Oh, Armond

Jan. 8th, 2014 09:47 pm
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Awards season was going so well. Oh sure there have been the usual little controversies - Harvey Weinstein's underhanded marketing tactics and grumbles over the state of the Best Foreign Film shortlist again - but it's been a good year overall. There' no shortage of possible contenders, and no real consensus about anyone leading the pack. The various regional critics' circles have been putting forth a variety of different picks. The New York Film Critics Circle picked "American Hustle" for Best Film, but the Best Director award went to Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave." And then came the awards ceremony a few days ago, where McQueen's acceptance speech was heckled by one of the critics and his associates. That critic? Armond White.

If you've been around film culture much you already know who Armond White is, the famously contrarian and provocative film critic currently writing for CityArts, and previously for the New York Press. He's chaired the New York Critics Circle multiple times and there have been other abusive outbursts before, most memorably toward documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. I've read several of White's reviews over the years and heard him speak on podcasts and other venues. I don't always agree with him, and I'm pretty sure that some of his positions are designed to be controversial (he claimed 2009's "Precious" was worse than Eddie Murphy's notorious "Norbit," and compared "Jack and Jill" to the Greek classics for example), but he's no slouch as a critic. I agree with many of his points and I like that he keeps the critical conversation interesting.

I'm fully behind White's CityArts review of "12 Years a Slave," for example, where he took McQueen to task for the use of extreme content in his depictions of slavery, which he felt sensationalized and detracted from the portrayal of the African-American experience. There's been overwhelming praise for the film that has positioned it as a major awards contender, and it was important to see a dissenting opinion, especially from an African-American film critic who was perhaps in the best position to deliver it. Were the comparisons to torture porn like "Human Centipede" a bit much? Sure, but it got the point across. And he's certainly not alone is his opinion - Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, has called "12 Years a Slave" "slavery porn" and Slant magazine's Ed Gonzales accused it of "artistic posturing."

But heckling McQueen at an awards dinner? Throwing F-bombs and comparisons to garbage men around to follow up a great presenter speech by Harry Belafonte? Good grief, it's hard to take Armond White seriously after this. There were other ways of showing disapproval for the society's pick for Best Director. White could have refused to attend the ceremony, refrained from clapping, or stayed seated during the standing ovation that Belafonte received. People would have gotten the message loud and clear. Shouting obscenities makes him look like a spotlight hog and a bully. Moreover, the controversy really does nothing to help his position or the wider discussion of the film. Only the gossip sites are happy about this incident.

What really gets me is that now McQueen is trying to deny he heckled anyone, in spite of a roomful of his colleagues being present at the event. It's not just one source who identified Armond White as the heckler, but a dozen of them, and mostly critics with a lot more credibility than he has. The New York Film Critics Circle has already delivered an apology to McQueen and is taking action to possibly oust White from their ranks - an unprecedented move. I knew an apology from Armond White wasn't likely, but denying his actions really makes me lose a lot of respect for him. We need critics like Armond White around to keep everyone on their toes, but what can his opinion really count for after this?

Part of me wonders if this isn't all an elaborate bit of reverse-psychology, perpetrated by White to improve the Oscar chances of "12 Years a Slave," which is facing a lot of stiff competition. McQueen has a lot of momentum on his side, but he's been a bit awkward in public appearances and the film itself is a notoriously difficult watch. White has now brought more attention to the film and its director, and has set up a great opportunity for Belafonte and McQueen to get a second chance to do things right on a much larger stage.

Anyway, right now matters are still unfolding. Now that he's in the spotlight, Armond White is far from done talking. We're still awaiting a decision from the New York Film Critics Circle regarding disciplinary action. Rumors are still flying about who actually said what, and who actually heard what.

And it's still early in awards season yet.
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It's that time of year when all the critics are putting out the "Best of" lists of all the great movies and films and music and books and webisodes and memes that have come out way since January. I love these lists, because they're a great source of recommendations and never fail to make my "To See" queue considerably longer every December. At the same time, though, "Best of" lists are often accompanied by "Worst of" lists, which I have far more mixed feelings about.

There's no denying that "Worst of" lists are a lot of fun. The critics get to rant about cinematic dreck like "Movie 43" and "A Good Day to Die Hard" and the reader gets to either share in the catharsis or be glad that they dodged a bullet. However, I'm not sure how useful these things are. "Best of" lists, even the ones that have been written by people who haven't seen more than a handful of movies in a given year, are a good way to become informed about films that you might have otherwise overlooked. "Worst of" lists, on the other hand, often depend greatly on how many and what kind of films a viewer has watched over the course of a year.

The trouble is that most dedicated movie fans do their best to avoid bad movies, and it's usually not hard to spot a stinker from a long way off. A Wayans brothers horror parody dumped in a January release date? A spinoff of a popular animated film made by a completely different studio that should have gone straight to DVD? The crumminess is obvious. Most critics who write "Worst of" lists write lists of the worst movies they happen to have seen that year, which avoids the real dregs. The more highbrow the critic, the fewer really awful films they're likely to have subjected themselves to. That's why you see so many "Worst of" lists featuring mediocre, but not awful movies like "Oz, the Great and Powerful," or "Identity Thief." Some of these lists are better described as "Most Disappointing" lists, or "Failed to Live To Expectations" lists.

Of the "Worst of" lists I've seen so far this year, not many have mentioned the notorious "Movie 43" or the similar, but lower profile "InAPPropriate Comedy," which were widely panned across the board by the people who actually saw them. Prestige pictures and foreign films generally seem to be excluded too, since most viewers are less likely to stumble across them accidentally. Critics will go out of their way to include obscurities on "Best of" lists, thus raising their profile and encouraging moviegoers to seek them out. Nobody bothers with the "Worst of" counterparts. This makes sense to an extent, as bad foreign and independent films don't tend to get distribution in the first place. However, a few clunkers do wrangle limited releases every year. One of the lowest rated movies of the year was that Winnie Mandela biopic with Jennifer Hudson, but nobody seems to have bothered to see it.

The long and the short of it is that the "Worst of" lists aren't really the worst films of the year by any reasonable measure. And honestly, it would be counterproductive for critics to really strive to catalog the most awful films of the year the way that they do with the best. We don't want them wasting their time digging up direct-to-video depravities or incompetent film festival rejects . We want their opinions on the films that we might actually be interested in seeing. And sure, there's potential for some nice schadenfreude or commiseration in reading about a poor critic having to sit through "Smurfs 2" or the Justin Bieber movie, but then it also feels kind of pointless. Hollywood puts these movies on three thousand screens across the country because there is a particular audience out there for them, and it doesn't seem fair to judge them the same way we'd judge something like, say, "The Counselor." There are still people out there who genuinely enjoy Adam Sandler movies, and the rest of us should have learned to avoid him long ago.

I've never written a "Worst of" list because I've never been able to quite reconcile these different competing interests. Also, because this isn't my real job, I don't see most of the movies I'm likely to hate anyway. I'll single out a few really disappointing movies and television shows in year-end posts, but worst? I'm just not qualified. I do like reading these lists though, especially from those movie viewers who don't bother trying to be objective at all, but instead use it at an opportunity to vigorously vent their spleen about their worst cinematic experiences of the year and take the time to call out Hollywood on their bad habits.
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Well, we all knew it was coming, didn't we? Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun Times for nearly fifty years, passed away today at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. A few days ago he posted an announcement to his blog that he was taking a "leave of presence," reducing his workload significantly after discovering that his cancer had returned. I'm glad he got to say goodbye, even if it wasn't meant to be such a final one.

To say that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had a great influence on my development as a movie fan is a massive understatement. It was thanks to years of watching "Siskel & Ebert" every Sunday evening before "60 Minutes" that I understood that you could discuss films seriously, as pieces of art as opposed to entertainment. Of course, they clearly enjoyed the films they reviewed, and Ebert was always the one who was more inclined to stick up for the mainstream blockbusters, the genre pictures, and the oddball efforts. Ebert was, after all, the screenwriter of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," directed by the supreme 70s schlockmeister, Russ Meyer.

I followed the program up to the bitter end, through the years with Richard Roeper, through the idiot Bens, and through the brief return to form with Michael Phillips and A.O.Scott before it was finally cancelled for good. During grad school I'd even stay up every weekend to watch it in the post-midnight timeslot where the local ABC affiliate had banished it. Fortunately, episodes went online and it was easier to access. A new version of "At the Movies" came along on PBS a few years later with other hosts, but I lost track of it after a few months, and it didn't last much longer after that. I still see movie ads sometimes and find myself expecting to see the once ubiquitous "two thumbs up!" quote pop up somewhere. People used to parody that line to death, but I haven't heard it in years.

I didn't have regular access to Ebert's written reviews for the Sun Times until the internet came along, and soon I became a regular reader, not just of the reviews, but of his columns, the Q&As, the letters, the interviews, festival reports, awards commentary, and much more. His writing was so strong, so personable, so funny, and so inviting. Even after I stopped visiting the site regularly, I still kept up with this blog as best I could. And when I first started writing reviews myself, it was his work I modeled myself after. How long should a movie review be? I checked his stuff and noted that he got the job done in 600-700 words per review. I also noted that he would revisit and write new reviews for older, beloved films. And he would write opinion pieces, simply because he had an opinion that he felt should be shared. And once in a while, he would change his mind.

I so admire the relationship that he had with his readers, the dialogues and discussions that he would have, and his ability to share so much with his fans. When he championed a movie, he would do it passionately and wholeheartedly, no matter what anyone else thought. I remember him getting behind the little-seen science fiction film "Dark City" in 1998, eventually declaring it the best film of the year. My DVD of the film has the commentary track he recorded for it. I probably never would have seen the movie without his recommendation, and now it's one of my favorites.

And then there was his Overlooked Film Festivals, and his shot-by-shot analysis screenings at the University of Chicago, where he taught many classes over the years, and so many other fascinating film events that he was at the center of. I would read the recaps or hear about them from other fans, and wish I could have attended somehow, even though I was always hundreds and hundreds of miles away. It was never hard to find fans of Roger Ebert though. He's clearly the most influential film critic of our times, the most popular and among the most trusted. There's no one who writes about film that hasn't benefited from his success or his example.

We've had a very long time to get used to a world without Roger Ebert. After his illness he was still very active as a film critic, but you could see him slowing down bit by bit, and it was clear he would never recover from the disastrous surgery in 2006 that robbed us of his physical voice. On a recent visit to his site, I was alarmed to see that almost all the recent reviews had been contributed by other critics, notably Richard Roeper. I hurriedly checked his blog to make sure he was still there, that he was still writing.

And then a few days ago we got the announcement of his effective retirement. And now the balcony is closed.
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I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, so I thought I'd pass along links to some of the movie-related and television-related ones that I've been enjoying. All of these are free through iTunes or the links below. Enjoy.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith - The host is a giant fanboy and it took me a while to get used to his style, but he conducts great Q&As with working screenwriters. Most of the interviews are conducted in conjunction with screenings of the writers' new movies, so after Goldsmith’s done with his questions, there's often a little audience participation too, nicely edited so that there are none of the breaks or the awkward pauses that usually come with live Q&A sessions. I recommend waiting until after you've seen the specific movies being discussed prior to listening to the podcasts, because they focus on the writing process, and how scripts are developed, and what got cut and what got changed on the way to the big screen. This is the side of filmmaking I love I hearing about, and as far as I'm concerned the writers never get as much of the spotlight as they should. Some recent highlights include Joss Whedon on "The Avenger," David O. Russell on "Silver Linings Playbook," and Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee discussing "Wreck-it-Ralph."

SModcast - This pick requires a little filtering. "SModcast" is both the name of a podcast and also a collection of podcasts associated with writer and director Kevin Smith. He's got a bunch of different ones related to the entertainment world, including "Hollywood Babble-On," which is a pretty free-form weekly discussion about current movies and television, "Smoviemakers," where he interviews filmmakers, "Film School Fridays," where he throws down with film students, and the main "SModcast" occasionally has guests like "Looper" director Rian Johnson. Some of the smaller shows aren't updated all that often, or were just kind of abandoned by the wayside after a few installments. However, my favorite at the moment is still going strong, and that's "Fatman on Batman" which is exactly what it sounds like. Kevin Smith geeks out about the Batman universe every week, and the 1992 "Batman: The Animated Series" in particular. He's had one several key members of the cast and crew, including a fantastic two-parter with Mark Hamill. Smith certainly doesn't neglect the comics though. I'm saving the recent Grant Morrison appearance for a rainy day.

Firewall and Iceberg – I've recommended this one before, but it was sort of tacked on to another post, and I really think these guys deserve all the kudos I can give them. Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg are two prominent television critics who host the best television podcast, bar none. These are the guys who know the industry inside out, who understand the inexplicable network decisionmaking, and who can juggle talking about multiple shows, old and new. They'll review each individual episode of the ones they consider the most important, like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Man," episode by episode, every week. Others only need to be checked in on from time to time. The lousy stuff gets a quick review, and only ever comes up again if there's been a major development. It's amazing the amount of ground these two can cover in a single show, and they don't even run that long. I tend to get more out of one of their ten or fifteen minute episode reviews than the podcasts that spend a whole hour on the same subject. And thanks to them, I know about pilot season, and about press tour, and exactly how “Community” is doing, because they’re just as obsessed about it as I am.

Kermode and Mayo's Film Review – Film critics Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo review films for BBC radio. They do more or less what every other movie review show does, offering their critiques on the new releases, related interviews, and some lively discussion about the recent entertainment news. This one stands out for the personalities and the professionalism. Mark Kermode's quite the character, and I suspect his personality may come across as grating to some, but I find him very informative and entertaining. And because it's the BBC, the show has the clout to get some big names to come by to promote their movies, though at the same time that means you get more actors and fewer directors and writers. It's also nice to hear the perspective of a couple of Brits who are working off of a difference release schedule and aren't as Hollywood oriented as most of the other shows I listen to. I've gotten some great recommendations for smaller films like "Perfect Sense" and “Chico and Rita,” that were higher profile in the UK than in the US, that I might have otherwise missed.
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I hear a lot of complaints about the "best of" year end critics' lists, how they're so reductive and they're so repetitive, and how everyone just ends up reinforcing each other's choices. There's a lot of validity to these arguments, but I love year end lists and often I depend on them for recommendations. There hasn't been a single year where I haven't come away from perusing the major and not-so-major critics' lists of the best movies or television shows without having dozens of new titles to add to my personal "to watch" lists. I always hear the same complaints every year around this time about how recent movies have been underwhelming, and there aren't as many good films as there were in years past. And every year, the critics' lists put my fears to rest, because of the sheer scope and volume and variety of different titles.

The professional critics are the most informed members of the media establishment, because it's their job to see and evaluate everything. I try to keep up with all the reviews and the festival reports during the year, but there are always titles that slip through the cracks. The year end lists are a handy aggregation of every critic's biggest recommendations, and a great way to suss out what I've overlooked. I get a huge number of foreign, independent, and documentary titles to look out for, especially the ones that haven't been very high profile. Sure, people are buzzing about "Amour," "Holy Motors," and "Rust and Bone," as possible foreign contenders in the Oscar race this year, but then you have titles like Ann Hui's "A Simple Life," that popped up on Roger Ebert's list today, and Kleber Mendonça Filo's "Neighboring Sounds," a Brazilian drama that appeared on A.O. Scott's. I didn't know either film existed before yesterday. "Bully" and "Searching for Sugar Man" have been the most talked about documentaries, but I'm more excited about tracking down "Detropia," "The Gatekeepers," and "How to Survive a Plague."

Sure, lots of these lists do largely look the same. According to Metacritic, which aggregates many critics' lists and keeps track of how many mentions each films gets, the most popular films of the year among the critical set are "The Master," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Moonrise Kingdom," and "Lincoln," which is not unexpected. However, you're not likely to see many lists that look exactly alike, and there's such a wide range of pictures that make appearances. Crowd-pleasing genre films like "Cabin in the Woods" and "The Raid: Redemption" show up on several lists apiece right alongside obscurities like "Dark Horse" and "Compliance." "Ted" is sitting pretty in the #2 spot of Peter Bradshaw's list, sandwiched right between "The Master" and "Amour." I didn't think much of "The Dark Knight Rises," "Premium Rush," or "Cosmopolis," none of which got a particularly strong reception, but I've seen them on individual lists too, because somebody out there loved them enough to save them a spot.

I tend to trust lists like this more than review aggregators or award wins, because the choices are very personal to a particular reviewer, and the limitation to ten or fifteen or twenty entries means they have to weigh all these different films against each other and weed out the mediocrity. Though they got roughly the same percentage of positive reviews, it's telling that a grand total of nobody put "Hitchcock" on any of these lists, but more than a few found room for "Cloud Atlas." And while every reviewer paid lip service to PIXAR's "Brave," when it came down to it, "Frankenweenie" and "Wreck-It Ralph" emerged as the best regarded mainstream toons of the year. I say mainstream, because there are a pair of independent animated features, Chris Sullivan's "Consuming Spirits" and Don Hertzfeldt's "It's Such a Beautiful Day," that have been picking up a lot of critical buzz despite tiny theatrical runs that didn't even qualifying them for the Oscars.

As usual, my own best of the year list won't be ready until next October because I'll be busy tracking down many of these titles. Most people are getting down to the last handful of theatrical releases and ready to call it quits on 2012, but my current "to watch" list still has roughly fifty entries and I don't think I'm done adding to it yet. How could I write an honest list worth a damn without first getting a look at intriguing films like "Chicken With Plums" or "Berberian Sound Studio" or "War Witch"? "Holy Motors" has been such a divisive film, I feel I really should have an opinion on it. After all, at this point last year, I'd only seen six of the films that ultimately ended up on my 2011 Top Ten list. (And more on that in a day or two)

So it may be the end of the year, but for me 2012 movies are just getting started.
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It had been a while since I've written about comedian Doug Walker and his web series, "The Nostalgia Critic," where he reviews older movies and television shows aimed at the children of the 80s and 90s. I admire the collection of talent that he and his partners have put together through their production company, Channel Awesome, and the variety of super low-budget programming that they've created for the That Guy With the Glasses website, mostly other media review shows. Once a year, they get all the various contributors together and make an anniversary special, usually a feature-length spoof. This year they did an eight-part web series called "To Boldly Flee," tacking science-fiction films and shows. And in the last installment (spoilers ahead, though the news is everywhere), the character of the Nostalgia Critic was killed off. The next day, Walker posted a video clarifying that he was indeed ending "The Nostalgia Critic" as a weekly show to move on to other, more ambitious projects.

And good for him. There were some signs over the last year that "The Nostalgia Critic" concept was facing a dead end. The show started on Youtube back in 2007, and there have been over 200 episodes produced since. Walker was clearly starting to hit the bottom of the barrel for nostalgic material to review. He pulled a few wild stunts like reviewing every single Disney animated feature during the month of December and gave in to fan requests to review more recent bad media like the live action "Scooby Doo" movie. Before "To Boldly Flee" was released, he appeared in a long string of crossovers with other reviewers on the site. I think Walker could have easily kept the show going for another year or two by changing up some of his criteria, but I'm glad he stopped now before he ran it into the ground completely. Still, it's a pretty gutsy move considering that "The Nostalgia Critic" is far and away the most popular show on the Channel Awesome roster, and brings in the most revenue.

When I first stumbled across the show, I liked Walker enough to keep coming back week after week, but I didn't think there could be enough interest to sustain the efforts of more than one or two of these amateur critics reviewing bad movies and video games. But what did I know? After four years in operation, That Guy With the Glasses and its affiliate sites currently feature over fifty different contributors who tackle everything from comic books to Doctor Who episodes to obscure beverages. Walker's easily the most talented of the bunch, but I also like Lindsay Ellis's "Nostalgia Chick," a "Nostalgia Critic" spinoff that has evolved into something more complex and interesting, and Kyle Kallgren's "Brows Held High," devoted to the dregs of pretentious art house cinema. Walker has also developed a couple of other characters who host their own shows like "Bum Reviews" and "Video Game Confessions," though they aren't nearly as successful or popular as "The Nostalgia Critic." Then again, they've never had nearly the amount of time or attention from Walker.

The rise of Channel Awesome has been fascinating to watch unfold because it is one of the first, rare examples of a group of entertainers who have built a niche for themselves through the internet and attracted a loyal audience completely apart from the traditional models. Similar online talent like video game guru James Rolfe have occasionally partnered with bigger commercial outfits, but Walker has avoided Hollywood completely, supported by a mix of ad revenue and donations. I don't think they even advertise the sites at all, aside from the occasional talent appearances at anime conventions. Walker's stuff is still heavily dependent on Hollywood output because so much of it is commentary on existing media, but there's never a sense that he's beholden to any of the usual media corporate overlords, which is great. He can be as profane and weird and creative as he likes without worrying about stepping on too many toes.

As traditional media has been in the midst of endless upheavals recently, with the doomsayers predicting all sorts of terrible things, it's nice to remember that web-based "new media," is out there. It's not a really viable alternative for most of your entertainment needs yet, but it is making in an impact, especially among the internet-savvy younger audiences. And it's been around long enough now for a guy like Doug Walker to have made a modest success of himself and want to strike out and do new things. So I'll be rooting for his success, not that I think he really needs it. Walker's built up quite a reputation, and I'm sure most of his fans will stick around to see what he comes up with next.
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After fifty years, "Citizen Kane" has fallen. Yes, the latest once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll from the British Film Institute, that asks international film professionals to choose the best films of all time, has elevated Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" to the top spot. "Citizen Kane," has moved to second place, followed by Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game." It's an announcement that means a lot to film historians and academics and the people who like talking about films as art. I'm sure it means very little to the average movie viewer, who hasn't heard of most of the films on the new Top Ten list, which includes entries like Dziga Vertov's experimental film, "Man with a Movie Camera" and F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans." The most recent entry is from 1968: Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

This makes sense, though. If you're looking at the development of film art since its inception, you have to take into account the innovations and impact of each film on the others that came after it, and the earlier ones made greater strides comparatively to the ones that came later. One of the reasons that "Citizen Kane" is so highly regarded is because it pioneered or popularized a large number of film techniques that are still in use today. The more recent films are harder to evaluate because it's not always so clear how they contribute to the art of filmmaking, or how they embody its best qualities. Sight & Sound also released a Top 50 list of the runners up (really 52, because of a three-way tie for the last spot), that includes only two films from the new millennium, "Mulholland Dr." and "In the Mood for Love."

Why is this poll such a big deal, though? There are a lot of different organizations and publications that run similar movie polls. The prestige of Sight & Sound's Top Ten comes from its exclusivity and its longevity. The poll has been run every ten years since 1942, and provides a great snapshot of what the major film critics and historians of the day use to measure everything else against. We can see different trends come and go as different films move up and down in the standings. The only film that has been on all seven lists has been "The Rules of the Game." "Battleship Potempkin" is six for seven, edged out this year, but only just. It's currently sitting at 11, and I'm sure it will be back in future lists. Meanwhile, the winner of the first poll in 1952, "Bicycle Thieves," disappeared entirely from the Top Ten after 1962. It came in at 33 in 2012.

There were some other developments that are unique to this particular list. A tweak in the rules required that films that are part of a series should be considered individually, so the first two "Godfather" films," which came in fourth place in 2002, are now 23 and 31 in 2012. The number of participants in this round has also increased dramatically, 846 in all, compared to the 145 who voted in the 2002 poll. We don't know who all of these people are, but the sheer number of new voters suggests that the 2012 list might be a better indicator of critical consensus than some of the lists that have come before. It's hard to be certain without more information, and I hope we get it soon.

So what do I think of the latest poll results? Well, I'm not much of a fan of "Vertigo," and I don't think it's in any way superior to "Citizen Kane." So much of the the film's reputation for greatness seems to be coming from critics hellbent on taking it apart and sussing out meanings that may or may not actually be there. I certainly agree that "Vertigo" is a great film, but I don't buy that it's the best of all time. If I had to pick a Hitchcock film, there are plenty of other contenders. It's hard to argue with most of the other entries. "Rules of the Game" is beyond reproach. I would have preferred a different Murnau, but I understand why "Sunrise" is there. Ditto "8 & 1/2" and "Tokyo Story."

However, I've always disagreed with the amount of praise for "The Searchers," and the newest addition, "Man with a Movie Camera," strikes me as very odd. Sure, it shows off a lot of different film techniques and uses them to enliven its documentary narrative, but it comes across as so gimmicky. If you're curious, back in May I wrote up a post with my own picks for the the new list, the movies I would have voted for. I ended up with two films in common with Sight & Sound, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
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The worried murmurs started last week. Did you see that PIXAR's "Brave" racked up three negative reviews out of eleven, bringing its early score down to 73%? As of this morning, it's at 71%, with six negative reviews and fifteen positive ones. The early reviews always tend to skew toward the positive because of marketing pressure, so this would seem to indicate that "Brave" may be in serious trouble with the critics. However, when you read the reviews, they run the gamut from raves to pans, with most falling somewhere in the middle. People are reacting to the film very differently, and there is no apparent consensus. And that's a problem.

One of the deep dark secrets of most movie goers is that we like consensus. We're easily swept up in hype, we like to be part of a mass experience, and we like our reviews and reviewers to be simple and declaratory. We like star ratings and letter grades and Rotten Tomatoes percentages. We want the critical establishment and their opinions to be monolithic, because then it's easier to process and react to them. Analysts and box office watchers who still occasionally believe that the reviews do matter, also find it easier to quantify their impact if they're uniform. The urge to conform can be strong. Witness the mockery and abuse heaped on the few reviewers who didn't like "The Avengers," and the few who defended "Sucker Punch." The trouble is that in most cases there isn't a consensus, and attempts to create the appearance of them can be seriously misleading.

Look at the reviews for "Madagascar 3," our reigning box office champ, currently sitting pretty with a 75% positive review score. Most of the reviews say more or less the same thing - it's a big improvement on the first two "Madagascar" films and exceeds expectations, resulting in positive marks. However, there's still a wide range of opinions about why the film deserved those marks. Some reviewers are adding points for improvement, while others aren't making comparisons to the previous films at all. Some are grading on a curve because the movie is aimed at kids, while others make no such allowances. There are commonalities that you can derive from looking at these reviews in aggregate, but the 75% figure only tells us that 3/4 of the reviewers came out it favor of the film overall. To get a better figure of how much the average reviewer actually enjoyed "Madagascar 3," it would be better to look at Metacritic, which assigns numerical values to each review and averages them to reach a final score, in this case a 59, indicating predominantly mixed reviews.

The only thing the Rottentomatoes score tells us about "Brave" is that there will be no positive consensus on the film, as there have been for the past PIXAR films. And yet the rumors and whispers keep circulating, and I've started to see premature speculation about whether this could make a dent in the box office returns, and whether there might be something seriously amiss at PIXAR to result in two critical misses in a row. In some ways I think this kind of anti-hype is helpful in countering the ridiculously high expectations that some viewers place on the most anticipated new films like "Brave," "Prometheus," and "The Dark Knight Rises." On the other hand, jumping the gun with these kinds of conclusions should be discouraged. There's so much pressure in the entertainment press to be the first in time with analysis, there's been a growing tendency to slap a label on film's performance before it actually has a chance to perform.

I don't think there's too much danger of that happening to "Brave" because it's PIXAR, and their reputation is still very good with the family film-going set. True, this is technically a "princess" film with a female lead, making "Brave" a harder sell to little boys, but that didn't stop Disney's "Tangled." Also, animated family films are notoriously critic-proof. "Cars 2," in spite of all the negative press, still made a respectable $191 million domestically. Meanwhile, the very well received "Kung Fu Panda 2" underperformed with $165 million, and it's unclear whether we'll see that series continue. I have no idea whether the masses will embrace "Brave" or not.

However, right now the small collection of raves for "Brave" sound a lot more convincing to me than all the lukewarm praise for "Madagascar 3." I hope that the Rottentomatoes commenters trying to shout down the negative reviews on the site will get their heads around that idea. Consensus is often illusory, and not worth the trouble. Controversy is often more interesting, or at least more fun.
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I hate Twitter sometimes. I hate the way it seems to bring out the worst in people, the way it amplifies small mistakes and thoughtless comments into huge, inescapable, Big Deals. I was perfectly happy conflating Samuel L. Jackson with his screen persona of the cool, eternally badass, righteous African-American hero. And then he had to go pick on New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, and he had to use the saddest, stupidest reasoning to dismiss Scott's negative review of "The Avengers." This is not on the level of a Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen meltdown by any means, but good grief. What the hell was he thinking?

Scott's review is hardly a rant. Jackson's appearance as Nick Fury is described briefly, but not specifically critiqued. Most of the piece reads as a weary chastisement of the excesses of the larger superhero genre, but Scott certainly reviews "The Avengers" itself in considerable detail, and acknowledges plenty of positives along with the negatives. I can't see anything that would have caused Jackson to take this particular review so personally. Perhaps the fact that the New York Times published a hefty, laudatory profile of Jackson last week titled How Samuel L. Jackson Became His Own Genre has something to do with it. But why would Jackson expect positive notices based on that? A.O. Scott's reputation as a reviewer would be totally undermined if he was beholden to his publication's agenda, and couldn't critique as he pleased.

Or maybe it was the overwhelming, all-consuming levels of hype that have been building for the last several months. It seems like the entire media universe has been centered on "The Avengers" these last few days. Financial analysts have been gleefully tabulating the box office returns from overseas, where the movie opened a week ago in many territories. There has been a glut of midnight screening reports from last night. You can't browse any entertainment site today without coming across scores of reviews, interviews, reaction aggregators, trivia pieces, guides to "The Avengers" characters, Marvel movie retrospectives, and on, and on, and on. It's the culmination of a massive, carefully orchestrated marketing campaign that has been going on for years to turn "The Avengers" into the event film to end all event films.

In this sea of feel-good self-congratulation, the few published negative reviews stick out like a sore thumb. They go against the scripted narrative, and that must have irked. Maybe that's what prompted Jackson to break the unspoken but long understood rule that artists should refrain from getting into these kinds of kerfuffles with their critics. The critics do not critique for the benefit of the artists, but for the audiences, and are only beholden to them. And other critics, of course, who can help expand single reviews into longer discussions and the occasional spats. Actors and directors and marketing geniuses have a financial interest in how their product performs, and are thus disqualified from participating in the discourse. Their job is to drive the hype, and that means they have an obvious bias.

I don't know why on earth Samuel L. Jackson would think it was okay to do this. True, the traditional print critics have lost a lot of their influence in recent years, and summer blockbuster season is the time of year when critics tend to matter least, as populist spectacle holds sway at the multiplexes, but that doesn't mean their function is any different - to cut through the hype and give people an honest opinion. A.O. Scott did his job and spoke his mind. Jackson's reaction, on the other hand, though probably also completely honest, may actually have been counterproductive to his ends. His tweets have diverted attention away from the movie, far more than A.O. Scott's one negative review would have ever managed by itself. Right now, on "The Avengers'" opening day, Google tells me that there are over two hundred articles talking about the online Twitter war between Jackson and Scott instead of the onscreen fisticuffs between the Marvel superheroes and their enemies.

At the end of the day, the facts remain as follows: Samuel L. Jackson tweeted his displeasure at A.O. Scott's "Avengers" review and called for his removal as a Times' staff critic. When a respondent argued that Scott was entitled to his own opinion and that a big box office total doesn't indicate quality, Jackson shot back, "Actually, sometimes it DOES!” Cue the steam coming out of my ears.

I'm still going to see "The Avengers." I'm probably going to see plenty of other Samuel L. Jackson movies in the years to come, but now I know that Jackson's just another fallible human being, who probably shouldn't be on Twitter.
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Last "The Cabin in the Woods" post, I promise, but I have to talk about the movie a little bit to talk about the latest target of the internet's derision, The New York Observer's veteran movie critic, Rex Reed. Reed is being pilloried from all directions this week for his review of "The Cabin in the Woods," which he vehemently panned. This might have gone unremarked upon, except that Reed's review was full of spoilers, and to many people's amusement and incredulity, a lot of those spoilers were wrong. In fact, most of his understanding of the plot was faulty, as the piece was full of errors that suggest Reed not only didn't grasp what was going on, but may not have been paying much attention to the movie.

This was not just a bad review, but an incompetent one. What's worse, Reed also took the time to lob a few choice insults at what he perceived to be "The Cabin in the Woods'" intended audience of "electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2." Yikes. To some extent I'm sure that Reed intended to be provocative, or even goading. But I don't think he anticipated the extent of the reaction to his review. Cue the gleeful online pummeling, the accusations that Reed is too old, too feeble-minded, and too out of touch for his job. Cue the mocking reaction pieces, the indignant dissections of everything Reed got wrong in his review, and a couple of well-meaning open letters, expressing more muted dismay. And good grief, it's been ridiculous to watch.

Yes, Rex Reed's review was a blunder and a bad one, but the reaction to it has been absurdly overblown. I've seen countless critics fail to grasp countless other movies, mostly on the artsy and erudite end of the scale. I've seen rants and railings against pretentious hacks and the fawning sycophants who enable their fatuousness. Last year, Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life" was subject to plenty of dismissive and hostile reviews, but the reviewers weren't attacked for their lack of comprehension or insight. Countless critics, many of whom I respect, seemed to be knocked for a loop by Tomas Alfredson's unorthodox approach to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and decided it was terrible. Many made errors trying to describe the labyrinthine plot, or missed certain crucial information entirely. I'm not naming names, but few suffered any adverse consequences.

I don't see Rex Reed's take on "Cabin in the Woods" as any more egregious. The big difference here is that "Cabin" is aimed at a geekier, more populist, more tech-savvy crowd, and Reed is an easy target. He's 73 years old and part of the old guard print establishment, a career critic since the 60s who has consistently refused to change with the times. Moreover, he has a colorful history of controversies and bad behavior, and he comes off as an arrogant, combative blowhard more often than not. But sometimes that's what you want in a movie critic, someone who will go to the mattresses to champion or bury a film, who isn't afraid of being the only one in the room to express a dissenting opinion. And with 93% of the critics delivering positive notices to "The Cabin in the Woods," that sure looks like the case here. Armond White, our usual iconoclast, seems to be MIA, leaving the contrarians awfully few in numbers. I know most of the Reed's detractors are going after him for the inaccuracies in his piece rather than the negative marks, but the unpopularity of his opinion sure does help paint a bulls-eye on his chest. Do you think Rex Reed would've garnered this much hateful attention if he'd included that line about the film's nonexistent vampires in a positive review?

Again, I don't agree with Reed's analysis of "The Cabin in the Woods," and I find his slap-dash fact-checking unprofessional and troubling. But I'm also sympathetic to his point of view. I know I'm far less likely to remember the details of movies I disliked than the movies I liked, and I've muddled plot points in summaries. There are certain genres of film I'm not predisposed to enjoy, and I've cast aspersions on those who do enjoy them. I've bitten off more than I could chew and I've gotten carried away and written some really idiotic things on this blog and elsewhere. I try to be self-aware about this, but sometimes I'll have a bad day and slip up. And it's no surprise that sometimes the professionals have bad days too.
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The latest awards season kerfuffle concerns New Yorker movie critic David Denby, who decided to publish his review of David Fincher's new version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" on December 5th, despite an embargo on reviews imposed by Sony Pictures, which insisted that no reviews be published before December 13th. The fact that the review is highly positive didn't keep "Dragon Tattoo" producer Scott Rudin from banning Denby from all future screenings of his films, or the studio from sending out dire warnings of doom and gloom to any film critic who would dare to follow Denby's lead. The critical community has erupted in debate, with some supporting Denby and decrying the current embargo system, while others are calling Denby's actions unprofessional and a breach of trust.

Now why are there embargoes on movie reviews? There are a lot of different answers to this. The most common one is that it's the price of early access. The studios provide early screenings to film reviewers, with the understanding that reviews will be published in a certain time frame, so they can be incorporated into release and marketing strategies. Positive reviews and critical support are especially important during the December and January awards push, pretty much the only time of year that the studios like to acknowledge the importance of the critical community at all. Smaller films like "Margaret" and "Tyrannosaur" have seen their profiles raised recently, thanks to support from individual critics, and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" could use that kind of help to keep from being lost in the rush of late-December releases.

Critics benefit as well. Early screenings allow more time to write reviews, and a commonly cited reason for embargoes is that they are supposed to help to level the playing field so one critic or group of critics can't scoop everyone else. However, critics are an unpredictable lot and aren't in the habit of always writing the sort of reviews the marketing departments would like. So it's an odd sort of love-hate, symbiotic relationship that's developed between the critics and the studios over time. And as you might expect, sometimes things can get contentious.

The studios are under no obligation to provide early screenings, and have been steadily reducing them and adding more red tape and conditions to attend the remaining ones. Security restrictions have steadily been stepped up, with bans on everything from cel-phones to Twitter usage. Many studios don't screen films they know won't be well-received anymore, especially the horror and smaller genre pictures that good critical notices wouldn't help much anyway. For higher profile stinkers, where the lack of reviews might sound alarm bells, the embargo dates are often very close to the time of their actual release dates, to try and minimize the damage of bad reviews.

Generally the studios' tactics don't have much of an impact on publication dates for reviews anyway. Everyone tries to publish within a few days of film's release date, just because that's when the reviews will be the most relevant. Other reviewers have broken embargoes before, though usually only by a day or two, and haven't run into this kind of opposition. The New Yorker review presents a special case, both because Denby is very high profile in the New York critical community and because he's breaking the embargo date by a full week.

So why did David Denby publish so far in advance? "Dragon Tattoo" won't be released until December 21st. Well, according to Denby, it came down to publication constraints. The New Yorker magazine only devotes limited pages to film reviews, and in a crowded December, there were too many films and not enough space to review them. Denby published his "Dragon Tattoo" review alongside one for "The Adventures of Tintin," which will also open December 21st, because he wanted to save more room for other pictures. Better a slightly premature review in the New Yorker than none at all, right?

Well, Sony and Rudin, and a lot of Denby's fellow critics didn't see it that way. You can read some of the leaked E-mails between Denby and Rudin on Indiewire, over here. Anyway, reactions are coming in from all sides, fast and furious. Other critics who haven't had the chance to see the film yet feel they've been scooped. Some claim Denby's just doing this to drum up publicity. Some claim that Rudin is overreacting, and that he's trying to drum up publicity. Nobody seems to think this will hurt the film, but everyone is sure that somebody is at fault.

I don't know whose side I'm on. Denby breaking the embargo was a clear breach of decorum and established protocol. On the other hand, he lays out some pretty compelling reasons for doing so, and it's hard to see how a very positive review could possibly hurt "The Dragon Tattoo" simply by showing up online a few days early. Rudin being so hyperbolic makes him look bad, but he's not just worried about this film, but the ones in the future that might be seriously harmed if this instance of embargo-breaking sets protocol. Then again, does the studio-controlled system of embargoes make sense anymore, when all but a few films are "critic proof," and the ones that are actually courted for critical support all get squeezed into the last six weeks of the year?

I just don't know. But it sure is fun reading the debate. Stay tuned.
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They say we're in a golden age of television, with more quality programs on the air than at any time in the history of the medium. As a corollary, largely overlooked, is that we've come into a golden age of TV criticism. Much of this has to do with there being so many shows around that are actually worth the time and effort to critique. However, the changing habits of the viewing audience in recent years and the rise of the internet have also been major factors.

Let's take the example of the recent fourth season of "Breaking Bad." Media sites like the AV Club and HitFix, offered weekly reviews and analysis of each episode as it aired, along with interviews and wrap-up pieces after the season finale. This never could have been done in a print publication, simply for lack of physical column inches. I think the closest I've seen to such an intensive, ongoing critique of a show in print, is back when Howard Rosenbaum of the LA Times devoted several installments of his weekly television column to chronicling the final season of "Seinfeld." And that was an exception, made for a show that was one of the highest rated network programs of the day. If a paper wanted to highlight a particular series, like "The X-Files," usually a feature story would be written about it. The closest you got to episode reviews were the weekly recommendations in various critics' columns. Or if a show was popular enough, someone might publish a book about it, with multiple pages devoted each individual episode. I own a few of the old "X-Files" guides that did this.

These days, ongoing episode-by-episode analysis is becoming the norm, written by critics who assume that the reader is following along episode-by-episode with them. They develop ongoing viewing relationships with particular programs, better capturing the way that television serials impact the audience over successive weeks. Episodes are rated against each other, and evaluated in the context of the season in which it airs. TV is a very different medium than film, and it is appropriate that the method of critique should likewise be different in structure and approach. However, prior to the 1990s, you rarely had television shows that were dense or distinctive enough to justify doing this. Now, shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" essentially offer up two-thirds of a feature film every week, comparable to anything that you could see in theaters. Some media observers have argued that television has in many ways surpassed film as the most culturally relevant media of our times. Creative talent now go back and forth between the two worlds without any eyebrows raised, which was never true in the past.

Another major change is that TV critics now spend less time catering to the mainstream. In the past, critics tended to talk about less popular programs in terms of introducing them or promoting them to a wider audience. But now, thanks to cable and the internet, that wider television audience has fractured into countless different segments. More interesting, oddball shows tend to stick around longer than they used to, thanks to the attention of viewers who may be smaller in number, but also tend to be far more devoted. "Chuck" is a good example, rescued from cancellation season after season, despite lackluster ratings, by fans who ran save-our-show campaigns targeted at specific sponsors. And these are the fans that most of the in-depth episode reviews are written for. It's become more acceptable to be niche. Sites like the AV Club devote countless webpages of analysis to a multitude of nerdy shows with tiny audiences, that add up to big ones.

The reviews themselves have gotten more interesting as a result, no longer simple episode summaries or post-season wrap-ups. The best ones almost seem like ongoing conversations, charting a series' ups and downs, highs and lows. In addition to analysis, television reviews spend considerable time on predictions and conjecture, making them great starting points for discussions. The fourth episode of "Community" generated a lot of buzz last week for pulling off a spectacular multiple-timeline story. It also ended three weeks of nervous speculation that the show was playing it too safe this year, and possibly losing its touch. There was a lot of grumbling about the slower pace of this season of "Breaking Bad" too, and then everyone reversed course during the hair-raising second half of the year.

However it doesn't feel like everyone in the media is quite on the same page yet. Most sites and publications still stick to the older format of acknowledging a television show only when it becomes particularly prominent in the media, or only following one or two particularly high profile shows through a full season. Few beyond the AV Club and Television Without Pity are willing to commit so many resources to so many different shows. Considering the number of programs going at any one time, this is understandable. However, I think the new style of ongoing, multiple-installment reviews is where television criticism is headed. In the future I expect I'll try my hand at them myself, instead of the pilot reviews and periodic check-ins I've been doing to date.

Maybe next year, when "Breaking Bad" rolls around again.
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I have been listening to a lot of movie-related podcasts lately, so I thought they deserved their own post. Just about every movie site seems to have at least one up-and-coming podcast. After sampling several over the past few months, there are three that I find myself tuning in to every week, and I'd like to spotlight here.

Filmspotting - One of the oldest film podcasts, having begun in 2005 as Cinecast. The current hosts are Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson, who are easily the most polished, most articulate film podcasters I've come across. Their wit is dry, their banter is intelligent, and their opinions are well-informed and reflect a great love of cinema past and present. On each show, they review one or two new releases, play Massacre Theater (acting out a scene and inviting listeners identify the film), offer profuse gratitude to donors and supporters, occasionally there is an interview, and then they review a classic title, and finish up with a Top 5 list.

The Filmspotting podcast is well-loved for focusing on the good stuff. The hosts approach films as art, and prefer to discuss the smaller, more prestigious releases, though they will share opinions on "Harry Potter" and the latest PIXAR movies as well. I find the show's archives to be a great resource, and I can not count the number of obscure classics and lesser-known filmmakers that I have learned about through them. As a pretentious movie nut, I find Filmspotting essential.

Also, this is one of the only film podcasts that has been picked up as a radio program. In Chicago, the reviewers' hometown, Filmspotting airs weekly on the local NPR affiliate, WBEZ. Filmspotting has also expanded into a series of film courses at the University of Chicago, taught by Robinson and Kempenaar.

A Couple of Cold Ones - The guys over at Spill.com are the polar opposites of the Filmspotting hosts, and I mean that in the best way. Their content is accessible, approachable, a lot of fun to listen to, and usually very R-rated. Spill is not for the easily offended, or those who do not appreciate the joys of a good "we were so drunk" story. There are several different podcasts hosted by the site, plus the animated movie reviews that Spill is best known for. My favorite is A Couple of Cold Ones, often abbreviated as ACOCO, which comes around every Monday.

Site creator Korey Coleman and Leon (not his real name) are the current hosts, who usually start off by spending about half an hour having a conversation that has nothing to do with anything movie-related. Then they count down the previous weekend's top five highest grossing films at the box office, and evaluate their performance. In the course of the discussion, they talk about the industry, they talk about trends that they like and dislike, and they talk about the filmmaking process and marketing and other ancillary business that often gets left out of the film reviews. Then they answer some questions from tweets and E-mails, and sign off.

I love hearing passionate fans talk about film, and though Korey and his pals sometimes go off on unrelated tangents you're not sure they'll ever come back from, they're always entertaining to listen to. And though what they choose to focus on is very different from the Filmspotting cineastes, I find them no less enthusiastic or insightful. Even when I wonder if they've had a few too many cold ones....

The Slash Filmcast - I only recently started listening to this one, and it's taken a while for it to grown on me. First off, I suspect hosts Dave Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are much better print reviewers than they are in audio. They haven't been at this as long as some of the other podcasters out there, and it shows.

However, they consistently have good, comprehensive discussions about the films they review. I think a lot of this is due to the reviews being structured so that all of them start with spoiler-free analysis, followed by a clearly demarcated spoiler section. I've heard others try to split these discussions up, and it just never works as well. I find myself frequently waiting until after I've gotten back from the theater to listen to the Filmcast, in order to hear these guys really take apart and evaluate all the different pieces of a film, including the endings, which are often a rich source of debate.

The Slash Filmcast also frequently features great guests, including several appearances by beloved character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who spun off his own podcast from the show. I also like that the hosts will sometimes break from form and do installments on television series, like "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," or highlight an interview with a particular director instead of a review. This podcast still seems to be evolving, and I'm interested to see where it goes.
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It's that time again. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the third film in Michale Bay's "Transformers" series, has grossed over $180 million at the domestic box office since Tuesday,and another $200 million overseas. It now holds the highest July 4th weekend gross of all time, though it's not doing as well as "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." The critics have been less kind. Over at Rottentomatoes, "Dark of the Moon" currently has 38% positive ratings, and Metascore givs it a 42. Some have taken this as further proof that the gap between critics and audiences is widening, and that critics are growing increasingly out of touch with what mainstream filmgoers want to see and are thus less becoming relevant. To which I reply, how many times have we had this argument? Why are we still having it?

The first time I heard the whole spiel about the audience/critic divide was twenty years ago, when it was lamented that the Best Picture nominees for the 1990 Oscars and the top five grossing films of the year only had one title in common: the supernatural romantic thriller "Ghost." The biggest moneymaker of that year? "Home Alone," which boasts a 43% Rotten Tomatoes score. Since the beginnings of commercial cinema, there have been movies that want nothing more than to be populist crowd-pleasers, and movies with loftier artistic goals aimed at a smaller, more discerning crowd. Sometimes when we get lucky, and somebody makes an "Inception" or a "District 9" that manages to be both, but usually, it's one or the other. Some people prefer one type, but there are plenty of people like me out there who have the ability to enjoy both "Miss Congeniality" and "Mulholland Drive" at the same time without tying ourselves into existential knots about the contradictions.

Now how do the critics play into all of this? Contrary to popular opinion, critics can and do evaluate a film based on different criteria, and most like Roger Ebert are perfectly competent at rating movies based on entertainment value or artistic value when appropriate. Nobody is going to hold a "Jackass" movie to the same standards as a new Paul Thomas Anderson or Michael Mann film. However, movie critics inevitably end up being associated with the art films, because these are the ones they're in the best position to promote and champion. Without the benefit of a big marketing campaign behind them, smaller, off-the-beaten-path films often depend on good critical notices to gain traction with audiences. This summer, for instance, attention from critics helped Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" achieve his best showing at the box office in decades. Summer blockbusters, on the other hand, generally don't need the cheerleading. This isn't to say that it's pointless for critics to review the mainstream studio films. The value of an informed opinion will always matter to people who want to see good movies, or at least competent ones.

However, it's more difficult for critics to have an impact here than it used to be. The bigger, more expensive films that get made today are designed and marketed in such a way as to be "critic-proof." These are the summer and holiday blockbuster films aimed at the less discerning child and young adult audiences, who are more easily influenced by aggressive marketing, hype, and branding. Trailers and promotions do their best to sell viewers on new films by conforming to familiar, easy-to-identify formulas, be it a child-friendly CGI film, a raunchy comedy, or a shoot-em-up action film. They give away more of a film's story and content than ever, to the point where some outright spoil the film. When they don't, as in the case of "Super 8," executives get nervous because there's too much uncertainty left in the mind of a potential viewer - without enough information they might look at a movie review for a second opinion. The studios have fixed it so that quality of a film doesn't determine the opening numbers for a big summer picture anymore - the strength of its marketing does.

And since quality is what the critics are all about, in this arena they've become more and more marginalized. However, critics can still help to cut through the advertising messages, to tell us that "Rango" has a subversive, off-kilter streak, that older viewers might enjoy, or that it's safe to take a male significant-other to "Bridesmaids," or that "X-Men: First Class" is actually much better than the awful trailers would suggest. Looking beyond the reductive Rottentomatoes statistic that only 38% of critics gave "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" positive marks, it's apparent that most critics agree that this is easily the best film of the "Transformers" trilogy, and that the last hour contained very impressive action sequences. Failing marks were given based on the elements that audiences have come back from theaters complaining about - it was too long, the first hour was a bore, there wasn't enough of the Transformers characters, and Michael Bay is still... Michael Bay. But of course, audiences don't see all the movies that the critics have to, and are more forgiving of a film's flaws and more easily won over by cool pyrotechnics. And there was plenty of good mayhem in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," much of it featured in the impressive trailers and television commercials for the movie.

Is there a critic/audience divide? Sure, but it's always been there. It's practically in the job description of a film critic to have higher standards, and so it's inevitable that their opinions aren't going to reflect popular tastes, especially when applied to films that are as far over on the pure, mindless, entertainment end of the movie spectrum as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." And as for relevance, it's always been the case that critics matter more for some films than others. Those snubbing their noses at movie reviewers in July may have to change their tune when awards season comes around in December, when everyone will want the critics on their side.

Can we stop having this argument now?
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It's been an eventful week in Tinseltown, despite the snoozy box office and the so-so TV ratings. The Golden Globes officially kicked off awards season, Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, the Sundance Film Festival is premiering a slew of new prestige pics that will reach theaters later in the year, the TV midseason has kicked off, and "American Idol" has returned and predictably slumped. There have been a lot of announcements and controversies lingering over the past few days, but none that I feel deserve an entire blog entry to themselves. But I don't want to let them pass without comment either.

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes - This may go down as one of the most hotly debated award show hosting performances in history. Maybe all those Comedy Central roasts and VH1 rock band retrospectives have warped my standards for bad behavior, but Ricky Gervais's zingers didn't ping as mean-spirited or especially original to me. Every film freak knows the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will sell itself for a song - one sung by Cher, apparently - and the Golden Globes are only a big deal because NBC trumped them up as their answer to the Oscars a few decades ago. The yearly Globes telecast is famous for having a more laid-back atmosphere, where the stars frequently become inebriated and tongues are looser. The pressure is off because these kudos count for far less than the Oscars and Emmys, which are decided by peer and industry groups. Gervais lobbing potshots is not only appropriate for the affair, it's neccesary. Why else would we watch, if not for these kinds of shenanigans?

New Batman Villains - The WB has announced that two of the villain roles in the new Christopher Nolan Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," have been cast. Tom Hardy will play Bane, and Anne Hathaway will be the new Catwoman. I've seen "Bronson," and I'm sure Hardy will be fine as Bane, though it's a little disappointing that the character's Latin roots will probably be erased in the process. Hathaway's involvement is more interesting. She's known for her good-girl roles, and her ability to be charming and lovable even in her bleakest work, like "Rachel Getting Married." I don't think we've really seen the dark side of Anne Hathaway yet, and I'm very excited to find out whether she can do what Heath Ledger did with the Joker, and metamorpohse her sunny screen persona into something darker. The choice of Hathaway hasn't been too popular in nerdier circles, and among the many grumblers was one anonymous commenter who dismissed her for smiling too much. Oh, but it makes all the difference in the world if those smiles can show off sharper teeth. Good luck, Anne!

New Films Starring Black Actresses - Minority women and girls have always had the least amount of opportunity in Hollywood and representation onscreen, so it's gratifying to have the announcement of two new projects featuring black actresses in the same week. The first is a new version of "Annie," starring Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's daughter Willow. The second, and the real shocker, comes from Clint Eastwood. He's announced his next film will be a remake of "A Star is Born," starring Beyonce Knowles. There have been the usual complaints about reboots and nepotism in response, none with much merit. Both of these properties have already been remade several times apiece, and having black stars will add some welcome new dimensions to the familiar stories. As for Willow Smith, she and her brothers have proven to be a talented bunch, and deserving of encouragement. Jaden Smith made a great "Karate Kid" and brought box office bank, so Willow trying on "Annie" is not just a good idea, but a reasonably sound investment.

New Roger Ebert Review Show - Hooray! I can't wait for the debut this weekend so I can weigh in on the performances of Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. However, I encourage any show that aims to have real discussions about movies on principle. Also, Ebert got a new prosthetic, which I hope means we'll be seeing more of him in public in the future. He's still America's most beloved film critic, and I miss him.

Amy Chua and Tiger Mothers - Okay, this is last week's news and it's about a book - a book! - but the fallout is still going on and it's irresistible. From what I've read from the excerpts and the Wall Street Journal article, Chua is doing this Chinese mother thing all wrong. At the sight of a B+, my mother just sighed and told me that she was sure I could do better, and I turned out to be a perfectly respectable neurotic overacheiver.

Sacha Baron Cohen Will Be Saddam Hussein - Ha!
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One of the most highly anticipated web videos to hit the internet this week is a movie review. And not just a movie review, but a ninety minute dissection of an eight-year old science-fiction film that has already been widely panned for wooden acting, chaotic direction, and uninspired special-effects. Of course, it helps that the reviewer is Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media, who takes on the persona of a deranged serial killer when bashing the cinematic objects of his disdain. And it also helps that the movie in question is "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," and the review is a direct follow-up to Stoklasa's widely lauded seventy minute "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" review.

Would-be movie reviewers should take note. The art of film critique may be in decline from the standpoint of the established, traditional, print-centric film reviewers who are watching their circulation numbers shrink, but out in the wilds of the Internet, it's alive and well. There's a new breed of fulminating film buffs out there who have learned to take advantage of rising prevalence of broadband connections, video sharing sites, cheap editing software, and podcasting tutorials. And the movie reviews they've spawned are quickly mutating into strange, new, innovative forms that were heretofore unthinkable.

Stoklasa's feature-length review of "Attack of the Clones," for example, is nearly as long as the subject of its scrutiny, a comprehensive catalogue of the film's perceived failings with dozens of examples provided by clips from multiple "Star Wars" films and other sources. It's also intercut with an original narrative where the serial killer reviewer terrorizes his latest female victim, eventually forcing her to watch the movie with him. Created with the Youtube format in mind, the review is neatly segmented into nine parts, each with an identifying title screen and often capped off by a cliffhanger at the end. It could have easily been released over a longer span of time as a serial.

Others have already built ongoing review programs around similarly novel reviewing conceits. One of the most successful of them has been Spill.Com, run by animator Korey Coleman. Each show gathers two to five reviewers to discuss new releases every week, edits down the conversations to roughly five or six minutes per film, and then creates a cartoon short version using Flash animation. The format is very simple, with the caricatures of the reviewers mostly sitting around and talking, plus a gag or two to liven things up. The resulting reviews are a little rough at times, but very consistent and well executed considering the extremely limited turn around time.

Traditionalists may groan at the thought of any plebe with a webcam being able to upload their own movie reviews, but it's also forced the ambitious ones to get creative in order to rise above the pack. Nascent critics are trying out any and every possible gimmick to attract eyeballs, from adopting fictional personas to coupling their commentary with original material. Movie reviews, that have always allowed the limited use of film clips, are also an obvious draw for the mash-up generation, who have been quick to push the boundaries of the intellectual property fair use exception at every turn. And without the limits imposed by mainstream media outlets, reviewers can be as profane, extreme, experimental, or just plain long winded as they want to be. And slowly but surely, reviews are becoming pieces of entertainment in and of themselves.

To be honest, Red Letter Media's "Star Wars prequel reviews are not to my taste. I think the guy is talented and has real insight, but the serial killer shtick makes me queasy. However, he is setting the bar higher for those who follow him, so he has my full support. Blurring the line between film commentary and film art seems like such an obvious path to go down, I'm a little surprised it's taken people this long to start experimenting. Whether this is a good or bad thing for film criticism in the long run remains to be seen, but it sure is exciting to see the paradigm starting to shift.
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The venerable Hollywood trade paper, Variety, is in trouble. After suffering substantial losses in ad revenue over the last Oscar season, last week it fired several staff members, including film critic Todd McCarthy. This is just the latest result of several media trends we've seen over the past few years - the decline of newpaper circulation, the shrinking influence of professional film reviewers, and the shift in power to the online bloggers and commentators. There's been a huge paradigm shift in the way entertainment reporting and film criticism are consumed by the public, and the bottom line may be that there's no longer money in either - at least, not through traditional outlets.

The transition has been met with understandable doom and gloom from those critics and reporters who have made their livelihood from print media. As content providers struggle with distribution woes and increasingly turn to cheaper freelancers, job stability has evaporated. A recent documentary, "For the Love of Movies," makes the argument that we stand to lose immeasurably by letting old-school print-based professional film criticism die at the hands of an unruly internet mob that seeks to supplant it. But I have to wonder how much we would really lose.

Let's think about the basic functions of film critique: a critic evaluates a film for artistic merit, promotes films he or she deems worthy of attention, and facilitates the discussion of films in a broader artistic context. However your gardern-variety print critic writes for a broad mainstream audience and hardly has the column inches to fulfill one of these functions, let alone all three at once. There are only a handful of writers at the major papers who are readily identifiable as distinctive voices, and any real discourse among them is limited to a few prestige pieces during Oscar season or off the page completely in ancillary forums.

In-depth, critical discussions of film, of the much romanticized Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael variety, are a rarity outside of academia and the pages of "The New Yorker." Moreover, they haven't had much clout with the mainstream public in ages. The closest thing we've had to star critics in the blockbuster age have been Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose invigorating weekly spats on their self-titled review program attracted mass audiences and provided a regular platform for the promotion of smaller independent and foreign films.

But even when "Siskel & Ebert" were at the height of their popularity, they could never have matched the Internet as a source for information or as a marketing tool for films. Entertainment news sites and cinema fan sites like Aint it Cool News and Dark Horizons emerged in the mid-90s to feed voracious demand for information on upcoming films and industry gossip. Trade publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter which had once been the exclusive sources this kind of media content would see their influence and readership wither as websites and blogs grew in prominence and started scooping them.

Because what the internet does best is provide access. Access to news, access to opinions, and most importantly different models to convey this information. What really distinguishes the new breed of online film critics and entertainment reporters is a refreshing degree of innovation and creativity. In addition to websites and blogs, many reviewers have created podcasts, videos, and interactive features to attract readers and audiences. And they've also found ways to make their content pay, though only modestly in most cases.

And those who bemoan the amateurish quality of online reviewers tend to be myopic. On the one hand you have the popular Ain't it Cool News and the Spill Crew, which feature reviews aimed at the teenage male population and contain a level of discourse on par with what you'd expect in a comic book convention. But on the other hand, you have Senses of Cinema, Slate, and other E-zines that regularly turn out quality reviews and articles. And you have academics like David Bordwell and Henry Jenkins keeping blogs and adding to the conversation.

More notably, the old school print critics like Roger Ebert have found new audiences for their work on the internet. Unconstrained by the limitations of physical media, many are flourishing and branching out. Online, there's infinitely more space for discussion to take place, such as the webzine Slate's eighteen-part year-end Movie Club feature, consisting of six critics simply posting back and forth free-form exchanges of their impressions of various notable films of the year.

Professional film critics are still important voices in the media landscape, as they provide insights and experiences that enrich the filmgoing experience for the rest of us. But while the old publishing models seem to be inevitably in decline, I don't think this is the end of film critics or film criticism as we know it. It'll take a while for new media to figure out how to monetize itself, but the critics will survive in one form or another.

Because if the internet has taught us anything, it's that everyone has an opinion on films, and nobody can keep it to themselves.

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