Published: February 2, 2011
It breaks my heart to say anything close to “no” to Roger Ebert. Yes, I may disagree with him on a few movies, but to give even a mixed review to “Ebert Presents At the Movies,” his first television endeavor in over four years, feels like a shot to my own chest. Alas, though the new show is not hopeless, it proves problematic largely due to its unexciting hosts.
This new program, broadcast on WLIW21 in New York, emerges five months after the original “At the Movies” ended on ABC. Ebert began that show with Gene Siskel in 1986 after 11 years of working together on public television. After Siskel’s death in 1999 and Ebert’s departure in 2006 due to cancer treatment, the show went through some unfortunate and sometimes gimmicky replacements (namely, the uninspired Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz and the almost self-serious Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott) before ending for good. With his new program, Ebert returns to public television to revitalize the studiously yet lively type of reviewing he did with Siskel.
Ebert chose Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Mubi.com as the show’s hosts. Both critics display experience and knowledge about cinema’s past and present. Lemire appears to be more casual while Vishnevetsky is somewhat of a scholar. When Vishnevetsky gives a movie “thumbs up,” he points out specific scenes and comparisons to past films and filmmaking techniques to explain why he liked the movie. (In the premiere episode, one of his praises about “The Green Hornet” was the cinematography’s similarity to optical processes from the 1970s.) Lemire explains her opinion as well, but her comments are broader, less formal and slightly repetitive. (She used “languid” as a major adjective two reviews in a row.) I don’t want to suggest one takes their role more seriously than the other because they both clearly love movies, but it does seem like the intellectual playing field is slightly imbalanced.
The problem with these hosts is that neither one has a distinctly opposite personality yet. Siskel was a collected man while Ebert had the capacity to raise his voice if it seemed a movie he liked was being attacked. Any of their disagreements is two or three minutes of guaranteed humor amidst the discourse. The only emotion I can see in these new hosts is happiness to be on television. They should improve as they do more episodes and build a relationship. (Vishnevetsky is a last-minute replacement for Elvis Mitchell of the radio program “The Treatment.”) I hope they’ll reveal some more facets in time, because we certainly don’t want another pair as wan as Lyons and Mankiewicz.
The reviews themselves can be less than engaging. The hosts often begin by summarizing the movie before offering any criticism. If there’s one thing I know as a writer, it’s that you need a juicy opening to hook in an audience. Don’t start by describing the plot. Give us one succinct statement on the quality so we can be interested in hearing more. Ebert is better about it in his own segment, where he handpicks movies like “The Rite” and “My Dog Tulip,” but he also wastes time describing the film factually and not describing it emotionally. It’s a forgivable error for a beginning show, and the critics already started making their opinions clearer in the second episode, but they should remember to relay their general statement at the most opportune moment.
The new “At the Movies” also promises specialized segments with guest correspondents. The first two episodes featured blogger Kim Morgan praising the 1949 classic “The Third Man” and essayist Kartina Richardson analyzing the bathroom as an important recurring setting in “Black Swan.” Segments like these run the risk of seeming random, so I hope their subjects will stay related to the overall episode or to current events in addition to being discussed for their own sake. So far, these pieces are interesting and recall some of the special episodes Siskel and Ebert did (like their salute to black and white and their analysis of great villains).
Even with its faults, I wish “Ebert Presents At the Movies” the best of luck. I will continue watching to see if it will improve. This show is bringing back what the original “At the Movies” delivered: intelligent film discussion proffered by relatable people. The hosts this time around are not as entertaining as Siskel and Ebert were, but their potential cannot be abandoned after only two episodes. I trust Ebert very much, and if he likes these new critics, then I’ll wait and see if they will earn their seats in the balcony.