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Ebert gives former Milwaukeean two thumbs up

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The Chicago-based critic writes for mubi.com and the Chicago Reader. Photo via Jay Schroeder/mubi.com

After five years off the air, famed movie critic Roger Ebert is making a TV comeback. And he’s bringing a dash of Wisconsin flavor with him.

On Jan. 4, Ebert announced that former Milwaukeean Ignatiy Vishnevetsky would be joining fellow critic Christy Lemire as co-host of “Roger Ebert Presents: At the Movies,” premiering Friday at 11 p.m. on PBS-10.

Like Ebert himself, Vishnevetsky works mainly out of Chicago, writing for several popular film websites and blogs, as well as contributing to publications like the Chicago Reader.

The 24-year old critic, however, has not always been located in the Windy City. Born and raised in Russia, Vishnevetsky moved to Wauwatosa as a child and graduated from Wauwatosa East High School. While much of the reason for the move was his father’s job at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it also resulted in his stepmother getting a job in the Spanish department at Marquette.

After graduating from Wauwatosa East, Vishnevetsky moved to Chicago, where he has since been building his reputation as a film critic. Despite the move, he still has good feelings towards his old town.

“I’m very fond of Milwaukee,” he said. “It’s a very underrated city.”

Vishnevetsky specifically complemented Milwaukee’s art scene, pointing out the growth of the Milwaukee Film Festival and referencing the Times Cinema and the Rosebud as quality local theaters.

Since moving to Chicago, Vishnevetsky’s reputation as a critic has grown, which indirectly led to his role on the latest incarnation of Ebert’s “At the Movies.”

The show originally debuted in 1975 under the name “Sneak Previews” with Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel as the hosts. The two would review the latest movies and give them a score based on their trademark grading scale of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

Throughout its 35-year run, “At the Movies” went through several re-imaginings, renamings, casting changes and cancellations, the most recent of which took the program off the air in 2010. However, Ebert announced last year that the show would be back in 2011 with himself as co-producer and special segment host.

However, before the show could hit televisions, Ebert needed to cast new co-hosts. While Ebert initially chose Lemire and fellow critic Elvis Mitchell to film the pilot, he came across Vishnevetsky discussing films at a local screening room and decided to include him on the show after reading his online criticism.

“They were interested in me as a guest host; someone who would be on the show every couple of episodes to discuss special topics,” Vishnevetsky said.

But as the casting process went on, Mitchell was let go, and Ebert offered the second co-host chair to Vishnevetsky.

The honor of getting to work with such a prominent figure as Ebert, one of the leading film critics of the modern era, is not lost on Vishnevetsky.

“When someone puts that amount of faith in you, it makes you want to work a lot harder,” he said.

And work harder he has. Vishnevetsky described himself as “exhausted” from his shooting schedule, especially the show’s new set and camera arrangements, which are new variables for the Internet- and print-based critic.

Adding to the difficulty of filming, Vishnevetsky said he and Lemire do not discuss their opinions until the camera starts rolling. While going unscripted is considered risky, Vishnevetsky believes in the technique.

“Whatever responses (you see) are (our) first gut responses as critics and as people. Going in completely blind keeps you on your toes, but also makes it more of a discussion than just talking points,” Vishnevetsky said.

Vishnevetsky said fans of film can expect entertaining and insightful conversation on Friday’s premiere, but will have to wait to find out the details like the films reviewed and the topic of Ebert’s special segment, which are staying secret until then. But Vishnevetsky did have one spoiler to offer:

“Expect several surprises.”

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