Monday, September 08, 2008

The balcony closes (and reopens)

Thanks to Olympics coverage, my local affiliate didn't show the final episode of At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper the week it first aired (August 16), but since there were two weeks of repeats before the new incarnation debuted this week, I got to see it anyway - and it's probably good I waited, since apparently Richard Roeper's short farewell at the end only aired in the repeat version. It was still an odd sign-off, with most of the episode giving no indication of this being the end of an era; Roeper and co-host Michael Phillips (the semi-permanent replacement for Roger Ebert) merely went through the typical motions of reviewing the week's new movies, although they seemed a little more distracted and glib than usual (that could have just been me projecting, though). Roeper put more effort into plugging his new book than into evaluating the merits of the various films, and I can't say I blame him. I think Roeper gets unfairly maligned for being a worthless critic; he may not be an intellectual titan, and I may often disagree with him, but I do think he knows his movies and takes care in what he says.

Phillips graciously thanked Roeper for the chance to be on the show these last few months, and Roeper then offered a carefully worded but seemingly heartfelt sign-off. Reports have come out that the producers at Disney were itching to take the show in a new direction, so Roeper's departure was probably not entirely voluntary, but at least he was classy about it. Word is that Roeper, Phillips and Ebert will all be involved in some new, as-yet-undetermined movie-review show (Ebert behind the scenes only, of course), and I will definitely seek that out when it shows up. At the very least, since Ebert co-owns (with Gene Siskel's widow) the trademark to the "thumbs up, thumbs down" concept, they'll get some attention from its return.

This weekend marked the debut of the revamped At the Movies with hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, and although they were careful to acknowledge their debt to Ebert, Siskel and Roeper at the beginning of the show, it could not have been clearer that the producers would like to distance themselves from that legacy. I will say that this was not quite the disaster that many have been predicting - there were no celebrity interviews or red-carpet coverage, and the focus was still on reviewing movies. But everything from the hosts' nonexistent chemistry to the snazzy new set to the jumbled new Critics Roundup segment felt forced and desperate, like some out-of-touch executive's idea of what young people want to see in their movie-review shows.

Lyons and Mankiewicz awkwardly stood for the opening, then sat next to each other, then stood on opposite sides of a desk for the Roundup segment, forcing them to contort their bodies to face each other while talking. Mankiewicz looked down at a computer during this part of the show for no apparent reason, except maybe that some producer heard that movie criticism online was a big deal these days and wanted to somehow include that. Of course, this is a first episode and there's time to work out the kinks, but all the moving around and jazzing things up didn't convince me that these guys have anything insightful to say about movies.

Lyons (son of Jeffrey) is a notorious hack best known for his work on E!, and Mankiewicz seems a little more thoughtful but speaks in an affected radio-announcer voice that I found hard to take seriously. The Roundup actually had a couple of respectable critics (The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris and IFC's Matt Singer), but it was so crowded that it ended up less like a real conversation and more like a cable-news talking-heads show; each critic managed to get in a sentence or two about each movie before being cut off. I'm happy that they're including voices other than the two hosts (who seem fairly vapid), but this didn't offer up any additional insight. Plus, they spent an entire Roundup segment talking about Babylon A.D., but the closest thing to an indie movie showcased in this episode was Hamlet 2 (granted, Lyons did pick the documentary Beautiful Losers as one of his "Three to See").

I won't be watching Lyons and Mankiewicz every week, but I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, if only because I want there to be a successful, serious movie-review show on TV. At this point, the new At the Movies seems too superficial to appeal to the old fanbase, and still too analytical to capture the Access Hollywood audience. I predict a demise within six months; one hopes that by then Ebert, Roeper and Phillips will have their more respectable replacement in place.

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