when last ranting about, At the Movies, they were in the process of ending the laughable "Bens" experiment. Ben Mankiewicz, was okay enough and probably didn't deserve the heave-ho. Ben Lyons? Oiy! Laws should be passed keeping any future generation of Lyons' clear of the critic's chair. We gave the revamped At the Movies a thumb up just for axing the dimmer, more superficial, Ben. Their replacements (Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott) were solid but not the most exciting of choices. Lacking in charisma or chemistry, the pair eventually faltered like a small but well intentioned "Rent It" film. It was yet another blow for an industry which has been on the decline since Harry Knowles made anyone with internet access a film critic almost 15 years ago.
In that time the role of film critics, like pop culture as a whole, has been diluted by satellite TV, digital cable, as well as an uncountable amount of general websites and social networking sites. With the amount of viewing options expanded to incredible levels and thus, the amount of actual viewers just as segmented, Disney pulled the plug on the post-Bens. Still, despite Disney's ultimate cancellation of a show which had been on the air in one form or another since the Ford administration, Roger Ebert vowed to bring it back.
After several years of speculation which actually began during the Ben days, the Pulitzer Prize winner, unable to eat, drink, or speak due to his battles with thyroid cancer, made good on his word. Acting as the show's producer, he reincarnates At the Movies this month and this time, he'll do it his way. While Hollywood insiders camp out at Park City, we'll instead park ourselves in front of our TV sets for the return of the show which started it all. This time it returns not just with new hosts, a new set and new ratings system (the set is a return to the balcony and the ratings is a return to the traditional Thumbs Up and Down) but also with a revamped format as well. Further proving that one can go home again, this latest installment will be housed at its original WTTW studios, the Chicago based PBS station which premiered it over 35 years ago.
The latest pair of hosts is led by, Christy Lemire, who has been working for AP since Gene Siskel was occupying a balcony seat. Elvis Mitchell, of the New York Times, was announced as her co-host but he backed out to in favor of a gig with internet heavyweight, Movieline. Russian born/Chicago raised, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, founder of Cine-file.info, steps in as a replacement and although we're not as sold on the 24 year old, he does bring a youthful, outsider's perspective. Of course that type of experiment failed before, but under Ebert's watch, we predict better results this time. Acting as executive producer, Ebert, who speaks through a computerized voice, will have his own segment on the show and will include other segments from inside various film festivals and other timely movie locales. Those spots will be further backed by a team of bloggers (like Omar Moore, an attorney by trade) as well as better known guest critics including, the rumored addition of, Alison Bailes. Ironically, Bailes was last seen giving Jeffrey Lyons the same type of dumbfounded on-air looks that Mankiewicz used to give his boy.
We'll see if Richard Roeper (who's website is called Richard Roeper & the Movies in honor of one of the former Ebert titles) joins the new crew. Although he would be a welcomed addition, seeing a brand new generation of critics grow and do their thing will be even more welcoming. Ebert has collected what is for the most part a young, intelligent and diverse group of correspondents and it will be interesting to hear their different voices.
Unfortunately, in a digitally fused media age where even The Brit Twins grabbed onto their 15 minutes for critiquing movies, we highly doubt that the new version will even come close to creating the pop-culture stir of the original. Like the filmmaking world, the film critiquing world has grown immensely (and obviously, not always for the better) since 1975. Still, it's nice to know that the show is making another go at it. Returning to where it belongs and knowing that it has an outside chance of developing into something more is reason enough for some excitement. This time "Ebert Presents At The Movies" gets two nostalgic and hopeful thumbs up. May that phrase again find itself on the posters of deserving films for years to come!*
UPDATE - April 26th, 2011: So far, so good. The show is strong, smart and thanks to the different segment reporters, refreshingly different too. Being back on PBS and away from Disney has also given it the non-commercial feel it likely had back in the mid 1970s. Still, we're just not feeling Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. No, he's not Jeffrey's Boy (currently asking the tough questions like "What are you wearing?" for the E! Network) not that that says much. A bigger more experienced name like, Elvis Mitchell, probably would have helped. Well, that's what we thought until this shameful controversy. Yikes, even Ben Lyons actually sat back and watched the films BEFORE reviewing them!