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‘At the Movies’ dishes it out, takes it

Fri., March 6, 2009

“At the Movies” critics Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons have dished it out and taken it since joining the show last fall.

That’s especially true for Lyons, who’s gotten heat from fellow critics and others for hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders and his alleged quest for blurb glory in movie ads. They don’t like his reviews much, either.

While everyone’s entitled to their opinion, Mankiewicz says, the thumbs-down for his colleague is “just wrong.”

“Nobody who meets him is going to doubt that this guy knows a lot about film and is thoughtful about it, is interested and wants to talk about it,” he says. “Everything came through this prism of presuming that he’s young and didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Lyons says the attacks are inaccurate but leave him unfazed.

“It hasn’t bothered me, hasn’t affected me,” he says. “I’m traveling, working, have a couple different jobs going on. I’m too busy to let it get to me.

“I do look at it as I criticize people’s work, someone’s going to criticize my work.”

The pair contrast sharply: Mankiewicz, 41, is low-key and droll, while Lyons, 27, is all boyish enthusiasm.

Lyons, a Hollywood reporter and film critic for the E! Network and others, and Turner Classic Movies host Mankiewicz started last September on the show distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

They replaced Richard Roeper, who’d been working with guest critics since illness took Roger Ebert off the air in 2006. (Ebert’s trademark thumbs up-thumbs down is gone, too.)

Viewership initially dipped, with 1.8 million people tuning in compared to the nearly 2.4 million the show was averaging last season. But there’s been a steady uptick, to 2.3 million viewers in January, according to ratings released by Disney.

Lyons and Mankiewicz, who commute from Los Angeles to Chicago for tapings, say their on-air chemistry still is jelling as they move at a fast clip through films, squeezing in an extra review – about six total, along with DVD critiques – in the latest incarnation of the long-running show.

Observers have criticized the revamp as a surrender to lightweight criticism, with Lyons bearing the brunt of the attacks.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me that we’re at this point that Ben Lyons basically has become the face of film criticism,” says Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

He was willing to give Lyons a chance but “it seems every week he’s out there saying something completely moronic,” Childress says, adding that Mankiewicz is trying “to keep the spirit of the show alive.”

Scott Johnson, a blogger who founded, says Lyons “seems more interested in kind of playing into what’s the latest vehicle for hype and seeing if he can jump on the bandwagon rather than being critical and offering an opinion that’s going to challenge people.”

Lyons takes issue with claims that he’s angling to get quoted in movie ads and panders to the industry.

His reviews have been “blurbed” far less than those of other critics, he says. And mingling with Hollywood insiders is helpful as long as he keeps his reviews honest, Lyons adds, insisting that he does.

“In the past, it might have hurt the show a bit that (reviewers) were isolated in Chicago. I enjoy the fact that I’m out here in L.A. and I know writers and directors and actors,” he says.

“I’m young and I’m going to be out and social and to meet people and develop genuine friendships with them and understand the (artistic) choices they’ve made.”

Mankiewicz’s wry aside: “I’m not young, I’m not social and I don’t enjoying going out. But I want to establish that we get along really well.”

It’s the latest twist in the journey of “At the Movies,” which had its roots in a 1975 PBS series with Chicago newspaper critics Ebert and Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) and became the leading national TV forum for film criticism.

Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Siskel offered brief but trenchant TV assessments of movies that they analyzed in greater depth and detail in print.

That was then and this is now, Mankiewicz and Lyons say.

“This is a TV show and the notion that only people who qualify to talk about film criticism are people who have written for a newspaper seems silly,” Mankiewicz says.

Look at it this way, he adds: Would anyone suggest that NBC anchor Brian Williams write “750 to 2,500 words on the stimulus package before he discusses it on the air?”

That does not signal any less respect for films or those who make them, the pair say, and they produce family history as evidence.

Mankiewicz’s grandfather, writer Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”), and great-uncle, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives”), both are Oscar winners.

Lyons, whose grandfather was New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons, went to screenings as a child with his dad, critic Jeffrey Lyons, who encouraged his appreciation of classic films.

When it comes to movie criticism, Lyons and Mankiewicz say tradition is giving way to the rising chorus of voices online. That gives them a sharp appreciation of their “high-profile platform,” Lyons says.

“Everybody can be a critic but that doesn’t mean that everybody takes it seriously or responsibly, and that’s something we can do,” he says.

“It’s our job, it’s what we do and love, so we treat it with the utmost respect.”

Associated Press Writer Caryn Rousseau in Chicago contributed to this report.

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