhero movie of all time--deserves high praise--although considering the obscene amount of money it brought in, I doubt it needs it. Batman Begins rescued the character--who has always been my favorite--from its Adam West (and later George Clooney) campiness and reminds us how dark and brooding his story is. The newer film does something far more unexpected, providing not only a canvas for the late Heath Ledger's brilliant performance, but also for a story that challenges the entire enterprise of the costumed vigilante.

  4. Milk: "I'm 40 years old and I haven't done a thing with my life," says Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. The next 8 years, on the other hand, would be extraordinary. Milk becomes a spokesman for gay rights at a time when it was not safe to be openly gay and walk the streets of San Francisco at night. Not limiting itself to Milk's personal story, we see how he became the leader of a movement, both holding it back at times and quietly supporting the occasionally violent outpourings of anger. It would have been much easier--and safer--to become a moderate voice inside the fold of the Democratic Party, but sometimes change requires pissing a few people off. Milk did it with a smile, which unfortunately was not enough disarm the opposition. Milk the movie tells this story without ever missing a beat.

  5. Slumdog Millionaire: A young man is born into miserable poverty in Bombay and spends his life dealing with the effects of global capitalsim, until he ends up on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"--a show that would certainly not exist without an unfettered free market. His story is incredible, but it is more about survival than achievement. Beyond the grittiness of the Global South lies a fantastic fairy tale, one that is well beyond the bounds of reality but still rooted in the struggles and dramas of a poor orphaned Muslim boy.

  6. The Wrestler: Mickey Rourke gives us the best performance of any man, woman, child, slumdog, vampire, gay politician or retired president in any film this year. The story is simple although we still learn substantially about the morbid side of the theatrical professional wrestling scene--the washed up stars, disappointments, steroids, and a surprising amount of physical pain for a "fake" sport. The story may not be the most original, but Rourke inhabits his character so convincingly that it hardly matters.

  7. Waltz with Bashir: One of the most unique and innovative film-going experiences of the year, this "animated documentary" recounts the story of Israeli soldiers in the war with Lebanon. Their fantastic memories--including true stories, half-forgotten incidents, and dreams--create a haunting tapestry of time better left forgotten. If it were only that easy.

  8. Let the Right One In: If vampires were real, they wouldn't glitter in the sunlight and take their girlfriends on piggy-back rides up a mountain. They would live in the darkness, constantly in fear for their lives, sneaking around and killing people in the dark. Their sexuality would be creepy and weird, not silly and romantic. Their families wouldn't be happy and they wouldn't go to high school or live in huge houses in the hills, but in crappy run-down apartments. Fake goth kids and teenagers who have never heard of Kafka are into Twilight--Let the Right One In is the real thing.

  9. The Reader: What would you do if you were a teenage boy seduced by Kate Winslet in the early sixties in Germany? Ok, but what if she turned out to be a Nazi? The question, as in Bashir, is who is responsible for atrocities committed in the past and how can society--and individuals--atone for their sins--or can they? At times feeling a bit neat and staged, the latter part of the film becomes gut wrenching and painful.

  10. Wall-E: How many films in the post-silent era can say that their two main characters have almost no dialogue besides saying each other's names, and still find a way to communicate character and warmth? This is a movie that a generation of youngsters will look back on as the movie that raised their cultural bar and made them appreciate how film can tell a story without poorly written dialogue and obviously arbitrary plot points. It took me until I saw The Godfather on video at 13 to make this realization, perhaps for the next generation it will come sooner with Wall-E.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Haunted by what he forgot

Waltz with Bashir
Directed by Ari Folman
90 min
Rated R

Review by Scott Johnson

HISTORY IS written by the winners. The victors always turn out to have fought a just war--in the textbooks they will go on to write--and any doubts or contradictory evidence is flushed down the Orwellian memory hole.

That is how it is supposed to work, but individuals tend to remember things differently, regardless of how hard they might want to forget.

This is the problem dealt with in Waltz with Bashir, a film about Israeli soldiers who fought in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Told as an "animated documentary"--a series of interviews with animated visuals, memories and dream sequences--the story revolves around director Ari Folman's effort to remember his experiences in Lebanon, every memory of which has been repressed.

Folman interviews several people who served with him and might be able to fill in the blanks. Each provides a unique story that both fills in some of the details Folman is looking for and documents a uniquely incredible experience that most would prefer to forget. Describing one of the men, Folman comments that before the war everybody thought he would be a Nobel Prize-nominated physicist by the time he was 40. "By the time I turned 20," the man says, recounting his now lost youth, "that future was gone."

The innovative imagery is a product of several forms of animation, creating the look of an animated graphic novel. This makes the various tales of Folman's fellow soldiers much more believable than watching them played out in live action. It also helps to create a fantastical atmosphere that conveys the sense of a half-forgotten memory. The haunting and poetic scenes capture the fear, loneliness and misery that the soldiers faced.

But this is not Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, a movie in which the details of a rape and murder are described by multiple witnesses, with each story only contradicting the previous one. If only that were true, Folman might be able to avoid the painful truth. Rather, the deeper he digs, the closer Folman comes to an accurate account of the history he participated in.

For a moment, it seems like the worst things he will find are the challenges that the soldiers faced. But it turns out that Folman was at the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, where Israeli soldiers stood guard while the Lebanese Phalangist militia massacred 2,000 innocent Palestinian civilians. Folman slowly comes to realize that he and his fellow soldiers--who stood by as the massacre took place--are complicit.

A reporter he interviews recounts calling then-Defense Minister (and later Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, who seemed blissfully unconcerned--but fully informed--of the massacre that was occurring. Folman's worst fear seems to be coming true--that he is complicit in a genocidal brutality on par with what his parent faced in Auschwitz.

In another interview, a psychologist tells him that people tend to remember things that did not actually happen to them, taking stories and images they discover after the fact and rewriting their own memory. This is essentially what has happened with the collective memory of many Israelis, who believe that the Phalangists and not the Israelis were responsible--which Folman shows to be a gross simplification.

Folman and his cohorts talk about how they erected an emotional wall between themselves and the events around them at the time of the war. One even describes looking on the battle scenes as if he was looking at them through a camera--but eventually the "camera breaks" as he finds himself in the middle of a scene too gruesome to either comprehend or ignore.

The animation in Bashir plays the role of this "camera", allowing us to view the war at arms length. Ultimately, as he comes to comprehend his own involvement in the massacre, the "camera" of both the character and director Ari Folman will break as well, as the long repressed images of brutality come flooding back.

Waltz with Bashir is not specifically pro-Palestinian, nor is it overtly critical of the Zionist political project. But its purpose is to lay the responsibility on Israel for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, attempting to challenge the whitewashed memory of Israeli innocence. Therefore, it is a very welcome development that this film has found some success inside of the country. Considering Israel's current invasion of Gaza, the hope is that this film will have some resonance with a wide audience there.

One scene in particular that seems incredibly relevant in Bashir is when Israeli soldiers look down on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as the massacre is carried out and do nothing to stop it. In a strikingly similar scene, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on Israeli citizens gathering on steep hillsides overlooking Gaza for a view of the battles, turning war into a spectator sport.

Perhaps they might learn from Waltz with Bashir that there is nothing innocent about this sort of gleeful spectatorship.

Originally published at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Adolf Hitler taken into custody

More news on the Nazi front. I reported recently on Wal-Mart baking a cake (which another store refused to do) for a child named "Adolf Hitler Campbell". Here is the latest news:

HOLLAND TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — Police say three New Jersey siblings whose names have Nazi connotations have been placed in the custody of the state.

Holland Township Police Sgt. John Harris says workers from the state Division of Youth and Family Services on Tuesday 3-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell and his younger sisters, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell from their home Tuesday.

When asked why the kids were taken, a New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) official said they could not give any specific details about the case but "DYFS would never remove a child simply based on that child's name."

Although I suppose if asked to elaborate, the official might have said "We were pretty certain based on evidence that these kids were being abused in various ways that would effect their development over the long term. How do we know that? Because the parents named their kid Adolf Fucking Hitler!"

In case you missed the post last time around, I suggested that perhaps this would be a happier birthday for next year:

Worse than Ben Lyons - Prince Harry

That would be Prince Harry in the photo to the right, caught recently--in a video of his own making--using the racial epithets "raghead" and "paki". The latter is considered a bit more offensive in the UK than the US.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has found it in himself to stand up for this fool (the lackey British politicians always do), saying:

'Prince Harry knows these comments aren't acceptable. He's made an apology.

'I think the British people are good enough to give someone who has been a role model for young people and has done well fighting for our country - gone into very difficult situations with bravery - the benefit of the doubt.'

Yeah, some role model, dressing up like Nazi. And does he really need the benefit of the doubt, or should he be held to a higher standard? The benefit of the doubt was not given to Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man running to catch his subway train in London in July 2005, shot to death by the police who assumed he was a suicide bomber.

The family of the young man Harry called a "paki" is still pissed, calling Harry a "coward" for not issuing a televised apology, and calling the term a "disgraceful insult".

This is all the result of aristocrats stuck in their bubble, knowing what all the little forks at their fancy dinners are used for but having no clue as to what ordinary people really think is appropriate.

Or, as Eddie Izzard said in Dressed to Kill, "This is what happens when cousins marry."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Criticwatch: "Rachel" getting misspelled

"If ten people were to see it, eight would absolutely hate it, one would be indifferent and one, for God knows why, would think it's brilliant. I am one of those eight. I just hated it."

That is Erik Childress at Criticwatch quoting Ben Lyons, who is describing what he believes is the third worst movie of the year. Which would be Synecdoche, New York. You may have been a bit confused by one of the best films of the year--it was not supposed to be straight-forward. But you are probably much more confused listening to Ben:

"While [Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's] other films are a little bit more commercial in their approach and easier to understand, this is difficult because it really makes itself up as it goes along introducing characters out of context. You don't know if it's a dream or if it's in his head. The symbolism behind things, it is a difficult movie to wrap your head around."

These are the babbling words of somebody who has no idea what he has just seen, much less the critical capacities to judge it. I highly doubt that Ben knows anything about "symbolism"--his favorite movie of the year, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has a number of trite and phony "symbols" that do nothing to enrich the story but sure make a numskull like Lyons feel like he is watching something brilliant.

Anyway, Erik continues:

Not easy to understand. Difficult to wrap your head around. Nothing symbolic about that when it comes to Lyons going to the Spies Like Us school of criticism ("We mock what we don't understand.") Those of us who do fall into the category of believing Synecdoche is brilliant (it was #4 on my Top 10) are well aware of the passionate love-it-or-hate-it demographic that some of the best works of cinematic art are prone to inspire. And those are both sides could fill hours debating all the intricacies and whether or not Kaufman succeeded or failed to articulate his puzzle beyond your atypical David Lynch mindsuck. Therein lies why such placement on Lyons' worst list is so troubling. Wouldn't you love to see Benny vs. Ebert go smug mouth to computerized voice on stage discussing this film? Of course you would, not the least because it would be the equivalent of one of Tyson's early fights and you would still have time for dinner and a movie. Lyons wouldn't know how to begin deconstructing what he "hated" so much about Synecdoche, New York even if he had more than 40 seconds to expand on this "confusing, contrived and downright crazy" film.

Finally, Erik gives us the sorry tale of a pretty good movie so poorly regarded by this program that one of the hosts--the better one!--put it on his top ten worst films of the year list and the show's staff could not even be bothered to spell its name correctly (see the photo above). Oh man, what a screw up! That has to be, like, the most embarrassing mistake they have ever made on that show! Wait a second . . . I forgot about the guy sitting in front of the display . . .

I would like to think that this is a subversive act of sabotage by a long-standing crew member showing her distaste with the "new direction" that the show was taking post-Ebert. Unfortunately, I have a feeling this is just a reflection of the overall decline in standards of the show.

Read the entire Criticwatch Ben Lyons Quote of the Week here

Monday, January 12, 2009

At the Movies, 1/10/09

Dude, seriously, you need to stop. This is getting ridiculous.

I want to stop talking about Twilight--in fact, I never wanted to start. But Ben Lyons just won't let me.

I suggested recently that Ben put Let The Right One In on his Top Ten of 2008 in order to make up for hyping Twilight
. Now, he puts Twilight on his ten worst of the year! Better yet, it is precisely number ten--just "bad" enough to make the list, but not so bad that it is necessarily worse than any of the other films. He even adds "I admit I bought into the hype that swirled around the project for months on end." Do you really need to remind us? Better yet, he calls it "the most disappointing film of the year." Of course, that assumes that you actually thought it was going to be a decent movie in the first place. Mank responds appropriately--no, it's not the most disappointing movie of the year, that would be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull--because at least you had a reason to think it would be a good movie (not that it was the worst movie of the year).

Keanue Reeves totally sucked more than Robert PattinsonI would like to stop there, but there is another problem. There are a whole series of crappy movies that are certainly worse than Twilight--The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Spirit both come to mind--the latter would be my pick for the most disappointing film of the year, by the way, I really thought that was going kick ass. I am surprised that neither one of these made either list.

Ok, so I would really love to stop there, but it gets even worse. Ben Lyons thinks Synecdoche, New York is worse than Twilight. Let me say that again:

Ben Lyons thinks Synecdoche, New York is worse than Twilight!!!

In fact, there are only two films that Ben thinks are worse than Synecdoche in 2008! Just when I think you are taking Mank's recommendation to "calm down", you go and do something ridiculous like this.

Ben then goes on to agree with Mank's number 5 pick 21, saying that director Robert Luketic (better known for directing Legally Blond) was the wrong choice because he is too much of a light-weight. Yeah, seriously, it's like taking some fool from E! and putting him on a serious film review show--you never know, he might go and do something stupid like put one of the best films of the year on his ten worst list.

Oh, and let's not forget, Mank listed Rachel Getting Married as number 8--on his ten worst list! That means:

Ben Mankiewicz thinks that Rachel Getting Married is worse than Twilight!!!

Dear God, what are we going to do with these guys?

Their full lists are below:


10. Twilight 10. Mamma Mia!
9. Speed Racer 9. Love Guru
8. Mad money 8. Rachel Getting Married
7. Beverly Hills Chihuahua7. Babylon, A.D.
6. Meet Dave6. Max Payne
5. The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor5. 21
4. War, Inc.4. College
3. Synecdoche, New York3. Filth and Wisdom
2. The Women2. Vantage Point
1. Repo! The Genetic Opera1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

PS My Top Ten Films of 2008 list will be posted on Friday. And no, it was not influenced by this episode.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Who will criticize the critics? A progressive response to Cenk Uygur

As a film-lover and as a progressive, I was disappointed by the defense of Ben Lyons given by Air America host Cenk Uygur on the liberal Huffington Post Web site. Many film-lovers would disagree with Uygur, but as a progressive I think that Uygur's approach is backward and uncritical of the corporate media.

Uygur begins with a disclaimer to let us know that he is the former co-host of Lyons' current co-host on At the Movies, Ben Mankwieicz. What Uygur does not seem to consider at all is that it is exactly this sort of disclaimer that is so often missing from Ben Lyons' reviews. Lyons is not a reliable independent source of critical opinion exactly because he too often name-drops his friends in his reviews. Little would viewers know that he is complimenting an actor he has a friendship with because he never gives such a disclaimer himself. Additionally, his movie reviews far too often throw out comments that are clearly meant to be picked up as blurbs for the advertising campaigns of the films that he is supposed to be criticizing.

The result of this is that it is very difficult to take his reviews seriously. Uygur mentions none of this, simply stating that

the whole entertainment industry is built around sucking up to celebrities. You think Ben Lyons is uniquely responsible for this? Are you mental? Have you watched any entertainment 'news' in your life?

But this does not deal with the issue at all--Uygur simply makes Lyons out to be "just as bad" as the entire industry. That is hardly a convincing defense, especially considering that previous hosts of At the Movies such as Siskel and Ebert--or Roeper and Phillips, for that matter--did not indulge in this sort of behavior. Nobody believes that Lyons is "uniquely responsible" for this sorry state of affairs. Lyons is, however, one of the most visible film critics in the country now sitting in the highest seat of criticism and is one of the critics most blatantly responsible for this sort of behavior--and that is what has resulted in the backlash against Lyons.

But what is most missing from Uygur's response is any background of the overall context of film criticism today and the corporate environment it occupies. The mass media is controlled by a small number of large corporations, which means that there is crossover between the owners of the film studios and television networks on the one hand and the publications who hire the critics on the other. ABC/Disney--the producers of At the Movies--is a perfect example of this. In theory, critics give an unbiased opinion of the films they view. In reality, however, they are not only employed by the corporations that produce the work they are criticizing but are also beholden to the friendliness of Hollywood stars, directors, and producers, whose cooperation they need in order to land high-profile interviews. Even worse, it is not uncommon for some critics to give a free pass to far too many movies and include silly blurbs like "It's a thrill-a-minute blockbuster!" in their reviews, guaranteeing their blurb--and their name--will land on the materials for the movie's ad campaign. The critic legitimizes Hollywood so that Hollywood will legitimize them.

Even more significantly, the struggle for survival by print periodicals and the rise of Web sites dedicated to film reviews has meant that a number of film critics have lost their jobs recently. To make matters worse, the Associated Press recently announced that they expect their critics to keep their reviews to 500 words or less. All of this means that today's critics are forced to constantly look over their shoulder and have a number of pressures on them to adapt to Hollywood's standards--presumably under the guise of appealing to the masses--rather than critique it harshly or provide a more sophisticated analysis.

This is not just a question of whether movie reviews should be directed at the uneducated masses versus academic film snobs. This is a question of whether the critic can be considered an independent voice at all or simply a cog in the film industry whose position is dictated by those who control the wealth and is, therefore, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds it. When he declared I Am Legend to be one of the greatest movies of all time and 300 to be one of the greatest films of the last twenty five years--but could not even be bothered to find a space on his top ten list of 2007 for the latter--Lyons exposed precisely what is wrong with many of today's film critics. While some are principled and have no qualms about slamming Hollywood for expecting us to like much of the senseless garbage that is produced, too many are willing to suck up to the industry and its stars in order to get their name on a poster or guarantee an interview.

It is also important to reject the attitude that critics should just tell ordinary folks what they will like and not be so concerned with film history. Considering that Siskel and Ebert had no problem giving two thumbs up to "lowbrow" comedies and action movies when they were well made, Uygur's attitude seems to expect a "dumbing down" of criticism. But far too many progressives look upon the "unwashed masses" with disdain, as though the entire country is composed of beer-swilling red state imbeciles who are glued to the television and will eat whatever is fed to them--politically, culturally, and literally. Uygur does not explicitly express this sort of dismissive attitude but plays directly into it with the belief that ordinary people are not interested in "cinematography and shadowy lighting".

On the contrary, it does not take an Ivy League education to appreciate these things. Anybody who watches a lot of movies--and many people who do not--can appreciate a scene well photographed. Siskel and Ebert, by the way, were always far more receptive of interesting characters and surprising plots--they simply expected films to give us something different and unexpected and encouraged people to have a higher standard than they might otherwise have. The point of the critic, as Ebert once said, is not only to reflect public opinion but also to shape--to encourage people not to settle for less and expect a higher standard from the entertainment machine that puts out films through a production line process and hopes the masses will stroll in the theater with their $10 regardless of quality or originality.

Rather than make excuses for critics like Ben Lyons, progressives should demand more. We should criticize the critics who are only interested in furthering their careers and are willing to make fools of themselves--and their audience--by recommending films that do not deserve the recommendation. We should encourage ordinary people to expect more out of their critics, not less.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

With Friends Like These, Ben Lyons Needs More Friends

Originally posted at New York Magazines Vulture blog. I hope to have my response to Cenk Uygur up tomorrow.

When we wrote about the brewing Category 4 Ben Lyons Hate Storm last week, Vulture took a mildly ambivalent stance on the self-proclaimed "movie dude." While a nation of highbrow critics are calling for his head on a platter (their bloodlust is so strong that they're not even demanding said platter be cast from silver), we kind of took the stance that Lyons isn't worth demonizing because he's pretty genial and, ultimately, not that influential. However, we just stumbled across a shoddily composed essay over at the Huffington Post titled "In Defense of Ben Lyons" that has us reconsidering our stance. Penned by a blogger named Cenk Uygur, the piece's crucial thesis statement reads as follows:

Here is my simple message to all the haters — get off Ben Lyons' ass.

And it gets worse from there.

Though we don't know what kind of relationship Uygur has with Lyons (if any at all), we were kinda hoping that someone more well spoken would've rushed to defend the younger of the Two Bens. Uygar's piece is chock-full of tired clichés (at one point, he writes the groan-worthy line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn that he doesn't have Roger Ebert's encyclopedic knowledge of film history") and weirdly cyclical arguments. His major point seems to be that he doesn't watch At the Movies to find out about "cinematography and shadowy lighting"; rather, he just wants to know if he should take his old lady to go see Benjamin Button or not. After all, as he argues, "How this movie compares with Frank Capra's body of work is a lot less relevant to me than whether my wife is going to be able to sit through it." Good point, we suppose, but we're kind of hoping we never have to meet his wife.

He goes on to rail against the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd by stating that he's "got two Ivy League degrees and I still loved Old School," before launching into his closing arguments with an impassioned chant of "Look, let's keep it real." At that point, his argument really falls apart when he refers back to the "haters" we mentioned from his thesis statement:

Are some of these other critics jealous of Ben Lyons because he has landed such a prestigious and well paying job (and one that makes you famous) whereas they are still working in print? Absolutely.

Way to kick the film critics of America when they're down, Cenk. As the cliché that we're fairly certain he's familiar with goes, there's just no accounting for taste.

Police kill unarmed man in Oakland

On New Years Eve, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police here in Oakland apprehended an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man, put him face down, and shot him to death. This gruesome event was captured on a number of cell phone videos that have played here on local television stations.

This is not easy footage to watch, and I don't necessarily recommend it, but it is important so here it is.

Protests last night turned into a mini-riot in downtown Oakland--not entirely inappropriate considering what has happened.

Too bad he doesn't want to

Shawn Edwards defends Ben Lyons
by Justin Kendall
The Pitch, Kansas City
Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 06:04:22 PM

Fox 4 movie critic Shawn Edwards has been called a quote whore for his bombastic proclamations that end up on movie posters. So he can sympathize with his friend and fellow critic Ben Lyons, who now co-hosts "At the Movies," giving his reviews from balcony seats once reserved for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

The Los Angeles Times recently wondered if Lyons is the most hated movie critic in America. The criticisms against Lyons mirror those against Edwards: no film knowledge, celebrity ass kisser and shill. Edwards says the Times story was "tremendously unfair."

"My man, he knows a lot about movies," Edwards says. "He's knowledgeable but it may not come through in his delivery. For goodness sake, he works for E!. You can't come with the hard-core cinematic knowledge on E!. That's not what that audience is looking for on that network."

What they're looking for, Edwards says, is someone from the "iPod generation" with an "MTV approach." But Edwards says Lyons could do the "hard-core, serious, film criticism delivery if he wanted to."

Edwards preaches patience with Lyons.

"You can't slam him right out the gate," Edwards says. "There's no one that Disney could hire to fill the shoes of Siskel and Ebert. There's nobody that could sit in that balcony and make that show happen immediately. It's going to take time.

"I wouldn't want that job," Edwards says. "I wouldn't want to follow Roger Ebert. Hell no. ... Sure I would love to have that job, but it would be tough for any working critic today. It would be impossible."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Joe the Journalist

This is where the "mediocrity and American culture" part of the blog comes in. The Associated Press is reporting that Samuel J. "Joe The Plumber" Wurzelbacher (or "Wurzelburger", if you ask John McCain) is going to be a war correspondent in Israel for the Web site Pajamas TV. He will be going there to let "Average Joes tell their story."

This is the same "Joe the Plumber" who attacked Obama's "socialist" tax plan even though it would be better for him than McCain's tax plan. This is also the guy that said a vote for Obama is a vote for "Death to Israel," so I doubt he will be interviewing many "Average Joes" among the Palestinian community.

Worse than Ben Lyons - Big Hollywood

I just got back from vacation and had my first chance to take a look at the new right-wing movie site Big Hollywood. Oh boy--maybe I should head back to Las Vegas. I sometimes worry about having enough material every week to maintain a Web site to stopping Ben Lyons--most weeks the only things that happens is an episode of At the Movies. So I try to supplement the Ben Lyons news with other movie- and culture-related articles. After taking a look at Big Hollywood, I imagine I will have a regular and easy target for ridicule. Unfortunately, there is also a fellow who contributes to the blog named "Scott W. Johnson". Rest assured, I am the real Scott Johnson, please do not accept any imitations.

Here are a few choice pieces (and some commentary by me):

John Nolte reviews Doubt:

[T]he portrayal of the sympathetic child molester, the onscreen hyper-sexualization of young girls, and child characters liberated through sexual behavior, for a number of years now the film industry has waged a drip-drip campaign in favor of the normalization of sex between adults and underage children. The offensive is a quiet, insidious one slowly slithering into the mainstream, and like all Leftist movements, will not stop until it gets what it wants . . .

. . . Laden with subtext referencing the daily headlines exposing the Catholic church’s disgraceful sexual abuse scandal from a few years ago, Doubt does those victims a disservice. All of us Catholics are tired of Hollywood taking shots, but where openhanded criticism is appropriate they balk, even at a clear condemnation of child molestation.

Scott's comment: Holy crap, I loved Doubt! Does that mean I am going to turn into a child molester?

Hooray For Big Hollywood by Andrew Klavan:

Top of the box office so far: the blatantly pro-war on terror Dark Knight. The Christian Prince Caspian is at number eleven. The pro-abstinence Twilight is currently at sixteen and still hot. And perhaps most delightfully, and of course most ignored by the MSM: the Christian pro-marriage film Fireproof, despite suffering from its shoestring budget, still out-performed such favorites of our media elites as W, Religulous and Stop-Loss.

Scott's comment: Even Ben Lyons, who early on tried to ride the coattails of the Twilight phenomenon, panned it once it came out. Its success is not a sign of anything other than the rabid lust of teenage girls for Robert Pattinson and possibly the spread of STDs and unwanted pregnancies. It's message is, well, contradictory at best. And don't even get me started on The Dark Knight.

Does Hollywood Love Christians Now? by Dallas Jenkins:

After my first feature film Hometown Legend had been sold to Warner Brothers, I had some meetings with the WB marketing team in 2001. Near the end of their presentation, I said, “Now you know that this film has some faith elements in it, and my Dad (the executive producer) wrote the Left Behind books, so we could take advantage of his fan base and also promote the film to churches and youth groups.”

Scott's comment: Oh my God! Is Dallas Jenkins the Ben Lyons of right-wing filmmaking?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

LA Times reader response

Below are some responses from readers about the LA Times hit-piece on Ben Lyons. All but one are anti-Lyons, and the other is certainly not pro-Lyons. My favorite is the first one, which offers a Ben Lyons-style appraisal of the article.

Enthusiastic thumbs down

Your critique of Ben Lyons' dumb-dumb reviews ["Dumbing Down the Film Critic" by Chris Lee, Dec. 28] is newspaper heaven. It ignites on the page. Truly one of the year's 10 best, not to be missed in this or any holiday season. And perfect family fun too. In fact it's one of the most uplifting journalistic experiences of my life. I'd call it Oscar-worthy if the academy had such a category. Maybe now it can.

Read it once and you'll want to read it again and again. Finally a story worth celebrating. So compelling, so magical, I fell in love.

Alan Burnett


When 'greatest' gets grating

Disney-ABC Television Group's Brian Frons is wrong when he says Ben Lyons "is giving the information that audiences want to hear" about films they may want to see.

As a film fan and longtime viewer of "At the Movies," I find Lyons' comments, criticism and observations about movies and pop culture to be insipid, irrelevant and insulting to even the most unsophisticated viewers.

For the first time, my family has no interest in watching "At the Movies." Even our 14-year-old son, an avid moviegoer, said (referring to Lyons), "The grinning, cap-toothed guy must think we're stupid." There must be legions of lost viewers like our target demographic son.

It took a while to embrace Richard Roeper, but he quickly learned the art of helpful, compressed, astute movie reviews.

Lyons is so bad that it's impossible to sit through his mindless blabbering just to hear the sometimes insightful views of Ben Mankiewicz.

My advice to Frons? Send a memo to Mankiewicz. Say: "Up the ante. Have heated, passionate, informed conversations with Lyons. Don't hold back. Don't be polite. Berate, criticize, mock. Be sarcastic. Don't hide your disdain."

I'd watch that. Movies matter. But Lyons doesn't get it.

Robin Simmons

Palm Springs


Chris Lee's article, which details the largely mean-spirited and possibly jealous attacks by other film critics on Ben Lyons of "At the Movies," would have been more accurately called "Dumbing Down the L.A. Times Calendar."

I know there have been cutbacks at your newspaper, but is no one editing Calendar nowadays? Who could have possibly thought such a petty nonstory rated front-page coverage? Those critics supposedly so alarmed and offended by Mr. Lyons could make much better use of their time by focusing on what's happened to Calendar!

Bill Royce

Beverly Hills


I miss Gene Siskel (may he rest in peace) and Roger Ebert (continue to get well and keep writing, please) every time I see a review on TV. Their show was the best of the best. Richard Roeper and his revolving guests did an admirable job.

Disney-ABC Domestic Television, in its stupendous stupidity, decided to make some changes, and whoever was the decision maker should be horse-whipped and sent packing.

Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz stink. I am unable to watch "At the Movies" -- that is how unbearable they are.

Eileen O'Neill

West Hills

Criticwatch - "There’s nothing respectable about Ben Lyons"

Erik Childress at Criticwatch writes in his review of this week's episode of At the Movies:

This column and all the ones out there offended by Lyons’ modus operandi are not exclusively focusing on his film taste as the motivation for our attacks. It’s his insipid comments, clear lack of knowledge about film, insistence on introducing awards talk into every conversation, celebrity photos and singling out his buddies for self-promotion and the hope that they’ll attend his 28th birthday party. I don’t care how young he is and use that against him the way some elders of the profession may. Truth is I know a lot of critics around his age and even younger who not only know more about the details of filmmaking and storytelling but also represent a willingness to want to learn more. Taste in film though is nevertheless at the forefront of how film lovers identify with certain critics. We choose who represent us and dismiss the rest. But when we disagree with that particular percentage, most of the time we have enough faith in them to be able to engage an argument and to back up their points in the debate to where we may almost agree but certainly respect their opinion. There’s nothing respectable about Ben Lyons. So just because I share six of my Top 11 films of 2008 with his ten choices doesn’t mean I necessarily want him on my team defending them at my side.

Absolutely. As I said before, Ben has a lot of good picks in his top ten but he falls down in the analysis. In particular, Erik reminds us what Ben said about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:

"This is a movie that will remain with you for the rest of your life!"

That, however, would be another movie that did not make it onto Ben's top ten list. It is a pretty big weakness of Ben's--he finds it hard to just say "It's a pretty good movie and worth seeing", but has to gush all over it, especially if there is anything sentimental about it. Erik does us the favor of listing a whole series of Ben's gushtastic praise at the bottom of his posting.

Finally, he posts a funny reminder from the hilarious Ricky Gervais series Extras hinting about Kate Winslet's real motivations for playing a Nazi.

Read the full article here . . .

(The whole things is funny, but check it t about 3:20)

Monday, January 5, 2009

In defense of mediocrity

Cenk Uygur, a former co-host of Ben Mankiewicz's on Air America, wrote a response to the LA Times article attacking Ben Lyons. His response appeared on the Huffington Post. I have asked them if I could write a response to Uygur from a progressive perspective--if they decline, I will post it on this site later in the week.

In Defense of Ben Lyons
by Cenk Uygur

I must make a huge disclaimer here before we get started. I co-hosted The Young Turks with Ben Mankiewicz for five years, he still co-hosts the show with me from time to time and we have been very good friends for many years. Ben Mankiewicz now co-hosts At the Movies with Ben Lyons. Now that I've said all that, this isn't about Ben Mankiewicz, it's about Ben Lyons. Here is my simple message to all the haters - get off Ben Lyons' ass.

Seemingly every other movie critic in the country has made it their life mission to take down Ben Lyons. We are told that he's too young, doesn't know enough about movies and sucks up to celebrities too much. First, I got news for you - the whole entertainment industry is built around sucking up to celebrities. You think Ben Lyons is uniquely responsible for this? Are you mental? Have you watched any entertainment "news" in your life?

Second, I don't give a damn how old he is. I just care if he does a good job of reviewing movies on TV. Third, yes he reviews movies - on TV. That means he has to be good on TV - and he is. He's personable, engaging and comfortable. In an ideal world, the best print film critics would make the best movie reviewers on TV. We don't live in that world (just as many of the best political writers and sports writers are disasters on television).

Fourth, frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn that he doesn't have Roger Ebert's encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Who does? (Other than Roger Ebert). I just want to know whether I should see Benjamin Button this weekend. The two Bens will give me the information I need and entertain me while they do it. In fact, I think Ben and Ben have made this show watchable for me now in a way that it never was before.

Why? Because I couldn't relate to the previous hosts. They have been reviewing movies for centuries (don't get me wrong, this is nothing against them on a personal level - I actually like them and have tremendous respect for Ebert). But for them, the cinematography and shadowy lighting is enormously important. God bless them for it, but I mostly don't care. And I suspect I'm in the vast majority.

How this movie compares with Frank Capra's body of work is a lot less relevant to me than whether my wife is going to be able to sit through it. I trust Mankiewicz because he is about my age, he has my sensibility and roughly my taste in movies. As they say in the business, he is in my demo.

What I have been surprised to find out is how often I agree with Ben Lyons. I'm going to reveal some inside information here, but Mankiewicz doesn't always love costume dramas - and that kept him from liking movies like Braveheart and Star Trek as much as I did. Well, I love those movies. I can't get enough of Gladiator. And Lyons is not above it. Even more, I love the enthusiasm he shows for the movies he likes. And he's not afraid to say he likes movies that regular people like (by the way, regular people is not a euphemism for dumb people; I've got two Ivy League degrees and I still loved Old School). Other critics might be disdainful of that, but the viewers are not.

Look, let's keep it real. Are some of these other critics jealous of Ben Lyons because he has landed such a prestigious and well paying job (and one that makes you famous) whereas they are still working in print? Absolutely. I'm sure most of them love print, but here is a guarantee - none of them would have turned down the TV job.

Here is the critical thing that the critics are missing - these guys weren't hired to be the best film critics in the country, they were hired to be the best movie reviewers on television. And they are. They've got me watching the show every week. You know why? Because for 99% of America, watching movies isn't an exercise in showing off your intellectual elitism or waxing nostalgic about comparative cinema history. It's a movie. And Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons provide smart, amusing and relevant opinions about movies that poor schleps like me might consider seeing. That's why we watch the show.