The newly-revived ‘Ebert Presents At the Movies’ made its premiere on PBS stations over the weekend. Are new hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky the next Siskel & Ebert? To use a phrase that was repeated many times in the first episode: “I completely disagree.”
I’ll try to be even-handed here and dole out compliments where they’re deserved. Roger Ebert’s guiding hand is felt throughout the show, which largely retains the classic back-and-forth debate format that he and Gene Siskel made famous for over two decades in the various programs (‘Sneak Previews’, ‘At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’, ‘Siskel & Ebert and The Movies’, etc.) that are generally rolled together under the banners of ‘Siskel & Ebert’ or ‘At the Movies’. This includes the theater balcony setting, and the Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down ratings system, which Ebert actually holds a copyright to.
The new hosts are introduced with a black & white ‘Citizen Kane’ tribute that doesn’t really work. After a few reviews, a guest critic (film blogger Kim Morgan) is brought out for a segment highlighting a classic movie – in this case, ‘The Third Man‘. I like the idea of this. It runs along the same lines as Ebert’s recurring “The Great Movies” column. However, Morgan has a lispy voice that’s kind of annoying. After the segment is over, Lemire and Vishnevetsky have some banter that suggests they haven’t seen ‘The Third Man’, and that seems unforgivable for any professional film critic. (It’s possible they meant to speak for the audience, not themselves, but it’s awkward in any case.)
Near the end, Ebert himself is trotted out for a segment called “Roger’s Office,” in which he muses about the obscure animated film ‘My Dog Tulip’ with the help of a voiceover by Werner Herzog narrating his words. Ebert appears on camera for all of about three seconds, in a dimly-lit wide shot. He’s wearing his new prosthetic chin (no beard), but it’s barely visible.
The show closes with a vintage clip of the first on-camera appearance of the Siskel & Ebert team. That’s a nice touch.
(On a side note: The program is broadcast in HD, but all of the movie clips looks about VHS quality for some reason. That needs to be fixed soon.)
With all that said, a show like this succeeds or fails based on the chemistry of the hosts. To their credit, both Lemire and Vishnevetsky seem like intelligent people. Neither is an idiot on the scale of Ben Lyons, whose raging incompetence killed off a previous incarnation of this program. Lemire is a seasoned film critic with experience making television appearances. I think she’d be fine with a different co-host. Throughout the episode, she gives off the distinct vibe that she’s trying really hard to be patient with the 24-year-old Vishnevetsky. She puts on a good face and acts encouraging toward him.
But Vishnevetsky… sigh. I don’t want to be too derogatory about him. He seems like a smart kid. He reminds me of myself at that age – very pretentious, a little arrogant, and definitely overcompensating so as not to seem too badly out of his depth. He has an annoying habit of pushing himself up into Lemire’s face when he talks, and he keeps repeating the mantra “I completely disagree” as if he’s deliberately trying to channel the bickering style of classic Siskel and Ebert. He needs to relax, and frankly he needs to be more open to conceding the gaps in his own film knowledge.
The movies under review in the first episode are: ‘No Strings Attached’, ‘The Company Men’, ‘The Way Back’, ‘The Green Hornet’, and ‘The Dilemma’. Across the board, Lemire hated every movie and Vishnevetsky liked every movie. The dichotomy is so comical that they actually have to poke fun at themselves for it in the last scene.
Honestly, on this first batch of movies, I can’t say that I sided exclusively with one critic or the other. (Not that we’re supposed to.) In some of his reviews, I felt that Vishnevetsky was wildly off base and will really come to regret his taste at this time of his life when he looks back on it in a decade or so. (I know I feel that way about my own younger days.) In response to a clip from ‘The Dilemma’, he actually attempts to make the argument that Channing Tatum is a good actor. He says this without sarcasm or irony. I’ve never heard anything so gallingly absurd in my life! The kid needs a good smack for that.
On the other hand, there are times when Lemire seems like a sourpuss who just refuses to acknowledge the good in anything… except when she nods in agreement with the Channing Tatum remark. (That truly boggles the mind. I just can’t comprehend it.)
Overall, the new ‘At the Movies’ is a mixed bag. The hosts definitely don’t have the Siskel and Ebert chemistry. But this is a pilot episode, essentially, and those are always difficult. Perhaps they just need to settle in and find the right groove. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for a little while.