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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Roaring About Lyons

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times finally sat up and took notice of the blight to film criticism that is Ben Lyons in a scathing piece enumerating the many film critics and bloggers who have disparaged the 27-year-old, celeb-mugging quote whore since he took over At the Movies with his onscreen counterpart, Ben Mankiewicz. (I hear LAT’s been sitting on this piece for a month … guess they decided to wait and run it as a special Christmas present). Back in my college days, I used to debate, and we often had to advocate for the side of an argument we disagreed with, as an exercise in learning to debate an issue regardless of what our actual beliefs were. I thought about writing a post defending Lyons, just to practice my skills at taking up an argument in which I don’t believe; unfortunately, Lyons doesn’t give one a whole lot to work with.

I’ve followed pretty closely a lot of the talk around and about the internet about Lyons since he and Mankiewicz took over the once-mighty seats in the balcony previously occupied first by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and then Ebert and Richard Roeper (who I also never cared for, but compared to Lyons, Roeper looks like Pauline Kael). Erik Childress over at has been running a popular recurrent feature called “Ben Lyons’ Quote of the Week,” in which he eviscerates Lyons’ “criticism” by dissecting whatever banal things he’s had to say in each show. Childress’ piece has become a weekly must-read for his scathing critique of the TV film critic … if you’ve not read it, check it out. It’ll make you laugh out loud almost as much as if you were watching Lyons on TV yourself, only with the added benefit that you’re not giving At the Movies your time and your television every week.
Lyons didn’t choose to be interviewed for the LAT’s piece, but his boss, Disney-ABC Television’s Brian Frons, defends him in the piece thusly: “This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies,” Frons said. “Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He’s very much of the TV generation who don’t spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see.”
Uh huh. Which sounds a lot like corporate-speak for either “Yeah, he sucks, but we signed a contract with him so we’re going to make the best of it,” or “Yeah, we really do think people who watch this show are that dumb.” Take your pick. Of course, it’s also possible that Frons really does think Lyons is the bee’s knees, which would say something … unflattering … about his own taste in film criticism.
Which brings us to the greater question surrounding the existence of Ben Lyons as a critic: Does his existence in that position mean that film criticism as a whole is being “dumbed down,” or that people in general have no taste and lower standards for movies in general and film criticism in particular than they had back in the good old days? There was a certain segment that, back in the day, bemoaned Siskel and Ebert bringing the world “two thumbs up,” but the difference between Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs and what Lyons does is that Siskel and Ebert had intelligent things to say about the movies they were talking about, even when they had to talk in a truncated format for television.
Lyons, on the other hand, either babbles incoherently, talks in sentence fragments that make no sense, or says things that are so ridiculous they practically defy belief, as in one of my personal favorites — also called out in the LAT piece — when Lyon’s called I Am Legendone of the greatest films ever made,” or more recently, when he said of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, “As much as I was watching their romance on screen I was thinking about my own life and where I’m at in my life’s journey on my timeline, a very sort of introspective experience.” His life’s journey? What, since those tumultuous years of middle school?
I don’t think film criticism overall has been dumbed-down; if anything, the internet has made the perspectives of more smart film journalists available to a wider audience than ever before, even if there is more chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. And I don’t think people in general are any stupider now than they were 30 years ago; growing up in the age of the internet may have changed the way in which people get their information, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still seeking it — they’re just getting it delivered in different formats, faster than they used to. But there’s something about Lyons on that show that just chafes relentlessly.
In a time when so many smart critics are out of work, Ben Lyons is the best they could do for that show? Really? The thing is, you can’t even properly lay the blame for Lyons’ glaring ineptitude on his youth. He’s 27, not 12 (though you’d be hard-pressed to know that based on what comes out of his mouth), and there are a lot of very smart film journalists and critics I know in that general age range who are endlessly smarter than Lyons when it comes to talking about movies. If Disney wanted someone smart and young, there are any number of smarter young film writers who would have fit the bill. Put Childress on the show opposite a smart, younger female writer, someone like, say, Karina Longworth from Spout, and you might actually have a show that would be worth watching.
Updated 1:38PM — Anne Thompson has a piece up on Lyons, and at the end she also suggests Karina as a better person for the job than Lyons the Younger. Added bonus: Karina’s whip-smart and knows a lot about film, but she’s also cute and hip and wears those awesomely funky glasses. The young male demographic would tune in just to check her out, and might actually learn something while they’re there ogling. Just saying.
Great minds …

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3 Responses to “Roaring About Lyons”

  1. LexG says:

    The answer is resoundingly obvious:
    I’ve watched nearly every week since Lyons and Mank took over; Yes, Lyons’ take on things is often superficial and blurby, but however bizarrely he gets to his “see it/skip it,” and however lame that concept is, I tend to agree with his overall take much more frequently than Mankiewicz. Mank is obviously more broadly knowledgable and makes his points more clearly, but he’s had some real left-fielder opinions, which can sometimes be perplexing, other times amusing, especially as he (quite reguarly) puts Lyons in his place and tells him to calm down with the hype blurbs. (Lyons always seems eager to pump up actors for Oscar consideration, as if he’s on the committee or something.)
    It’s a strange dynamic between them, sometimes lame, other times amusing, as you sit waiting for Mank to either reign in the younger Ben, or go off on his own weird, prickly tangent.
    It’s hardly a great show and obviously a shell of the Ebert, Siskel, or Roeper years, but the pile-on seems a little excessive.
    After all, a newspaper that employs the SINGLE WORST MOVIE CRITIC IN ALL OF AMERICA, Kenneth Turan, has no room to be bagging on Lyons.

  2. John Wildman says:

    I have to admit that I have conflicting thoughts regarding Ben and his film criticism and role on the film scene. The quotes that have been oft-repeated are inarguably inane and embarrassing. And Ebert’s points are direct and well-taken as well.
    However, I have had him serve admirably as a host for the Vision Awards, which I produced, as well as on a jury for AFI FEST, which I do the PR for. In fact, I knew when he was asked to participate on that jury that it would cause some people and other film writers to criticize having him in that position. But the manner of his participation is exactly why I can’t condemn this guy outright. Because he didn’t just watch a handful of DVDs and phone in his choices for awards – he showed up, took part in the festival and promoted the films and the filmmakers.
    And that’s where Ben and his role in the film community falls into a gray area for me. I don’t weigh his opinion on film in the same context that I do others. However, I also never “consulted” televised film critics/personalities like Gene Shalit or Joel Siegel or Jeffrey Lyons when I was growing up. But as someone who sees the promotion of films and filmmakers as more than just a job, I understand the value in having a cheerleader like a Ben Lyons on the side of getting the word out. Maybe we can find some others that are both more astute and willing to challenge with their opinion as well as being appropriately telegenic.
    Would he be my first choice on the reconfigured At The Movies? No, he wouldn’t. The strength of the original for me was having a firm understanding of Siskel’s tastes vs. Ebert’s tastes and being able to balance their shared opinions and subsequent discussion on each film to give me an idea of what I could expect regarding the film in question. That’s been the biggest “miss” on that show since Siskel died. No contrast. For a show like that to resonate, I believe you need a populist “popcorn movie” reviewer paired with a tough, unforgiving “broccoli movie” critic.
    Put someone on the show that would take Ben to task when he says something (we see as) stupid, and it both becomes entertaining once again and eventually gives the non-film critic savvy public something more solid to go by.
    So while I completely understand the vitriol regarding Ben, his perceived place and his current success, I think he’s a very convenient target and one that I just can’t rally as much enthusiasm in condemning.

  3. T. Holly says:

    Karina isn’t just broccoli movie critc, she’s brocolli with garlic breath. And Lyons may have been a hostess with the mostess in the AFI lounge, I don’t see at all how he promoted the films and the filmmakers, nor should he.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon