Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

One of the ways I learned how to critique something and love movies of all sorts was watching "Siskel & Ebert At the Movies" growing up.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were two of the most famous film critics in America when someone had the bright idea of pairing them up in the mid-70s on the show "Sneak Previews" and had them argue over films.

Except that they didn't argue; they made arguments. There's a difference. Sometimes they would agree a film was great, sometimes they'd agree that a film sucked, and sometimes they disagreed on a film's merit, but there was always the underlying respect for the other's opinion even if one thought the other was bonkers for liking or disliking a certain movie.

Siskel & Ebert eventually moved on to syndication with their own show and their trademarked "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" approval system, and they became joined at the hip. It was impossible to think of one without the other.

And often, when I found myself in the Ebert camp, Siskel would win me over. And vice versa. What I liked about them is that they always talked about a film on its own merits, and tended to give a movie the benefit of the doubt. I try to do the same thing when I review TV shows. It says a lot about both men that each could make a compelling argument over the merits of a movie while taking opposite stances.

Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved took over the PBS version of "Sneak Previews," but it was a pale copy, in part because when they argued, it seemed like they were doing it for show. Also, they both seemed to come in with pre-conceived notions for a movie rather than judge it for its own merits. I remember when they panned a movie simply because it carried the words "Star Trek" in the title; Ebert and Siskel split on the same movie, but the thumbs down was a lot more mild and less mocking.

Siskel, of course, died several years ago after a long illness, and the show floundered for a bit as Ebert tried out an endless line of co-hosts before settling on fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. Roeper turned out to be a good fit filling Siskel's very large shoes.

Then, Ebert got sick a couple of years ago, and because he had surgery to his throat and was unable to speak, stopped appearing. Again, Roeper tried out a large selection of co-hosts. For a while, it seemed that A.O. Scott of the New York Times would get the gig, but eventually, it went to Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune in what has been a very natural pairing.

The "Thumbs Up" rating system quietly vanished a couple of years ago, and has been replaced by "See It/Skip It." But the show was going along smoothly (despite being shown at 4:30 a.m. Sunday mornings on WGXA in the Middle Georgia market - thank God for VCRs).

That changed this week when Roeper announced he wouldn't be renewing his contract at the same time Ebert was pulling his name off the show. Neither could reach a deal with Buena Vista Television, which produces it. So next month, Ebert, Roeper and Phillips will be gone from "At The Movies," replaced by Ben Lyons of "E!News" and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies.

Lyons is the son of Jeffrey Lyons, who replaced Ebert a couple of decades ago on the PBS show, while Mankiewicz is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote "Citizen Kane." No one is questioning their movie pedigrees, but one has to wonder if they can re-capture the same magic Gene and Roger brought all those years ago.

If they can't, the good news is Ebert and Roeper are looking at doing a new, similar sort of show (and Ebert owns the "Thumbs Up" copyright). Since Ebert is still too ill to do TV, I'd have to think Phillips is a natural choice to be Roeper's on-screen partner. Nothing has been made official yet, but hopefully the show will live on (and in a better timeslot, WGXA).

With print movie criticism dying off thanks to the struggles of the newspaper industry, it's nice to have an "At The Movies"-type show to fall back upon.

R.I.P. ESTELLE GETTY: The star of the "Golden Girls" was 84 when she died Tuesday of an extended illness. Getty toiled in obscurity for many years before landing a role on the hit series in her 60s, convincingly playing Bea Arthur's mother despite being only a few years older.

WEDNESDAY'S BEST BETS: It's all sub-mediocre reality fare tonight. Go out and see "The Dark Knight" instead.


Jonathan said...

We are actually lucky enough to get the show on at 6:00 on Saturdays here in Nashville assuming a Sports Event doesn't run over into it, so I've actually gotten back in the habit of watching the show with Roeper and Phillips.

But I have fond memories of watching Siskel and Ebert as a kid, and I was kind of suprised at how much Siskel's death touched everyone. Obviously you don't want anyone to die, but usually those kinds of accolades are only handed out to top celberities, politicians, etc. It showed how much of a mark the two of them had left on the pop culture landscape.

I can still remember hearing about "Hoop Dreams" from them, and seeing the affect it had on the box office intake.

I hope Ebert and Roeper are able to make it work somewhere else. It's not must see t.v. for myself, but whenever I come across it, I can't help but watch.

Phillip Ramati said...

6 p.m. - that must be nice!

You make a good point about movies like Hoop Dreams. That's really where the value of a show like At the Movies lays, promoting those small, but worthwhile, films.

Dark Knight may be the best movie of the year, but it really isn't going to be affected too much by the critics because it is so heavily promoted.

But something like Juno last year benefitted greatly from word-of-mouth and favorable critical reviews, generating over $100 million from the box office.

zodin2008 said...

I like you too was a regular viewer of "At the Movies" when I was a kid and actually also watched "Sneak Previews" with Lyons and Medved but Siskel and Ebert were always better at this.

I also agree that several years ago, Richard Roeper was the perfect replacement.

The problem I have had over the years is that I have lived in several cities. When I was growing up in Savannah, the Siskel and Ebert show was always Saturday late afternoon, easy to find.

Since I have lived in a few different places over the years, I lost track. Finally, about 2 years ago, I finally "found" the show being aired on the local CBS affiliate at about 1 AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning and featuring Roeper and an "array" of guest critics. I always felt Michael Phillips was the strongest of them, the most likeable, and had the most natural chemistry with Roeper. (I can't stand A.O. Phillips who's your classic NY Times film snob and hates everything).

Now the question I have is how soon can Roeper and Phillips get a show up & running and when will it air? It was always such a treat to watch a show like this.

Phillip Ramati said...

The way the story read, I expect Roeper and Ebert to announce something real soon, especially since Roeper's deal is up in mid-August.