Roger Ebert's New TV Show: Two New Thumbs, One Overdue Comeback (Video)

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Much has been written in recent years about the death of the professional movie critic, replaced by the ubiquitous movie blogger – bloggers who sometimes seem to prefer snark over substance, who occasionally seem willing to offer glowing buzz for the most mediocre of titles in exchange for free airfare and lodging.  As someone who used to cover the film beat, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find critics who share my mix of adoration and skepticism. I love going to the movies, but demand an awful lot, and that often contrasts with those critics who approach every movie with a scowl, or those fanboys who just love to faun.

Into this void steps Ebert Presents At The Movies, a most unlikely addition to the weekly television schedule – marking not only the debut of a new film criticism program (an endangered species in its own right) but the return of Roger Ebert to the airwaves, despite his inability to speak (a permanent side effect of surgeries related to his bout with cancer). The show debuted on a considerable number of PBS stations across the country last weekend and most segments can now be streamed through the show’s website. Clips after the jump. 

It’s the distinctive personalities, perspectives and programming mix that already separates this At the Movies from previous incarnations. The two key critics on the show – the two bearers of the thumbs, as it were – are Christy Lemire, a more seasoned critic of the Associated Press, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a younger, lesser-known Chicago critic who can be read at MUBI.com. Where there once was Siskel & Ebert there is now Lemire & Vishnevetsky, and in a handful of their early reviews, we can already see the emergence of two distinct personalities – one more preoccupied with finesse and plot points, and the other more interested in structure, experimentation and mood.

Far more invigorating than their particular film tastes, however, are the new perspectives they represent. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were middle-aged newspaper men from Illinois, sharing their views about new releases. In this new version of At the Movies, not only is a woman added to the mix, but so is a man with a diverse background – Vishnevetsky grew up in Russia, moved to Atlanta at the age of nine where he stayed for a decade and then landed in the Midwest, reportedly dropping out of college to study and write about film on his own. Also new factors in the show: Youth and new media. Lemire has been an official Associated Press film critic for more than a decade, most of her work appearing in print, while the 24-year-old Vishnevetsky has focused his efforts on musing online to a growing community of cineastes.  A quick search through year-end top ten lists highlights the disparity: Vishnevetsky’s top 10 of 2010 is littered with little-seen art house titles (World on a Wire, White Material, Father of My Children, Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl) while Lemire’s list walks in step with the mainstream, singling out Social Network and Inception.

Time will tell, but already in the show’s debut, I sense a generational split informing the show’s debate. For example, take this review of The Green Hornet, the new playful, frenzied, 3-D superhero movie that had the older Lemire yawning, but the younger Vishnevetsky grinning from ear to ear:

Most importantly: Lemire and Vishnevetsky both seem to love cinema passionately. In all of the discussions that comprised the debut, there was serious consideration paid to what the film was trying to do, where it was coming from, as well as what its actors and directors were striving to accomplish. This is empathetic, informed criticism by people who love movies every bit as much as the viewers.

Lemire & Vishnevetsky

The old Siskel & Ebert program would often have a DVD corner. The new At the Movies goes one step further. The debut episode featured critic Kim Morgan doing something of her own “Great Movies” segment (Ebert’s list of “Great Movies” has now eclipsed 300 titles and spawned three books), focusing on The Third Man.

And Ebert, in his own segment – titled “Roger’s Office” – attempted to shine a spotlight on the animated film My Dog Tulip. Seen briefly typing in his office (wearing his new prosthetic chin), Ebert’s words were given voice by Werner Herzog – who once dedicated a film to the critic and longtime Herzog champion.

This blend of new reviews, classical picks and overlooked gems handpicked by Ebert himself is a compelling mix. In a world where movie reviews are increasingly becoming superficial and streamlined – passengers in New York City taxis can now watch 15-second movie reviews that essentially boil commentary down to one sentence of plot summary and a grade – Ebert Presents At The Movies is a show of compelling breadth and character. Vishnevetsky seemed a little rigid his first time out of the gate, but Ebert already addressed that issue in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times: “It makes sense to take a great film critic and develop him as a TV personality,” Ebert noted. “It’s been tried the other way around, and it didn’t work.”

I’m betting that watching this 24-year-old blogger, this younger/film student counterpoint to the journalism veteran, grow into his role will be one of the series’ more compelling subplots.

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