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Welcome Back, Roger Ebert
January 21, 2011  | By Diane Werts
 
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So it's "back to the balcony" with the new school Siskel & Ebert, who feel remarkably like the old school Siskel & Ebert, despite being the next generation of film criticism.

Friday night's PBS premiere episode of Ebert Presents At the Movies (check local listings) reveals not some "reimagining" of TV's original movie review show, but the soul of that show beautifully reincarnated in two people who clearly love movies, and love discussing movies, as much as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did over their decades as Chicago critics, competitors, friends and cinema institutions.

Christy Lemire of The Associated Press is now on the screen-left side of the aisle, across from the guy I keep wanting to call Ignatz Radskywadsky, after Preston Sturges' 1944 frantic comedy classic The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. But this critic's name is actually Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (ig-NAH-tee vish-nah-VET-ski, the press release helpfully pronounces), and he writes for Mubi.com, "a new multi-national streaming online cinematheque."

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That's the kind of blah-blah-blah that is thankfully absent from Ebert Presents, which is still as straightforward as its title "managing editor" (love that journalese, Rog!), who never did mince words, either in print or in speech. Now robbed of the latter facility by his battles with thyroid cancer, Ebert has chosen two other direct voices in Lemire and Vishnevetsky, who are young but not callow, and engaging in a kind of pleasing, ordinary way that makes them almost instantly relatable.

Not quite instantly, though. This initial half-hour of Ebert Presents takes time to shift into gear, probably because it devotes its first five minutes to Ashton Kutcher's No Strings Attached. There isn't five minutes' worth to say about No Strings Attached. But it launches the show on a mainstream footing and gives Lemire and Ignatiy (sorry, less typing) a golden chance to disagree.

It isn't until the middle of the half-hour that Ebert Presents begins to hit its stride, by showing more creativity than the movies it's been reviewing. Two cool segments here. The first is a stylish intro of the new critics and their upcoming co-conspirators that's a clever homage to Orson Welles' cast-presenting trailer for Citizen Kane. (Welcome back, Roger Ebert, how we've missed ye!)

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The second is a segment revisiting a classic film, in this case the Welles showcase The Third Man (out on Criterion DVD), that's even more stylishly filmed and presented by Kim Morgan -- so much so that it's like, what did we waste the first 10 minutes on those fresh flicks for? Just review the classics! When Morgan observes "This moment is suspended with an overwhelming sense of rapture," and I'm not mocking her for saying something like that, but instead agreeing and admiring her verbal/visual panache, you know this show's got the goods.

Great timing, premiering Ebert Presents in the run-up to Feb. 14, because it's one big movie valentine, not the Hollywood marketing apparatus or condescending youth-demographic dart others might have designed. The show isn't musty or fussy, but it's not self-consciously "current," either. It's just personal, genuine and passionate. When Lemire says The Way Back is "like Survivor: Siberian Gulag," that's exactly the kind of comment we'd all like to unload during a 'round-the-dinner-table film chat.

And as for Ebert, he makes his own appearance in this At the Movies reincarnation. Cameras take us inside his office, where he sits typing a review of the animated film My Dog Tulip that's given voice by --

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Nope, not telling. Let's just say it's a venerated film director, who delivers Ebert's words with the same warm esteem we remember from Ebert's many years trading opinions with the late Siskel.

Hard to believe it's been 35 years since the two wordsmiths originally tackled TV. (Stay tuned through the closing credits for a retro flashback!) Opening Soon at a Theater Near You -- which later became Sneak Previews, then At the Movies -- debuted locally on Chicago PBS station WTTW in 1975, when I was growing up in nearby Northern Indiana watching every classic/foreign/silent movie I could lay my eyes on and hoping to become a film critic myself someday.

Ebert became more than a TV personality or writing role model to me a few years later when I met him while working for Dallas' USA Film Festival. He annually moderated screenings/discussions there of new releases, and generously took film students out for drinks after the final credits, patiently answering our questions on how to become him. Like his reviews, his advice was simple, practical, unvarnished.

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And here I am, writing for an actual readership in a career that has now endured for its own decades. So he must have known what he was talking about.

Just like Ebert knows what he's doing, given free rein on this new At the Movies produced for public TV by his own company led by his own dedicated wife and business partner, Chaz.

Maybe this new show isn't really a reincarnation, after all, but a transplant -- the smart old heart beating refreshed in a new body.

May it live as long a life.

(Check out the show's growing website here.)

 

3 Comments

 

Davey said:

Great news! There were rumblings of a resurrection after Disney's shameful treatment of the previous version finally came to its sad end. For once the rumors finally came true.

Can't wait to see this show, back on PBS where it belongs, without the 10 minutes of ads/15 minutes of content we enjoyed from ABC. Thanks for the heads up. But shame on TVWW for leaving it out of the Best Bets.

Neil said:

It's probably a byproduct of the HTML layout of the column, but the column gets a bit confusing at the end, where you (Diane, I presume) say "Here I am, writing for an actual readership..." just where a photo of another woman, at her iMac, begins. Reading further, I again presume that photo is of Roger's wife, Chaz. But the confluence of the two is confusing.

[Diane here: Yes, indeed, that photo is of Chaz Ebert, who was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the Ebert Presents premiere in time to write a review. (I only wish I had an iMac that cool.) Sorry for the confusion.]

Mark N said:

Dear Diane -- It's BACK!...Changed and yet not. I completely enjoyed the At The Movies rebirth (especially after the the terrible taste left by the last pitiable
reincarnation). Did anyone else feel the anticipation of hearing from Roger and then the encouraging satisfaction with how it was orchestrated? The new blood gave good discussion and defense of position, and I loved that they were on opposite side on EVERYTHING! And it was the classics segment that meant the most to me as a lifelong cinema lover. THAT'S what a review show should be able to do. Court those with current film interest and then highlight and educate them whilst you have them by the eyes and ears. Excellent review of the show and I celebrate its return. I had just resigned myself to the finality of that completely unfocused mess of another show's cancellation. Thanks.

 
 
 
 
 
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