What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
When I was four years old, my oldest sister took me to the mall down the street to see “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It made me think, “I want to be a film critic someday.” OK, not really. But that tunnel scene totally freaked me out, and I think it made me want to see a lot more movies.
What was your first published review?
In junior high, we had a typed-up “newspaper” that was the precursor to the professionally-printed paper we’d get in high school. I wrote a review of the comedy “Going in Style,” starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. Because pre-teens really love Art Carney movies.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
I know everything about the comedy-mystery “Clue” that doesn’t work, yet it’s a movie I go back and rewatch all the time. I blame Madeline Kahn.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Good News (1947)
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
“Why do film critics hate everything?” Which is a ridiculous question, because no one I’ve ever known loves movies as much as critics do. We just see more of them, and have higher standards, and are more likely to feel personally insulted by movies that are crap than the average viewer is.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I’m more likely to want to sit through a mediocre musical than a great Western. But I try to be open-minded about all kinds of film from every time period.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
No – ideally, I get everything down on paper before I’ve hashed it out with other people, just to make sure that my review contains my unfettered opinion. Once the review is written, I love talking to other critics about films – particularly my partner, Dave White, on our weekly film podcast “Linoleum Knife.” http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/linoleum-knife/id403079737
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a “Paulette,” Pauline Kael’s reviews were ones that I pored over and found fascinating in my formative years, even if I hadn’t seen the movie she was talking about. And while he’s now known more as a sportswriter than as a film critic, the works of Danny Peary – particularly his “Cult Movies” series of books – were a major influence on both of my books, “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men” and my latest, “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas.”
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Oh, where to begin? Admittedly, I often seek out the legendarily bad films, old and new, whenever possible, but there’s a difference between a terrible-but-compelling movie like “Plan Nine from Outer Space” or “Valley of the Dolls” or “The Room” and something that’s just cynically lazy and technically inept like “Bride Wars” or “The Ugly Truth.” The latter category are the worst films that are no fun at all, and it’s too painful to try and pick one that’s even more awful than the rest.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
I have somehow never gotten around to seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I don’t know if it’s because I love the book so much or some other reason, but I’ve managed to duck it my entire life. One of these days, though, I plan to get around to it.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
Film festival programmer, which is my other main job. I’m too much of a movie nerd to be otherwise gainfully employed.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
That’s the $64,000 question. Don’t have the answer as yet.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
Ideally, the critic points audiences toward movies that deserve to be seen, while warning them away from ones that should be avoided. That doesn’t always wind up happening, but critics do at least contribute to the discussion about films. I remember growing up watching Siskel and Ebert on PBS and seeking out movies like “My Dinner with Andre” on their recommendation, and while I rarely feel like I have the power to stop someone from spending their 15 bucks on a movie they’ve already decided they want to see, I love it when I find out someone took a chance on a film they otherwise wouldn’t have because I recommended it.
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
You get to see all the movies; you have to see all the movies.
Name the worst sequel ever.
The second and third “Matrix” movies took an exciting original idea and turned it into a dull, plodding mess – and the same artists did it, so it’s not like they can blame the studio for taking their baby away from them.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
That we don’t appreciate entertainment, that we can’t conceive of the pleasure of a popcorn movie. Of course we can – we just know good fluff from bad.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
A critic is, first and foremost, a writer, and thus an artist him- or herself. I once heard that sage Paula Abdul tell someone, “No one ever started out wanting to be a critic,” but that’s totally not true. Critics become critics because they derive pleasure from art and life and want to analyze that pleasure and share it with others, not because they’re incapable of creating something themselves. Good critical writing is an art form unto itself; saying that critics are frustrated artists is like saying that bakers are all frustrated cobblers.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
Whenever anyone tells me that one of my old reviews or one of my books compelled them to add something to their Netflix queue, I feel I’ve made a tiny difference. I almost never know about actors or directors ever seeing what I wrote about them, although an interviewer once read James Cameron a snippet of my “Avatar” review.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Do something else; it’s harder than ever to get paid to do this. And if you insist on pursuing it, be ready to churn out lots and lots of copy for which you will be paid very little.
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
Social media has made it easier for cranks and misfits to malign the work of film critics, and to have their blatherings appear on the same page. Back when people actually had to sit down and write letters, they were less likely to be as insulting and dismissive of critics who have spent their lives accruing the tools to give informed opinions. Those letters probably contained better spelling and grammar than can be found in online comments.
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