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Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Dear Fellow Writer:


The time is now. It’s our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there’s no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we’re doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It’s time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.


As more and more fourth estaters are “bought out”, as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it’s time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It’s all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can’t see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it’s time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.


Let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It’s the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your ‘review’ as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It’s how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).


Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don’t take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.


Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we’re constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.


Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it’s easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it’s that we’re desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.


Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can’t stop the ‘anonymous’ audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain’t It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.


Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.


As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.


If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you’ve got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don’t pride yourself on being the ‘horror expert’ or the ‘foreign film champion’. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you’ll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn’t mean you can’t lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.


Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform’s greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it’s okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood’s past, or Europe’s Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you’re going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.


Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It’s not out of necessity. No, it’s more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it’s better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.


Unless you’re happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified ‘pro/con’ consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it’s time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won’t support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it’s better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they’re on. 


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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008


Nothing makes you feel like less of a professional than being purposefully “uninvited” from a potential press screening. Baby Mama, the new Tina Fey comedy coming out later this month, will have a 7:30pm showing today (Wednesday 8 April) and only “legitimate” members of the Fourth Estate are being allowed to attend. Now, such a delineation is perhaps a complete fabrication of my competitive brain. My studio rep, who typically hounds me on all other preview opportunities, politely failed to mention this event to me. When asked, she listed potential PUBLIC screening dates sometime closer to the film’s release.


Yet I know the score. I’m in the know. I have a friend who works for a print publication, and he told me that the studio mandates were crystal and clear - no online critics, period. Why Fey’s latest would require such an extreme limiting of pre-release exposure will have to wait until sometime later in the month. But the fact that studios still see the journalistic community as divided into print and pariah is very disheartening, especially when you view the statistics.


A writer who creates content for a standard newspaper may see a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. His or her content is usually guided by an editorial staff determining the most newsworthy item or the “hot” commodity. Translate that into reality, and you’ll find that a typical daily publication fails to offer continuous coverage of film. They will reserve reviews to Friday, sometimes even placing them in a special circular or section. Anyone failing to subscribe, or who doesn’t buy that day’s paper, misses the chance to catch up on the latest releases. Sometimes, blurbs and grades are give in Weekend editions, but for the most part, print criticism is a once a week, 24 hour and over experience. 


Online, on the other hand, is forever. For the non-professional, a preview screening is an invitation to a quick turnaround and a release date defying scoop. For those outside the blogsphere however, it’s a chance to have their voice heard by more than just a handful of the local population. When PopMatters reviews a film, there is the potential for anyone to see it at any time. Anyone. In the entire world. As long as they have access to the Internet. That means that, if this site gathers two MILLION hits a month, with an equally impressive number of unique views, that’s a reach far beyond any hometown tabloid. When a look at Leatherheads or a subverting of Shine a Light appears on the web, its possible audience is almost incalculable.


As with any Johnny Come Lately - and Technically - to the party, it’s easy to see why print takes it personally. Many major newspapers are dropping their full time critics, buying out contracts, offering early retirement, and turning over their fading Friday fortunes to syndicated news services and the occasional freelance deal. Many have even resorted to using actual audience members, plied with free tickets and a chance to have their opinion published, as a means of updating their approach. Of course, none of this addresses the backlash against the online community, which has been its own worst enemy at times. But is does question the logic of limiting exposure to an already marginalized medium. Print is apparently dying…or destined to be reborn in another manner. Online is the future now.


It goes without saying that the web has wasted as many opportunities as it has belittled or just plain blown. With an unlimited access to information, a community that’s passionate about its viewpoint, the ability to achieve rapid (if also restrictive) consensus, and an outright capacity to leave the traditional media in the dust, it should be the bell weather for a new wave of criticism. Unfortunately, the fanboy tends to take over, allowing unrealistic expectations and a blinkered devotion to one’s own insights to win out. Now, some might say the same about Pauline Kael, or Roger Ebert. After all, film reviewing is founded in personal judgment more than any other factor. But the online critic often fails to take into consideration two other important elements - context and perspective.


It’s all part of the home theater explosion, the notion that all film is available to all people, and therefore, capable of being comprehended and compartmentalized by every and anyone. Naturally, that’s not true. In fact, the founding of such a format has not brought out the best in the medium. Indeed, film has become more mainstreamed and marginalized since VCRs opened Grandma’s gates of perception. Granted, more availability has given otherwise forgotten gems a second chance, and there is a dedicated few who take the job of analyzing film seriously. But for the most part, the web is best known for championing ‘80s items like The Monster Squad over in-depth overviews of Godard.


In some ways, the Internet is like the pop art explosion of the early ‘60s. It consistently crumbles the ivory tower and takes on age old truisms by staking out claims to competitive beliefs. It’s a fount of fabulous variety. It’s also a din that delivers so little of its potential and promise that it’s like listening to your local weatherman as he predicts rain while it remains sunny and warm outside. Organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society try to champion those who work within this ethereal environ, but there’s also a mercenary element of “I, Me, Mine” to the structure. Most critics do their job for the love of it. But there is a core who couldn’t fathom filling column space without a few free perks - and that includes a screening.


It’s worse in the realm of DVD. No one takes on the latest digital release over the joy of words. Instead, it’s the lure of product, the possibility of getting that special feature laden box set or special edition that drives many to pursue a gig as an online reviewer. It’s the kind of professional whoring that would have Harlan Ellison headed for another quadruple bypass. Sites who specialize in catering to the studios survive on this kind of sell out snuggling. It’s the nature of the beast - at least, for now. One day, once website’s wise up and realize the publicity power they really carry, the PR people will be supplicating themselves in an attempt to cater to their needs. For now, no one wants to bite the hand that keeps them from a weekly trip to Best Buy.


Clearly, it’s the combination of personal prostitution and off the cuff contemplation that demeans the reputation of the online critic. But there is another, less obvious element at play. Call it wanton wishful thinking, or out of sight, out of danger, but many in the print community would like to believe that writers working on the web will one day be put back in their electronic cells and simply forgotten. They stand under the outdated idea that the news hungry will always go to them for their daily dose of information. It doesn’t matter that the current post-post-modern mind wants their data updated hourly. Nor do they consider the rapidly changing demographic for their product. As the so-called Baby Boomers age, a new science savvy generation will replace them, a group that would rather have their film facts broadcast over their IPhone. How does a piece of fish wrap serve their short attention span needs?


One day, it will all work out. The decision makers will stop treating the Internet as a sore spot, and instead, will embrace its ability to be a harbinger of choice and opposing options. It will stop trying to turn reviewing into an old boy’s club, complete with arcane membership and rituals, and instead open the doors to all comers. Mark Cuban learned this the hard way when he banned bloggers from the Dallas Mavericks locker room, claiming that it was difficult to draw a line between the actual media and the online community. Huh? Is such a distinction even possible, especially when the ultimate goal seems to be the distribution of ideas? We use the ‘Net for so many things - medical diagnosis, legal advice, bar bet answers - that to say it can’t be a source of a new cinematic renaissance is ridiculous. The weaker elements will eventually fall by the wayside, but to discount everyone outside of a certain status quo will only make the transition that much harder.


Of course, none of this addresses my inability to see Baby Mama - at least, not today. I will have to wait with the rest of the rabble, sitting in the press area and absorbing the dirty looks from those longing for my spot. It won’t affect my take on the film, especially with my aesthetic expectations already set so low. But the studios better wise up to one thing - many in the online community aren’t as bonafide as I am. They want to make enemies, and will do so in spite of such boycotts and embargos. And when the war is over, there will only be one winner - and it won’t be the last remaining print personnel. Progress can’t be stopped. The sooner the major movie companies learn that, the better off it will be for the entire critical community. Until then, let the selective processing (and pandering) continue.


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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008


My, oh my, do the studios really hate piracy. Actually, that’s far too subtle a sentiment. They loathe the illegal activity, despising it with a passion born out of copyright concerns and fathomable financial realities. While they still refuse to acknowledge the technologically progressive forest for the old school trees, they do have a valid fear and a duty to protect their interests. But for the professional film critic, the individual supposedly catered to for their opinion and their influence, a literal line in the cinematic sand has been drawn. On the one side is the journalist who gets the privilege - albeit fleeting and sometimes flawed - of seeing a movie in advance. And sitting directly across from them are the screening reps, dead convinced that among the reviewing rabble, a bootlegger lives.


Before you scoff at such a suggestion, listen to this - every awards season, studios send out complimentary copies of their titles (some before they even hit theaters), in an attempt to prime the publicity pumps. The hope is that by writing a positive piece and via word of mouth, a wrongly overlooked effort will earn a gold statue or two. Now, in the days before computers, digital files, and massive hard drives, executives didn’t have to worry so much about piracy. Sure, some lesser scribe would make a few duplicates of a videotape for friends, but for the most part, the ingenuity required was inversely proportional to the number of knockoffs. And besides - VHS looked crappy. But thanks to DVD, and science’s ability to manufacture pristine, perfect reproductions, a veiled vigilante justice has taken over.


Now, all screeners come with various copy protections like watermarking, registration numbers, extreme warnings, and image-destroying security scrawls. From the moment you open a UPS box or FedEx envelope, the latest prestige picture sitting inside, you’re bombarded with do’s, don’ts, better not’s, and don’t even think about it’s. Even worse, the scolding makes it sound like you’re already a criminal - no need to actually make a facsimile; just thinking about it is enough to piss Paramount off. And don’t even consider loaning one of these sacred discs out. Imagine the judiciary repercussions if one of your friends’ children (or chum) decides to download an image or two onto their blog. The celluloid DEA will be busting down your door in a heartbeat.


This means that most critics enter the screener arena with a mixture of trepidation and determination. And most are nothing but professional, watching the film and then destroying and/or returning the DVD, as instructed. But producers still palpitate whenever its time to put their product into a human’s home theater set up. They just know that, for every 1000 honest members of the Fourth Estate (or its online equivalent), there’s one bad egg that’s going to post their preview version of Daddy Day Camp on BitTorrent. Now, they have legitimate reason to be concerned. Piracy from foreign regions is rampant, and a few years back, an actual Academy member was charged with uploaded banned content to the web. But just like those doggerel days in elementary school, Fox and friends are prepared to punish the entire class for the actions of one - or a couple - felonious types.


It’s a feeling that carries over to the public screening arena as well. Most word of mouth presentations have their fair share of security - men dressed in suits (or in some cases, black ninja garb…seriously), night vision goggles poised to capture cellphone use and/or camcorder activity. They can be personable or arrogant, taking their job far too seriously or simply taking up space. There have been times when a single Nokia noise gets their undivided attention. At other times - the Cloverfield preview, for one - a dork sitting right next to you can text their buddy over how “AWESUM” the movie is and no one notices. Yet their presence is felt, especially when the studio rep goes out of their way to make everyone aware that the movie police are in the house.


For the most part, critics are immune to their public persecution. We get to know the people in charge, relating to them as like minded co-workers. After all, we are reminded each and every time that our very existence among the rest of the moviegoing public mandates a certain level of individual decorum. As such, we typically don’t get ‘wanded’, aren’t subject to bag searches or body pat downs, and rarely have to wait in line to enter. Most of the time, it’s a wave of recognition, a whispered sentiment to someone new (“they’re with the press”) and a good time is had by all - depending on the film.


Yet there are those odd moments when you’re not sure what planet or plane of existence you’ve just arrived on. During a preview of the Diane Lane loser Untraceable, the rep actually took out a piece of paper, indicated that she was ordered by Lionsgate to read it, and then proceeded to scold us over issues of piracy, copy protection, and file sharing. It was like listening to Metallica lament the MP3 all over again. By the time she finished the two paragraph pitch, eyes rolling back in her head more than once, the audience was uncomfortable. Nothing like browbeating a prospective demographic before they witness your latest mediocre torture porn thriller, right?


Or how about the time that a Spanish speaking security guard, hands decked out in the finest black murderers’ gloves, walked up and down the entire press row, shooting daggers into the eyes of each and every member of the local critical community. As his dark, depressing gaze met theirs, you could literally hear him thinking “Seguir adelante punk. Hacer mi día.” On a side note, one of our loveable lot actually ran into him while in the bathroom. It apparently was a rather memorable exchange. We were assured that, once our commandant hit the urinal, the gloves did indeed come off.


Critics must contend with all types when it comes to doing their job - the curious, the fame seeker, the self-appointed rebutter, the ‘who do you think you are’ anarchist - but the security guard is the most interesting and potentially aggravating of them all. Rarely do they actually escort anyone out. Usually, they are sitting by the side of the theater, idly waiting for the movie to end. Many times this is their third of fourth screening for the week, and no matter how much you love the medium, seeing several films in a short period of time is draining. Most are friendly and personable, doing their job while respecting that you are also doing yours.


But there can be times when power turns the position, and then things get uncomfortable. During a recent screening of The Bank Job, a local radio personality was confronted for turning his cellphone “OFF”. He had just checked his messages before entering the theater, and was making sure the device was disabled before the feature began. Before he could hit the button, an angry hulk of a guard came meandering up, causing a scene where one was not needed. It didn’t matter that the reason this critic had his phone on before was that his father had just passed and he was trying to make funeral arrangements with the rest of the family. Rent-a-cop was going to do his job, no matter how inappropriate the reaction turned out to be.


And just like law enforcement, there are always times when these brutes are nowhere to be found when you actually need them. Audiences nowadays are a chatty, inappropriate bunch. Families bring babies to hard R rated fare, and couples clamor over missed dialogue and living room inside humor. Yet I have never seen a single security guard tell this loud, obnoxious lot to quiet down - or better yet leave. Instead, the audience must police itself, adding their own choruses of “SHHHH” to the fray. If we are to believe that studios hire these people to prevent piracy, that’s all fine and well. Yet anyone hoping they will moderate activity outside of such illegal videotaping are clearly living in a real rube’s wonderland.


The fact remains, sadly, that bootlegging is out of control. Look at any download or P2P site and you’re bond to find the latest releases ready for your camera-in-theater, mixing board soundtrack enjoyment. Studios aren’t actually stopping the activity, just putting on a brave game face for the stockholders come quarterly profit sharing statements. From awards screeners to advance previews, there will always be someone who thinks they can bend the rules to benefit their like minded geek peers. No matter the level of attention they give it, they can never win the war. Apparently, making battle weary those least likely to bootleg is the current strategy. Nothing like a failed approach to cramp one’s style.


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Tuesday, Mar 4, 2008


When it happens, it’s rather unsettling. In debate, we call it “squirreling”. In society, it’s known as being ‘out of step’ or ‘rebellious’. It’s never easy being the odd man out in any critical consensus. We all know the feeling of championing a band or artist who others hate, and visa versa. Yet in the world of film reviewing, such an outsider stance often results in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. There’s also a sense of seniority at play, a deference to those who’ve done the job longer than others. The old guard gets the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, while the newer members are viewed through a novice scrim of suspiciousness.


It is a rare occurrence, but the examples are very telling indeed. Last month, Be Kind Rewind premiered. Michel Gondry’s love letter to home video and the DIY spirit of the new medium technology was uniformly undervalued by critics, many complaining that the story seemed shallow and scattered. Yet to these supposedly trained eyes right here, Rewind was genius. It extolled the value of VHS while proving that film becomes a social language all its own. During the public/press screening, you could literally feel the shrinking sense of perspective. While others in the journalist’s row scoffed and shifted in their seats, one or two of their number were transfixed - and taken in - by Gondry’s efforts.


Or take the upcoming Funny Games. A near shot by shot remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, this twisted tale of a wealthy family brutalized by some very unusual killers is as smarmy and smug as it is distasteful and vile. It has nothing but contempt for the audience, purposefully tosses convention to the window, and more or less acts as an egotistical deconstruction of the whole thriller genre. Some have really connected with this film, calling it brave, bold, and masterful. But at the private screening held for press, there was only one critic who felt the same.


You could tell which one it was. He laughed at all the lame observational satire and seemed to connect with the confrontational style Haneke was preaching. During the more static bits, when bored viewers (like yours truly) looked around for some manner of diversion, you could see the man enraptured by what he was seeing. As the credits rolled and the group wandered out, the comments were harsh:


“Reprehensible!”


“Atrocious”


“Just plain bad”


“Pointless! Just pointless.”


“A repugnant piece of sh*t”


And circumventing the bile, making his way past those who wanted an additional moment with the monitor to express their disgust, the odd man out successfully skirted detection. Days later, at another event, a random comment about Funny Games elicited a sigh from said individual. Clearly, he ‘got’ what Haneke was supposedly selling. The rest were, apparently, just grumpy stuffed shirts.


Being the filmic freak can make you feel that way. This past year, the remake of Halloween and JJ Abrams experimental Cloverfield both struck massive love/hate chords with audiences. From this reviewer’s perspective, both films were excellent. This didn’t mean that he was praised for his honesty or challenged on his choice. No, most of the feedback was downright rude and abrasive. Profanity laced missives were the norm, as were blatant challenges to one’s credentials. Since a critic lives and dies by his or her opinion, such attacks are routine. But it’s interesting to see how many premise their putdowns on the sole basis of having a differing or direct opposite judgment than there’s.


Dealing with one’s peers doesn’t make it any easier or different. Around Oscar time, a conversation about The Savages started up (as an outgrowth of Juno‘s predetermined Academy win). Many in the room found it thought provoking, intense, sadly funny, and moving without being overly dramatic. They argued their case well, supporting their positions with actual evidence of dialogue remembered, specific scenes, and how close to home the film finally hit. Yet this critic was on the outside looking far, far in. He was harangued for not finding Laura Linney ‘amazing’. He was questioned as to why he thought the scripting was weak (answer: it didn’t seem real). And he was routinely disputed as being outside the mainstream in this regard.


It takes a certain type of stamina to do this week after week, to watch one mediocre Hollywood hack job after another with only your wits and your writing skills as a buffer. You recognize immediately upon liking or disliking a movie that you’ll be up against a certain consensus and may indeed find yourself walking a certain belief corridor by yourself. There’s no doubt that a critic has to develop a resilient spine, a keen wit, and a Helluva thick skin. It’s impossible to survive otherwise. Just the hate email alone would be enough to undermine even the heartiest sense of scholarship. Remember, most journalists came into film because it was a passion - something they studied either as a curriculum or as a fan. There’s no real tendency to shoot from the hip, even when they may want to.


On the other hand, most opposing viewpoints come from passion. They are perfectly appropriate and still highly irrational reactions. Funny Games wasn’t bad because it blatantly revised the way we are supposed to look at violence on film. It had major directing, acting, and scripting flaws as well. Yet sometimes, those issues are absent in the “squirrel”. For them, the link is so thoughtful and profound that all the other problems seem petty. How many times have you read a review where a critic clearly says “Factor ‘X’ was so powerful that it helped get the audience through Faults ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’?” That’s the magic and mystery of movies at play.


Certainly there is a sound guilty pleasure in being the odd duck, the squeaky wheel amongst the Kool-aid consuming rabble. Take Borat, for example. At the time, everyone thought of it as the second coming of cinematic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen was being anointed as the new mock-doc king, and his work was actually being offered for Awards consideration. In more than one piece, yours truly took both the film and the actor to task, suggesting that he was really just an emperor pretender with a new set of snarky clothes. A little over a year later, the backlash has equalized the original praise. Now, what seemed dull witted and worn out has become somewhat prescient and pretty much on the money.


Still, that doesn’t make it any easier. During the press screening for No Country for Old Men, there were several audible groans when the still considered controversial ending finally played out. Several in the select crowd actually went so far as to suggest the film was ruined by the unconventional finale. It’s an argument that still, rages all across messageboards and fansites. Yet the Coens went on to capture several Academy Awards last month, an unscientific suggestion that perhaps some in the voting pool got their approach. That won’t silence the reviewing rebel - and perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s important to remember this, however - critics don’t purposefully buck the trend just to be different. Everyone’s opinion is valid, even if it’s not on the same page as yours.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008


I’m not sure if other film critics have it, but I know I do. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but then again, I can’t imagine that it’s completely my fault. I’ve met other people outside the journalistic community who definitely possess it, and for the most part, they have learned to live with. I too have discovered a way to balance its oppressive, off putting aspects with the rigors of what I do, but it can be a burden of unfathomable difficulty. You see, I suffer from what’s known as ‘The 10 Minute Curse’. What this means is that, in 99 cases out of 100, I can tell if a movie is going to excel or suck within the first 10 minutes of it unraveling on the screen (theatrical or TV). It almost never fails, and it really is a pain in the as…aesthetic.


From what I understand, it comes from a lifetime as a film fan coupled with a sudden burial in and barrage of the artform. For the last six years, I’ve spent my days mired in movies. Some weeks I’ve watched up to a dozen DVDs, and during awards season, it’s not unusual to attend seven or eight screenings in a scant five days. Conservatively, I’ve seen about 3000 films in a little less than 67 months. Doing the math, that’s just under 45 per month. Using the standard 4.5 week measure, that comes to about nine every seven days. Argh! And when you add in my college days, when going to the student union and catching a double feature was a daily doped up occurrence, along with the rest of my Cinephile status, I’m a perfect candidate for time tainting, as we sufferers sometimes call it.


You see, the brain is a baffling thing. It makes connections and sees similarities and synchronicity even when our conscious mind misses it. Over the course of a couple of decades, the mental chemistry gets shifted, creating a kind of celluloid dementia. It can happen with music too - I have an old friend who’s been part of the business for decades, and his curse is so refined now that he can today tell if a song is a hit or a miss in under 15 SECONDS. Because film contains facets that can temporarily circumvent your curse, 10 stands as most fatalities’ median mark. For some, it can take much longer. Those with times under have been known to freak out and find solace in a life spent in quiet contemplation - or in a sanitarium straight jacket.


In essence, the menacing motion picture mojo works like this: you sit down in your favorite recliner/assigned stadium seat, favorite beverage/overpriced theater snack close at hand. As the previews pass by and the anticipation draws near, the synapses in your head start switching over into preprogrammed predetermination mode. An actor’s name can trigger it, as can a specific genre (horror, CGI kid flick), or storyline (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile). Soon, before the first image has been viewed, the mind’s eye is mirroring a hundred previous viewings and thousands of similar titles. As the opening unfolds, conclusions are being calculated, similarities are being sought out and shelved, and levels of predictability and possibility are ordered, defined, and prepped.


Then, right around 9:59, it strikes. It’s a sad, sinking feeling - even if the final formulation indicates that the movie is going to turn out good, or even great. Part of the magic of movies lies in the ability to be surprised and swept up in a world where you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next. But the 10 Minute Curse robs one of said discovery. It’s like a little voice in the back of your head whispering “I told you so” over and over again - and you don’t even know what the comments are referencing, at least not yet. Then, when the film finishes and ephemeral opinion proves correct, part of the pleasure simply dies inside you.


Let’s take a couple of recent examples. As I settled in my seat waiting for National Treasure: Book of Secrets to start, I recalled my minor appreciation of the original film. While Nicholas Cage has always been an odd action star choice, the historical hooey passing itself off as modern archeological swagger had some relatively enjoyable moments. But the sequel - silly, stagy, and slapped together in a manner that simply screams “created by committee” had me convinced it was going to underachieve from the moment Riley lost his beloved red Jaguar - and there was still over two hours to go. Imagine the distress of sitting in a theater, seats filled with entitlement minded freebie ticket holders, knowing that nothing you could do would improve the unspooling spectacle before you.


On the other hand, there’s been a lot of jawing about Juno, especially among critics who feel the film is all tween/You Tube pseudo Tarantino preening. Many of the arguments, while slightly overwrought, remain well reasoned and quite passionate. So approaching the studio provided Oscar screener with some trepidation, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it - and at the moment when a pro-Life protester convinced our heroine that fetuses have fingernails, I realized that the haters were hopelessly misguided. While not the major Oscar fodder championed by any far stretch of the imagination, Ellen Page’s excellent work and Jason Reitman’s whipsmart direction made the experience evocative and memorable. The only downside was that I knew this was going to be the case 80 minutes before the final verdict came in.


I feel lucky that this is a recent occurrence. Back when Miller’s Crossing first floored me, or I recognized 2001: A Space Odyssey as the greatest film of all time, it would have been horrible to have those epiphanies marred by the curse. Of course, it would have been nice to be so cosmically clued in when certified stink bombs like Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin came calling. On the one hand, being bothered by such a stigma can be conceived as a blessing in disguise. In an environment where deadlines loom, workloads double, and demands battle expectations for continued career viability, knowing a turkey within a scant few scenes seems a critical godsend. Yet, in order to be completely fair, to make sure one’s not relying on the otherworldly guidance time and time again, a reviewer has to reject the curse and work twice as hard to combat it’s influence. A good critic, that is.


Take the case of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. This nauseating little cinematic turd, based (badly) on the real life case of tortured and murdered teen Sylvia Likens (killed by her certifiably psycho guardian Gertrude Baniszewski) tries to get away with an air of amiable nostalgia countered with hints at the horrors beneath the surface. It wants to be Blue Velvet with a sickening swatch of pedophilia soiling the storyline. Viewed on DVD, it tricked the curse for a while, keeping the final outcome in question for more than 80 complicated minutes. But then, when the final act proved nothing more than one adult’s uninspired mea culpa and callous cry for attention, the obvious heinousness heretofore hidden landed like a big steamy motion picture pile. It practically made you ashamed for previously drinking the celluloid Kool-Aid.


Then there’s Joshua. Your typical evil kid doing horrendous things that only the post-modern Bad Seed could possibly conceive of thriller, the slow pacing and deliberate plotting from co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert threaten to invert and implode on viewer contact. As the movie meanders, dragging both logic and intelligence through the brazen brat genre run of the mill, we can’t imagine that anything good will result. The curse clamors for attention, already rendering its decision, and yet the film won’t finalize the assessment. Then the title character launches into a haunting little last minute ditty, complete with condemning lyrics and a montage loaded with exposed secrets, and the blithering blight disappears. Suddenly, the already acknowledged dullness transforms into a begrudging admiration, and a flop finds a way to save itself.


Still, it’s important to note that this really is not a benefit, nor is it ever used as an unearned shortcut to getting one’s ever present work done. It is truly a curse, a stinging little personal pain that permeates the pleasure of cinema and robs the sufferer of the medium’s majesty. It’s like never getting comfortable in your seat, or that constant car alarm that goes off while the neighbors are away. You hope it doesn’t happen, and yet it never really leaves. Sure, some films (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) are so rock solid that it doesn’t feel the need to arrive, while others announce their awfulness (Norbit, Shrek the Third) so early that a hasty conclusion actually acts like an afterthought. So remember, the next time you’re grooving on your favorite film and the DVD counter clicks over onto 10:00, somewhere in the artform universe, there is a critic enjoying the very same title - and their fun has just fallen into formula. Consider yourself lucky.


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