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Roger Ebert returns with 'Roger Ebert presents At the Movies'

January 22, 2011 |  7:30 am

Ebert It is impossible to overstate the impact of Roger Ebert, his late sparring partner Gene Siskel and the show that became "Sneak Previews" and later "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies." Growing out of the natural rivalry between two Chicago dailies -- Siskel worked for the Tribune, Ebert for the Sun-Times -- their weekly face-offs both demystified and popularized film criticism.

Though quite different in manner, the two men were equally articulate, educated and discerning; that they very often disagreed, sometimes hilariously, was a weekly lesson in subjectivity. More than that, it made intelligent film criticism part of the public discourse, along with their signature "thumbs up/thumbs down."

After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert teamed up with Richard Roeper until, in 2006, he lost part of his jaw to thyroid cancer, rendering him unable to speak. He continues to write for the Sun-Times, and Friday night returned to television with "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" on PBS. Although the Associated Press' Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a critic for mubi.com, were the ones occupying the balcony seats Ebert and Siskel made famous, they were not the big news; Roger Ebert and his prosthetic chin were the big news.

As he detailed on his blog, Ebert has been fitted with a new chin to make him look more like his former self, which he certainly did, albeit very briefly, in a segment toward the end of the show called "In Roger's Office." The critic, who still cannot speak, was shown at his computer writing a glowing review of the animated film "My Dog Tulip," which was then voiced by director Werner Herzog. Presumably the voices will change, but Herzog did a fine Roger Ebert (and even a fairly nifty prosthetic chin pales a bit when compared with the ability to whistle up Werner Herzog as your voice-over.)

Though immediately touching, it was rather anticlimactic, and the question becomes: Is there still a place for two film critics sitting around talking?

"At the Movies" did not fare very well in recent incarnations -- the most recent pairing, of the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips and the New York Times A.O. Scott, was canceled after one season. Lemire and Vishnevetsky did not exactly burn up the screen. Both appeared quite nervous, eyes glued to the monitor, voices rolling up and down with odd radio-announcer enunciations.

By the second half they seemed a bit more comfortable, talking in fairly normal tones and ad-libbing with some heat and humor as it became clear that they did not agree on anything. "No Strings Attached," "The Company Men," "The Way Back," "The Green Hornet" -- Lemire hated them all (and was just snotty enough to use the word television as a pejorative when taking down John Wells) while Vishnevetsky continually and completely disagreed (though not, alas, with the television diss.) Each had fine, solid arguments for their thumb action, but both were a bit too polite to be terribly persuasive or compelling.

That will change, no doubt, with time and comfort level, but the admirable personal resilience of Roger Ebert notwithstanding, it's difficult to argue that we need another incarnation of "At the Movies." The day of an American city having competing daily newspapers is long gone, and with the howling, hooting blogosphere, there are just too many critics for any one rivalry to have meaning.

This pairing does pit old journalism (the AP) against new (mubi.com), young (Vishnevetsky is but 24) against established (Lemire has been writing film reviews for 12 years) but it's difficult to see what that will bring to the conversation. In the end, it's two critics sitting around talking, and though Siskel and Ebert had great chemistry and novelty on their side, these two only have chemistry, which puts a lot of pressure on them to become performers.

They are offered some support by blogger and classic-movie expert Kim Morgan, who during the first show spent a few minutes deconstructing "The Third Man" and explaining why it is a great film. Which even I, a lowly television critic, am fairly certain requires no explanation.

 -- Mary McNamara

Photo: Roger Ebert in a photo posted on his blog. Credit: Roger Ebert

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