Friday Movie Roundup: The Balcony Is Closed

The final episode of At the Movies aired last weekend, marking the end of an era that began more than 30 years ago.

Featuring a pair of geeky Chicago-based film critics — Roger Ebert from The Sun-Times and The Tribune's Gene Siskel — the long-running show debuted as Sneak Previews in 1975 before switching to At the Movies in 1977. The premise was simple: two people talking about that week's releases with passion, intelligence, wit and personality. —- The pair — one was lean and balding, the other portly and bespectacled — discussed everything from obscure foreign films and documentaries to the big-budget blockbuster of the day in a way that didn't take the former too seriously and that took the latter more seriously than one might expect.

Most importantly, they turned many viewers on to movies they wouldn't have otherwise known existed and discussed higher-profile offerings in unique ways that often became personal and combative. (I still distinctly recall as a kid watching their notorious discussion of Blue Velvet — Ebert hated it — on my tiny black-and-white TV, acutely fascinated by their heated debate of a movie I wouldn't be old enough to watch for many years.)

In 1986, Disney-owned Buena Vista Television started airing the show in syndication, giving the duo much wider exposure that led to their role as probably the most famous and influential critics of any sort in any era. That power yielded both jealousy from other critics who claimed the show dumbed down film criticism via the duo's trademark thumbs up or thumbs down judgments on movies — essentially the precursor to today's Rotten Tomatoes-influenced movie culture — and scorn from studios who didn't like their ability to impact a given movie's box-office potential.

It all changed when Siskel died of cancer in 1999, which eventually led to the installation of Ebert's Sun-Times co-worker Richard Roeper, a guy who proved the show's critics correct; his defense, for example, of Star Wars Episode II was just as lame and ill-conceived as the film itself. Siskel's unfortunate demise, followed by Ebert's own health issues, coincided with the rise of the Internet and expanded cable TV options, all of which diluted the show's impact.

Then came the Bens debacle: In 2008, Ben Lyons (son of critic Jeffrey) and Ben Mankiewicz (of the storied Hollywood Mankiewiczs) took the show to comically stupid levels, soiling its once-proud reputation. At the Movies' final pair, installed in 2009, of The Tribune's Michael Phillips and The New York Times' A.O. Scott often tapped into the original duo's incisive distillations of our movies of the moment, which makes its cancellation all the more rueful.

In a media landscape now fractured beyond repair, At the Movies was, at its best, a unique, informative celebration of an art form that too often doesn't get the type of talk it deserves.

Opening films:

GET LOW — Veteran cinematographer Aaron Schneider takes the helm of his first feature film and never falters in the presence of acclaimed actors like Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. He digs deep into the material and guides his cast down into the depths where they can get dirty in the messy affairs and secrets, knowing of course that everything will eventually come clean in the end. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — tt stern-enzi (Rated PG-13.) Grade: B

THE LOTTERY — Rapper-turned-actor Bow Wow plays Kevin Carson, a young guy in the projects who must survive a three-day weekend before he can cash his $350 million lottery ticket, in this comedy from first-time feature director Erik White. The cast includes Loretta Divine, David Keith, Ice Cube, Mike Epps, Brandon T. Jackson and Bill Bellamy. (Opens wide today.) — Jason Gargano (Rated PG-13.) Review coming soon.

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS — A vast improvement over the 2005 franchise introduction of co-writer/actress Emma Thompson's Mary-Poppinsish household savior, Nanny McPhee Returns finds modern-day meaning in its World War II-era English trappings. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — Cole Smithey (Rated PG.) Grade: B

PIRANHA 3-D — The 3-D craze continues with this PG-13-rated take on a Jaws-like action flick (as the title would suggest, piranhas replace sharks) complete with an appearance by Richard Dreyfuss. The surprisingly high-profile cast also includes Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Eli Roth, Jerry O'Connell, Dina Meyer and none other than Christopher Lloyd. Times being what they are, it looks any sort of paycheck will do. Yet hope remains that this thing will, at the very least, be an entertaining diversion: Alexandre Aja, the guy behind a few reasonably effective thrillers (the best of which was 2003's High Tension), directs. (Opens wide today.) — JG (Rated PG-13.) Review coming soon.

THE SWITCH — We're not sure what kind of evidence Jennifer Aniston has on Hollywood's various studio executives, but it must be pretty incriminating given the continued avalanche of generic romantic comedies she's headlined in recent years. The latest — directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, whose Blades of Glory was sporadically hilarious — finds Aniston playing a woman seeking a sperm donor, only to have her selected juice accidentally and unknowingly swapped out for that of a longtime friend (Jason Bateman) who has the hots for her. If only we could switch out Aniston for someone like Rachel McAdams or even Juliette Lewis, who has a supporting role here. (Opens wide today.) — JG (PG-13.) Review coming soon.

VAMPIRES SUCK — The same team (Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer) that gave us the eternally lame spoofs Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie and the last two Scary Movie efforts guide this skewering of the current vampire craze, a topic undoubtably ripe for satirization. It's just that these witless, lowest-common-denominator guys are the wrong duo to do it. (Opened wide Wednesday.) — JG (Rated PG-13.) Review coming soon.

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