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Notes from a Darkened Theater: Two New Hosts Give 'At the Movies' Critical Credibility

Ladies and gentlemen, set your DVRs. At the Movies, the beacon of televised film criticism founded by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in 1975, is about to undergo a much-needed makeover.

For those who have followed the syndicated weekly show since Ebert and latter-day partner Richard Roeper left Disney-ABC Domestic Television last summer, the introduction of Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott as the latest pair of critics to occupy the vaunted balcony should come as welcome news.

Phillips, 48, who has been the Chicago Tribune’s film critic since 2006 after servings as an arts-and-entertainment writer for publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Dallas Times-Herald, was one of many critics to serve as guest co-host of At the Movies during Ebert’s bout with thyroid cancer. So too was Scott, 43, a critic with The New York Times for nearly a decade.

They replace Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, the hosts once anointed by Disney as “the next generation of the series,” whose hiring coincided with Ebert and Roeper’s departure.

“We tried something new last season and we think the world of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz," Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, said in a statement. "They did everything we asked of them and they have been complete professionals. However, we’ve decided to return the show to its original essence – two traditional film critics discussing current motion picture and DVD releases.

“We are thrilled that A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips will be lending their well-respected and influential voices to At the Movies,” he added. “They ... will take the series back to its roots of one-on-one film debate that was established when the show first began with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.”

For their part, Phillips and Scott seemed equally enthusiastic.

"I can't wait to mix it up with Tony, who's one of the sharpest critical voices in the nation," Phillips said. "To co-host a show with such an extraordinary legacy is a privilege and an opportunity. I know we're both humbled by that legacy."

Added Scott: “I’m overjoyed and honored to be joining At the Movies, and especially excited to be working with my colleague Michael Phillips, one of the most intelligent and wittiest critics around. This show, with its long history and rich tradition, stands for the idea that there is a place on television for vigorous argument and independent thinking about movies.”

My two cents: As one who grew up tuning in to Siskel and Ebert with the same dedication most kids my age reserved for Married… With Children and the original 90210, this announcement is cause for celebration. Watching the standards of At the Movies plummet over the past 12 months has been depressing, to say the least – not to mention an insult to the legacy of Siskel, who died in 1999, and Ebert, whose illness has left him unable to speak. Luckily for us, Ebert’s reviews still appear weekly in the Chicago Sun-Times and online.

Elsewhere…

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Larry Fessenden, director of the overlooked Ron Perlman thriller The Last Winter, has signed on for a wholly unnecessary remake of 2007’s The Orphanage.

Paramount is hiding G.I. Joe from critics.