Sunday, May 27, 2007

Another critic weighs in on why critics (should) matter

Richard Schickel defends professional critics in the LA Times:

Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Opinion — thumbs up, thumbs down — is the least important aspect of reviewing. Very often, in the best reviews, opinion is conveyed without a judgmental word being spoken, because the review's highest business is to initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries... I don't think it's impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple "love" of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job. That way often leads to cultishness (see the currently inflated reputations of Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, both easy reads for lazy, word-addicted minds).

And we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion.

I don't think anyone has to do anything to prove the right to an opinion and I certainly don't believe credentials are anything but incidental to a critc's value or qualifications. I believe that we prove (or don't prove) ourselves with every word we write. I loved seeing Dana Stevens move from a blog to writing for Slate and the New York Times. But she did that exclusively on the basis of her writing, not her credentials (which happen to include a PhD, but not in film). One of the greatest columnists of the 20th century was Mike Royko, who used to drive a cab until one of his passengers happened to be a newspaper editor and offered him a job at the paper. I do agree that the recommendation is not the most important part of the review and that a good review requires more than a love for movies (or books or whatever) and the impulse to express one's feelings is not enough. What matters is strong, involving writing grounded in full engagement with the subject of the review and enough understanding to appreciate its context.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

My War, My Story

Every American owes it to our troops to watch the new documentary from Wolf Gang Pictures called My War, My Story. Eighteen veterans of the war in Iraq tell their own stories, simply and directly. We hear from one through the letters he sent home and the family he left behind.

It is impossible not to be moved and inspired by the dedication and integrity and sacrifice of these young people. They have earned our respect and gratitude with their service and they have earned our attention as well. The film is well-organized but must important it gets out of the way and lets its subjects speak for themselves. Many of them now oppose the war, but not all of them. They have their problems with politicians, the war in Iraq, and with their own re-entry but they speak of their colleagues and superiors in the service with the deepest respect and admiration. One says that he still likes to think as he looks at each person he walks by that he was willing to sacrifice his life for each one of them. The honor and dignity they demonstrate is deeply moving and inspiring. They deserve our attention as well as our infinite respect and gratitude.

Those who think of Memorial Day as a time for picnics and sales should take an hour and a half out of their three-day weekend to hear what the people who have been there fighting for us half a world away have to say. And to think very carefully about what "Support the Troops" really means.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Quote of the Week -- Pirates 3

From my friend and colleague Ally Burguieres:

I didn’t include a plot summary because the Internet didn’t have enough space.

Stephen Hunter has "A Bad Case of Summer Movies"

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter loves to be the enfant terrible, and here is his rant on summer movies. My favorite line:

Irony should be licensed and should require a seven-day waiting period to see if the proposed user is mature enough to deal in it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shrek Shills

The Department of Health and Human Services is using big green ogre Shrek to teach children to be healthy. But the junk food companies of America are using Shrek to urge kids to eat fat and sugar. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has called on HHS to "stop partnering with the poster ogre for junk food marketing - and start getting serious about combating childhood obesity by advocating for policies that protect children from commercial exploitation."

They have also published a list of food promotions affiliated with Shrek and other characters from the movie. The list as more than seventy products, including "McDonald's Happy Meals, Kellogg's Marshmallow Froot Loops cereal; Keebler E.L. FudgeDouble Stuffed cookies, "ogre-sized" Peanut Butter M&M's, Cheetos, and Kellogg's Frosted S'Mores Pop Tarts." Shrek Cheetos turn your tongue green! Shrek M&Ms come with a toy Shrek car! Shrek Donkey chatterbox offer on a box of Kellogg's Eggo Chocolate Chip waffles!

If HHS wants to urge kids to lead a healthy lifestyle, they can begin by prohibiting the use of cartoon characters to push unhealthy food.

Monday, May 21, 2007

100, 99, 98, 97.....

Thanks so much to Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch for pointing out this fabulous selection of movie clips counting down all the numbers from 100-1. It's astonishing how immediately identifiable so many of the clips are.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quotes of the Week: Underwhelmed by Shrek the Third

Most critics found the latest installment of Shrek to be not quite up to the happily ever afters of the first two, except for The New York Times, where A.O. Scott said:

[T]he movie’s liveliest humor and sharpest drama take root in decidedly grown-up situations. Shrek’s anxious, less-than-overjoyed reaction to the prospect of becoming a parent is not something most youngsters will relate to. (In one brilliantly executed sequence he has a nightmare of being besieged by hundreds of gurgling, saucer-eyed ogre babies.) And the depiction of Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph) and Snow White (Amy Poehler) as bored, catty moms is likely to tickle fans of “Little Children,” a group that I hope doesn’t include any actual little children.

Whether these bits would seem as fresh or incisive if they were not embedded in a noisy cartoon remotely based on a beloved picture book is an open question. The strategy of the “Shrek” movies has always been to appeal to the easy, smirky cynicism of the parents while whetting their children’s appetite for crude humor and plush merchandise. “Shrek 2” pulled off the trick in a way that struck me as coarse and overdone, turning travestied fairy tales into the stuff of hackneyed Hollywood satire. But “Shrek the Third” seems at once more energetic and more relaxed, less desperate to prove its cleverness and therefore to some extent smarter.

Cinemablend's Joshua Tyler got nicely meta:
The problem is, Shrek the Third doesn’t take its own advice. It isn’t itself. The first two movies were family films with an adult edge. This third one is a watered down kids’ movie through and through, and the script plays out like something written for one of those assembly line produced direct-to-DVD sequels Disney is fond of releasing to fill up Wal-Mart bargain bins. Except this isn’t Disney, this is the franchise that makes fun of Disney for doing things exactly like that. Instead of sticking to what made it great, Shrek has become a part of the homogenized mediocrity it was railing against in the first place.

Perhaps Nick Rodgers of Springfield, Illinois' State Journal-Register summed it up best:
The series has jumped the Shrek.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tucson Weekly : The Definitive Summer Movie Preview

Thanks to Jim Judy of for recommending this hilarious Summer Movie Preview.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Women Aloud on Greenstone Media

One of my radio stations, Greenstone Media, has expanded its website. Check out Mo and Shana by listening into some of their shows online.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Quotes of the Week

On Georgia Rule:

Many critics did not like the weird mood swings and uneven tone (though some liked it for just that reason). Suzanne Condie Lambert described the problem well:

Director Garry Marshall's comedy-drama suffers from an unfortunate role reversal. The comedy is stunningly unfunny, while the drama is sometimes disturbingly funny.
The Arizona Republic

I liked the economy of Ella Taylor's description:
An incoherent dramedy of rampant parental insufficiency.
The Village Voice

And Michael Wilmington gets this week's wisecrack-incorporating-current-events award:
Maybe "Georgia Rule" should be required viewing for Paris Hilton during her term in the slammer. But not for us.
Chicago Tribune

Hollywood set to filter on-screen smoking - Los Angeles Times

I'm quoted in this LA Times story about the MPAA's new policy on smoking in the movies. I'm very glad the MPAA is amending its ratings and especially glad at the process behind this decision. In the past, the MPAA's criteria and procedures were haphazard and opaque. This time, they asked Harvard to do a study on smoking in the movies and adapted their ratings policy in response. I hope this is the beginning of another look at the way they evaluate other kinds of material, including "action" violence and "comic" sexuality.


Warning! This blog post reveals the endings or "surprise" twists in several films, so stop reading now if you do not want to know the endings to "Georgia Rule," "23," "Perfect Stranger," "Gothika," or "The Ex."

It seems to me that there have been an awful lot of dumb fake-outs in movies lately. This week's "Georgia Rule" has at least four different zig-zags on the allegations of sexual abuse made by Lindsay Lohan's character. She says he did it. She says she lied. She says he did it. She says she lied. Then she says he did it. In "Next," the whole damn movie turns out to be a big fake-out, almost like Bobby Ewing's return in "Dallas," or the last episode of "St. Elsewhere." And what is the deal about having the main character spend the whole movie trying to solve a murder only to reveal that the perp is none other than that same character? That's Jim Carrey in "23" and Halle Berry in "Perfect Stranger." She already pulled that once in "Gothika." In "The Ex," the whole premise of the movie is the inability of Tom (Zach Braff) to fight man-to-man with Chip (Jason Bateman), the guy who is after his wife, because he's in a wheelchair. Big fake-out number one when our hero discovers a photo of the guy proving that he can walk, only to learn -- after an intended-to-be hilarious scene where he throws Chip down the stairs -- that it is a picture of Chip's identical twin brother. Followed shortly by another intended-to-be-hilarious scene where it turns out that Chip has indeed been faking for more than a decade and is not paralyzed at all. At which point he gets into an accident and breaks both legs, landing him, yes, in a wheelchair.

There's a difference between a cheesy fake-out and a story. Even the audience for a silly comedy or a cheesy thriller is entitled to have it make sense at some level.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Esther Iverem's Gotta Have It

One of the speakers at the MMI Film Critic Institute was Esther Iverem, whose thoughtful and incisive new book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006.

Ms. Iverem answered some questions about the book in an email interview:

The title of your book refers to a movie that you call a major turning point in the portrayals of black characters in film, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. When you were growing up, were there any moments in film or television that felt memorably valid for you?

My favorite childhood film and TV moments probably come from the TV show Julia and the movie Claudine. I remember thinking that they actually showed something vaguely resembling Black life as I knew it—families, people with jobs, children with a life of imagination or mischief.

I also grew up during the so-called Blaxploitation era in film and, even though I shouldn’t have seen those films at that age, I did see a lot of them. I don’t even know if the current ratings standards existed then. Like, I wonder now, how exactly did I get in to see a “Dolemite” movie? I don’t know if, at the time, I thought of any of these movies as valid beyond the fact that it was exciting to actually see Black people on the big screen. There weren’t a lot of Black movies before this time and I thought that most of the media, including television and the newspapers in my native Philadelphia , depicted Black people in a very negative light. Even though the drug dealers, pimps and assorted criminal characters of the Blaxploitation era were not “positive,” I was so starved and fascinated to see Blacks on the screen that these characters, sadly, became Black screen “heroes” because they were usually depicted with some backbone and moxey.

"She's Gotta Have It" was a breakthrough not just in its portrayal of black characters but in its portrayal of a central female character who was strong, independent, and unabashedly sexual. Yet your book suggests that even the limited and conflicted successes in the broader and more authentic portrayal of black characters has too often overlooked the reality of women's stories. Why do you think that is?

That reality is overlooked because most of the filmmakers are men, most of the main characters are men and most of the stories revolve around male themes and a male point of view. I absolutely love the work of Ousmane Sembene for subverting this “dominant paradigm” and appreciate Tyler Perry for the same reason. To a lesser extent, the same problem exists outside the “Black” community of films but I think that a hyper machismo exists in Black film because of the influence of hip hop, a seemingly insatiable need to counter the historic image of the servile darkie and because I think hyper machismo or clowning is all the studios want to see from Black men. Also, Black films are still considered “Black” films as opposed to just films, and I think Black men are still considered the proper representatives of the race, as opposed to Black women.

Why is it so important to "return the gaze?" What does that mean?

The “gaze” is an idea I picked up while studying critical theory on an arts journalism fellowship in the 90’s. Part of our post-colonial existence means that the former colonizers (Whites) give themselves the power to gaze at, depict and frame the former colonized, in this case, people of African descent. By returning that gaze, we empower ourselves to recognize that gaze, as well as name and critique how we are depicted and framed. I feel I take on this task with most films from Hollywood , even those that might star a Black actor, or include a Black producer, etc.

You cover a stunning array of films in the book. Are there two or three neglected gems that you wish everyone could see?

The epilogue of the book includes a sampling of films that you describe: Sidewalk Stories, Rosewood, One Week, The Visit, Simeon, Unprecedented, Meteor Man, Paid in Full, La Tropical and Beah: A Black Woman Speaks.

How do you feel about Ice Cube, who began as an insistent voice of protest and now makes films like Friday After Next and Are We Done Yet?

Wow, that’s a complex question that I’ll try to simplify. First of all, I disagree that Ice Cube began as an insistent voice of protest. I think he began as a voice of anger and, with the important exception of hating the police, seldom was that anger directed at the larger economic, government and social structures that create inequality, racism and ghetto conditions. His album, Death Certificate, was a departure from West Coast thuggery. Rappers of his era that did raise that protest voice, such as Chuck D and Arrested Development, were actually squashed in favor the West Coast “gangsta rap” rap style, personified by Cube, which, by the way, first heavily pushed calling Black women bitches and hos.

I think his image, his mad face, was commoditized and conveniently used by Hollywood, in the beginning, to insert the energy of a nouveau angry Black man and, now, is used now to show that the young, angry Black man can be tamed and made fuzzy for seemingly family-friendly comedies (that depict Black children acting like no Black children I know. )

Of all Cube’s movies, I liked All About the Benjamins best. And even though it was dissed by most White critics, I liked XXX: State of the Union for its willingness to be skeptical and critical of the U.S. government. But I think Cube is mainly about getting paid, first with rap and now with movies. I haven’t seen anything from him that makes me want to take him seriously as an artist, visionary or thinker.

Who in Hollywood is doing the most interesting work now?

I don’t watch the entire industry closely enough to offer an overview. Of the films I have watched and reviewed, I am still most interested in what is coming from the independent film community, though some studio productions have been impressive. I am drawn to movies that have something important to say about the world and that, in this time of illusion and doublespeak, tell is like it is. These were my favorite films from 2006, which are also listed in the book’s epilogue: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Catch a Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness, Apocalypto, Bobby, CSA: The Confederate States of America, Glory Road, Akeelah and the Bee, Yesterday, Waist Deep and An Inconvenient Truth. In addition to being in We Gotta Have It, these reviews are also posted at

She will be appearing this Saturday at a book signing.
Host: and Busboys and Poets
Location: Busboys and Poets, The Langston Room
2021 14th St, NW, at V Street, Washington, DC
When: Saturday, May 12, 4:00pm
Phone: 202-285-1841 info. 202-387-7638 Busboys

Monday, May 07, 2007

Do Critics Matter (more)

The New York Times solicited reader comments about whether critics matter to people who are deciding what movie to see. They had 140 responses at the time of this writing, and most surprisingly encouraging.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Animator vs. Animation II

Thanks to the Daily Reel's Anthony Kauffman for recommending this hilariously clever short film by Alan Becker. He thinks it should taken the top prize at the Webbys, and I agree. It did win the popular vote, and you can see why.

Chapter One is almost as good:

Friday, May 04, 2007

Quote of the Week -- describing Spidey 3's black squiggly thingy

Critics tried hard to find a good way to describe that black squiggly stuff that falls out of the sky and latches on to Peter Parker and Venom-izes Topher Grace.

As always, Dana Stevens of Slate nails it: "Evil space fungus, which looks like a living bundle of black licorice whips." And I love her use of the term "air guns" to describe Peter's space-licorice-enhanced gesture as he struts down the sidewalk.

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday calls it "a dollop of black alien glue" that propells "Peter to assume the haircut and eyeliner of an old Joy Division cover band and sashay down Manhattan streets with an awkward cock-of-the-walk strut."

The paper of record does its research and gives us the source material's description along with the critic's own characterization and an accurate description of its consequences. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis calls it "an inky extraterrestrial glob (a symbiote in Marvel-speak) [that] spreads its gooey tentacles over his body, turning his suit and soul black."

And over at Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman calls it "a sticky, shiny black tangle — beware! It's the crawling audiotape! — that, for no discernible reason, heads straight for Peter, infesting his cruddy apartment like fleas waiting for a dog." I also like his second reference: "alien stickum."

Quotes of the Week -- Texas Hold 'Em edition

Lucky in cards, unlucky in reviews. "Lucky You" drew some poker metaphors in its mostly negative reactions from critics.

The love story is a bluff...A decent movie just wasn't in the cards.
Lisa Schwarzbaum Entertainment Weekly (D-)

After several delayed release dates, Warner Bros. finally lays down its cards with Lucky You, and it's a weak hand.
Brian Lowrey Variety

By the fifth All In, I wanted All Out.
Willie Waffle

And on (or should I say in) the other hand:

Robert Duvall, Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore all give persuasive performances that add up to a royal flush.
Cole Smithey

One sings, the other...unfortunately sings, too

Two movies opening this weekend, and two adorable actresses sing -- badly -- in each of them. Drew Barrymore was supposed to sing badly in "Music and Lyrics," so that was all right. But in "Lucky You" she is supposed to be a would-be singer with her first professional gig. In Las Vegas. Yeah, not much competition there. She was much better off as the only performer whose singing was dubbed in "Everyone Says I Love You." She should have learned her lesson from Julia Roberts in that film and have left the singing to someone who can hit the notes.

Kirsten Dunst plays aspiring actress MJ in the "Spider-Man" movies. In the third installment, she has her Broadway debut. She gets fired for her bad performance (presumably her thin voice) and yet manages to get a job as a singing waitress. She takes on Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot by singing "I'm Through With Love" -- off-key. It would be better if she and Barrymore would be through with singing.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's the best blurb ever!

Two recent notes in the NY Times about the problem of blurb abuse -- taking selected quotes from a review to use in promotional materials that make it appear the review was much more positive than it was.

In today's paper, the EC takes on the issue as a problem of false advertising:

New Law to Protect Critics From Being Misquoted

The European Commission has passed legislation that would keep bad reviews from looking good, the London newspaper The Independent reported. The measure, to take effect in December, will make it illegal for advertisers to misquote reviewers by taking a positive word or phrase from a theater review if it gives a misleading sense of the whole review. The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive bars advertising that includes “false information” or any claim that “deceives or is likely to deceive the consumer” and thus “causes or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise.” Helen Kearns, the commission’s spokeswoman on consumer affairs, said the measure would be “policed on a case-by-case basis” by the Office of Fair Trading. “It should apply to misleading advertising right across the board,” she added, “from airline tickets to theater tickets.”

And, just a couple of days earlier, an article described how pervasive mis-blurbing blurb abuse has become in book promotion.

Of course in movie world there are so many "critics" who are happy to call the "Are We Done Yets" of the world Oscar-worthy, "wonderful family fun!" or "one of the best of the year!!" if they can get invited to junkets and see their names in the ads. I'd love to see that considered false advertising.