The Aisle Seat Blog is Back

A few years ago, I created The Aisle Seat Blog as an offshoot of The Aisle Seat. It was a place for things that were not movie reviews, such as in-depth articles, humor pieces, and general musings on film criticism. Some of the most popular and well-read things I’ve ever written appeared there.

And then catastrophe struck. For reasons I cannot explain, the WordPress program I was using went kablooey, refusing to work anymore. None of the articles were accessible any longer. It seemed like everything was gone permanently.

Thankfully, I was able to retrieve it all via the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, a website that curates things that used to be on the internet but aren’t anymore. (Well, they kind of are, I guess. But whatever.)

I have now started this new blog to replace the old one. To begin, I’ve reposted many of the things from the previous blog. Some pieces were outdated, so I skipped them. The others are here, though, and they can now be read and (hopefully) enjoyed once again. New blog entries will follow in the not-too-distant future. I may also repost a few more old ones as I retrieve them.

Thanks for visiting the blog and The Aisle Seat. See you at the movies!

“No Good Deed” Gets Punished

nogooddeed

Originally published in September 2014

No Good Deed is a new thriller about a devoted wife and mother (played by Taraji P. Henson) who has to fight for survival after an escaped convict (Idris Elba) makes his way into her home. There is nothing particularly special about this premise; it sounds like a hundred other movies, and if you’ve seen the trailer, it looks like a hundred other movies, too.

Nonetheless, No Good Deed got a lot of attention in the movie press this week when all critics screenings were abruptly canceled. The screenings were originally scheduled for Wednesday night. That’s less than 48 hours before the movie was set to open to the general public. This kind of thing is typical when a studio lacks confidence in a movie. If they think they’ve got a winner, they’ll screen it a week or more in advance and allow critics to start the social media buzz. When they think – or know – they have a turkey, they will often hold screenings last-minute, in part to keep bad buzz on the down-low until the opening, and in part with the hopes that critics won’t have time to get a review filed before the first tickets are sold. This strategy also minimizes the likelihood of an abysmal approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes prior to opening.

On Wednesday morning of this week, critics who were invited to No Good Deeds screenings got emails saying that the studio, Screen Gems, was calling the whole thing off. Here is a copy of the email that I received:

screengems

Hiding a movie from critics is common. Studios do it all the time when they have no confidence in their product. What’s different about this situation is that Screen Gems was, in effect, blaming critics for the need to cancel all the No Good Deeds screenings. Their logic was that we would immediately spoil whatever the “twist” is, thereby ruining the fun for average ticketbuyers. It’s an absurd claim. For starters, Rex Reed aside, no critic professional enough to be invited to a screening would blow the movie’s big surprise. Secondly, if one felt it was absolutely essential to reveal the twist in order to properly critique the film, you can be sure he or she would give readers fair warning. Those are just basic film criticism ethics. Screen Gems’ excuse is nothing but smoke and mirrors, a way of saying “We know this movie is going to get poor reviews, and since we already scheduled screenings, we need to find a way to save face.” It is also another case of critics being unfairly villainized.

The story took another unexpected twist – one likely more fascinating than the one ostensibly in No Good Deed – today. Sony Pictures, which owns Screen Gems, sent out one of its weekly email newsletters. Not surprisingly since it opens this week, the subject was No Good Deed. Right there, in the corner of the email body, you wil find this:

nogood

Yep, that’s right – a critical blurb for a movie that no critics have seen. The author of that blurb is Joel Amos, who writes for MovieFanatic.com, a website so heavy with pop-up ads that it almost seems like a satire of bad websites. Amos is what is derogatorily known as a “quote whore.” (He is not the only one.) Quote whores are people who are allegedly willing to provide studios with glowing quotes for bad movies, in exchange for the opportunity to see their name in an ad. Oftentimes, the quotes are pre-written by the studio marketing departments, and a quote whore will simply lend his or her name. Joel Amos has been very successful on being quoted; the Criticwatch column, run by my colleague Erik Childress, had Amos as its #6 quote whore of 2013. (He was #1 the year before.) Amos is the guy who called Beautiful Creatures “gorgeous, lush, and wildly romantic,” said This Means War was “the funniest comedy of the year,” and proclaimed You Again to be “hysterical with a heart of gold.”

If you look on MovieFanatic.com, you’ll see that Amos attended the press junket for No Good Deed. He’s got a video of himself interviewing Idris Elba posted there. What you won’t find on the site is a review. At least not yet. Did he really love it? Perhaps. But he’s not the real issue here. No, the real issue is that Screen Gems is engaging in shameful manipulation. They’re lying about why they won’t show No Good Deed to critics. They’re unfairly making professional, and often low-paid, writers the scapegoats. And then, on top of that, they’re trying to dupe the public into thinking that 1.) they have shown the movie to critics, and 2.) it’s getting rave reviews. The whole “we don’t want critics to spoil it” idea is taken to an even further extreme in the subject line of their email newsletter:

nogoodquote

Yep, that’s a #NoSpoilers hashtag right there. Critics can’t see the film because #NoSpoilers.

Why should you care? Because here’s a major corporation that is fudging things to sell you a product they suspect you won’t like. The marketing message, emphasized by Joel Amos, is that No Good Deed has a shocking surprise twist. Of course, telling you that in advance seems like a spoiler itself. Wouldn’t it be more surprising if you didn’t know there was a twist and therefore weren’t expecting it? Screen Gems’ use of a suspiciously message-specific quote from an established blurbster gives you the exact opposite impression from the truth. Real critics have not yet seen this film, so therefore no legitimate raves exist. Sony is the same company that created David Manning, a non-existent film critic who was quoted praising Sony movies in their own ads back in 2000. The company seemingly has no problem with flat-out fabricating things to sell their movies.

I have no idea if No Good Deed will be terrible or not. (I’ll be there for the 11:10 AM show on opening day, with a review going up soon after.) What I do know is that Screen Gems and Sony would not be going to all this trouble – and working overtime to build such a faulty illusion – if they had even an ounce of confidence in their movie. If they thought it was legitimately good, they wouldn’t need to cancel screenings, blame critics, or get into bed with noted blurbsters.

 

 

Fifteen Film That Will Always Stick With Me

Originally published in September 2014

There’s a popular game going around Facebook. Someone nominates you to name fifteen movies that will always stick with you, and then you nominate someone else for the same task. The hitch is that you only have fifteen minutes to make your selections. In other words, the goal is to provide your instinctual choices rather than overthinking it.

I was nominated for the game and found myself in a bit of a quandary. As a film critic, it’s not unusual for me to see 250+ movies a year. I’ve been going at this rate for more than twenty years. There are a lot of movies that I love and that will stick with me. How to choose just fifteen?

As I began typing my answers, I made a vow to myself: I wanted to include all kinds of genres. Sometimes critics can fall into the trap of picking things we’re “supposed” to like, things that befit our jobs as aficionados of art. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s borne out of a desire to celebrate that which is truly special – but I love all kinds of films, including exploitation fare. (Well, not all kinds. I have no affinity for porn.) I eventually made my picks, left off a lot of potential but equally worthy choices, and posted them.

And here are my reasons why:

STAR WARS I saw it in 1977, at age nine, and my world was never the same again. My favorite movie of all time.

FLETCH My second favorite movie of all time, and the funniest comedy I have ever seen. I know it by heart, but still laugh myself silly whenever I watch it.

DO THE RIGHT THING – Another all-time favorite. The best movie about race in America ever made. Funny, hard-hitting, and uncomfortably truthful about how far our society has – and, more importantly, hasn’t – come on race.

JFK – I’d always been taught in school that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter who assassinated John F. Kennedy. After three hours in a movie theater in 1991, my mind was blown by the very plausible idea that this was a lie. Oliver Stone’s classic made me obsessed with the assassination, and I began reading everything I could get my hands on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but I now firmly believe that we do not know what really happened in Dallas that fateful day, but it damn sure wasn’t what we were told.

STRANGER THAN PARADISE – Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist masterpiece is about three desperate souls who seek an escape from their glum NYC existence. They go to Florida, only to discover that not much is different. Something about the low-key style of this offbeat comedy really captured my fancy. It’s completely no-frills, but that’s entirely fitting to the story. I think this is a really beautiful film about how life is what you make it, no matter where you are.

SOMETHING WILD – Jonathan Demme’s kooky comedy was a favorite of mine in college. Since then, my appreciation has only grown. Funny in its first half, the film makes a dramatic tonal shift halfway through, when Ray Liotta’s violent ex-boyfriend comes to retrieve wild child Melanie Griffith from uptight Jeff Daniels. Very few movies can pull that off. This one does it masterfully, and meaningfully.

BLOOD BEACH – This schlock horror flick came out when I was a kid. I was absolutely obsessed with the poster image of a screaming beach bunny being sucked down into the sand. It seemed so terrifying. Heck, I’m still obsessed; I have a framed art print of that poster in my home. The movie itself – which has never been available on DVD – is terrible, but that poster? WOW.

CADDYSHACK – Another movie that never fails to make me laugh, Caddyshack has also meant different things to me at different times in my life. As a tween, I loved the raunchy humor. As a twentysomething adult, I appreciated the great performances (especially from the criminally-underrated Ted Knight). Today, I see it as a brilliant satire of elitism and bigotry, one that is smart yet takes the guise of a “dumb” comedy.

PURPLE RAIN – This made the list because it’s my current obsession. I recently rewatched Purple Rain for the occasion of its 30th anniversary, and was reminded of what an astonishing performer Prince was (and is). He’s magnetic and mesmerizing in his screen debut, which is also really fascinating in the way it allows the music to define his character. He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but the songs speak volumes.

THE THIRD MAN I grew up listening to Roger Ebert repeatedly proclaim this one of the greatest films ever made. When I finally saw it as an adult, I realized that he was 100% correct.

MODERN TIMES I’ve become a Chaplin devotee in recent years, and this is easily my favorite of his films. The comedian had an unprecedented – and, to this day, unmatched – ability to build upon jokes. Layer upon layer is added, so that you can never really predict how a scene is going to end. Modern Times has two particular classics: the automated lunch machine and the sequence in which a blindfolded Chaplin repeatedly roller-skates dangerously close to a precipitous drop.

HOUSE (a.k.a. HAUSU)  This Japanese cult favorite is one of the craziest, most out-there horror movies I’ve ever seen. I mean, it has one character getting eaten by a piano, and another getting attacked by mattresses. How awesome is that?

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER I once wrote a whole blog piece on why I love this movie. Also, the Bee Gees rule.

JUNO This movie came out just as my wife and I were embarking on our adoption journey, and we went through many experiences just like the ones Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner go through on screen. Some have knocked Juno for the quirky dialogue and/or what they perceive as an unrealistic depiction of a teenage girl. I can tell you that the movie contains a great deal of emotional truth. I feel as though I lived this film. Also, adopting our son is, hands down, the best, most gratifying thing we ever did, and Juno reminds me of that time. (I wrote a longer piece about this film, too.)

PAPER MOON I used to watch this one on TV a lot as a kid. The impact was strong. Paper Moon is the movie that taught me kids can lie to or manipulate adults for their own gain. That was an eye-opener.

I could have made two dozen different versions of this list, but those are the movies that came to my mind on that particular day, at that particular moment. Movies stick with us for a variety of reasons, and when all is said and done, that resonance is probably what we cherish most about them. I know that’s true for me.

 

Help Yourself to a Review!

Originally published in August 2014

Here’s a great example of the nonsense online writers have to deal with.

I utilize a service called Copyscape that lets me check for plagiarism of my reviews. During a routine check over the weekend, I discovered that my review of Begin Again had been republished in its entirety on the website of a Canadian arthouse movie theater (which I will not name). At the end of the review, there was an attribution: AISLE SEAT. Not my name, just the name of my website, with no link back to it.

I emailed the management of the theater, alerting them that this had been done without my permission, and without any sort of compensation to me. What they did was not plagiarism, but it most definitely was a violation of my copyright, which I explained. My email ended with several options: they could license the review from me for a nominal fee, in which case I would allow them to use it for as long as they pleased, or they could simply remove it altogether.

Today, I got a reply from someone associated with the theater. He told me that my review had been completely taken down from their website. He then added: “Generally folks who write reviews don’t mind when we share them, as that’s why they publish them online.” The message ended by stating that the theater makes money “by getting folks to come in and watch movies” and “a good review can help us do that.”

As you can perhaps imagine, I was flabbergasted by this reply. I most certainly do not publish reviews online so that anybody who wants to can share them. I post them because this is how I earn a living. There are ads on every review I publish. When someone clicks one of those ads, I make money. This puts cash into my bank account, while still allowing people to read my reviews for free. If the theater had posted a review from one of my other outlets – where I’m paid a set amount per review – it wouldn’t have mattered. But when you publish a review from The Aisle Seat elsewhere, you’re literally removing my chance to make money off my writing, because whoever reads it isn’t going to be able to click one of those ads.

I responded again to the theater representative, saying: “Actually, professional critics post online to earn a living. Republishing someone’s review is similar to someone torrenting a film rather than paying to see it in your theater.” And this is true. If the unnamed Canadian theater is showing Begin Again, but I choose to watch the film illegally online rather than paying to see it in their cinema, I’m getting the value of the thing without compensating anyone. Which is exactly what they did when they pilfered my review. They got its value, without giving me anything.

As a sidenote, the theater could have avoided this issue altogether by reprinting a paragraph, then linking to my original review. Most writers, myself included, consider this perfectly acceptable.

There was one more message from the theater rep, and this will royally piss off you other writers who are reading this. He said: “Generally, folks don’t mind exposure in this situation.” Ah, exposure – that buzzword that has come to mean “you should work for free.” Entertainment Weekly recently opened up a section of their website where authors can pen articles for them. They don’t pay for the work, but hey, you get “exposure.” The Huffington Post is infamous for this practice, as well.

I’ll be blunt: exposure sucks. Exposure doesn’t put food in my mouth. It doesn’t pay my mortgage or my bills. It doesn’t put clothes on my child’s back. Exposure + money is great. Exposure by itself is worthless. I’d rather have the cash.

One of the perils of online writing is that, like this theater, people think that everything they see is up for grabs. If it’s on the internet, it must be free! This could not be further from the truth. Almost everything originating from a professional outlet that you read on the internet, even if it is the world’s most inane tweet from US Magazine, was written by someone who relies on getting paid for their work. Simply cutting-and-pasting that work can harm them financially. Passing it off as “exposure” is just the insult on top of the injury.

The solution is to fight back. Was I too harsh in demanding that a small-ish cinema in another country take down my work? I don’t think so. That Begin Again review doesn’t belong to them, and they have no right to determine what is done with it. That review belongs to me, and about four hours of work went into its creation: two hours to see the film, and two more to write about it. We writers have to protect our stuff at all costs. It’s what we have, and if abused, we may find ourselves in the unfortunate position of not being able to create any more like it.

 

Why 4D Is Not the Wave of the Future

SpongeBob4Dposter

Originally posted in July 2014

There have recently been a number of articles – in outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter – about 4D movies possibly being the wave of the future. What is a 4D movie? Well, it’s a 3D movie with additional gimmicks added in to stimulate the other senses of audience members. They can include theatrical lighting, seat movements, and atmospheric elements (fog, wind, etc.) introduced into the theater at key points during the film. The theory is that 4D theaters will offer an experience people cannot get at home, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will come out to the cinemas, and even be willing to pay a higher premium price.

On paper, that kind of makes sense. As home theater equipment has become sophisticated enough to give people cinema-quality picture and sound in the comfort of their own living rooms, theater chains have struggled to find new ways of keeping them invested in the theatrical experience. 3D has, only semi-successfully, been a part of this process. The more successful IMAX/XD format has been another. It stands to reason that adding more unique features will make theatrical moviegoing more enticing.

There’s one hitch, as I see it: sitting through a 4D movie detracts immensely from the film.

I recently had a chance to experience 4D in action. I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to screen SpongeBob SquarePants 4D: The Great Jelly Rescue, an 8-minute computer-animated cartoon featuring the popular Nickelodeon character. An attendant handed me a pair of the requisite ill-fitting 3D glasses, and I made my way in. The first thing I noticed when sitting down in this 4D theater was that the seat directly in front of me had a little console thing in the back, with several nozzles of differing sizes. (See picture below.) There was also a suspicious-looking wire dangling underneath my seat and every other one in the place. This is part of how the 4D experience is delivered.

SpongeBob4D2

The movie started with a 3D intro taking us to the depths of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob and his friends live. Then the 4D kicked in. As the image descended to show his pineapple house, bubbles filled the theater, and one of those seat nozzles blew a gentle breeze at each audience member. People laughed and cheered. During a scene involving a school of jellyfish, that wire under the seats began shaking wildly, tickling the legs of every viewer and inducing mass giggles. When one of the jellyfish stung SpongeBob and pal Patrick, strobe lights on the sides of the theater lit up and the seats vibrated, simulating their electric shock. There were hoots and hollers of delighted surprise. Later on, the movie’s villain attempts to hypnotize SpongeBob and Patrick with his special perfume. A sickeningly sweet odor abruptly filled the theater. Eww! and Yuck! people groaned. The capper was a scene in which the characters freefall, only to land on the hard ocean floor. At just the moment of impact, the theater seats shook violently and another of those seat nozzles shot a spray of water, aimed right at the 3D glasses. The place erupted in laughter and commotion.

When SpongeBob SquarePants 4D: The Great Jelly Rescue was over, everyone filed out happily. There was much chatter about how fun it was.

So what’s the problem? There are a couple of them. First, the 4D experience may have been fun for eight minutes, but could easily grow tiresome over the 165 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction, a recent movie exhibited in the format in specially-equipped theaters. How much shaking, smells, and simulated weather conditions can you tolerate before it becomes repetitive and annoying?

A much bigger problem is that, while enjoyable as a short-term gimmick, the 4D process makes it almost impossible to concentrate on the movie itself. I could not tell you the plot of The Great Jelly Rescue if my life depended on it. So many things were happening that took my attention away from the story being told. I noticed the bubbles floating in front of me. I noticed the strobe lights flashing. I noticed my leg being tickled and my nostrils being assaulted with stinky perfume. I had to stop to wipe the water off my 3D glasses after they got splashed. And forget about hearing the dialogue. With every new effect, the crowd erupted in some sort of response. It was often prolonged, drowning out whatever was being said onscreen.

SpongeBob4Dpic

The end result was that I saw everything but the movie, so to speak. I cannot imagine trying to view a proper film this way. So much of the cinematic experience relies on losing oneself in the work, getting so wrapped up in the story that everything else melts away. With 4D, I was, for every second, aware that I was in a theater and that things were happening there. Despite claims of 4D being “immersive,” it was the exact opposite of that term. I wasn’t immersed, I was distracted. I felt distanced from the movie I was ostensibly watching. This reaction is the absolute death of the cinematic experience.

If theater chains begin upgrading their auditoriums to 4D, they will regret it. This is not an experience people are going to want to have for a two-hour period, and it’s certainly not one they’re going to want to have repeatedly. It will not drive people to theaters; it will keep them at home, where they can watch their desired movie free of distraction. Chains will be better served focusing energy on ways to make the current viewing experience as pleasurable as possible, like cracking down on cell phone use/annoying talkers, making sure the seats are clean and comfortable, and keeping ticket prices as reasonable as possible.

4D is not the wave of the future. Just as most ticketbuyers have rejected the glut of 3D movies, they will reject this as well. It is an idea that may even do harm to the very theaters it’s supposedly being considered to save. 4D can be fun for theme park attractions and 8-minute SpongeBob cartoons, but at the end of the day, it’s a bad fit for feature-length films, and it goes against the very experience people attend theaters to have.

 

 

 

The Fallacy of the “Worst Movie Ever”

Originally published in April 2014

Yesterday, my father forwarded to me an email he got from a good friend who’d just seen Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. His verdict: “Possibly the worst movie ever made.” Boy, did I ever cringe when I read that. First of all, it’s patently untrue. Noah isn’t even the worst movie this year. (I’d nominate I, Frankenstein or Need for Speed for that dubious distinction.) More importantly, it was another example of something that always gets under my skin. That term, “worst movie ever,” gets thrown around a lot. I know someone who claimed Gravity was one of the worst movies ever made. A lot of people equate “movie I hated” with “worst movie ever.” They are not the same thing.

The truth is that the average moviegoer has no clue what the worst movies ever made are. That’s not critical snobbery, it’s just a mathematical truth. Allow me to explain. Someone who goes to the movies once a month is considered a “frequent moviegoer.” Let’s imagine a hypothetical film fan. We’ll call him Pharrell (because that “Happy” song is running through my head right now). Pharrell goes to the movies once a month and, just to make things interesting, we’ll also say that he rents one from Redbox just as frequently. That’s 24 movies a year. How does he choose which ones to see? That’s easy – he opts for the ones that look good to him, the ones he thinks he’ll like. And he will like a lot of them. Some of them will disappoint him. He may even hate one or two. But – and this the key to my argument – he will actively avoid films that: 1.) don’t appeal to his tastes; and 2.) look like complete crap. So imagine that one of the movies he sees in the theater is Noah and he loathes it. Is he justified in declaring it “possibly the worst movie ever?” No, because he’s selectively chosen which ones to see. He simply hasn’t seen a wide enough sample to make that claim.

I’ve had this discussion with colleagues, and they agree. As critics, we see just about everything. And some of the stuff we see is so insanely, unspeakably awful that it would curl the hair of the average moviegoer. People often ask me about the worst movies I’ve seen. In my book Straight-Up Blatant, I wrote an entire chapter devoted to the subject. One of them is a 2008 flick called The Hottie and the Nottie starring Paris Hilton. It’s the story of a guy who learns to see the inner beauty in an unattractive woman after she’s taken drastic steps to make herself more outwardly beautiful. (Real hypocritical, huh?) This is the movie in which said guy, needing to create a spontaneous pseudonym for himself, sees a can of cole slaw and promptly dubs himself “Cole Slawson.” Yep, The Hottie and the Nottie is so bad, it makes you want to gouge your own eyes out. The movie made a whopping $27,696 during its release, according to Box Office Mojo. In other words, almost no one saw it. Take a look at the trailer for The Hottie and the Nottie and then check out the trailer for Noah. If someone put a gun to your head and demanded that you watch one of those films right now, which one would you choose? I’m guessing you’d choose Noah. Why? Because The Hottie and the Nottie looks like – pardon the language – an unadulterated piece of dog shit.

While it’s true that Noah is a long film that makes the audience work to uncover all the spiritual themes in the story, it clearly contains some filmmaking skill, whether you like it or not. It’s professionally photographed and edited, with visual effects that don’t look like they were done on someone’s PC. It has three Oscar-winning actors in the cast (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins). They, unlike Paris Hilton, understand the mechanics of acting. And, most importantly, it has a visionary director behind the camera. You may not like Aronofsky’s vision of the famous Bible story, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t using his art to challenge you, as all great artists do. The fact that the film has these things is what drove people, including my dad’s friend, to see it on opening weekend. If it had looked as inept as The Hottie and the Nottie, they wouldn’t have bothered.

It’s okay to not like Noah or Gravity or 12 Years a Slave (which a Facebook friend deemed one of the worst movies ever made). Not every film is for every taste. That’s part of what makes talking about them so much fun. But if you’re going to declare a film among the worst of all time, you need to know what you’re talking about. Seeing a small sample of the hundreds of motion pictures released every year doesn’t cut it. Anyone – film critic or not – who sees in excess of 200 movies a year can tell you what the real worst movies ever made are. And I’m not even talking about “so bad it’s good” stuff like Birdemic or The Room. I’m talking about the stuff that makes you think punching yourself in the face for two hours would have been a preferable entertainment option. I’m talking about The Human Centipede 2, Freddy Got Fingered, Tideland, A Haunted House, Old Dogs, I Know Who Killed Me, Bratz, Vampires Suck or anything directed by Uwe Boll.

Recently, Screen Crush ran a list of movies with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s not a single hit on there. Audiences knew to stay away. I’ve seen way too many of them, as have most critics and hardcore cinephiles. Most people will have seen one, maybe two, if that. This is why equating “movie I hated” with “worst movie ever” bugs me. If most ticketbuyers knew what the worst movies ever made really were, they wouldn’t throw the term around so loosely.

We’ll end with a friendly challenge. If you’re a casual moviegoer, the next time you come out of a theater ready to declare something the “worst movie ever made,” go check out InAPPropriate Comedy (starring Lindsay Lohan and Rob Schneider, and directed by the guy from the ShamWow commercials) and get back to me on which one is the real monstrosity.

 

A Quote Whore Exposed

shawnedwards

Originally published in October 2013

Shawn Edwards is a “film critic” for a FOX TV affiliate in Kansas City. His segment, entitled The Screening Room, runs three days a week on FOX 4 News. Edwards is also part of a group of people derogatorily known in the business as “quote whores.” For those of you who may not know, quote whores are people who provide glowing reviews of (usually bad) movies to the major motion picture studios. (They’re the ones responsible for saying things like “Getaway is Taken meets Drive.”) Those quotes are then used in TV and print ads to make it appear that a particular film has been well-reviewed. It is widely believed that they do this for money and/or ego. Edwards’ bio on the FOX 4 website boasts that he “has been quoted on more than 300 movies” since beginning employment there thirteen years ago. This gives you an idea of the mindset. Forget writing well or having an interesting opinion; it’s all about how often you get quoted.

Every Tuesday, Shawn tweets mini-reviews of the week’s new DVD releases to his 2,600+ Twitter followers. Yesterday, something unusual happened. He tweeted this:

SEhangover3

Ouch! Harsh words, huh? I agree with him. The Hangover Part III is really bad. But when I read that tweet, a memory was triggered in the back of my mind. I went to YouTube and searched for TV ads for the movie, where I found this:

SEhangover

Say what?! Shawn Edwards has been caught in a lie before. During the press tour for the movie Alex Cross, star Tyler Perry asked Edwards on-camera if he liked the film. Edwards said that he did. His actual review, however, was negative. That was bad, but this incident with The Hangover Part III is worse. It constitutes the most substantial evidence yet that quote whores are selling words. There’s not a minor difference between what Edwards said in the ads back in May and what he tweeted this week; it’s a complete 180. In fact, his tweet goes directly against everything he was quoted saying in that TV spot. He is, in short, a bald-faced liar.

This leads to a few questions. First, how does this happen? Not surprisingly, the quote whores – including Maria Salas, Mark S. Allen, and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers – are notoriously tight-lipped about their practices. What we do know is this: the whores often receive all-expenses-paid trips to press junkets, where they get to see the movie early and interview the stars. These junkets also put them in direct contact with studio PR folks. There have been reports that the publicity department will supply whores with pre-written quotes they want put into the ads; a willing whore can pick the one they want attributed to them. Bingo! You get to brag to your friends that your name is on TV! You have influence! While no one knows for certain, it stands to reason that some sort of business transaction takes place so that the whores are paid for their willingness to supply their “thoughts.” I’ve heard through the grapevine that Travers’ deal was orchestrated by Rolling Stone, which gets the free advertising that comes with having its logo plastered all over TV and print advertisements. I have no idea whether or not that’s true, although it sounds logical.

Of course, the problem with all of this, as Shawn Edwards so ineloquently proved this week, is that the quote whores don’t even believe the shit they’re saying. Edwards clearly hated The Hangover Part III – and yet he was willing to completely sell out that opinion for an easy buck and/or an ego massage. It’s shameless.

Next question: Why should we care? Legitimate film critics care because it makes us look bad. When people see a quote calling Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters “the magical thrill ride of the summer” or saying that Beautiful Creatures is “superbly acted” and “spellbinding,” they’re likely to think, “Ugh, critics are so stupid!” Our livelihood depends on people coming to our websites or other outlets and reading our reviews. When moviegoers think they’re just going to get a shovel full of garbage, they aren’t likely to bother seeking out film writing.

But forget about us. There’s a reason why you should care, as well. You’re actively being lied to. Sure, all products are presented in their best light for advertisements. That’s not what’s happening here, though. You’re being marketed to via fabrications, inaccuracies, and untruths. The people telling you how wonderful the product is don’t believe what they’re trying to make you believe. If any other product was pitched to you in such a knowingly deceitful manner, you’d likely be joining a class-action lawsuit, or at least refusing to buy the product anymore.

Perhaps blaming the quote whores isn’t enough. The studios shoulder much of the blame. Warner Brothers could have gone to Rotten Tomatoes and found positive reviews of The Hangover Part III to quote in their ads. There weren’t many, but there were some, and they were written by real, established, professional critics, including the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson, Film Racket’s Bill Gibron, and former Associated Press critic Christy Lemire. WB didn’t need to bring Shawn Edwards into the mix.

This leads to the third question: If there are real critics out there, why use the whores? Simple: the fake quotes are part of a carefully planned marketing strategy. The studio PR departments don’t want a good review, they want a specific message. In the case of The Hangover Part III, they knew they were in trouble. The original Hangover was a hit. So was the sequel, although it was almost universally seen as a vastly inferior Xerox copy. Given that the series’ trio of stars, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, had received extraordinary pay raises for the third installment, WB had a vested interest in making sure this one was a hit, too. Enter Shawn Edwards, fully willing to tell the lie that The Hangover Part III brought the series to “a glorious end.”

Another egregious example of this came in 2010. A full month before the highly-anticipated David Fincher film The Social Network was shown to any critics, Peter Travers was quoted in ads saying it “brilliantly defines the decade” and dubbing it “an American landmark.” Believe me, all of us in the film criticism business were scratching our heads and saying, How the hell did Travers get to see it already? Who knows if he even saw it early or not? The point is, Sony had a hot title, and they wanted to position it as a movie that defined an online generation. Travers was right there, ready to be the marketing department’s lapdog and give them exactly what they ordered.

Quote whoredom has gotten out of hand. People like Travers and Shawn Edwards are hurting the reputations of respectable film critics with their unprofessional antics, and they’re also harming the cultural discussion of cinema. By proclaiming crap to be gold, or by happily lying so as to avoid losing their ability to suck up to movie stars, they make the audience mistrustful. The dirty, duplicitous, repellant quote whores ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Note: If you want to learn more about quote whores, or keep tabs on them, Erik Childress does an awesome Criticwatch piece over at eFilmCritic.com. His ongoing work is well worth checking out.

UPDATE 10/11: Apparently, word of this article got back to Shawn Edwards, who tweeted this in the early morning hours:

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This doesn’t appear to be a very truthful statement, either. A “Screening Room” video posted on the FOX 4 website finds Edwards saying, “the second time around made me hate this movie even more.” His original review from May (when the ads aired) finds him calling the film “not funny” and giving it “2 popcorn bags.” Not exactly a “glorious” end.

If any further response comes from Edwards, I’ll update again.

The Super-Secret Film Critic Cabal

Originally posted in August 2013

This week, actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer gave an interview to a British reporter in which they blamed film critics for the colossal failure of their movie The Lone Ranger. Among the accusations were that critics “reviewed the budget,” went “gunning for” the film, and “decided to slit the jugular” of The Lone Ranger. In essence, the understandably bitter actors suggested that their movie was great and that a conspiracy took place to make average ticketbuyers think otherwise. At the risk of being drummed out of the corps, I’m here to tell you the truth: Depp and Hammer are correct.

The Super-Secret Film Critic Cabal (a name coined by our founder and L. Ron Hubbard-esque leader, Rex Reed) meets several times a year to pick one particular movie that we will savage in each moviegoing season. Our meetings are always a lavish affair, complete with an abundance of cocaine and hookers. (No women are allowed because, goodness knows, we do everything we can to keep them out of this business.) There are several key criteria we look for. The first is budget. If a movie costs too much to make, we’re going to bring it down. Film critics are woefully underpaid, so we like to take shots at people who have money to burn. The second thing is whether a movie has had production troubles. Were there on-set conflicts? Did production get shut down? Has the release date been shifted more than once? This is all chum in the water for us sharks. If you’ve ever spat on a homeless person in the street, you understand the rush that comes with kicking someone when they’re down. The third, and final, thing we look for is intense fanboy interest. One of the greatest privileges of being a professional film critic is the ability to piss off fanboys by taking an unnecessary dump on something they love. Those pathetic losers get so worked up! The more of these factors a movie has, the more likely it is to earn our vote. I mean, what’s the point in picking on something like Fruitvale Station that nobody cares about, am I right?

In regard to The Lone Ranger, we decided to “slit the jugular” at our quarterly meeting at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles late last winter. The meeting was somewhat contentious. The Lone Ranger was massively overbudgeted and had production temporarily shut down due to rising costs. But the same was true of another picture, World War Z. Hell, they had to rewrite the entire third act of that thing! After much heated debate – and a lengthy filibuster from Armond White – it was decided that we’d give World War Z a pass and make The Lone Ranger our Summer 2013 whipping boy. In the end, we all hope to someday party with Brad Pitt, so angering him didn’t seem wise. Johnny Depp, on the other hand, needed to be knocked down a peg for all the roles in which he wears too much makeup and acts like a weirdo. Also, The Lone Ranger was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who we love to rag on. It’s a little known fact that most film critics don’t actually see Jerry Bruckheimer films. As soon as we know he’s involved, we just go ahead and write our negative reviews, sight unseen.

And that’s exactly what happened after the meeting. Like most critics, I went home and penned my savage review of The Lone Ranger. As a formality, I went and saw the movie on opening weekend. Truth is, I thought it was great – funny, exciting, highly entertaining. Easily one of the best summer movies ever made. But I had a job to do, and the Cabal had spoken, so my pan went online.

The Super-Secret Film Critic Cabal met again at New York’s Tavern on the Green back in mid-June to discuss our plans for the upcoming holiday movie season. At the risk of dropping spoilers, just wait until you see what we’re going to do The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It’s going to be a bloodbath! How dare Peter Jackson try to stretch that story into three films! Screw that guy! Watching the fanboys hit the roof is going to be a blast. My review in already in the can. I’ll be giving it half a star, calling the film “the pathetic work of an egotistical, highly overrated filmmaker who wouldn’t know a good fantasy story from a huge, gaping hole in Middle Earth.” That oughta nab me a Pulitzer, huh?

So why am I risking my professional standing to tell you all this? Simple: the cat’s out of the bag. That asshat Kevin Smith has been trying to tell the world about the Super-Secret Film Critic Cabal for years, but everyone regarded him as a washed-up, pot-addled self-promotion machine. Now that credible celebrities like Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer have exposed us, there is no point in living a lie anymore. I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I earn a paycheck for bashing people richer, better looking, and more talented than I am. I’m going to enjoy it.

See you at the movies. Maybe.

 

 

Write Like Armond!

Originally published in July 2013

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Today, I received a very interesting email. It was from a guy who, for reasons unknown, decided to offer some unsolicited advice on being a film critic. His message began, “I just discovered your reviews and I’d like to say that you are off to a good start.” This was my first tip-off that something strange was coming. I got my first paying film critic gig twenty-four years ago and have written thousands of reviews since. I’ve worked in print, online, on radio, and on television. I’m by no means a newcomer. I’m also not especially thin-skinned, so I continued reading. The guy – we’ll call him “Paul” – said that my writing is “efficient” but “lacks context.” He then went on to mention Armond White, whom he offered up as a prime example of what a film critic should be, saying: “His connections enrich one’s understanding of a given work and provide context within cinema history.” Paul’s advice to me in a nutshell: Write more like Armond.

Truth be told, I found the tone of Paul’s message arrogant and condescending. By his own admission, he’s never written a single movie review, and he continued to email me all day long with variations on the same complaint, eventually badgering me for a detailed summation of “what Django Unchained says about Quentin Tarantino in 2012.” (At that point, I blocked him. I had too much work to do.) He even gave me reading assignments, telling me to check out the writings of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and James Agee – critics whose work I’m very acquainted with. I responded to him the first time, as politely as I could, assuring him that my style has served me pretty well over the past two decades and gently asserting that I had no intention of trying to be someone or something that I’m not. That didn’t deter him. In another of his emails, Paul enumerated more perceived deficiencies in several recent reviews I wrote. Again, Armond White’s name was invoked. (”The best critic currently writing.”) Paul recommended that I explore how things in films are “heightened by the aesthetics,” and consider things like “what’s being done with shadows,” or whether “the shots are geometrically composed.” He sited my review of 42 as being inadequate for not connecting the film to all the other baseball and/or racial equality movies made over the decades. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t comment on whether the baseball scenes were photographed in “shallow or deep focus.” He told me that “specificity equals edification.” By this point, I was pretty sure I was being punked.

All this brings up a very interesting point that’s well worth discussing. I’ve long believed that there are basically two ways to write about film. The first, for lack of a better term, is the “academic” way. This approach looks at a film much more technically (and therefore notices things like the geometric composition of shots), while attempting to place it into some sort of historical and/or cultural context. It’s a mental way of looking at cinema, an intellectual distancing of oneself from the work being considered so as to view it in relation to the larger whole. The academic critic will look at how technical elements within a scene are used to help achieve the overall tone or theme, and will often judge it against other pictures aiming for the same thing. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this approach. I like and admire numerous critics who work in this style.

The other way to write about film, again for lack of a better term, is the “conversational” way. This is the method I have chosen to utilize. A critic taking this approach will write less like a college film professor and more like the hardcore movie buff who runs the student film society. It’s an emotional way of thinking about cinema, as it focuses more on how a film makes one feel, or what one’s personal experience of watching that film was. A conversational critic is more likely to write from a first-person perspective and to use shorthand connections most readers will instantly comprehend. (Paul noted that, instead of comparing 42 to dozens of dramas about race, I compared it only to the more recent The Blind Side. This is true. It was a convenient, easily accessible way to help my readers understand the tone.)

This is not to say that the two styles are mutually exclusive. As a conversational critic, I try to be insightful and informative about technical elements in movie, as applicable to my overall viewing experience. Conversely, many academic critics will use their thoughtful, in-depth analysis as a means of getting to the emotional impact (or lack thereof) of a picture. Some critics can even straddle the line between these two methods; the late Roger Ebert was prime example. The larger point I’m trying to make is that working in one style or the other is a conscious choice. Both are legitimate. There was a time when there were very few film critics working. Most of them were, indeed, of the academic variety. The advent of the internet changed film criticism, though. It allowed for new voices and new kinds of voices. Readers who weren’t necessarily interested in an academic dissertation of a movie could now find critics who adopted a more congenial approach.

Since Armond White is the example brought up by Paul, let’s leave his controversial nature aside and just look at his style. White’s review of Pacific Rim says that director Guillermo del Toro’s “homage lacks the simplicity of Ray Harryhausen special effects that were enjoyable for their handmade creativity.” He then goes on to add that “Del Toro’s best moment is only half-great: when Raleigh drifts into Mako’s dream and the evocation of WWII American-Japanese relations, the ambivalent panic and sexual security, almost becomes a theme.” In the first statement, he rightly notes the influence of Harryhausen on the movie’s aesthetics. In the second, he picks up on imagery that clearly ties in to a notable period of history. Both remarks are perfectly insightful.

I’ll use myself as the other example, as per Paul’s initiation of this topic. In my review of the same film, I also made mention of the connection to previous monster movies (”Even if del Toro hadn’t given an onscreen dedication to famed monster creator Ray Harryhausen and noted Japanese creature-feature director Ishiro Honda, it would have been obvious that their legacies infuse the spirit of Pacific Rim.”) I concluded my review with a summation of how I felt watching it: “When I remember the summer of 2013, this is the movie I’ll think of. No, it’s not technically perfect, but it is perfectly fun. The special effects are great and the action is exciting. The comic relief made me laugh. The entire visual scheme of the film is endlessly inviting to look at. It all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable two hours. Pacific Rim is a first-rate sci-fi adventure that made me feel all giddy inside.”

Which style is better? Depends on what you want. Some readers want to explore the idea that a big summer tentpole movie might have thematic connections to historical events. They may want to know how the monsters in this movie compare to the screen monsters that came before. Other readers want to know briefly what works, what doesn’t work, what the tone of the film is, and what kind of experience they can expect to have.

The beauty of modern film criticism – and the thing that Paul doesn’t seem to get – is that the academic and the conversational can exist side-by-side. I can name two dozen talented film critics worth reading, right off the top of my head. Give me a few minutes and I can come up with a dozen more. Some of them are more conversational than academic. Some are more academic than conversational. Some perfectly rest one foot on each side of that line. All of them, like me, chose the format that felt most comfortable and which best reflected their personality.

Could I write in the style used by Armond White (or David Denby or Andrew Sarris)? Sure, I just don’t want to. Could Armond write in a style more akin to my own? I’m sure he could, but he doesn’t want to either. Our readers seek us out because they want to read the kind of film criticism we provide. That’s a good thing. No matter what you’re looking for, you can find it online. There’s no need for all of us to sound the same. The diversity of voices is beautiful.

 

Eulogy For a Multiplex

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Originally published in June 2013

Take a look at this picture. It makes me incredibly sad. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook yesterday. This is (was) the AMC Colonial Commons 9 multiplex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Obviously, it’s being torn down. Truth be told, I hadn’t gone to this theater in years, and yet seeing this picture brought back a flood of memories that made me realize just what an important place it was to me. The Commons closed about two years ago, but knowing the building still stood was some weird kind of comfort; I thought perhaps some other chain would buy and reopen it. Now that it’s been demolished, I feel a more permanent sense of loss.

Throughout the 1990s, the Commons was my favorite theater. It was the first multiplex in the city, all shiny and new. All the other theaters were either generic mall four-plexes or ancient twin cinemas that had seen better days. The idea of having nine movies under one roof was a novelty. The interior of the theater was lit up with blue neon, and rows of poster frames lined the walls down each of the two main corridors that branched off from the central lobby/concession stand area. There were two huge auditoriums (both of which came equipped with that amazing new digital sound), a couple of medium-sized ones, and a few smaller houses.

What really made it a special place to me was that they were willing to book independent films there, alongside the major Hollywood releases. My buddies and I would hop in the car and make the trek into the city to see limited-release pictures like Sling Blade and Chasing Amy. Before the Commons, films of that nature rarely, if ever, played Harrisburg, and we felt very cosmopolitan going to see them.

Actually, I saw movies of every variety there: Quiz Show, Jackie Brown, The Blair Witch Project, Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Independence Day, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Batman & Robin, The Cutting Edge, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty, Dogma, Three Kings – I could go on and on. Occasionally, press screenings were held at the Commons; I saw Hot Rod at a screening there.

As with any theater you attend regularly, there are memories you will always associate with it. I’ll never forget our double features on Saturday afternoons, where we’d buy tickets in advance and then jump from auditorium to auditorium. I’ll also never forget the lone protestor who was picketing the Commons when we exited on opening night of The Shawshank Redemption. Whereas most people mocked or ignored him, I asked what he was protesting. He told me that he thought movies contained too much offensive material – and seemed glad that someone bothered to inquire. And how could I ever forget the joyous energy among the predominantly African-American audience on the opening weekend of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X? The sold-out show played in the biggest auditorium, and it was one of the few times I ever physically felt the excitement of the crowd. It was magical.

In late 1999, the Hoyts company built a bigger, newer multiplex about a mile away from the Commons. It had 14 screens, stadium seating, and a café. A few years later, Great Escape built another 14-screener in the Harrisburg Mall that was even more ornate and lavish. It was also the first all-digital theater in the city. The Colonial Commons 9 suffered from the existence of these theaters. Because they were fancier and had more amenities, people started to patronize them more frequently. That included me. The Commons became the place to go if you wanted to see movies but hated crowds.

My last visit to the Commons was essentially a fluke. I’d run a promotion on my website, and as a “thank you,” the company sponsoring the promotion sent me a $25 AMC gift card. The Commons was the only AMC theater in the area, so one hot summer day, I went there to see I Love You, Beth Cooper and blew the gift card at the concession stand. To my great satisfaction, the theater was still in good shape. Yes, it was a bit outdated by this point, but still a decent place to catch a flick.

I’m glad I got to go there one last time. The Colonial Commons 9 played a big part in my cinematic development, both professionally and personally. It was a terrific theater. The building may no longer stand, but in my heart, it will remain, just as it once was, forever.

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