A few weeks ago, when I spoke with Josh Schollmeyer, the author of the recent oral history of “Siskel & Ebert,” I asked him whether he thought that classic “S&E” format would ever work again without its two signature hosts. Even before Gene Siskel passed away in 1999, critics frequently tried to launch their own movie review shows. But none ever recreated Gene and Roger’s uniquely combative chemistry, or replaced them as the names synonymous with field of film criticism. Regardless, the format still holds a great deal of allure; for many film critics, this one included, it’s basically the holy grail.
But you know how it is with holy grails. You have to choose… wisely. Now there’s a new movie review show you can choose to watch, a video spinoff of the long-running Battleship Pretension podcast. In the debut episode, which launched online earlier this week, hosts Tyler Smith and David Bax review “The Hunger Games” and welcome actor Josh Fadem for a roundtable discussion of movies about kids that kill one another. I’ve embedded the premiere below:
In response to my question about the relevancy of the old critics-‘n’-crosstalk format, Schollmeyer said that “for anything akin to ‘Siskel & Ebert’ to succeed today it would need to be much more immediate and cross-platform.” Well, Battleship Pretension is certainly that. The Pretension podcast has been going strong for more than 250 episodes, and its host are flexible and comfortable enough to work in either audio or video. The longtime partnership between Smith and Bax is a good one, and their conversations do sometimes edge into that testy-yet-respectful territory that Siskel and Ebert mined so well. The addition of a special guest, in this case a working actor, is an interesting twist on the formula, though in my opinion actors typically make poor film critics (see the celebrities who filled in for Ebert during his first sabbatical from “At the Movies” and gave extraordinarily lenient reviews to everything, lest they offend a future co-worker).
If I could offer one piece of constructive criticism for the show in its early stages, it would be this: I’m not sure a video store is the right setting. I understand that it presents a thematically appropriate place for a discussion about movies, but — at least to me — it’s strange to watch two well-dressed guys sit in the middle of a video store for no reason. If they were chatting while they worked behind the counter, and perhaps even offering the occasional recommendation to customers (potential new segment alert!), that might make more sense. As it stands — or sits — it’s just a couple of guys at a card table surrounded by thousands of movies. Plus, it can be distracting when there are big signs on the shelves behind the hosts that read “SEX LITE” and “LESBIANS.”
Still, it’s good to see some new blood in the old format. Though I take Schollmeyer’s point that the show wouldn’t work today without those two iconic critics, I’m glad, perhaps for selfish reasons, that others refuse to accept it. And Smith & Bax kind of has a nice ring to it, right?
Watch and listen to more Battleship Pretension.