Return of the Thumb

Roger Ebert’s new show on PBS.

Roger Ebert has a posse. Thirty-five years after he and Gene Siskel teamed up for Sneak Previews, five years after thyroid surgery left him speechless and forced his exit from Ebert & Roeper at the Movies, the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times is back on-air with a little help from a lot of his cinephiliac friends. There has been a successful effort to rid the franchise of the stench left by Ben Lyons, universally vilified as a corrupt ninny during his tenure on the show, and there has been a concerted one to move away from the establishment tone set by recent hosts A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. A foreword to Ebert Presents At the Movies (PBS)—crafted in homage to the showmanship of Orson Welles, apparently the new program’s patron saint—brashly introduces the new gang as if it were the Mercury Company or the staff of Charles Foster Kane’s New York Inquirer.

Here, seated gaily at a desk bearing a still of Welles in The Third Man, is Chaz Ebert—the man’s wife, the show’s executive producer, the critic’s plus-one of 20 years standing. There, slinking kittenishly by the oceanside, is the critic Kim Morgan, one of several correspondents. The first episode sees a black-and-white Kim perched in front of a Ferris wheel while tracing the angular charms of The Third Man’s Harry Lime, with his titled brim and “crooked charm.” Intriguingly, we’re told that movie blogger Omar Moore—also a lawyer, which almost excuses the shot of his flipping diligently through a law book—will be discussing “technology and social issues.” And here, deliciously complicit in her own babe-ification, is Kartina Richardson, of The announcer shares that Miss Richardson has a tattoo of Jean Cocteau, forcing one to wonder in what circumstances one might get to see it. In the second episode, wearing a sleeveless blouse that opens up the disappointing possibility that the ink in question is on her delicate left forearm, she presents a smart essay on Black Swan­—one that improves on Freud’s structural model of the psyche. I have only one beef with the segment: Promising to explain the importance of bathrooms in the lives of ballerinas, it failed to provide a complete account thereof. I assume that the editors must have excised six or eight uses of the word bulimia.

Ebert’s title is managing editor, which is humble code for impresario. His warm aura is all-pervasive, and his screen time, though highly limited, is even more highly theatrical. A segment in the second episode finds him pleasantly surprised to praise The Rite as a serious film about exorcism: The camera settles on the lettering on an office window—”The Ebert Company, Ltd.,” it reads above the drawn venetian blinds, “Fine Film Criticism Since 1967.” Alone in the dark, Ebert taps mutely at his laptop. On the soundtrack, a sonorous Bill Kurtis reads the review as though he finds it relaxing to engrave its phrases in oak. They run the clips, then they bring us back to the office, where Ebert hoists a stout thumb and a proud smile.

The hosts are Christy Lemire (the AP’s film critic) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (of They don’t come across as film experts but as smart friends with considerable film expertise. When she, panning The Green Hornet, states that the movie fails to make you “want to be in the car with those guys,” she cuts to the heart of the matter. When he, approving of the same film’s use of 3-D, employs the word superimpositions, he gets away with it, such is his next-door-boyishness. Lemire and Vishnevetsky are clearly dedicated to film. Also, they’re dedicated to fostering the impression that the show itself can operate like a bright indie rom-com. Last week, Vishnevetsky, with his primal digit pointing the same way as Lemire’s when rendering a verdict on Mike Leigh’s Another Year, very nearly apologized for a shortage of sparring: “Are we going to agree again?” Yes, yes, they were, so there’d be no Benedick-and-Beatrice movie-lovers’ quarrel, and the gentle flirtiness of his winsome apology would have to suffice for sexual tension. It was cute, and they, to abuse a Pauline Kael double entendre, are going steady.

When I say that Ebert Presents at the Movies has a wonderful texture to it, I am referring to its mix of buoyant ballyhoo and plainspoken film chat. Also, I am referring to its use, on-set and in its online presentation, of the crimson coziness associated with old movie palaces—the caress of good upholstery and the lush drape of curtains and all that. TV shows about film criticism wouldn’t be themselves without these signifiers of rented glamour. Maltin on Movies (Reelz, Saturdays at 1 p.m. ET) makes fine use the same device. After all these years, omnivorous host Leonard Maltin is still as chipper as a chipmunk and as qualmish as a 9-year-old, panning Black Swan with a “squirm” and the latest Twilight movie with a yawn: “I’m squeamish, but I felt aloof during the wolf attacks.” Yet, I have no quarrel with a critic who, as Maltin does, puts The American, Animal Kingdom, and Get Low on his list of the past year’s overlooked movies, luring in casual movie fans with the loop of a velvet rope.

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