"At the Movies," the TV series that was (under a variety of names) the longtime home of bantering film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, premiered with two new hosts Sunday night, A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (Siskel's old paper and corporate cousin to the Los Angeles Times, where Phillips had earlier worked and which still sometimes runs his reviews).
Promo spots preceding its debut promised "two accomplished critics," "serious reviews from serious journalists" and "voices you trust," the implication being that the hosts being replaced, Ben Lyons (an E! Entertainment reporter) and Ben Mankiewicz (a Turner Classic Movies and Sirius Satellite Radio host), were none of those things.
The hiring of the comparatively telegenic, younger demographic-friendly Bens proved a misstep: The show lost about 25% of its viewers on their watch. It wasn't so much that they were incapable of expressing an opinion as that the intellectualism that made previous versions of the show fun to watch was lacking from the discourse. Mankiewicz (grandson of "Citizen Kane" writer Herman and the great-nephew of "All About Eve" writer and director Joseph) was clearly better versed than Lyons (son of "Sneak Previews" host Jeffrey) in the literature of film, but that tended to make the show seem unbalanced. The original hosts could be spiky toward each other, but they always came off as equals; when they disagreed, Mankiewicz tended to make Lyons look wrong.
That balance has been restored, and "At the Movies" is doing again what it does best -- providing a consumer service with an intellectual rigor that does not exclude a sense of fun. (The show began on public television, as "Sneak Previews," and has retained those values.) Phillips and Scott, both of whom have already co-hosted the show alongside Richard Roeper as substitutes for an ailing Ebert, are possibly not the most comfortable-looking men ever to appear on television but are good to listen to.
For their first show, the pair reviewed films including "All About Steve," "9," "The Burning Plain" and "Extract" as well as "Big Fan," upon which the hosts differed. Phillips, who liked the film more, thought Scott mistook "a black comedy" for "a naturalistic drama."
"I see your point," Scott replied, "but the humor then is based on a kind of condescension to these characters and treating them as grotesques . . . and it's a thing I think you see in a lot of independent film, where people in provincial, out-of-the-way places
At the end they briefly discussed the movies they saw as kids that changed their lives. For Scott, it was "Annie Hall," which he didn't understand but found "endlessly funny and mysterious." For Phillips, it was the Marx Brothers' "Horse Feathers." When he saw their significantly less great "The Big Store" a week later, he began to ask himself why one film worked and the other didn't. And here we are.