Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Criticwatch - Manufacturing dissent

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

"The script kinda feels contrived and setup for certain power struggles instead of organically coming to that moment.”

Erik then continues:

So says Professor Lyons in the latest of many statements that we could easily apply to the chemistry between him and Mankiewicz just as well as the movie in question (in this case, The Education of Charlie Banks.) So goes a big part of the criticism of Junior & Mank At the Movies; maybe the second most discussed topic I’ve seen in message boards next to the usual “Ben Lyons is a smiling no-nothing idiot” stamps. It may not be as noticeable when they are in agreement, but when they are miles apart there is a scripted quality to their argument. At least on one side of it. How many times have I read that the viewers’ faith in Lyons’ opinion is lower than their willingness to trust Jim Cramer with their investments because they get the impression that he’s either cowtowing to the types of movies professional critics are SUPPOSED to like or that he’s too frickin’ stupid to understand or appreciate others. Take this week’s discussion of the vastly praised Goodbye Solo by acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani.

MANK: "They [Souleymane Sy Savane & Red West] share a small but powerful story that never really felt undertold. It’s hopeful and tragic but without any false Hollywood melodrama. I think definitely you should see Goodbye Solo."

LYONS: "I can’t praise enough the performance of Souleymane Sy Savane in this film. He is incredible to watch on screen. Really a beautiful performance but for me that was sort of the only thing to watch. I thought the film was incredibly stripped down, which is fine, but there’s nothing else to sort of help build it back up again. It’s simply watching him, his positive nature, he’s great to watch on film, but the film itself kind of left me uninterested."


Watching this exchange live on tape has all the feeling of a staged disagreement. While Lyons is going on, Mank sits there almost catatonic (perhaps imagining ways to strangle his partner).It’s not that far of a leap to imagine the director off screen going Holly Hunter on Mank and telling him “you’re outraged, you disagree, go after him NOW!” At which point Mank raises the volume level only to have Lyons explain that he was more interested in the “incredibly engaging” Solo than the “isolated and grumpy” William who didn’t really draw him into the story. Solo was the one he “wanted to watch.” It’s a good thing that Souleymane Sy Savane (you know, playing the main titular character) is on screen at least 95% of the time in the film.

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

Two more seasons of FNL!

Great news for my favorite TV show from Michael Ausiello of Entertainment Weekly:

It's official: 'Friday Night Lights' renewed for two more seasons

Sources at NBC are now confirming what I first reported earlier this month: DirecTV and NBC have come to terms on a deal that ensures Friday Night Lights will stick around for not one but two more seasons!

And I repeat: Touch-freaking-down!

Although NBC declined to comment, my Peacock insider says the pact guarantees that FNL will see a fourth and fifth season of 13 episodes each. Similar to this season's shared-window experiment, DirecTV will get first crack at the episodes followed by an encore run on NBC.

At the Movies - Lyons vs. Critical standards

Here comes one of Ben Lyons' movie reviews! Run for your lives!Ben Lyons started this week's episode of At the Movies with a review of Monsters vs. Aliens saying that it seems like a new animated movie comes out every month (the last one was Coraline, which came out seven weeks ago, preceded by Bolt in November), that it "raises the bar" for animated movies (without saying a whole lot about why that is) and that it has that "blockbuster event-movie feel," just in case you weren't sure why you should see it.

We then move on to more gushing with Adventureland. He asks, "How does director Greg Mottola follow up his box office success Superbad?" First, by not casting America's most despised critic in a bit part in the movie, as Mottola did with Lyons in Superbad.

Remember, this was one of the five movies that Ben saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. While he was there, he interviewed Kristen Stewart about her new movie, even though all he wanted to talk about was Twilight. Somehow, Ben found it in himself to avoid mentioning teen vampires in this review, which he described in a live chat on the At the Movies Web site as a movie he "liked, but would have been more interested in it had the leads been a little funnier". And that's in a comedy.

He summed up his review on the show saying:

"I was on the edge of saying 'Rent it', but because of the strong performances of Hayder and Wiig, I'll say see it."

On the other hand, Ben Lyons found himself capable of even defying the laws of math by giving a "Rent it" to Goodbye Solo, which has a whopping 100% on the Tomatometer as of Sunday morning. That is before Lyons gets his grubby little hands on the tomato, as he has with Sin Nombre, where he and Mank are the top two critics listed.

I eagerly await the movie as it still has not yet opened in San Francisco, so there is not much more I can say about it. But I'll simply point out that Ben says you should merely "Rent it" even though the lead performance was great (and that is, apparently, all), but you should see Adventureland because of the side performances by Bill Hayder and Kristen Wiig, even though the lead actors just aren't very funny. Listen up, Ramin Bahrani--maybe you should consider casting Ben Lyons in your next movie if you really want it to be 100% fresh.

Finally, there is Lyons' DVD pick of the week: Slumdog Millionaire. He gushes, "When you compare it with other best picture winners from recent years like The Departed and Gladiator, it ranks right up there as one of my favorites." That's a quote that says almost nothing (other than pointing out that he likes popular movies) while sounding important.

This is not just gushing in the hopes of getting blurbed in an ad (although Slumdog has enough critical praise that the marketing campaign does not need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for a quote), it is also jumping on the Oscar bandwagon to legitimize his opinion. Seriously, who talks like this way--other than a blurb-gushing, bandwagon riding "critic"?

Friday, March 27, 2009

A. O. Scott on Neo-Realism

Thanks to Anne Thompson's Variety blog, I recently discovered this article by A. O. Scott of the New York Times on the re-birth of Neo-Realism in the movies today. There are also links to some back-and-forth between Scott and another critic at the bottom.

Neo-Neo Realism

It is now almost a year since Wendy and Lucy played in Cannes — not a watershed moment in the history of cinema, perhaps, but a quiet harbinger. Kelly Reichardt’s third feature, about the struggles of a young woman and her dog stranded in an Oregon town en route to Alaska, was certainly among the more admired films in a strong festival, where it showed out of competition. But by the time it opened in New York last December, the movie, a modest, quiet, 80-minute study in loneliness and desperation, seemed like something more — not so much a premonition of hard times ahead as a confirmation that they had arrived.

Wendy and Lucy, with Michelle Williams in one title role (the other belonged to Reichardt’s dog), had a successful art-house run and found its way onto many critics’ year-end best-of lists (including mine). There was some talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, who was so believably ordinary in her look and so rigorously un-actressy in her manner that you could easily forget her celebrity. But Wendy and Lucy, released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, a small and ambitious new distributor started by Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, would have looked a little awkward alongside the other Academy Award nominees. It’s true that the big winner, Slumdog Millionaire, concerns itself with poverty and disenfranchisement, but it also celebrates, both in its story and in its exuberant, sentimental spirit, the magical power of popular culture to conquer misery, to make dreams come true. And the major function of Oscar night is to affirm that gauzy, enchanting notion.

The world of Wendy and Lucy offers little in the way of enchantment but rather a different, more austere kind of beauty. And while Wendy, at the end of the film, is poignantly, even devastatingly alone, the film itself now seems to be in good company. This spring, as the blockbuster machinery shifts gears from Watchmen to Wolverine, a handful of small movies from relatively young directors are setting out to expand, modestly but with notable seriousness, the scope of American filmmaking.

Goodbye Solo is the third feature directed by Ramin Bahrani, a New York-based filmmaker whose previous movies, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, explored corners of the city rarely acknowledged by Hollywood. In the weeks following its debut at the end of this month, Bahrani’s movie will be joined by — and, given the beleaguered state of distribution for noncommercial movies these days, may have to compete with — Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sugar and So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, each a second feature. All of these films — like Wendy and Lucy and Lance Hammer’s Ballast, which came out last fall — were highlights of the 2008 film-festival calendar, showing up at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and elsewhere.

The lives they illuminate, of fictional characters most often played by nonactors from similar backgrounds, are not commonly depicted on screen: the Senegalese cabdriver in Winston-Salem, N.C., whose friendship with a customer is at the center of Goodbye Solo; the aspiring baseball player in Sugar who is transplanted from the Dominican Republic to rural Iowa; the African-American shopkeeper in a sparsely populated stretch of the Mississippi Delta whose grief is the dominant mood of Ballast; the two very young Korean girls abandoned by their mother in an unfamiliar provincial town in Treeless Mountain. But these people and their situations are nonetheless recognizable, familiar on a basic human level even if their particular predicaments are not. And if the kind of movie they inhabit is not entirely new — the common ancestor that established their species identity is a well-known Italian bicycle thief — their unassuming arrival on a few screens nonetheless seems vital, urgent and timely.

What kind of movies do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.

Read the rest of A. O. Scott's article here.


Richard Brody's version of a politically sophisticated message.Also, there was a response by Richard Brody on a blog published by the New Yorker, which was pretty harsh but lost me at this point:

What Scott praises is, in effect, granola cinema, abstemious films that are made to look good for you but are no less sweetened than mass-market products, that cut off a wide range of aesthetic possibilities and experiences on ostensible grounds of virtue. It’s not new; it’s self-consciously, fashionably old-fashioned. Many of these films have a whiff of the sermon about them. Gran Torino, in which Clint Eastwood portrays an old bastard who becomes something of a liberal despite—not in the absence of—his worst prejudices and most bilious emotions—is far more politically sophisticated and daring than any of the films Scott names.

Sorry, but Gran Torino is neither better nor politically sophisticated than Wendy and Lucy or Frozen River.

You can read Scott's counter-response here. And, finally, you can read Brody's counter-counter-response here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - Harry Denton

Harry Denton's Starlight Room is a hip/shmancy nightclub in San Francisco at the top of the Sir Francis Drake hotel on Union Square, although in their defense, I hear that they don't have a dress code and have a regular drag queen show.

Anyway, a friend recently forwarded me an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about cheap dining options (cheap by SF standards, anyway), which included this line:

Harry Denton's Starlight Room launches a new monthly dance party tonight ($10, 9 p.m.-2 a.m.) with DJs and drink specials, including the "Recession" - Pabst Blue Ribbon in a brown paper bag ($4)

That's right, for only $14 you can have a "recession" inspired beer! Which assumes, of course, you have not been laid off and are willing to pony up this kind of money rather than the less than one dollar per PBR you can get at Safeway, where a 12 pack goes for $7.50.

Way to show that you are down with the little guy, Harry Denton.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Criticwatch - The lesser critic on the left

How does a guy get his head microwaved? That is an issue raised (although left unanswered) by Erik Childress in his roundup of the last two weeks of At the Movies. He starts by quoting Ben Lyons on The Last House on the Left:

"Now it’s no secret I have difficulty stomaching disgusting, horrific scenes of torture and mutilation in movies."

Erik then slams Ben (among others) for not distinguishing between well executed gore and lame gore (although I don't mind some decent gore myself, I will leave out the more . . . er . . . scatological references from the quote):

Jeffrey Lyons, who spent more time than any one person should endure with conservative Michael Medved, has been known over the years to dismiss films of this type. Maybe not the hypocrite that Medved is preaching how Hollywood is destroying America but openly advocating the last administration’s foray into ACTUAL torture, but there is subjectivity and there is objectivity. The only reason it’s no secret that Ben Lyons has “difficulty stomaching” these types of movies is because this column called him out for saying that life is too short to stomach horror movies . . .

But where does the difference lie? Is Lyons ready to dismiss films like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or even Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill on merely moral grounds or because the violence is a little too graphic for his taste? How would he react to Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (the inspiration for the film) which features distraught father Max Von Sydow picking up a little kid and throwing him into a wall? Would his first question be "who is this Bergman?" or "isn't that Ming the Merciless?"

For the record, I have seen The Virgin Spring, but I had to Google "Ming the Merciless".

Read Erik's entire article here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

At the Movies - I Love You, Man(k)

Lyons: Dude, can we be, like, best friends?
Mank: No.
Lyons: But you told the AP that you like talking to me about movies and . . .
Mank: Fine. Casual lunch or after work drinks. You're not taking me to see Twilight.
Lyons: Oh, God, I love that movie!
Last week on At the Movies, we had the spectacle of Ben Lyons hailing the movie I Love You, Man as being "quotable". More importantly, this blurb turned out to be quotable itself, as it ended up on the television advertising campaign for the movie. An alert reader even pointed out that The Onion ridiculed this blurb on their Tolerability Index.

The blurb seems to have been removed from the ad and from the show as well. This week, I Love You, Man was reviewed again (just as Watchmen was last week) but this blurb was not repeated.

We did, however, get a treat in the form of Ben's continuing struggles with the English language. In his review of Duplicity he says: "Tony Gilroy, who is one of the more accomplished writers in Hollywood, has finally caught the directing bug." Usually somebody is referred to having caught the "acting bug" as having an addictive love of the craft, not simply having been given the opportunity. You get the sense from Lyons, on the other hand, that Gilroy was sitting around and writing all these years and suddenly decided that he wanted to direct--which is highly unlikely.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Better than Ben Lyons - Random SF cabbie

A few weeks ago I was attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater. In between Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality in the morning and Murnau's Sunrise at night, I wanted to catch Doubt again at a theater almost 2 miles away and then get some lunch. Time was running short and I hate to enter a theater late, so I caught a cab for the short ride.

Cabbie asks me where I'm headed, I tell him and we start talking about movies. This guy has seen everything and has an opinion about all of it. He liked Doubt but didn't think Meryl Streep deserved an Oscar nomination and expected more out of the movie. Sigh . . . We also talked about Taken and The International, Synecdoche, New York, many of the Oscar noms, and some of the recent animated movies, which he says are the only ones that his girlfriend will go to.

While some of the details escape me, what I remember was a discussion with a guy who loves movies (and hates when they suck) that was thoughtful, opinionated, interesting, and based on many years of experience. In short, everything missing from a conversation with Ben Lyons that we see on TV.

Thanks for a cool ride, nameless cabbie. And congrats--you are better than Ben Lyons. Way better.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Debbie Schlussel's tortured logic

In the conclusion to the least awaited trilogy of the year, Debbie Schlussel makes a series a critical flip-flops that would make John Kerry blush. Apparently, Schlussel was for torture in movies before she was against it--before she was for it and against it at the same time.

The story begins with her review of Taken, in which she describes a scene of Muslim sex slavers getting their comeuppance from Liam Neeson:

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

This is a movie in which a man is electrocuted (eventually to death) by Neeson in his search for his daughter. Presumably, this sort of torture is "the kind of stuff people went to movies to see."

On the other hand, she dismissed Watchmen as "a movie based on a comic book promoting rape, torture, and brutal killing." For the record, I believe she was saying that these are all bad things, although the comic book did not exactly "promote" them as much as it "depicted" them--as vile acts carried out by horrible people.

That sort of subtlety may be too much for Schlussel, who finds difficulty expressing a consistent viewpoint even in a single article. In her review of The Last House on the Left, she first writes:

Torture/snuff-porn movies like this have no purpose other than to satisfy some warped moviegoers' need for bloodlust. The movie was vile, sickening, and depraved. And we wonder why violent crime and the depravity of criminal acts is escalating, as its portrayal onscreen escalates. What's on the screen influences what's on the street.

Somehow she finds it in herself to write the following words in the very same review:

Some movie critics were disgusted with the cheering on of revenge by the family and planned to write about it. But, to me, that was the only "redeeming" part of seeing this . . . Of note, part of the revenge which people liked was when the parents waterboarded one of the criminal thugs who left their daughter for dead after raping her. It's the second movie I remember where viewers audibly enjoyed the waterboarding of criminal scum (the first was "Passenger 57," when Wesley Snipes waterboards a terrorist hijacker in the plane's toilet). And so they should--this is what we want (minus the rape and torture scenes that come before it). The bad guys deserve it.

Obsessing over--and defending--methods of torture like this, to the point of gleefully recording examples of a specific form of torture that occurs in movies and the audience's vocal applause for it, is simply torture-porn under the guise of film criticism.

But in Schlussel's defense, she is consistent about one thing--she hates Muslims. It is not just the sex slaver/terrorist variety, but all Muslims. You can see that from a St. Patrick's Day link she provides on her front page about the threat of the Muslim population taking over Ireland. She can't really name anything specifically bad that Muslims have done in Ireland, other than now Irish newspapers report on them or that mosques in Ireland are "Well, just like here in America, giant monstrosities."

Her final comment: "Blarney = Looking the Other Way as Islam Invades Ireland." She then found it necessary to add this important update to the article, a letter from a real-live Irish racist:

You forgot to mention we are just about 5 million and if these people keep breeding we will be overwhelmed in a very short time. We suffer from Elites and I mean Elites. It took us 800 hundred years to be free from England and now we are about to spend etentity [sic] serving animals. May God and St. Patrick help us from these Devils.

Now you can see why she liked Taken so much.

Monday, March 16, 2009

At the Movies - Race to Blurb Mountain

Ben Lyons on this week's At the Movies found a tweeny-bopper movie that even he did not like in Race to Witch Mountain. Mank did have a comment about the film that made me think of this very show, talking about the poorly executed relationship between Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino:

Mank: There's no chemistry between them, and they have nothing in common . . . And then you mention the special effects, and this is a movie where you anticipate these being what would save the movie and it seems like maybe their budget got cut by 90% right before filming.

No chemistry and little splash? Sounds like the current At the Movies, which promised a big fancy upgrade but seems to have stumbled into a downgrade.

Then there is Sunshine Cleaning, about which Lyons has this to say:

Lyons: This is a Sundance movie in every sense of the word. It's that quirky American indy that's looking to find moments of humor set against the backdrop of dark, tragic moments.

With a blurb like that, pre-gushed with a big smile for the film's marketing campaign, it's got to be good! Except that he goes on to say "I enjoyed some of the performances, ultimately I didn't find it funny enough and I didn't find it emotional enough to give it a 'See It', but check it out on DVD. You can 'Rent It'."

Thanks Ben, at least we know that you are trying to be honest in half of your review. But more importantly, where does he get off talking about Sundance like some well-informed insider? Maybe a more honest comment would be "Based on my experience, the only thing missing from making this movie the penultimate Sundance experience is a series of awful interviews and a bunch of parties with cool people."

Friday, March 13, 2009

For whom the clock ticks

Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson
162 minutes

Review by Scott Johnson

In spite of proclamations that the classic graphic novel Watchmen is unfilmable, I always thought that so long as the screenplay did not go too far astray from the source material the film ought to succeed. This is not the ravings of a purist fanboy--I did notice some differences, including an improvement in the final weapon of mass distruction--but just an observation that the material has more than enough to keep an audience engaged. Zack Snyder's new movie does remain fairly close to the original story and so it cannot help but maintain our interest.

In fact, the movie kept so close to the book that most of the lead characters look astonishingly close to their drawn versions. At the very least, the film is a good companion to the graphic novel, in many ways comparable to the filmed version of a play (although one with different actors in the roles). But Snyder does more than just copy Alan Moore's story--he has an effective sense of style that helps move the story along. This was the main thing--in fact, the only thing--that was interesting in Snyder's 300. With an interesting story to go along with the visuals, Snyder this time has found himself actually making a decent movie.

The film does well in introducing us to a series of troubled heroes, each of whom has a problematic relationship with the world. Most significantly is Dr. Manhattan, a god-like figure who is nearly all-powerful and is, of course, a tool of the US government. His long-ignored lover is Laurie, the second hero know as Silk Spectre, pushed by her mother (who should have known better) to take up the mantle she originated. Laurie eventually hooks up with Dan Dreiberg, another second generation superhero (Nite Owl) who spends his days reminiscing with the originator of his identity about the good old days--before masked vigilantes were outlawed. Except for Dr. Manhattan, the only heroes who refuse to give up are the Comedian, who becomes a mercenary for the US government, and Rorschach, a mysterious and extremely violent vigilante in the old fashioned sense. That is, Rorschach is less like Spider-Man and Batman than he is like the guy with a shotgun who lives down the street and nobody bothers anymore.

This is a rich tapestry of characters whose mere existence in the story--not to mention the mystery that develops--adds richness to the world they occupy and maintains our interest. In fact, it is surprising to consider that Watchmen is almost exactly the same length as the beautifully filmed but dramatically flat and uninspired The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But I could not help but notice some serious drawbacks to the film. None of these ruin the movie as an experience, but both find a way to keep it from being more than simply a decent entertainment.

The first problem is the stylization of the movie, which is not all bad and in fact adds something new. This occurs not only in the visuals but also in a series of extended songs by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, among others. There is no way that I could possibly be bored listening to this music, and if the purpose is to keep the audience entertained through the nearly 3 hour duration of the movie, it succeeds. However, there is a serious drawback here, which is that the movie often feels like a series of disjointed dramatic scenes cut in between several music videos and fight scenes.

This is compounded by the fact that there simply is not much chemistry between the characters. We never really feel like Dan (Nite Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre II) really have a deep connection with each other, which is only compounded by the fact that Laurie still seems like she is 25 rather than the more world-weary and regretful 38-year-old she is in the book. A sex scene between the two characters is so stylized by Snyder that it seems more like a cool movie moment than a real passionate embrace between the two characters. The same goes with the troubled relationship between Laurie and Dr. Manhattan, whose detachment from the world seems much more real and sad in the book than simply a series of clever--if superficial--movie moments.

What is also lost is much of the nuance of the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan, for example, was a game-changer for the Cold War in the original, not just helping the US win the Vietnam War but becoming a real scourge to the Soviet Union. There is an off-hand remark in the graphic novel where somebody comments that the USSR wants to talk about Dr. Manhattan as a part of an arms treaty--after all, he gives the US far more power than any hydrogen bomb. There is also more clarity about the Keane Act which outlawed masked vigilantes than we get in the movie.

It is quite clear in the film version of Watchmen that the heroes are flawed and not necessarily up to the task of heroism. What is not always so clear is that the world they are living in is even more flawed. For example, Dr. Manhattan's seemingly unlimited power and its cynical manipulation by the US exposes the myth of Superman, who fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But would that be such a good thing in our world? Author Alan Moore certainly didn't think so and that is made fairly clear in his graphic novel. And while there are hints of this view in the movie, much of the nuance that shaped this perspective are lost.

Even more, there are times when the literal adaptation of the source material seems strangely anachronistic. The threat of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, gives us little concern at a time when the US is in the midst of a disastrous occupation of the country. What perfectly captured the zeitgeist 20 years ago is reduced to merely an unusual plot point in the movie to bring our heroes together for a final battle--a deus ex machina with Dr. Manhattan almost literally in the role of the Greek God.

I am not sure that this is a whitewash--a sanitized version of the story made acceptable for corporate Hollywood. The screenplay relies so closely on the source material for nearly three hours that this level of nuance might not have been feasibly added without extending the running time even further. So it is difficult to say definitively that the movie is purposefully dumbed down with all of its sharp edges removed.

But it is not difficult to say that this lack of nuance is unfortunate. The movie makes a fine companion piece to a great book, but viewers will need to go to the original to get the full story with all of its iconoclastic insights into our world and its supposed heroes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reading tea leaves

Readers of this blog have been generous with their tips in the comments section this week! Here is another revealing exchange on Richard Roeper's blog:

Sean O Says:
March 6th, 2009 at 12:31 pm

No clue why a decision was made to take Richard off At The Movies, especially since the “new” show isn’t revamped in the least, nor are the new hosts in any way different or more “hip” (if that’s what execs were going for). Without a doubt, agreement is universal that Ben Lyons was a major mistake. Ben Mankiewicz is fine, although it’s pretty obvious that he has no respect for Lyons’s opinion and so there’s no chemistry between them. Why not pair him with Richard? Instead, I can see the show going off the air completely within a few months and that’s a shame.

richard Says:
March 9th, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Just a note to Sean O.:

For the record, I wasn’t “taken off” the show. Disney offered me a very fair financial package to continue with the show for another three years. However, the executive who was put in charge of the show last year was–well, for now let’s just say I refused to tarnish the legacy of the show created by Roger and Gene, so I walked away. Some day I’ll talk about what happened behind the scenes last year. It was like being a character in a bad satire of the TV industry.



I can't help but think that they offered Richard a butt-load of money to work with Ben Lyons instead of Michael Phillips, and Roeper said "Um . . . you're joking, right?" And it all went downhill from there.

Anyway, I can't wait until he writes a book about this mess.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The return of televised film criticism?

From Richard Roeper's blog:

I get messages like this every day:

Full Name: Steve Evans
Question: Movies
My apologies if you’ve covered this before but might you be returning to TV for movie reviews? The new guys in At the Movies are, to put it mildly, annoying. I think I’m more qualified than the young dude.

I know I’ve been hinting at a new show for some time now, but all I can say is I appreciate the continued interest, and I PROMISE I will have something concrete to announce soon—most likely before the month is out. Stay tuned!


Criticwatch - When 50/50 is better than "Ask the Expert"

Ben Lyons: Can I use a lifeline? I'd like to phone a friend.

Meredith Viera: Um, you are the lifeline.

The above dialogue is another one of my made up Ben Lyons parody scenarios and, of course, never happened. If it sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of the SNL skit with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Katie Couric.

But you may also be thinking of yesterday's episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, starring Katie Couric's Today show replacement (Meredith Viera) and featuring the Sarah Palin of film criticism (Ben Lyons).

After Monday's performance, in which the Bens could not come up with the correct answer, you would think they had nowhere to go but up. As always with overestimating Ben Lyons, you would be wrong.

Erick Childress from Criticwatch breaks it down:

Q: “What would be the title of the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise if the characters’ last names replaced their first names?”

A: Dickinson & Sawyer
B: Anderson & McBride
C: Slocumb & Lennox
D: Harlan & Biddle

This time it was just under seven seconds before one of them spoke up and the conversation went like this:

MANK: I feel like, uh, that, uh, the, uh, wha, what, what rings a very strong, uh, tone to me is Harlan. Um, and uh, uh, but uh, like I said it’s a strong feeling but it is not an overwhelming feeling.

LYONS: I know we can get rid of “A”. I feel confident in that. We can get that out of there.

MANK: It wasn’t Angie Dickinson and Diane Sawyer? No I suppose not. Um, uh, I, uh, man…(turns to Lyons) Uh, you have any, you’re not, uh…?

[Erik continues . . .]
So while we ponder the grade that probably eluded Lyons over the years and whether or not Mankiewicz has a relative somewhere over at AIG, there sits Anthony Dickey [the contestant] deciding to “trust them” and go with “D”. “It sounds familiar, and if not I’ve got no one to blame but me and them,” says Dickey pointing a finger at the Ben’s video monitor. Meredith’s face turns to that familiar “oh no” scrunch as the answer is revealed to be:


The photo at the top is the unfortunate contestant who took their bad advice (he chose D instead of A), disappointed but still laughing his ass off at a humiliated Ben Lyons.

Oh yeah, and Erik rips up At the Movies as well, click here to read the rest of his review.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who wants to be a film expert?

In case you missed it, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is doing a special Movie Week--every question is about movies--sponsored by Netflix and powered by Skype. But where would they be doing a movie program packed to the gills with corporate sponsors without Ben Lyons? Well, pretty much exactly where they are, but they invited him and Ben Mankiewicz anyway, continuing the duo's ABC/Disney getting to know you tour.

These two fit into the show as a new lifeline called "Ask an Expert". They were included via Skype, calling in from a bedroom with several bookshelves behind them--obviously, it must have been Mank's house. Sad thing is, they were no help whatsoever. The contestant zipped through several questions winning $50,000 but then asked for their help on the $100,000 question: Which of four movies used the fictional airline Oceanic?

Mank gave it his best shot but couldn't answer. Lyons just made fun of how bad the movies were that were among the possible answers. Apparently, playing hours of Scene It? is not enough to improve his movie knowledge--he may have the watch Millionaire Movie Week all week to fill in a few blanks.

Now, I'm not saying that I knew the answers, but when they are stumped on their first question, I wonder whether ABC/Disney's strategy is really working here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

At the Movies - B-list film critic

Lyons: Why would I save film criticism when I no longer have any stake in it?
Mank: Do it for me.

After a pretty bad run this calendar year, Ben Lyons seemed to avoid making a complete fool of himself this week on At the Movies, although to his benefit there were no tweeny-bopper concert movies premiering for him to gush over. But he still found a way to act like a jerk in his description of the lead character in The Great Buck Howard:

Lyons: He carries himself like a high maintenance A-list Hollywood star, a lot like Mank. The problem is, he's not. A lot like Mank.

What a charmer. For a guy who desperately wants to be accepted by the A-List crowd to say this about a guy who is an admitted grumpy old man who doesn't like going out and partying, this comes off as less than endearing. Little did he realize that he seemed to be talking about his own show later in the segment:

Lyons: I just love seeing a buddy film between two guys you would never pair together, this aging entertainer and this young guy at a crossroads in his life.

Not unlike Ben's introverted comments about Frost/Nixon.

Another oddity--for the second week in a row, Mank's 3 To See included a film that the show has yet to review. Is this a way to squeeze in an extra movie when they do not have time? If so, they could have avoided a second review of Watchmen this week. But it seems more consistent with the show's ignoring lesser known independent and foreign films like Waltz with Bashir.

Not that it was all bad, though. This week, they finally cleaned up the DVD segment by calling it 'DVD Out Now' rather than the awkwardly worded and punctuated 'DVD "Out Now" List'.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - Debbie Schlussel

Way, way, WAY worse. If you read my previous comments on her take on Taken, it should come as no surprise that her "film criticism" is merely a superficial shell encapsulating her right-wing worldview. Her most recent writing to have caught my attention--unfortunately highlighted on the Big Hollywood blog--is a "review" and a follow-up article about Watchmen.

What's wrong with it? First, Debbie Schlussel wants you to die:

The e-mails they [Watchmen defenders] send me and the comments they make about how "deep," "edgy" and "profound" this vile piece of trash (which is none of these) is, reminds me of the blind statements of followers of Jim Jones. And we all know what happened after they drank he purple Kool-Aid. If only this movie could achieve that result, it would be the most fantastic exercise in natural selection ever conducted in America.

She calls it "a movie based on a comic book promoting rape, torture, and brutal killing." But the book does no such thing. These vile acts are committed to show us how despicable these characters are. The point is that superheroes are glamorized in comic books but if we had "real" masked vigilantes, they would be pretty awful people. It is not so much to make a point about superheroes as it is about who rules our society and how heroes are conjured to ideologically defend it. In short, saying that the graphic novel condones rape is like saying that Doubt balks at making "a clear condemnation of child molestation."

But that appears to be a standard right-wing tactic--if something is shown in less than your starkly black-and-white misinformed view of the world, say that it condones the evil thing being discussed. You think that not all Muslims are terrorists and that we should understand why some Muslims hate America? You condone terrorism! This line of attack makes very poor politics and even worse film criticism.

It is also hypocritical. For all her railing against condoning "torture and brutal killing," she enthusiastically praised the movie Taken, a movie whose hero both "tortures" and "brutally kills" people. This can easily be seen as an argument in defense of these tactics, and Schlussel's article cheering on the movie can be seen as a defense of them as well. But for Schlussel it is OK, because in Taken the victims are Muslims.

Among the other horrible things Schlussel objects to in Watchmen:

* Superhero "The Comedian" (a bad Robert Downey, Jr. look-alike) brutally beating and raping another superhero--this movie concludes that the rape was a good thing b/c the slutty superhero had a slutty superhero daughter from him;

* Superhero "The Comedian" shooting and killing a Vietnamese woman because she's pregnant with his kid;

* Superhero "The Comedian" being thrown off a roof of a tall building--we see his body hit the ground and the blood flow out;

Having not seen the movie but only read the book, all of this sounds very familiar. And while I can't comment on whether the film pulls this material off, it seems unlikely that the "movie concludes that the rape was a good thing." The whole point of all of this in the book was that these vigilantes would be very nasty people, nothing like the boyscout-like Superman who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way."

Maybe if the Comedian had been an Arab or a Muslim rather than a white American mercenary working for the US government, then Debbie Schlussel would have found much more to like in the portrayal of his disgusting acts and his ultimate demise.

Finally, Schlussel comes up with this brilliant comment:

It's 1985 and Nixon is President. We've won in Vietnam . . . Wow, isn't that cool that they got it wrong on purpose? I'm so amazed at this "high-brow art" of deliberately getting dates and timelines wrong, you know, just to be "artistic," and get the drooling of the critics. That is sooooo genius. Like way totally cool.

It was pretty clear in the book (although I don't think it was ever spelled out) that Dr. Manhattan's powers guaranteed the dominance of US imperialism and helped Nixon stay in power for decades. That is actually kind of interesting when you think about it for a second.

But that is apparently more than Schlussel was willing to do.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Interview with Diablo Magazine

This article was originally published on the blog of Diablo Magazine, which is based in Walnut Creek, CA.

Meet an Oakland movie lover who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

by Pete Crooks

I recently had a chat with an Oakland movie blogger, whose website I happened across while web-searching about the new TV movie review show, At the Movies. First of all, film buffs all know that this show was created by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who would sit in their "balcony chairs" and discuss, or bicker, about films. It's easily one of my favorite TV shows, ever. Good things can't last forever, of course, and Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, while Roger Ebert's bouts with cancer have left him unable to speak. (His wonderful reviews and writing are still available every week on rogerebert.com). Siskel's replacement, Richard Roeper and a rotating chair occupied by worthy critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times made for a more than adequate program for several years. Alas, I was quite discouraged when the show was re-tooled last year with an entertainment magazine feel and two much younger critics, Ben Manciewicz and Ben Lyons in the chairs. When I heard Lyons give a particulalrly scathing review of the wonderful indie drama Wendy and Lucy, I started googling to see what people on the Internets were saying about the show.

That's when I found Oakland blogger Scott Johnson's website, stopbenlyons.com. Subheaded: A blog on mediocrity and American culture, Johnson's site is devoted to the deconstruction of Ben Lyons's reviews on At the Movies every weekend, and the results are very funny. (An example: Lyons' favorite James Bond film is Goldeneye. No, not Goldfinger, Goldeneye ... the one with Pierce Brosnan. Why? Because that was the first Bond film Lyons saw in a theater and he loved playing the video game as a kid). Soon after I came across Johnson's blog, the L.A. Times interviewed him for a story about the negative action Lyons was getting for tossing out quoted blurbs like "I Am Legend is one of the greatest movies ever made."

I gave Johnson a quick call to find out more.

First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself, Scott, and how you came up with your website.

I'm an Oakland resident, and a computer programmer. I’m 31-year-old and I started watching Siskel and Ebert at age 13. I watched it regularly. I took it for granted that these two guys who knew a lot about movies were on TV to tell me about Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs or Blue-White-Red or any of those films that came out in the mid-90s. Last summer, I heard they were reformatting the show. Ebert was off, and they were getting rid of Richard Roeper. Honestly, I didn’t know who Ben Lyons was. But when I did see him on the show, it was clear to me that he was not really able to talk about movies in a deep, critical way. He’s just interesting in throwing out blurbs.

Do you think what you're doing is mean-spirited at all?

No, not really. I think that what is important is that this isn’t just about movies, its about the dumbing down of our culture. Hollywood likes to make things flashy and just dumb things down. I don’t hate Ben Lyons, it's just that I think the producers of At the Movies have done a disservice to the throne of film criticism. They should have given that position to a real film expert, because there are certainly a lot of people out there who deserve the chair more than Ben Lyons does.

When the LA Times ran the article about Lyons, and interviewed you, the story shot around the web and caused quite a buzz. Have you heard from Lyons about your blog?

I have not heard from him. I’m certainly not the first person to criticize his selection.

Your criticisms of the tiniest comments that he makes are quite elaborate. Now that you are a critic of the show, what is your process of reviewing it.

When I first started the site, I decided I’d watch the show every week and criticize it. I didn't think it was necessary to TiVo it, but I quickly realized that it was, because you want to make sure you're accuarately reporting what he says. At first, I figured he’d either be off the show pretty quick or he’d clean up his act, but neither happened. So now I do TiVo the show every week. And the funny thing is, every week he comes up with these little headscratchers.

Do you ever find yourself hoping to dislike a movie that he raved about?

No, not at all. In fact, if you look at the top 10 list I wrote for my site, and Ben's top 10 list, they're pretty close. But the real issue is the criticism. He doesn't ever give real critical insights about the movies, he just speaks in these cute little quote blurbs.

OK, so here's a chance for you to be the reviewer. Please recommend two movies that you loved: one for hardcore film geeks, and one for more mainstream audiences.

For hardcore film geeks I'd say, Synechdoche, N.Y. It broke the rules, confused you, and brought you back in. There's a lot to talk about after you watch it, even film geeks are split on whether they loved it or hated it. For mainstream audiences, I loved Doubt. That's another film that had audiences very divided, but I thought there was a lot to think about and discuss.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Criticwatch - Ben Lyons watches the Watchmen, but who watches Ben Lyons?

You think I'm tough on Ben Lyons? Erik Childress at Criticwatch tears apart the latest episode of At the Movies without ever mentioning the "JoBros". Erik starts by quoting Lyons on Watchmen:

And it seems like this is going to be the one film we're gonna see of this franchise. It wasn't like Zack Snyder was trying to setup the sequel. I really appreciate that.

Erik continues:

But any Watchmen fanatic reading the Quote of the Week will tell you that Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel is completely and totally a self-contained story. It's not a comic book series. It's NOT a franchise like Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. The 12 issues released between 1986 and 1987 are now purchased as a complete novel and that is the basis for Snyder's 162-minute epic.

MANKIEWICZ: We'll there's not the source material for a sequel.
LYONS: Exactly.

But my favorite part is Erik's presumed checklist that Lyons uses when rating movies.


_____ 1. I didn't fall asleep, so it entertained me.
_____ 2. It looks like an Oscar movie.
_____ 3. Made me shut off my texting machine.
_____ 4. Hey, that dude took a picture with me.
_____ 5. It's just like the cool trailer

That's just the top five. Click here to read the rest.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The fourth Jonas Brother?

I keep thinking that Ben Lyons is going to go an entire episode of At the Movies without making a fool of himself. Granted, there have been a few occasions when his foolishness has been scattered about the show in a few odd, awkwardly formed sentences in defense of dubious opinions. But sometimes he just makes my job easy by making a fool out of himself for an entire segment, like on this week's episode during the discussion of The Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience--what else--which Ben thinks is better than Doubt and Synecdoche, New York.

The entire discussion is, unfortunately for Ben Lyons and for those who still sit through this show, worth printing in full. I will add a few comments, although they are hardly necessary. We start with Ben Mankiewicz opening the segment:

Mank: It's hard to know how to critically discuss a 3D Jonas Brothers movie when you are a 41-year-old man who still finds texting a bit impersonal.

To which you might add, it's hard to discuss film with a guy who finds texting so natural that he does it during film screenings. But I digress . . . After Mank's summary, Lyons responds:

Lyons: You ask how a 41-year-old guy can watch this film, how does a 27-year-old guy watch this film? I don't think any Jonas Brothers fan will be disappointed by this movie. And like you say, It's not a movie. But I think you're being too hard on it. If you can't afford Jonas Brothers tickets to see them at Madison Square Garden, or you're 4 minutes into the ticket sales and they're already sold out and you waited too long and you can't get to see them, this is a way to take the kids and take the family to go and see the Jonas Brothers.

Mank: OK, I got that but it belongs on television, it's not on film. This is a movie . . .

Lyons: It doesn't belong on television because you can't watch it in 3D on television. You see the guys rock out on stage like that. Yes, they throw the drumsticks at the camera . . .

Mank: More than that, the 3D is a complete distraction. At moments when there's really depth of field, which happens a lot at a concert looking back at the band or looking out at the audience, the 3D's distracting. I found myself covering up one eye because it seems almost like double vision. The 3D doesn't work, nothing about it works, nothing about it makes it a film. So many questions that I would have been interested about these giant mega stars at such a young age . . .

Mank knows something about somebody becoming a star--if by no means a "giant mega star"--at a relatively young age. That would be Ben Lyons, who has been criticized by some for being too young at 27 to co-host At the Movies, but far more have criticized him for trying to sound young and appeal to the 14-year-old teeny bopper crowd.

There is a frustrated look on Mank's face as he goes through the above diatribe, which I think says something like "Did I just defend this guy to the Associated Press? Did I just say that all of the criticism of Lyons has been 'through this prism of presuming that he's young and didn't know what he was talking about'? Did I really just say 'Nobody who meets [Lyons] is going to doubt that this guy knows a lot about film and is thoughtful about it'? Crap!" Lyons responds:

Lyons: I don't think this is the time and place for those questions to be answered. That can be a behind the music documentary that can be for television. This is to show their fans that these guys are rock stars. They play their instruments, they stay in fancy hotels, they shut down Times Square. That's what they are in this film. I'm going to have to say "See It," because it serves its purpose, its the Jonas Brothers experience.

Yes, he actually said that. He actually said that a VH1 special should provide more depth and inquiry into its subject than a feature film. He actually said that the movie "show[s] their fans that these guys are rock stars. They play their instruments, they stay in fancy hotels." That, apparently, is enough for Ben Lyons.

Of course, for many movies this would not be enough. On Doubt, Ben didn't say "fans of the play get to see Philip Seymour Hoffman giving a sermon and Meryl Streep wearing a habit." He said "Rent It" because it was not cinematic enough. But their fans don't watch E! or My Family's Got GUTS! or read the Twilight books, so Lyons is not all that concerned with maintaining their support for his flailing career. He lost it long ago and will likely never win it back.

Just to show how hard he is trying to appeal to this crowd--rather than attempt to provide serious film criticism--he later refers to them as the "JoBros", assuming that by the end of the show all of the adults have already changed the channel.

Sorry, Mank. This is the guy you are defending, and he is doing everything in his power to turn away viewers who might appreciate what you have to say.

Finally, just as Lyons ends his very last sentence in the above transcript and segues toward the next segment, there is a look of defeat and exasperation on his face. I think it says something like "Did ABC/Disney just spend the last month attempting to bolster my credentials as a real film critic by putting me on The View and Fox News and getting the AP to write an article defending me, and then I went and said that? Did I just flush all of that hard-earned good will down the toilet? Crap!"