ABC’s At the Movies re-launched this weekend with two new hosts: The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and the Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. Wait, actual newspaper critics? On television? Has ABC gone nuts? The debut episode barely called attention to the fact that these weren’t the same guys we’d been stuck with for the past year. “Let’s get right to it,” Scott remarked, as if the The Two Bens Experiment was just a bad dream.
If only we were so lucky. A year ago, ABC hired hosts Ben Mankiewicz, a semi-knowledgeable and semi-articulate movie guru from Turner Classic Movies, and the baby-faced Ben Lyons, who, bless his heart, had notoriously called I Am Legend “one of the greatest movies ever made.” I said then that the revamped show didn’t work, although I must admit that The Two Bens got better as the season progressed. It didn’t matter, though, because the very people who’d watch a movie-review show — film lovers — were turned off by The Two Bens’ questionable credentials. Lyons, in particular, was targeted: Roger Ebert thinly disguised his disapproval of Lyons, and a website, Stop Ben Lyons, was built solely to highlight young Ben’s offenses. Add the show’s dwindling ratings to the mix, and ABC decided it was time to return to the program’s original purpose — intelligent film criticism
Does the new At the Movies deliver on that promise? Yup. In one swift episode, Scott and Phillips conveyed a depth of perception that would have made Lyons’ head spin. However, despite all their smarts, Scott and Phillips have a chemistry issue that may or may not sort itself out. When I initially learned that Phillips and Scott were picked as the show’s hosts, I worried that their personalities would be too similar, and this episode confirmed that premonition. The original pairing of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel thrived because of the tension and palpable animosity that hovered in the air. When Ebert and Siskel disagreed, they leaped into battle determined to prove each other wrong. Yet, Phillips and Scott might as well be fishing buddies. They clearly admire one another, so there isn’t that energy that comes from the sense that a memorable verbal assault is always right around the corner.
Part of the problem is the show’s current verdict system: See It, Rent It, and Skip It. That “Rent It” option has to go. Part of the beauty of Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs system was that it answered the most basic question every moviegoer has: Should I see the movie — yes or no? The “Rent It” option, however, is a cop out. It allows Phillips and Scott to amiably disagree, as they did with the movie Big Fan (Phillips said “See It” while Scott opted for “Rent It”). Nobody cares if a movie’s recommended for renting. No one is going to add a DVD to his or her Netflix queue because it received two “Rent It” ratings. Money’s tight and life is short, so please give us a straight answer.
Still, despite those shortcomings, this At the Movies remains a considerable improvement over last year’s incarnation. Scott’s review of The Burning Plain was particularly refreshing; the critic intentionally jumbled the sequence of his remarks to comically emulate the film’s haphazard narrative. The two reviewers will inevitably become more comfortable in their leather chairs, and hopefully some sparks will fly in the future. But for now, serious film criticism has returned to the world of television, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.