October 03, 2004

Two Guys Sitting Around Talking About Movies

When you think of Sunday morning talk shows, chances are politically oriented programs like Meet the Press or This Week come to mind. I watch a bunch of these public affairs show, along with that wonderful mix of politics and professional wrestling, The McLaughlin Group.

But may I recommend two others that might not be as high-minded but are probably more fun than Face the Nation?

Roger Ebert is celebrating thirty years of movie reviewing on television, and although Richard Roeper is no Gene Siskel, I still watch every week (Ebert & Roeper is syndicated, so the show might air on a different day in your area). Although he won a Pulitzer Prize for his print work, I've always found his reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times to be workmanlike rather than inspiring. But he's a natural on TV, and has the remarkable gift of empathizing with the creators of movies. More than most critics, Ebert is willing to try to see what screenwriters, actors, and directors are trying to achieve in their work, even if it isn't to his taste, and judge accordingly.

The chemistry between Ebert and Roeper is lacking, largely because of the stature gap (Roeper isn't able to articulate the reasons for his disagreements with Ebert), and reviews have continually gotten shorter and shorter. To compensate, the show has increased the number of "first looks" at movies to be released in the future, including a premature thumbs up or down. When the movie is reviewed in full, a week later, we already know how the critics feel -- it's a letdown. Expanded coverage of new DVD releases doesn't compensate for a stiimulating back and forth between the two critics. We may take this show for granted, but thirty years ago, few would have thought that a show devoted to movies with no gossip, no interviews with actors, and two young but non-hunky hosts would be around in 2004. (Roger Ebert's new website is a valuable resource, especially the archive of all of Ebert's reviews).

A lesser-known show about movies, Sunday Morning Shootout (on American Movie Channel, 11 a.m. EST), shows how entertaining a show with no agenda other than allowing two middle-aged guys to yack can be. Movie producer Peter Guber and editor-in-chief of Variety, Peter Bart, co-host Shootout, a show devoted to discussing the business of the film industry. Bart and Guber are clearly friends, and they argue good-naturedly about news and trends in the industry. Bart, an ex-movie studio head himself, sometimes plays the role of curmudgeon, bemoaning the state of the 21st century film industry; Guber, keenly intelligent and thoughtful for a producer deeply enmeshed in the business, is the ultimate realist. It's impossible to watch the show without learning a little about what makes the movie industry tick.

Most impressive of all, the two do a fabulous job interviewing some of the biggest players in Hollywood. Although directors or stars might appear on the show to promote a project, they aren't allowed to prattle on about nothing. On most talk shows, actors are encouraged to profess humility and share funny anecdotes about their moviemaking, but Guber and Bart hone in on the business in show business, and force actors to act like adults. On last week's Shootout, Guber and Bart drew out Jude Law, who was more than willing to admit the calculation and care with which a burgeoning stardom is crafted. Imagine: a star asked to discuss not his acting chops (as in Inside the Actors Studio) but about what his strategy was to build his career. Bart and Guber aren't smooth by traditional broadcasting standards -- camera cues are missed and we are acutely aware when they are reading from teleprompters -- but outside of Kornheiser and Wilbon on Pardon the Interruption, I can't think of a more engaging duo on talk television.