Fan Fare

Entertainment behind the scenes

“At the Movies” goes dark

By Dean Goodman
August 16, 2010

The latest movies from Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts and Michael Cera will forever be remembered by film buffs as the last to be reviewed on the weekly TV show “At the Movies,” which ended its influential 35-year run this past weekend. Syndicator Disney announced in March that it was canceling the show because it no longer made financial sense to produce.

The show, originated by rival Chicago newspapermen Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, brought film criticism to mainstream America. The two scribes passionately debated each other on the merits of Hollywood blockbusters and small art-house releases, making or breaking movies with their trademarked (literally) thumbs-up and thumbs-down recommendations.

The swan song episode replayed some of those moments: Siskel lavishing praise on the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” and the duo almost coming to blows over such long-forgotten films as the Burt Reynolds comedy “Cop and a Half.” In one notable sequence, Siskel changed his thumbs-up on “Broken Arrow” to a thumbs-down, after being swayed by Ebert’s distaste for the John Travolta thriller.

atmoviesSiskel and Ebert jumped from local public television to national syndication in 1986. Siskel died in 1999 and was eventually replaced by columnist Richard Roeper. An ailing Ebert stepped down in 2006, and Roeper reviewed movies with a succession of guests for two years. Two of them, A.O. (Tony) Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (at left in picture with Scott), rescued the show in 2009 after an ill-fated restructuring with a pair of lightweight critics sent ratings into a freefall.

Phillips recalled working in a factory in 1980 with people who saw their first subtitled films because of the show. “It mainstreamed film criticism and it brought up a different audience into all kinds of specialty and arthouse and foreign-language (movies) they would not have otherwise seen,” he said.

“It democratized it,” added Scott. “It opened it up, to the point that now you have the noise and argumentation of the Internet where you have a hundred flowers blooming in angry contention.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Scott noted. “It’s about everybody getting together and having a focal point for an argument.”

Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, a Chicago native and film buff, is among those mourning the show’s departure. He said on Twitter that it helped him decide which movies to screen on Sundays at the Playboy Mansion.

Phillips left open the possibility of an afterlife for their double act. “I certainly hope so. It’d be a lot of fun,” Scott said after the pair shook hands. “There’s a lot more that we have to say, and a lot more movies to see.”

For the record, there was an anticlimactic consensus to their reviews. Scott recommended seeing Roberts’ “Eat Pray Love” in theaters and waiting for Stallone’s “The Expendables” to come out on DVD. Phillips said viewers should skip both movies, but still seemed mildly amused by ”Expendables,” which topped the weekend box office. They both liked “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” though that recommendation clearly fell on deaf ears.

(pictures: Disney-ABC Domestic Television)

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