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At The Movies – The End of an Era

August 13, 2010

By John C.

After 35 years on the air, in one form or another, At The Movies will air its final episode this weekend.  Although the show has undergone many changes over the years, this is the representation of the end of an era.  When I interviewed current co-hosts Michael Phillips and A.O. (Tony) Scott recently, one of our discussion topics was what were their favourite memories of watching the show.  Like myself, they also grew up with it, albeit they were watching in an earlier decade.  It’s been a big part of my life for quite some time, so I’m going to look back on some of my own personal memories surrounding the show.

I remember being a young kid and telling people what they should and shouldn’t see based on what Roger Ebert thought.  I think it’s safe to say that I may not be doing what I’m doing were it not for At The Movies.  What the show was able to do was introduce film criticism to a large audience, and make it appealing to film buffs everywhere.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel became the public persona of so many people working behind desks, and it very much had to do with the universal appeal of two people having an in-depth conversation about the topic they loved.

If something got the thumbs up then you were eager to check it out, but if something got the thumbs down you’d be watching more closely to see what they didn’t like.  Week in and week out, there’d usually be five new movies to discuss.  Some of the best episodes were when they’d disagree, because they’d always make valid arguments both for and against the picture.

Things took a turn for the worst when Gene Siskel suddenly passed away in 1999.  Roger Ebert was left to continue the show with the help of numerous guest critics, until the seat was filled by Richard Roeper in 2000.  Once again, the show returned to its predictable format.  Two newspaper critics discussing the pros and cons of the weeks new releases.  The show was consistently worth watching in its “Roeper years,” but it was only in 2006 when it became a serious part of my weekly schedule.  Shortly after that Roger had to take a leave of absence due to a battle with cancer, but Richard continued the show with the help of guest critics.

In July 2008 – less than a month after One Movie, Five Views was launched – it was publicly announced that Richard Roeper would be leaving, and that Roger Ebert would be officially cutting ties with the show.  I remember checking several different sources on the news when it first broke, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding.

What I found out, however, was that they would be replaced by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.  Those like me who watched the show throughout the disappointing season, know how that turned out.  For once the show was about TV personalities rather than the pure nature of film criticism.  Maybe Roger and Gene didn’t have the biggest television charisma but week in and week out their genuine love for what they were doing would always shine through.  The ‘Bens,’ both TV hosts, no doubt loved movies, but neither one was qualified to follow Roger, Gene, or Richard.  The thoughtful arguments that made At The Movies so great in the first place were replaced by the type of slick entertainment-themed television that Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood has to offer.  There is a place for that, but not in the time slot of At The Movies.

Their reign didn’t last long.  It was announced shortly after that they would be replaced by Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott.  At The Movies with Phillips and Scott once again offered the same thoughtful entertainment of watching two newspaper critics discuss and argue about what films you should and shouldn’t see, as the show did in its former glory.

Over the years, I have many great memories of the show, but some of my favourites were when they’d go “overtime” and offer up extended, maybe 5 or 6 minute reviews of a film.  Which is why my favourite recent episode has to be when Michael and Tony reviewed Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer, and spent time discussing the work of both Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.  Whether it was Roger & Gene, Roger & Richard or Michael & Tony, it was always entertaining to watch when they disagreed, as they would always have valid arguments and make a strong case for why something was or wasn’t worth seeing.  Another one of my fondest memories is when the At The Movies archive was launched online in the summer of 2007.  I remember spending much of the morning watching classic reviews.

The show has inspired generations of film lovers to pursue the world of criticism, and I’ve been watching in one form or another for as long as I can remember.  Although it may be airing its last this weekend, I’ll be watching right through to the end.  And that must count for something, right?  At this point there is still so much left to say, yet it seems that everything important has already been said.

The last episode of At The Movies airs this Sunday night on CTV and ABC.  Please check local listings.

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