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Monday, Dec 17, 2007


It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.


Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.


Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.


Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.


Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.


So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.


But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.


This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.


Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.


It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.


Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.


And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid. 


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Wednesday, Dec 12, 2007


Preview screenings audiences covet. They covet the tickets that got them into the promotional event in the first place. They covet the swag that studios send to their advertising partners. They covet the attention of representatives eager to get some word of mouth feedback. And they covet seats. Now, this may sound like a realistic reaction to any entertainment circumstance. If you’re going to stand in line, be herded like sheep, wade through the pointless banter of a low end station personality/disc jockey, then you should be able to sit where you want - and for the most part, these lucky viewers do…unless, of course, they want to sit in the critic’s row.


While the job of a film reviewer is often shrouded in a cloak of mystery and unwarranted elitism, the truth is that the same mass mentality is applied to their presence as anyone else at a screening. Long ago, before Hollywood realized the ‘two for one’ value in such a pack ‘em in premise, movies were shown to critics in private morning advances. Depending on the locale, 10 to 20 local press would pile into an empty theater and sit through one, two, or even three showings. In most major cities, that’s how it’s done to this day, and in the major hubs - New York and LA - there can even be multiple setups. But out in the minor market boonies, where release patterns can dictate when critics see a film, the group experience is far more common.


And so is the desire to sit in the rows reserved for press. Talk to an old timer and you’ll hear that, before the mid-‘90s, studios didn’t demand that specific seats be reserved for critics. In the vernacular, finding a place to sit in those days was ‘catch a catch can’. But with a decreasing desire to offer private screenings, mirroring the media’s de-valuation of the critical community, putting everyone together made sense. As a minor compensation for the journalist/professional, studio reps started masking off certain places for the press - and thus began the entitlement based concept of coveting said seats.


While it’s clearly not the case with every preview audience member, there is a typical CSC (or “critic seat coverter”). The doors typically open an hour before the screening, yet they will show up 10 to 20 minutes before the start and wonder why the theater is already packed. They are usually with a date/spouse/family member (or more than one) who equally bemoan the lack the automatic access to two adjoining seats. They are typically adults, sometimes representing the oldest generation of film fans, though there are also many examples of ‘who cares, it’s free’ cinematic slackers. And they are always vocal about their inability to share space with the looked down upon members of the unnecessary media.


No matter if you’re a populist scribe who writes nothing but marketing friendly poster blurbs, or pride yourself on never shilling for a studio, people desperate for a place to sit look down upon you. The rest of the crowd is their common man ally - even if they represent the other 380 of the available 400 seats. No, the CSC views the critic as a pointless, pampered villain, ready to rip their favorite horror icon/action star/buddy pic with an aesthetic forged out of snobbish subjectivity, not a notion of enjoyment or fun. Even worse, they are taking up valuable space - space where they and their own sense of privilege demand access.


It never fails to happen. If a critic attends 100 screenings a year, 99 times a person will stand directly in front of them, seek out the rep, and wonder loudly “why do they get to sit there?” Sometimes, it’s a question of pure logistics. In today’s stadium ideal, the press is usually confined (and that’s the key word here) to a section consisting of the first two rows of the mezzanine (or where there are only two sections, the ‘upper’ tier). This is not by choice - this is where tradition dictates they be placed. Talk to someone who works the event, and they will explain that, because of the lack of viewers in front, and the ease of ingress/egress, the front is a preferred position. Obviously, that poll was taken long ago before home theater made such oversized screens appear oppressive.


Want proof? On the rare occasions where the press screens a film alone, most of the critics head for the middle to back of a theater. They spread out near the ends and away from the pack. They like to be alone with their thoughts, experiencing a movie without the constant barrage of scratching pens, rustling popcorn, and sipped drinks. So it seems only natural to conclude that, when heaped together in one specific row (usually reserved for both critics and advertising partners/guests), a writer feels uncomfortable. Granted, they’re used to it by now, but it’s still not the preferred way to do their job.


And folks often forget that there are people working during these freebies. As part of their daily reportage, or weekly cinematic wrap-up, the man or woman sitting in this special section is trying to figure out the film they are seeing. Whether it’s a lame laughfest or a churlish drama, they’ve got to commit moments to memory, jot down context confirming notes for later, and embrace a whole myriad of big picture issues that the nacho-eating, Raisinettes chomping public need never embrace. And while you’re explaining the plot in a running commentary behind them, or constantly tossing out inappropriate bombastic bellylaughs, someone is trying to pay their bills.


So this seating situation is definitely a ‘lesser of two evils’ ideal. The studios no longer wish to cater to a community they view as lethal to a film (though it’s hard to name the last time a legitimately good film was undermined by reviews ONLY) and they love the killing two birds with one concept of grouping everyone into one miserable mob. There are rare occasions when a free preview is less than full, but more times than not, it’s standing room only, with the critic’s row viewed as a cinematic Shangri-La. And since a line is never drawn between legitimate press (print, online, media) and “friends” of same (someone at a news station who got a group email from a marketing agency), the rows can fill up as readily as the regular seats.


This doesn’t stop people from scheming and whining, however. There are those who will sit in the seats directly in front of the critics, walkway and/or handicapped aisle separating the two, and stare incessantly. Whenever the studio representative walks by, they glare with implied hatred, and even confront them on the availability of said section. The “No” answer just increases their glower power. Some will actually harass the press, albeit indirectly. As they walk by the rows, disgruntled over not being able to sit within, they mumble everything from slurs to outright vitriol. Then there are those who simply tempt fate, crossing the police/duct tape roping off the section and hoping security doesn’t spot them (they usually do).


In the end, it makes the press very uncomfortable - and the reps love to enhance said discomfort by making the entire situation their fault. Then they do their little “how y’all are?” warm-ups, the standard warnings usually involve the cellphones, crying babies, the critics, their needs for silence, and an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that mandates the audience modify their behavior to satisfying the snobby cabal sitting front and center. The usual collection of scoffs and giggles that follows definitely makes a journalist feel appreciated. But it’s more than that. The lack of respect that flows between the two camps is so palpable that one wonders why the studios continue such a practice.


It’s clear that, in a perfect world, preview audiences would love the whole experience to be about them. They’d want unlimited gifts, buckets of swag, and the chance to sit anywhere they want. For a critic, it’s exactly the opposite. They want no muss, no fuss professionalism, the chance to spread out with their thoughts, and the freedom to feel important to the process, not the unjustifiable means to an ends. As the ‘Net continues to marginalize the importance of reviewers, turning everyone into an ersatz Ebert, the truth remains that some people are actually still getting paid for their opinion. To discount them in favor of a more group-oriented ideal seems insensitive.


Still, it doesn’t keep the CSC from grumbling and huffing. It won’t keep the angry man in the row behind from kicking the chair or translating the dialogue for her non-English speaking partner. It doesn’t make the studio charge any happier when a pissed off critic decides to avoid their post-screening questions as a matter of personal principle. It definitely doesn’t make the seatless happy for being without a way to see something for free. And in the end, it doesn’t really make a difference to the movie being shown. Many times a genuinely horrible effort will receive enthusiastic applause, while a major artistic statement is left with deafening post-credits silence. In some ways, the screening process is a sham. It looks good in principle. It’s barely effective in practice.


So the next time you wander into the latest Will Smith vehicle, or bring your entire brood to a CGI kid flick starring some adorable signing rodents, remember a few things: (1) you are an invited guest, not a member of a disenfranchised movie going minority that demands their seating civil rights; (2) critics don’t always enjoy being jumbled into a single front row, (3) that everyone involved in the process is human, and demands respect and dignity, and (4) you didn’t PAY for anything, therefore no implied privilege exists. While these suggestions won’t stop the covetous nature of those envying the press rows, they may provide some pre-preview food for thought. 


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Tuesday, Dec 4, 2007


Being a film critic does have its advantages. Yet the problems can often outweigh the perks. Seeing an anticipated title well before regular audiences remains an undeniable benefit. Having to explain in 1200 words why it fascinates or just fails miserably (sometimes, within 24 hours of the viewing) stands as the date stamped IOU. There’s a trade off that few really comprehend, entertainment for effort, the ability to ply one’s (hopefully) cultured aesthetic for the pure joy of dissecting cinema. Not every critic is a writer per se - words are not their paintbox, but their PR punctuation marks - and in an analytical paradigm where ‘good/bad’ often defines a reader’s literary limits, opinions are an unclear commodity. Still, there are factors one should consider when reading any review, aspects within the very process itself that frequently twist a scribe’s sensibilities.


Let’s start with the most basic element of the movie going experience - the image. Print quality, especially in the post-millennium ‘all but digital’ domain should never be a problem. Since a critic is getting the chance to see a first run film, the visuals onscreen should be first run quality as well. A good example of this maxim is illustrated by the recent press screening for Beowulf. While the film was released in both 2D and 3D versions, the studio made the wise decision of showing reviewers a gorgeous, near flawless multi-dimensional transfer. The characters literally popped off the screen, and any underlying issues (dragging second act, unsatisfying ending) were minimized by what was clearly an optical feast. Even the most seasoned skeptic walked out of that showing staggered by the detailed images presented.


On the other side of things was the recent screening for The Golden Compass. Desperate to regain the monetary momentum crafted by their Lord of the Rings gamble, New Line is trotting out this potential franchise with an ad campaign that emphasizes the epic spectacle and scope of the story. We are dealing with a fantasy realm that combines facets of art deco architecture, neo-sci-fi environs, and a CGI subculture of anthropomorphized ‘ice’ bears. It has Nicole Kidman looking swanky, Daniel Craig looking dashing, and the whole wannabe classic appearing sumptuous and rich. Indeed, based on the intriguing commercials alone, the visuals threaten to rival those of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece itself.


Yet that’s not how it looked at the preview screening this week. Instead of an experience that took your breath away, The Golden Compass was a clear ocular letdown (the film’s entertainment issues will be left for another day). The opening shots seemed acceptable, as did moments where two main characters walk an old fashioned Victorian college. But the minute the totalitarian Majesterium was revealed, a fuzzy, almost faded look became the norm. By the time the action moved to the ice bears and their kingdom, the computer graphics looked cloudy and unclear. Colors were faded, and details were in short supply. It was almost as if the studio supporting the picture had decided to trot out a worn out copy of the film for prerelease evaluation.


It’s a trend that’s become more and more obvious over the last few years. When Roger Ebert complained in the ‘90s that movie theaters were cutting down the candle power on their projectors (to save electricity to, in theory, save money), he was pointing to the beginning of an unnerving trend. While owners and distributers scratched their heads over why attendance was waning, exhibitors were passing less luminescence through their carefully constructed negatives. The result was routinely dissatisfied customers, bad image recreation, and an overall feeling that going to the Cineplex was a worthless, unsettled experience.


Home theater didn’t help matters much, and frankly, it still doesn’t. Over the last few months, DVD releases of Transformers, Ratatouille, and Hairspray have looked remarkably better than their preview screening counterparts. Since many critics don’t revisit a film once they’ve seen it (a question of pure time and future obligation), their one and only experience with a title prior to writing it is during these less than impressive press outings. When it happens, when a previously viewed film can seem totally different on your high end digital set up, the experience can be quite revelatory. Granted, there is an additional concept to be weighed - the initial shock of seeing something fresh vs. the familiarity inherent later on - but unless you’re purposefully trying to retrograde your visuals (ala Grindhouse), the first time out of the box should be the best.


That’s rarely the case, however. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine looked stunning during its screening. The Invasion looked awful. The Bourne Ultimatum was so bright and washed out it seemed neutral. Bee Movie practically vibrated off the screen. The importance of this distinction cannot be underplayed. Story is vital, as are cinematic standards like theme and mood, but when you can’t enjoy the proposed power of an animated animal fight to the death, when your enchanted realm (as in Stardust) looks like a badly photographed travelogue, when darkness obscures your chills and thrills, you realize the dilemma the critic faces. In fact, it boils down to one important question - how does someone charged with analyzing a visual medium respond to crappy visuals?


DVD reviews have it easy. The format mandates such scholarship. When Fox sends websites watermarked screeners (the better to fight piracy, so the studio says), critics frequently take the company to task. After all, how does a consumer advocate comment on the final product provided when he or she does not receive same? It’s like lying to the reader. Even better, why does a film journalist avoid said understandable declarations? If they sat through Halloween, barely able to see Rob Zombie’s reimagined horrors playing out on screen, shouldn’t they mention the subpar presentation? Or is it just a question of avoiding the issue all together, secure in the knowledge that the opening weekend audience will see the best print possible?


Yet that’s not always the case either. While the DVD version of 300 emulated the big screen version quite admirably, there was something about the clarity offered in the theatrical experience that was quite unique. On the opposite end of aesthetics, Spider-Man 3 looks better on the digital format than it ever did in a Midwest Multiplex. It could be a company by company thing (AMC seems worse than most, with independent theaters appearing to pride themselves on the best possible picture available). It could also be a matter of studios saving the best prints for paying crowds (even ticketed screenings are freebies to those in attendance). Whatever the case, there are definitely times when a critic has to overlook a sloppy transfer simply to do their job. It’s commiserate to having a music critic listen to a CD on blown speakers.


As directors like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis push for a switch over to pure bitrate purity, and Luddites lament the possible death of celluloid, the inconsistent visuals experienced both in and out of the big screen experience mark one of the main reasons for customer dissatisfaction. People want to see high quality visuals and their equally evocative replication for their money. High prices, dull product, and slight/scandalous subject matter may also become part of the disagreement, but the inability to clearly see the subtle beauty of a Scottish countryside (as in The Water Horse), marks a major stumbling block.


So the next time you envy a critic for catching your favorite superstar’s latest magnum opus, remember this considered caveat - they may not be seeing the best possible image of your hero/heroine. You, who fight traffic, pay for parking, stand in line, and feel the highway robbery pinch of theater snacks, may be getting the better end of the widescreen deal. At least you get to see the movie in the mandated style you agreed to. For the reviewer, early mornings spent shifting through incomplete narrative threads or avoiding preview audience glowers is par for the course. But the last thing they should have to worry about is the lack of contrasts in the climatic battle between witches, wildlife, and the wicked. For a film reviewer, image is everything. Sadly, most press screenings drop the ball on this vital part of the process. 


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