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Criticwatch Goes At The Movies With The Two Bens

by Erik Childress

“Two of SHIT…is SHIT!” So said Dennis Miller when contemplating the “such-a-deal” of a 2-for-1 special at K-Mart. “If they really wanted to fuck ya, they’d give you three of these things.” In the case of the newly revamped At the Movies though, two will do just fine. Last month when it was announced that the final remnants of Siskel & Ebert (now Ebert & Roeper with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips filling in nicely) was going off the air, I thought it was a goof when someone posted that Ben Lyons would be occupying one of the vacant seats. Once the worst turned out to be true though, I decided to take a step back and fulfill one of my cardinal rules as a movie critic. No matter how bad the buzz is, how crappy the trailer looked or how much I loathed a star or writer or director, once the lights go down it’s a clean slate. Maybe it would be a different Ben Lyons from the one who ranked seventh on last years’ quote whore list; a man of taste and history grown up from the boy who called I Am Legend “one of the greatest films ever.” I set my Tivo for stun while I attended the Toronto Film Festival and had the New At the Movies waiting for me upon my return. So much for second chances.

To call the first episode unbearable is perhaps overstating it a bit. Could it just be the shell shock of watching a show I had been watching since before Junior Lyons was in school bastardized for a modern, hip audience? At only 33 I hardly think the grumpy old man factor has taken effect in me yet. Was there some manner of professional jealousy believing that myself or any one of my qualified Chicago colleagues were the heir to a throne as if we were David Letterman? Not really. Despite any number of CFCA members more qualified to warm the balcony seats than Ben Lyons, most film critics know their place on the food chain even if it would have been nice for Disney to keep the show with its Chicago roots firmly attached. Sorry, but it doesn’t take any sense of entitlement or sour grapes to see what a match made in hell this new venture truly is.

It would be optimistic to believe that the powers that be felt like Fox executives, once they got to the revelations of The Happening, after seeing how the first episode turned out. It’s the kind of pilot that even the most creatively deficient can look upon and recognize that a major retooling needs to be conducted before the show could possibly come to air. And like most new television shows, retooling always begin in recasting.

After the necessary shout-out to the critics who paved the way before them, Lyons and Turner Classic Movies refugee, Ben Mankiewicz, can’t wait to kickstart things with an “early review.” While the war over embargoes and controlling reviews continue over media lines, they not only pick up where the old show left off (getting to scoop while onliners are often chastised just for asking) but decided on the worst possible week to debut – on the second of Hollywood’s two-week end-of-summer dumping ground where the only wide release was Nicolas Cage in Bangkok Dangerous; the fourth film in two weeks not screened for critics. Timing is everything, so poor judgment aside, it’s hard to blame them for kicking off with a review of the Coen Bros. Burn After Reading. Everything else we can blame them for. Here is the kind of telling critical analysis that one can look forward to:

LYONS: “It’s almost like an exercise in drama. Almost felt like all the actors picked their parts out a hat and they were stuck with it and made the most of it and each one is talented enough to pull it off.”

MANKIEWICZ: “Yeah, that’s an interesting point.”

After Mankiewicz describes the section of the plot detailing Frances McDormand’s motivations for plastic surgery in the movie…

LYONS: “And I think Brad Pitt would need plastic surgery after John Malkovich punches him in the face.”

Is Lyons speaking from experience? Does he have some insider knowledge into Malkovich’s pugilist hobbies? Is that the kind of inside information Lyons said he would have to “make the show grow and continue its legacy” since he’s been “in L.A. on studio lots and meeting with executives?” This is supposed to be a show about reviewing movies, Ben. It’s not TMZ. Other than the ingrained knowledge that numerous delays and rescheduling do not bode well for a film’s chances, there’s nothing “inside” that you should be bringing to the table when employing criticism to comment what’s up there on the screen. In fact, you shouldn’t even be bringing that – but that’s all part of the information superhighway we live in. A film works or it doesn’t in the moment that you’re watching it - no matter who was sleeping with whom on the set or anyone’s diva-esque behavior off it. What in the hell does Brad Pitt getting punched in the film have to do with anything other than some half-assed attempt at humor? This next line is almost my favorite from this opening segment; Lyons’ opener to his critique:

LYONS: “It’s great to see George Clooney and Brad Pitt having fun at the movies again”

Yeah, you know, because since Ocean’s Thirteen last summer the two of them have been slumming in Siberian adaptations of Sylvia Plath. Is he kidding? You release a Michael Clayton and Jesse James in-between projects and all of a sudden these two guys are on Lyons’ suicide watch list? Hell, Pitt finished filming Jesse James in late 2005 which would make Burn After Reading his first project SINCE Ocean’s 13. And has Lyons already forgot that Clooney not only starred but DIRECTED and released Leatherheads just this past April? (In fairness, most of us have.) Lyons is precisely the sort of uninformed short-termed memory critic who makes statements like “Righteous Kill is the best action movie since Heat” or “Fierce Creatures is the funniest movie since A Fish Called Wanda”, making easy connections to where, critically, there are none. As someone who has thrown my hat into the game of Oscar prognostication, it’s downright embarrassing to know that Ben Lyons had become one of E!’s on-air “experts” and his new Ben counterpart isn’t exactly showing his cred out of the gate either. Lyons believes Frances McDormand may get nominated for supporting actress for Burn After Reading while Mankiewicz follows-up by saying he’d “be surprised if this film didn’t generate some nomination.” I haven’t even finished making my initial early lists for this year yet, but I’ll take action right now on anyone who believes Burn After Reading will get more than a donut from the craft services table the morning the nominations are announced. However, my favorite quote from Lyons goes as follows:

“If someone said to you and told you this was the same directing team that did No Country for Old Men, I wouldn’t believe you unless you said it was the Coen Bros.”

Follow that, did you? Or does Lyons not believe you? Let’s timeline that, shall we? If party “A” (someone) said to party “B” (you) that Burn After Reading was done by the same guys who did No Country For Old Men, then outside party “C” (Ben Lyons) wouldn’t believe party “B” (you) for information just received from party “A” (someone) unless party “B” (you) said it was the Coen Bros.; information that “B” (you) would have had to tell party “A”, “no shit, Sherlock” and then have trouble convincing party “C” (Ben Lyons) unless party “B” gave him the answer. An answer, mind you, that any critic should already know and not be surprised about given the nature of the Coens’ resume (Blood Simple-to-Raising Arizona, Barton Fink-to-The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo-to-The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There-to-Intolerable Cruelty). This logic would apply better to not believing the guy who made All the Real Girls and Snow Angels also directed Pineapple Express, but even for a one-note Vulcan like Lyons, logic never seems to enter the equation. So let’s allow him to ask a question instead.

LYONS: “Quick, name me a bad Don Cheadle movie.”

MANKIEWICZ: “Um, Ocean’s Twelve.”

LYONS: “Oh, the Ocean’s movies don’t count.”

Well, wait a second Junior, what DOES count then? You didn’t specify star vehicles or leading roles. That would reduce Cheadle’s resume down to approximately three films (not counting the film they were about to review), two of which weren’t very good and a third for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Not much of a poser. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz gave an acceptable answer. Ocean’s Twelve is a BAD Don Cheadle movie. Other acceptable answers, by the way, include Swordfish, The Family Man and Volcano. (Even I forgot he was in After the Sunset.) Explain yourself, Junior.

LYONS: “Cheadle has always managed to gravitate towards good material and for the most part, it’s worked out.”

So, in other words, you’re blaming Cheadle for the failure of Volcano and Reign Over Me, films that had good material until Don got cast and backhanding him with a compliment for Hotel Rwanda and Devil in a Blue Dress saying that despite his potential to ruin good material, in the end it “worked out.” Maybe that’s not what you meant, but it’s certainly what you said. There’s no mistake that being a talking head on television in any capacity requires a certain amount of discipline. Gaffes are occasional, but the ones with that certain je ne sais quoi can usually chalk it up to a bad day. Even when confidence in front of the camera comes through, such hosts can be plagued with the smug or elitist labels. Look at Barack Obama’s critics. Maybe there are some film lovers out there who would want to have a beer with Ben Lyons (much like George W. Bush) but despite his perceived photogenic appearance, can you really take anything he says seriously?

His co-host, Mankiewicz, has also been bestowed with faint praise. You see a lot of the words “…at least…” plastered in front of his qualifications for the job, usually focused on his presentation skills for classic movies for TCM rather than, ironically enough, his stint with TMZ. So, at least he’s probably seen some movies older than Ben Lyons. But watching him on this show and you see a guy who is good at talking movies. Not really about them, but setting them up, kinda devoid of any passion for the positives or the negatives. Lacking even the plastered smiles of Lyons, the other Ben has a teleprompter-like feel with only one speed and the advantage that he’s not his partner. Richard Roeper was destroyed upon his arrival to the balcony for what was perceived to be a lack of qualification and experience to be a movie critic, but now Mankiewicz is getting a pass because his grandfather wrote Citizen Kane? Tori Spelling had a famous relative too and I never heard Frank Stallone getting credit for his brotherly connection to a great screenplay. Know the one I mean, Lyons?

Mankiewicz might actually fit better into the show’s “Critics Round-Up”, a segment that couldn’t be more shabbily put together if it were directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In theory, not a bad addition to the show. If I were on the redevelopment team, it would have been one of my suggestions (especially if the two Bens were already greenlit.) Bring in a group of revolving, trusted critics (you could do one from print, one from TV/radio and one from online) and have them debate either a new film, a trend, the Oscar season, whatever. Keep some regulars, but try out some newbies. One of the most interesting shows Ebert did in the post-Siskel era was to invite a group of local Chicago critics (included were Dann Gire, Ray Pride, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Michael Wilmington) to discuss Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. One show. Five critics. Some of the most fun I have had in the past years (and hopefully informative for our audiences) includes doing a symposium at Columbia College Chicago. For three hours along with J. Robert Parks (from The Daily Plastic who also teaches the class), Sergio Mims (with EbonyJet & N’Digo) and Andrea Gronvall (who produced Siskel & Ebert for 21 years) we discuss the pros and cons of a pair of movies for the students, so they can grasp a sense of how to critique and debate as well as an extensive Q&A for whatever they want to know about the business. Also during the year I’ll be in studio at WGN Radio with Nick Digilio and Collin Souter to talk about any one of the big films and a four-hour spectacular at year’s end to recap the best, the worst and everything in-between. Hell, come to the Lake St. screening room sometime and hear the discussions with Peter Sobczynski, Brian Tallerico, Steve Prokopy and any number of Chicago critics. Lyons could certainly stand to learn a thing or two from any of these presentations instead of acting like Zelig with a digital autograph book, blogging pics of every celebrity he encounters instead of maybe seeing a few more movies at a festival as stuffed as Toronto. (For full disclosure’s sake I have pics with Bill Paxton and Paul Rudd linked on my own MySpace page, but they seem incidental compared to Lyons’ insistence that he hangs with famous people. Did he learn nothing from William Miller?)

Back to the point at hand. Understandably, At the Movies only has about 22 minutes to work with, so the instituting of any kind of outside round-up for a single segment barely gives anyone time for a soundbite. Or, at least, an interesting soundbite. But let’s meet those critics.

On the right you have Wesley Morris from The Boston Globe who looks regularly uncomfortable and borderline constipated. In the middle you have Tory Shulman from ReelzChannel. She has a cute smile for sure, but if you’re looking to ask her out, be sure to take movie talk off the table otherwise you’ll be asking for the check earlier than expected. Finally, on the left, is Matt Singer from IFC who is the only one of the three who looks like he’s dying to have something to say of any value but is repeatedly drowned out and interrupted by people who think Babylon A.D. is worth renting. “It’s not bad,” says Morris in one of his lengthier soundbites.

SHULMAN: “Rent it if you have a plasma widescreen TV and you don’t want to think too much.”

I don’t quite get how plasma is going to do the film any justice. But at least Singer is echoing the thoughts of anyone watching.

SINGER: “I am shocked and appalled by what I’m hearing.”

You ain’t heard nothing yet, Matt.

LYONS: “Vin Diesel should go and do comedies and family films”

SHULMAN: “Vin Diesel, in the right vehicle could be the modern day action star. He’s charming, he’s got a good act, you can see he’s a good actor.”

Shulman utilizes the rare case of trying to tell us that we’re being shown someone is a good actor. But I’d like to know which clip from Babylon A.D. she was going to use to emphasize her point and explain her reasoning. Oh, no point? Just giving us a little Francis Dollarhyde there, huh? “Vin Diesel is a good actor. Do you SEE?

What’s most stunning about this segment is just how poorly edited it is. Clearly the panel members never learned the basic media skills of how not to talk over one another, each trying to get 15 minutes out of their 45 seconds, and the poor editor is desperately trying to catch the beginnings of statements at the expense of clipping others. Even more telling is how often the show isn’t interjecting some rational way for their viewers to look at film but instead reflecting our inner monologue as to how the show is going. “Could it have been better edited, no question. Was it a little sloppy and (insert critic’s name here) too broad at times? Yes," sounding like Cary Elwes on Seinfeld. Lyons gives us the ol’ lazy standby “two hours of my life I’ll never get back” not once but twice (“a waste of my time, a waste of my life”) despite this being his frickin’ job and a far sweeter one than checkout grocery clerk for which he’s far more qualified. (In fairness, Ebert was known to say this on the show as well, but would occasionally reference it to audiences wasting THEIR time.) Twice Lyons also tells us how we’ll be singing “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” from Hamlet 2 for “years to come.” However, jumping to the second show for what will begin the Ben Lyons Quote of the Week at Criticwatch, he delivers this ignorant classic:

“You almost never notice editing in a movie unless it’s poor.”

Be sure to catch the next At the Movies when they invite Thelma Schoonmaker to the set to spit in her eye.

It’s downright sad to see a legacy come to this. For Chicagoans it would be like seeing Bozo the Clown replaced with John Wayne Gacy, figuratively having our memories of a once great movie show molested by your boring neighbor and his basement gimp. I’m sure Daddy Lyons will come to Junior’s defense at some point, citing some modicum of professional jealousy on my part; the same apparent motivations for picking on Jeffrey as an easy quote. (Note: It’s a lot easier for studios and publicists to get quotes when you just give them one instead of having them trog through a complete written analysis of the film in question.) Nothing could be further from the truth, but don’t take my word for it. Just ask Anne Thompson or AICN's Capone or Jeffrey Wells what they think of the show. As far as quote quotients go, a favorite measuring stick at Criticwatch, Mankiewicz probably never has to worry about whoring out since he doesn’t appear to speak in hyperbolic pentameter or really say anything worth quoting anyway. Junior Lyons on the other hand, with 10 quotes to boot in ’08 before the show’s premiere (and only the fifth true whore this year to hit double digits) has already picked up another three for Burn After Reading (“A hilarious comedy from an all-star ensemble cast! Smart, funny and original. Everything you want from the Coen Brothers”), Battle In Seattle (“An all star cast that delivers one tremendous performance after another”) and Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (“One of the best films of 2008. A classic of epic and scope”) distributed by, guess who, Disney. Siskel & Ebert had their fair share of accusations over time of cowtowing to the company that sponsored them, but everyone knew that they had enough integrity to make such potshots a farcical impossibility. The same can’t be said for Lyons.

I don’t know how long this version of the show will last. Maybe it’s still a work-in-progress that will get smoother each week, but I highly doubt it. Missing Roger and Gene and even what Roeper and Phillips and guest hosts like A.O. Scott brought to the table is only part of it. A large part, but still only part. Those shows, even up to the very end of their run, provoked discussion, encouraged banter and unforced witticism. Are we really going to count on Ben & Ben to introduce us to the next One False Move or Hoop Dreams? Are we ever going to see such passion and excitement again on classics like GoodFellas, Schindler’s List and Fargo? How about the serious and challenging disagreements offered on Blue Velvet, Barfly or The Silence of the Lambs? Reevaluations of director’s cuts like The Abyss and Blade Runner? If Gene Siskel could guarantee he wouldn’t see better films than Crumb and Fargo so early in the year, then I feel safe in guaranteeing that not one conversation between the Bens will be as interesting as Siskel & Ebert off camera; a variation if you will on Gene’s “Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?

While I urge you to take a moment and look at every one of those linked clips (starting with Ben & Ben), I want to at least send you out on a positive note involving the negative. Classic pans from the history of the show in three neat little packages (#1, #2, #3) from YouTube user ClementJ642 and a final remembrance from Gene Siskel that I think sums up the new format just perfectly. When reviewing the French film, Little Indian Big City (eventually remade into Tim Allen’s Jungle 2 Jungle), Siskel told viewers how they had to go back a second day to see the film’s ending because its final reel was absent the first go-round. Gene said, “If the missing reel had been footage from Orson Welles 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' this whole experience would still have sucked.” There’s a lot missing from the new At the Movies, but I think we all get the feeling that even if they find whatever that is, the show is still going to suck.

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originally posted: 09/19/08 02:21:25
last updated: 09/19/08 08:32:22
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