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Pete's weekend movie roundup: Contra Costa Jewish film fest, Oakland blogger takes on At the Movies new host

Meet an Oakland movie lover who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.



The 14th annual Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival kicks off February 28, with Tri-Valley screenings on March 1 and 5. This is a wonderful festival every year, with heaps of worthy but hard-to-find movies on the calendar. Screenings will be at the CineArts in Pleasant Hill and the VIne in Livermore. Make sure to check out the schedule!

Meanwhile, Saturday is the last night of Pacific Film Archive's One-Two Punch: Pulp Writers on Film, and this killer series is going out swingin'. The double feature on Saturday offers Screaming Mimi, a lurid psychodrama with a small roll for Gypsy Rose Lee and The Woman Chaser, a perfectly seedy adaptation of a great book by my favorite author, Charles Willeford.

I recently had a chat with an Oakland movie blogger, whose website I happened across while web-searching about the new TV movie review show, At the Movies. First of all, film buffs all know that this show was created by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who would sit in their "balcony chairs" and discuss, or bicker, about films. It's easily one of my favorite TV shows, ever. Good things can't last forever, of course, and Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, while Roger Ebert's bouts with cancer have left him unable to speak. (His wonderful reviews and writing are still available every week on rogerebert.com). Siskel's replacement, Richard Roeper and a rotating chair occupied by worthy critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times made for a more than adequate program for several years. Alas, I was quite discouraged when the show was re-tooled last year with an entertainment magazine feel and two much younger critics, Ben Manciewicz and Ben Lyons in the chairs. When I heard Lyons give a particulalrly scathing review of the wonderful indie drama Wendy and Lucy, I started googling  to see what people on the Internets were saying about the show.

That's when I found Oakland blogger Scott Johnson's website, stopbenlyons.com. Subheaded: A blog on mediocrity and American culture, Johnson's site is devoted to the deconstruction of Ben Lyons's reviews on At the Movies every weekend, and the results are very funny. (An example: Lyons' favorite James Bond film is Goldeneye. No, not Goldfinger, Goldeneye ... the one with Pierce Brosnan. Why? Because that was the first Bond film Lyons saw in a theater and he loved playing the video game as a kid). Soon after I came across Johnson's blog, the L.A. Times interviewed him for a story about the negative action Lyons was getting for tossing out quoted blurbs like "I Am Legend is one of the greatest movies ever made."

I gave Johnson a quick call to find out more.
 

First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself, Scott, and how you came up with your website.

I'm an Oakland resident, and a computer programmer. I’m 31-year-old and I started watching Siskel and Ebert at age 13. I watched it regularly. I took it for granted that these two guys who knew a lot about movies were on TV to tell me about Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs or Blue-White-Red or any of those films that came out in the mid-90s. Last summer, I heard they were reformatting the show. Ebert was off, and they were getting rid of Richard Roeper. Honestly, I didn’t know who Ben Lyons was. But when I did see him on the show, it was clear to me that he was not really able to talk about movies in a deep, critical way. He’s just interesting in throwing out blurbs.

Do you think what you're doing is mean-spirited at all?

No, not really. I think that what is important is that this isn’t just about movies, its about the dumbing down of our culture. Hollywood likes to make things flashy and just dumb things down. I don’t hate Ben Lyons, it's just that I think the producers of At the Movies have done a disservice to the throne of film criticism. They should have given that position to a real film expert, because there are certainly a lot of people out there who deserve the chair more than Ben Lyons does.

When the LA Times ran the article about Lyons, and interviewed you, the story shot around the web and caused quite a buzz. Have you heard from Lyons about your blog?

I have not heard from him. I’m certainly not the first person to criticize his selection.

Your criticisms of the tiniest comments that he makes are quite elaborate. Now that you are a critic of the show, what is your process of reviewing it.

When I first started the site, I decided I’d watch the show every week and criticize it. I didn't think it was necessary to TiVo it, but I quickly realized that it was, because you want to make sure you're accuarately reporting what he says. At first, I figured he’d either be off the show pretty quick or he’d clean up his act, but neither happened. So now I do TiVo the show every week. And the funny thing is, every week he comes up with these little headscratchers.

Do you ever find yourself hoping to dislike a movie that he raved about?

No, not at all. In fact, if you look at the top 10 list I wrote for my site, and Ben's top 10 list, they're pretty close. But the real issue is the criticism. He doesn't ever give real critical insights about the movies, he just speaks in these cute little quote blurbs.

OK, so here's a chance for you to be the reviewer. Please recommend two movies that you loved: one for hardcore film geeks, and one for more mainstream audiences.

For hardcore film geeks I'd say, Synechdoche, N.Y. It broke the rules, confused you, and brought you back in. There's a lot to talk about after you watch it, even film geeks are split on whether they loved it or hated it. For mainstream audiences, I loved Doubt. That's another film that had audiences very divided, but I thought there was a lot to think about and discuss.