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What Is Wrong With America?: A Movie Critic’s Perspective
by Erik Childress

What is fucking wrong with you people? That’s the kind of blunt in-your-face questioning that people in my profession don’t ask often enough. You say you want change yet you never go out and support the little guy. You say you’re tired of the same old crap but there you are on opening weekend of Will Smith’s latest where the only differentiation of his performances is his character’s name. We’re constantly offering our opinions, but somehow it’s just not getting through to you. Why is that? Are there not enough of us telling you the same thing? Are you lacking in resources to research on your own what numerous, educated, un-bought lovers of this medium are saying? Whatever the case may be, it’s your right to do what you want. And you’re getting exactly what you deserve.

Just as it seemed we were in the middle of another great year of cinema, perspective can be an ungodly depressing thing. Sure, three of the top four grossing films of the year thus far were sequels and quality ones that in one or two cases even surpassed their predecessors. When you start slinking down the charts though, the old stand-bys take charge and the numbers begin to rear their ugly heads. A disaster film ($186 million), Will Smith playing Will Smith in the future ($144 million), Adam Sandler ($120 million) and M. Night Shyamalan ($114 million).

You want more?

Two bad Ben Stiller comedies in January & March ($176 million combined).
Scooby-Doo & Garfield ($159 million)
Alien & Predator ($80 million)
White Freakin’ Chicks ($70 million)

Completely sad that over the years films like Beautiful Girls, Donnie Darko and Wonder Boys can’t make as much money in TWO separate releases as some of these films do on their opening day. Part of the blame has to fall on the studio system, first for producing your choices of recycled junk and hypnotic wallet buggering but also for suppressing anything original or challenging. This tactic known as “platform releasing” simply doesn’t work and there’s a sad reality to why.

People will rarely take the time to find the one or two theaters showing these films, usually located downtown or in isolated areas that take serious travel time to get to when they can just go to the local multiplex and feast on that weekend’s “must-see” movie. Then there’s the money factor. After a few weeks of advertising (maybe), a platform release is not making the kind of dough that puts it in the public spotlight. Namely that week's Box Office Top 10 covered in newspapers and shows like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood which will even cut that down to the Top 5. If it’s not #1 it must not be good. We’ve taught the public to follow the number trails of the “#1 Comedy In America” so by the time the platform experiment ends and the word of mouth of a few hundred thousand (if they're lucky) hasn’t reached the hundreds of millions, the film is dead in the water and every sits around wondering what happened to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t a few compatriots out there who do their part. I applaud Fox Searchlight for doing their best this year to help get Napoleon Dynamite to over $40 million as well as turning Zach Braff’s Garden State into one of the most successful films ever (that never entered the Top 10 bracket.) Keep your eye on Sideways as well.

But what of films like Before Sunset, The Door in the Floor, The Machinist, Maria Full of Grace and Undertow? If only the public saw more than just the ads on TV and actually invested some time in asking questions about what these films are all about.

Information is stifled that way. The MPAA can preach all they want about protecting your children, but it’s just a smokescreen created to ensure that they get their agenda across while you’re looking the other way. The discrepancies in the ratings systems are so staggering that the lines of innuendo are being pushed further by the makers of teen comedies yet they continue to only pay attention to F-Bombs and sexual situations. Is puppet sex seriously the biggest issue in film this year? That’s because it’s easy. Its 1-2-3. They don’t have to put any thought into the difference between a “PG-13” and an “R” because it’s all on a chart. One “Fuck” is the norm for a PG-13 qualification, but you can get away with three in some instances as long as it doesn’t crossover into that dirty sex taboo that’s all the rage with the kids. Christ, the intenseness of a movie will now automatically garner a PG-13, guaranteeing that we can raise little uninformed pussies about how the world really is.

Critics are out there with one job – trying to inform their readers what to go see. Some will even channel the MPAA’s job by offering suggestions of what may be appropriate for viewers. But sometimes the critics aren’t allowed to offer their opinion thanks to people and agencies hired by the studios to both massage us and then squash us when the time is right. Their favorite tool is called the “embargo.” With this magical force field transported from deep within the land of Narnia, critics are left with very few options. On the most basic level, it creates a standard playing field where everything unleashes their glowing or scathing words on a film that day it opens.

For newspapers this makes complete sense. When is a review more likely to be read and remembered? Two weeks early when the reader has a chance to get in his car and head right out to see a movie that isn’t available to them yet? Or on opening day? Ah-ha, but the trade papers like Variety were given carte blanche to review whenever, incorporating box office hints within their pieces to give the industry folk time to further plot their strategy. Soon, magazines like Newsweek and Time were releasing reviews early. Why? Because they publish once a week on Mondays and those pesky write-ups mean more the week before than the weekend after. Yet, everyone was content.

Then along came these little worldwide instruments known as the internets. What were these hard-working agencies to do? They weren’t bound by the same restrictions. It’s anarchy! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! Let’s ban them!!! They are just stupid insignificant young people anyway. But that didn’t entirely work. Many of these internet folk rebelled and found ways into early screenings and got off on the concept of “scooping” turning professional journalism into a dying breed. There were others though; idealists with opinions who were willing to play the game set forth by the agencies, in an effort at the very least, to raise the bar to where it once was.

Even then though, the agencies were cautious about letting the legitimate ones leak into the big boy world. They still had the embargo shield though, which they wield as their own personal firing squad piece of journalistic etiquette. Let’s be honest here, the only reason it exists at all is to prevent information they don’t want from leaking into the public’s subconscious like “this movie sucks more than a retarded cowboy on Queer Eye.” That would be bad. Very bad for them. Therefore, even if said critic has a “20-star best film in the Andromeda Galaxy" review they are asked to hold that review. Naturally it would help the film and it’s certainly a quote they could use, but it belittles the notion of the embargo being a complete blanket to level the playing field rather than just a way to asphyxiate bad buzz. Five bullets. One blank. Nobody’s guilty.

Of course, that’s only for those who play by “the rules” and actually write reviews for a living. Despite all the embargoes, threats and banning, there are those out there that the studios and agencies can count on to deliver the message they want, usually in exchange for some lovely parting gifts. These are the Quote Whores. Somehow they are not immune from withholding their praise, probably because they are so overflowing with it that guys like Earl Dittman and Paul Fischer would explode faster than Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote.

But why not? They’re just telling the public what they want to hear, aren’t they? Don’t we all want to believe that Kate Hudson will steal our heart or that The Village is “a wicked invitation for the audience to scream their head off?” You listen and then you flood the ticket booths. You pay attention to Peter Travers but then ignore Scott Weinberg. You blindly follow Ain’t-It-Cool-News and then accuse Nick Digilio of just hating movies because he told you that The Day After Tomorrow is “moronic and boring.” The facts are out there (ahem, Criticwatch).

I’ll give you one right now. Shawn Edwards is not to be trusted. He is an African-American critic from Kansas City so in love with himself that he equates getting quoted to be a “top-notch film critic.” He is also the first one on the block to instantly praise whatever black-helmed film is being released and I have on good authority from close sources to the man that he will always give these films an extra star on general principle. How can you trust someone like that? Especially with the glutton of garbage that Hollywood uses to pander to the black demographic. With the exceptions of Barbershop 2, BAADASSSSS! and Ray (none of which are demo-exclusive), 2004 has seen the likes of My Baby’s Daddy, You Got Served, Johnson Family Vacation, Breakin’ All The Rules, Soul Plane, White Chicks and The Cookout. Why does the black population put up with this? How come THEY don’t demand more? When will their voices be heard? Are they just ignorant or is it because they are left with no other choices? Do we need a Bulworth 2 just to shake things up a bit or is it just that Hollywood doesn't consider the black dollar worth the trouble of pursuing?

Meanwhile, in a year that has had Anchorman, The Ladykillers, Mean Girls, Shrek 2, Dodgeball, Napoleon Dynamite, Shaun of the Dead, Team America: World Police and Sideways, Edwards called Barbershop 2the funniest film of the year” before flip-flopping four months later and using that quote to define White Chicks. In 2003, Edwards actually founded The African American Film Critics Association, consisting of a whole seven members including Shawn’s WB-TV buttboy, Greg Russell. African-American critics across the country were contacted to rise up and join, but many laughed them off the phone likening the revolution to teaming up with R. Kelly and Willie Horton.

Every term of film comes down to the seeking of the grand prize game, inching one ball at a time to every available bucket in the hopes of reaching the final one with the fifty-dollar bill in it. The Oscars are the end-all be-all of award recognition and they can be just as easily bought as the next thing. It’s here where the final blame must be held to those with the power to vote. Studios send them the screeners they want to push and ignore the rest. Voters take a look at a few of those and ignore the rest. The nomination ballot then becomes full of names that they don’t recognize, films they’ve never seen or heard of. All they have are “for your consideration” ads with pretty images telling them who to lean towards or a barrage of attack ads telling you that John Nash is a bad homo guy but Scorsese is your gun-totin’ man of action. There’s no room in the Oscar race for Fight Club or Three Kings. That’s why safe choices get voted the top prize almost every time and others are forced to concede. It’s why Born on the Fourth of July lost to Driving Miss Daisy, GoodFellas lost to Dances with Wolves and Traffic lost to Gladiator amongst others. But are you not entertained?

It’s time to rise up people. Your movie going budget is being wasted on massive, ill-advised productions while smaller, more important ventures are left without funding, without public insistence and without media support. It’s up to you all. Stop giving the power to those who are out to make their own fortune rather than giving you the quality entertainment that you deserve. Say no to the next Jerry Bruckheimer production. Don’t settle for just another gross-out endeavor because it might promise a “laugh-out-loud” quality. Find the good critics out there, the smart ones not whoring it up or playing snob games for an intelligencia whose only members say hi when they look into a mirror. Seek out the Garden States and Sideways out there, tell your friends about them and how you came to find them in the first place. Cause frankly, I’m just ashamed and I’m fed up. The next time I hear someone tell me that they prefer full screen DVD transfers to widescreen (especially when they clearly understand the difference); I am going to kick them right in the vagina. And that goes for the men too, because clearly you’re not men and need to grow some balls out of those whiskers you unshaved evolution-challenged morons. That would be a start.

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originally posted: 11/04/04 07:49:37
last updated: 12/24/04 17:49:32
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