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Dumbing Down The Film Critic

Ben Lyons Has A Seat On The Durable 'At The Movies,' But Detractors Say He's Just A Celeb-loving Studio Shill.

December 28, 2008|Chris Lee

"Two thumbs up conveyed a seal of approval," said Jason E. Squire, instructor of cinema practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and editor of "The Movie Business Book." "It was so powerful, the expression became part of the general lexicon." Added Bill Mechanic, former chairman and chief executive of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment: "For marketing purposes, a 'two thumbs up' was great to have." (Ebert, who stopped appearing in "At the Movies" after medical issues robbed him of his voice in 2006, exercises the sole right to use his thumb for rating purposes; Siskel died in 1999. Richard Roeper joined the show in 2000, and hosted with revolving guest critics in Ebert's absence.)

Last summer, producer Disney-ABC Domestic Television decided to take the syndicated show "in a new direction," prompting Ebert and Roeper to announce that they were severing ties with the program. In their places, "At the Movies" executives hired Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies who is the grandson of famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz ("Citizen Kane") and nephew of Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz ("All About Eve"), and Lyons, a New York native whose academic pedigree consists of a few semesters at the University of Michigan and whose first professional critic gig was talking film on his father's movie review program "Reel Talk." The younger Lyons also reviews movies and interviews celebrities for E! Online, "E! News," "The Daily 10" and "Smash Time Saturday's" and hosts the game show "My Family's Got Guts" on Nickelodeon.

Viewers haven't been quite so rankled by Mankiewicz, 41, who comes off a bit more measured when giving his critical appraisals. ("You put anyone next to Ben Lyons and they're going to look bulletproof," notes VanAirsdale.) But Lyons' installation released a torrent of negative blowback, most of it online. "I don't like Lyons," blogger Jeffrey Wells wrote on, "because you can tell right off the bat he's too much of a glider and a glad-hander."'s deputy editor and columnist Anne Thompson also derided Lyons, describing "At the Movies" as "a train wreck," complaining that discourse between Mankiewicz and Lyons is "dismayingly shallow."

"It's like Johnny Carson being replaced by Dane Cook," said Childress, who also writes a feature called "Ben Lyons Quote of the Week" on that deconstructs and ridicules Lyons' critiques. "It's going from the top echelon in the profession to the absolute lowest."

Then there's Established in September by Oakland computer programmer-turned-blogger Scott Johnson, the blog is largely devoted to highlighting Lyons' perceived critical trespasses and advocating his dismissal. A die-hard fan of the show, Johnson was motivated to create the site by what he views as righteous indignation.

"If [Lyons] wants to sit in Siskel's or Ebert's seat, he's got to prove he's worthy of our attention," Johnson explained. "What Ben says about movies, it's not worthwhile. He seems to be doing the show more because he wants to be on TV than because he has something to say about the movies."

Some of Lyons' pronouncements certainly seem to show a certain lack of seasoning. While recently reviewing "Quantum of Solace," he proclaimed that "GoldenEye" was his favorite James Bond film, eschewing many of the franchise's most heralded installments. His rationale? "It was the first one for Pierce Brosnan," Lyons said. "And that was also. . . when the first-person action video game Bond franchise was launched, which I wasted many hours of my childhood playing."

A show's ratings

It's unlikely that Lyons will be mentioned in the same breath as heavyweight critics such as Ebert, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, The Times' Kenneth Turan, or the New York Times' Manohla Dargis any time soon. But then again, you don't see any of those critics posing for snapshots with many of the same celebrities they write about, as you do on Lyons' blog The Lyons Den -- a professional habit that has given the reviewer a reputation for kissing the hand that feeds. (See the accompanying article.)

But critical standards aren't the only issues being debated when it comes to "At the Movies." Some industry observers think that the show's relevancy may have gone with the dawn of the Information Age. "I . . . wonder if the era of sitting passively in front of a TV screen and listening to a couple of guys trade opinions about movies has the same vitality that it had when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel started 'Sneak Previews' on PBS in 1977," Wells wrote on the Hollywood-Elsewhere blog. ". . . Audiences these days like to talk back and argue and engage interactively."

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