|Whom Can You Trust? A Guide To Your Film Critics
|by Erik Childress
Whether you are a regular moviegoer or the prospect of making two theatrical visits a year is a big deal; one is always searching for guidance on what to see. For all the criticism and pinched faces that film critics receive from the public, they do serve a purpose, particularly if the people you know think Freddie Prinze Jr. is the next James Dean. Even those who consider themselves film experts are always inclined to listen to an opinion they know they can count on if they haven’t yet caught their own screening of it. Sometimes it’s another critic and, more often than not, the recommendation comes from a friend. The big question is though – Whom can you trust?
Recently I received an e-mail that said, “you are the living example on why I believe movie reviewers are a total waste of human industrious power. Maybe it's not you personally, but maybe just the straw who axed that camels back. It just behooves me why one man believes his opinion is superior then another, especially on something as trivial as a movie.” Dispense for a moment the mailer’s errors in English semantics and the question of a superiority complex that any critic may wear on their shoulder like an extra middle finger, and ask yourself why a critic is necessary?
With the cost of living going skyward on the Western budget front, movie studios are putting as big an investment into their product as Enron is putting into shredders. Constant advertising and hype has turned Hollywood into a first weekend entity designed to get as many people into the doors during the initial three days. Word of mouth will take over from there. But not every film is a blueprinted critic-proof Summer or Holiday blockbuster event. Some of them are middle-of-the-road storylines (with or without big stars) and some of them are independent productions.
Isn’t it then understandable to have some people who have seen more than their share of movies to preview them and warn you on whatever level if its worth your eight bucks? Should we eliminate people who test drive cars or would you prefer to go by color? Or how about stopping drug companies from testing their latest drugs before applying them to the non-prescription market? Sure, nobody has ever died from watching a bad movie, but play the pessimist card for a second the next time you see a wretched flick and realize that you’re two hours closer to your own death. If you didn’t listen to those who told you to avoid it like the 11th plague or you trusted the wrong critic, then you’ve just lost your time AND your money.
When deciphering your entertainment dollar in theatrical or video form, trust takes on two forms. The first key is to turn one ear to those whose opinion meshes with your own at least 70% of the time. To find someone whom you agree with to near perfection, you will be more hard-pressed than Calista Flockhart under Camryn Mannheim at a David E. Kelley orgy. Even your best friend or your favorite critic will not break the 95% barrier on the movie taste-o-meter. You then turn the other ear towards someone you know who is honest. Find the person or persons who you believe to the hundredth percent is not going to bullshit you. They shoot straight from both hips and keep an extra gun in their boots just to protect you. Junket parties or what they think the public wants to hear does not influence them. It’s THEIR opinion, agree with it or not.
Of course, opinions don’t always have to be buoyed by a publicist’s quotehunt. Some of them just plain suck. Face a hard fact people, while its common to spurt out that film critics “don’t like anything” or you half-jokingly comment that you follow the opposite of whatever they say, these days many critics seem to like nearly everything. In the same way that you can’t trust someone who shits on everything with an elitist wand and a thumbed nose, why would you choose to listen to someone who uses the same adjectives and exclamation points to describe both Shrek and Leprechaun, especially if the only word they can come up with is “green?” You have to turn a deaf ear to them because these children of a lesser god need to be sought out and exposed since they are most definitely NOT your friends.
There are three types of regular film writers. You’ve got your film “critics”, your film “reviewers” and the slutty sewage-trodden vermin known as the “quote whores.” To put this latter category in the same branch is an insult to writers everywhere, but more insulting to actual whores. At least with the brothel/streetwalking/call girl variety, you get a little something back for your money and possibly end up with a disease that may just be treatable. With quote whores, there is no known cure.
The term “quote whore” has become such a staple of the media community that you can find the definition in the dictionary as “a writer who provides flattering comments about a book or movie in exchange for meals, travel, or some other perk.” If you threw darts at a newspaper’s film section, chances are you would hit one of their names two times out of three. So many of these anonymous flatterers exist from print to radio to television, that it baffled everyone when executives at Columbia Pictures invented a fictional reviewer named David Manning (from “The Ridgefield Press”) to provide quotes to titles like Hollow Man, Vertical Limit, The Animal and A Knight’s Tale. Not only did the name blend in so well amongst the nameless that it took an investigation by Newsweek to break the story, but why risk such a fraudulent action when there’s a group out there with their legs open and their buttcheeks spread just waiting to line up to the teat? Perhaps because the more times you see a name, the more likely you’ll assume it’s a legitimate source and one you can trust.
According to Dann Gire, film critic for the Daily Herald in Illinois for over 25 years and President of the Chicago Film Critics Association, “It is much easier and safer for an insecure "journalist" acting as a critic to laud with faint praise rather than slap the film on a slide and examine it under a microscope to see what's really there, under the surface. We have become an industry of self-promoters who regularly engage in a variation of what the academic community calls "grade inflation." In our case, it would be either star inflation or thumb inflation. Bad films become mediocre. Mediocre films become good ones. Good ones get bumped up to examples of excellence or "must see" or "instant classic" status.”
Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert said, "Many of these (critics) don't always even write an actual review. The extent of their writing on the film is the blurb which appears in the ad." (What does that then say about his new partner, Richard Roeper, since he doesn’t write reviews either?) Such "blurbmeisters" have been a problem for a long time, says Peter Rainer, New York magazine writer and chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. He says his group considered lobbying the studios to stop using people who are "an extension of advertising publicity departments," but worried that such action might seem self-serving. "I don't think that we can, as a group, lobby studios to stop using them and start using us," he says. "The protest has to come from the consumers."
Why do critics indulge in this abortion of responsibility asks Gire? “ To gain some small degree of momentary fame by being immortalized for 24 hours in the ads of a major daily newspaper or 2.5 seconds on the nation's TV screens. Less ethical critics give into the temptations offered by studio advertising executives who will stop at nothing to promote their wares, even if it means misquoting, mangling or otherwise manufacturing those all-important critics quotes for commercials and advertisements.” (MGM executives actually created blurbs for the 007 film "Goldeneye” then went shopping for critics who agreed to put their names on them. Gire was contacted, but told that he couldn't have "The best Bond of them all" because some other hack already snared it.)
"A quote whore praises movies indiscriminately in return for access to the stars and free junkets," says Ebert. Many publications including USA TODAY attend junkets but pay writers' expenses to avoid the appearance of any compromise of objectivity. Some believe that those who can't afford such expenses feel they must praise the films or risk being taken off the junket list. The Houston-based Earl Dittman — who writes for seven publications under the Wireless banner, which he says has a monthly circulation of 2 million — is proud of his oft-quoted status. Dittman says that about half of the junkets he goes on are paid for by studios but that his reviews aren't influenced in any way. "I love movies, and I've always loved movies," he says. "I've taken some film classes and maybe I am just a frustrated filmmaker at heart, and maybe that's why I give filmmakers the benefit of a doubt."
Word is that the oft-quoted Peter Travers from Rolling Stone is actually a good reviewer, or was, but got heavied by the Stone editors to get them mentioned more.
And he's not alone - eFilmCritic's Chris Parry, formerly an editor at Filmink Magazine in Australia, tells of how this practice becomes instituionalized when he admitted, "It was a weekly office contest among writers at the mag to see who could be quoted most often. The publisher of the magazine, Dov Kornits, totally encouraged that kind of thing, once advising a new writer that the publicists from Fox were looking for a positive blurb for the film Lake Placid, and advising her that if she could find something positive to say, even though she didn't like the movie, she might get the magazine some ad inches and herself a little exposure. To her credit, she turned in a completely negative review, but she didn't last long. Mind you, while our staff were doing that, we were publishing articles criticising others for similar behavior."
The general tactic for people like this is to say something like "while this film really isn't anything worth paying to see, those that enjoy Adam Sandler are likely to bust a gut laughing." And of course, the last half of that sentence will make the press ads.
Not often, but occasionally, studio publicists will take the appropriate words out of a critic’s review or soundbite and fit them into a context more befitting of their product. Ebert is a frequent target for misquote, finding sentences like “a series of slapstick comedy adventures” from his one-and-a-half star review of See Spot Run or “Funny” slapped across ads for Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky, which was also met with negativity.
Since the early days of cinema, studios have been asking you to trust the big, booming voices of movie trailers telling you that “this is the biggest motion picture extravaganza in film history.” Only today, studios such as Columbia and Fox Searchlight have admitted to employees posing as moviegoers in those “man on the street” interviews for commercials. Fox Searchlight later in their quote-filled ads for Sexy Beast, asked us to “read 45 more unedited reviews at www.foxsearchlight.com”
Australian distributors last month were found to have been passing around film reviews from the Aussie review site Urban Cinefile for use in their marketing materials, before those reviews were even posted on the site. The materials in question even featured "suggested listing instructions" for any quote that might be used, including using the full URL of the site instead of the site's name. Which of course means that the critics in question are actually asking to be quoted, and not surprisingly, Urban Cinefile is quoted for every single movie that sucks. Every one.
"I honestly don't know if (the attention) will cut back on the number of blurbs," says Timothy Gray of Variety. "The marketing people really like them. The funny thing is, the quotes always remain the same, but the people giving the quotes change." What’s most disturbing about this trend according to Scott Weinberg of Hollywood Bitchslap.com, is that “these unthinking blurb merchants have achieved some degree of trust, while hundreds of sincere and passionate movie critics are left virtually ignored." Gire has actually molded the quote whore profession down to a science. According to him all you have to do is follow five basic rules of “How To Be A Quote Whore.” See how easy it is to be a quote whore and “drag down the whole community of serious-minded, dedicated, knowledgeable and insightful film critics.”
(1) Remember to always supply the studios with mixed similes that sound profound, but say nothing
"As deeply poignant as it is extremely funny!" - Barbara Siegel (Entertainment Syndicate) on “Moonlight and Valentino."
"Andy Garcia is as funny as he is sexy" - Jeanne Wolf (Jeanne Wolf's Hollywood) on "Steal Big, Steal Little."
(2) Remember to always supply the studios with "best of the year" quotes, even though it may be three or more months before the year's end
"The best date movie of the year!" - Ray Pride (New City) on "The Brothers McMullen," released Aug. 9.
"The best party movie of the year!" - Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) on "Unzipped," released Aug. 4.
(3) Remember to always supply the studios with recycled, brain-dead adverb/adjective combinations, especially using the word "entertaining"
"Robustly entertaining!" - Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) on "Federal Hill"
"Marvelously entertaining!" - Paul Wunder (WBAI radio) on "Rob Roy"
"Extremely entertaining!" - Paul Wunder (WBAI radio) on "Kicking and Screaming."
"Wildly entertaining!" - Joel Siegel (ABC-TV) on "Pocahontas"
"Highly entertaining!" - Ana Maria Bahiana (Screen International) on "Now and Then."
"Totally entertaining!" - Jeanne Wolf (Jeanne Wolf's Hollywood) on "Father of the Bride Part II."
"Terrifically entertaining!" - Jack Mathews (NY Newsday) on "Forget Paris."
"Infectiously entertaining!" - Barbara and Scott Siegel (Entertainment Syndicate) on "Outbreak"
"Thoroughly entertaining!" - Barbara and Scott Siegel (Entertainment Syndicate) on "Free Willy 2."
(4) Ditto No. 3, but substitute the word "funny" for "entertaining"
"Devilishly funny!" - Joanne Kaufman on "Shallow Grave"
"Hysterically funny!" - Jan Wahl on "Don Juan DeMarco"
"Enormously funny!" - Kenneth Turan on "Muriel's Wedding"
"Outrageously funny!" - Don Stotter (Entertainment Timeout Syndicate) on "Vampire in Brooklyn"
"Paynefully funny!" - Barbara and Scott Siegel (Entertainment Syndicate) on "Major Payne"
"Riotously funny!" - Jeffrey Lyons (Sneak Previews) on "Grumpier Old Men"
"Genuinely funny!" - Mike Roberts (Vancouver Province) on "The American President"
"Wickedly funny!" - Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly) on "The Brady Bunch Movie"
"Laugh-out-loud funny!" - Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly) on "Mighty Aphrodite"
(5) Remember to supply the studios with plenty of movies deemed "Must See!"
"A must-see for the whole family!" - Lisa Petrillo (WLPG-TV) on "Babe"
"A must-see four-star winner!" - Bobbie Wygant (KXAS) on "Waterworld"
"A must-see for children of all ages from 6-60!" - Paul Clinton (Turner Entertainment) on "Free Willy 2"
"Truly a must-see epic event!" - Barry Zavan (Channel America Network) on "Othello"
"A must-see!" - Elayne Blythe (Film Advisory Board) on "Indian in the Cupboard"
"A must-see!" - Ron Brewington (American Urban Radio) on "Congo"
"A must-see!" - Jeff Craig (60 Second Preview) on "Mute Witness"
"A must-see!" - Steve Arvin (UPI radio) on "Father of the Bride Part II"
Ask yourself why film lovers and fellow critics held up Pauline Kael on a towering podium. Agreement with her outspoken and occasionally controversial opinions may have been few and far between and some of her reviews may have sounded like nothing more than a bitter old broad, but she was honest. And when she retired, most of the honesty in film criticism left as well.
When I first started appearing on Jonathon Brandmeier’s radio show back in 1998, I got noticed by issuing a brazen fax to him about the movie reviewer he regularly had on with him. He was known as “The Film Freak” (AKA Leo Quinones) and he had his own show on the LA station (97.1 FM) from which Johnny B. was broadcast. Denouncing him as a fraud of the studio shill variety, I basically called him out to aim and unload my metaphorical six-shooter of movie knowledge and honesty at him, a task he proved unworthy to match on my fourth appearance on Johnny’s show.
Mr. Freak bragged about his big interviews with stars, said there were hundreds of people like me and only one like him and chastised me for not being in L.A. He didn’t have much of a response when I told him I lived in Chicago "where the real people are” and subsequently took him down 4-0 in a round of movie music trivia. Not to be self-aggrandizing, but rather to cement my point that when Johnny asked us about a number of the current releases and I loudly vocalized my disdain of the Kurt Russell vehicle “Soldier” as one of the worst films of the year, Mr. Freak quickly defended it. Now opinions are opinions and technically nobody is wrong, but within seconds, Johnny discovered the “Soldier” merchandise in his bag, given to him by the studio. Yes, Leo, you are a true individual.
Fortunately, a quote whore is easier to sniff out than a dog turd wrapped in a soiled baby diaper next to a copy of “Driven”. You can start your research by looking at the cast of characters associated with the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA – www.bfca.org) who give out their annual “critics” awards lumped in between the likes of respectable critics from New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. Not to mention the OFCS (Online Film Critics Society), the LVFCS (Las Vegas Film Critics Society), the TFCA (Toronto Film Critics Association), the SFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and the DFWFCA (Dallas-Ft. Worth Film Critics Association). Those Broadcast boys and girls though are a special breed. Boasting themselves as the largest group of film critics in North America with a membership of 163 television, radio and online critics and such familiar names as Mark S. Allen, Joanna Langfield, Mose Persico and Maria Salas, it would be more fitting to shorten their letters to QWA (Quote Whores Anonymous).
Even in a den of sin though, you can always find at least one hooker with a heart of gold. Even though he no longer writes for TNT’s Roughcut.com, David Poland is still listed as a member as of January 2002. We didn’t see eye-to-eye all the time, but a film-by-film breakdown would likely crack the 70% barrier. He recognized greatness and spit out the crap. He was a guy I could trust. Poland wasn’t a name you would see in newspaper or television ads telling you how great a movie was and even if it was, like with the BFCA roster, you could easily assume he was just another anonymous quack looking to use a few words to make a name for himself. My friend and colleague, Nick Digilio of WGN Radio in Chicago, has had his share of quotes used for video boxes, but in 1998 when he called “The Big Lebowski” “One of the funniest films ever made!", he was tagged as a quote whore by Daily Variety News Editor Timothy M. Gray in a thanks-for-nothing article called “REEL LIFE: The inside story on those movie blurbs”, a title that sounds like one of Bill Pullman’s cases in “Zero Effect” (“The case of the guy who made way, way too many mistakes”)
So perhaps Nick isn’t as well known outside Chicago as he is within the friendly confines of The Windy City. I certainly know that if I ever get quoted, even someone from my own town might see it attributed to “Erik Childress, eFilmCritic.com” and wonder who the hell is that. At least I’m not associated with Ain’t It Cool News. Regardless, whores are whores and the criteria for blacklisting them with your own senses does not require one in which you can see dead people. One look at those unknown names and they should already be dead to you.
A distinction then lies between the classifications of critics and reviewers. When I was younger, I used to believe that critics were the main honchos writing critiques for the newspapers, while reviewers were just second-hand people brought in to write a few paragraphs about something when the head guy was sick or on assignment; someone who normally doesn’t write about entertainment and knows very little about the field. It has widely been written that a film “critic” is more closely connected with philosophy than commentary. A critic tries to understand why and how a film works and the effects it has on people from now until the end of time. Isn’t this just a semantic argument about words and how many of them a writer/reviewer/critic uses to reflect on his subject? You don’t have to construct a 500-page non-fiction meditation on Pulp Fiction in order to qualify as a critic. And frankly I’m not interested in listening to someone expound on why 1980’s Flash Gordon doesn’t measure up to the works of Welles or Fellini.
Whatever you want to call your local film writer, there is another separation of the trustees that deserves closer introspection. Quote whores come and go and normally have more anonymity than an albino at a whiteout factory. But when you see a name you recognize or a familiar catch phrase like “Two Thumbs Up”, a part of your brain may instantly liken you to believe that they know what they are talking about; this MUST be a good movie. It’s not your fault. After all, THESE are the guys with the big newspaper gigs and television jobs, THESE are the guys getting quoted, so THEY MUST be the experts? But an expert on what? Opinions being as subjective as they are, there is no right or wrong in the game of critical analysis. However, when someone hates the movies you like and loves the ones you hate, wouldn’t you feel you were almost being lied to, constantly being steered in the wrong direction?
For Part 2 of the article where you will see the critics and all their quotes, either copy & paste the following link (http://efilmcritic.com/hbs.cgi?feature=524) or look to the list of features on the right and click on Part 2
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=525
originally posted: 02/21/02 11:22:44
last updated: 03/06/03 05:08:41