how did you get started as a film critic?
Oddly, through Anthropology. In college in Oklahoma, I spent hours writing about the baskets of the Tonga and the pottery of the Catawba, arguing what these figures and styles and trends told us about their societies. Why not study American culture with that same curiosity and distance? Movies are our pottery, and because Hollywood makes them for money, the studios have a stake in figuring out what gets Americans into a theater and putting that onscreen. A critic gets to look at the bait Warner Bros. dangles before 300 million Americans and ask if it works and why. I double-majored in Anthropology and Film Studies, wrote for the school paper, got read by the right person (thanks Gerald Perry!) and he make the call that landed me at the LA Weekly one month after graduation.
What was your first published review?
Undercover Brother, the Eddie Griffin comedy where a shadowy supremacist group called The Man tries to undermine the first popular black presidential candidate. Despite Denise Richards playing secret agent Penelope Snow, I liked it well enough and wrote, “A karaoke duet of Paul McCartney's 'Ebony and Ivory' is a scene with seven subtexts, many funny and more than a few with insight.”
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Being John Malkovich. I'd had loved to be Charlie Kaufman's welcoming committee—he's a writer we'll remember in 50 years.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
Overboard. The shoe rack! Goldie Hawn's NC-17 thong swimsuits! Katherine Helmond!
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Steve Martin's Pennies From Heaven. It's hands-down the best movie ever made. Martin plays an idealistic music salesman in '30s Chicago who wreaks his life trying to live out the love songs he peddles around town. It's about ego and loneliness and cruelty and hope, and it's damned beautiful. But as it was also the second movie Martin made after The Jerk, audiences hoping for the second coming of Navin Johnson walked away scratching their heads, and it flopped. No justice in the world.
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
Panning the right wing 'comedy' An American Carol weeks before the 2008 Presidential Election made me Public Enemy #1 on a couple conservative message boards—partly because most other critics had the luxury of ignoring the flick altogether. But the hatemail flood from that was drowned out a few months later when I reviewed Hannah Montana: The Movie and argued that Miley Cyrus' triple celebrity lives as herself, Miley Stewart and Hannah Montana—all three of them playing against her pops Billy Ray as the stage dad he is and the publicity-shy father he plays on TV—made for a true story that read like a Charlie Kaufman flick. Tweens, moms and film nerds were outraged at the link.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
Depression Era musicals. Done right, a musical isn't just a frothy confection—they contrast everyday dreariness with three minutes of magic. When FDR was elected, he ordered Hollywood to lay off the gangster pictures and put Jimmy Cagney to work tap-dancing. Hollywood did, but in numbers like “Shanghai Lil,” from Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade, Cagney's first going to be drunk, broke and angry before he shuffles into his softshoe routine. (And midway through, he'll dance into an opium den full of lost souls.) That knowing contrast between misery and forced, fleeting fantasy gets me in the gut every time.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Never. One of their great, tossed-off lines might stick in your head and you'll be defeated you didn't think of it first. Plus, I think critics are afraid to be the first one to like a movie—we'd rather point out small flaws or crack a joke then cop to loving a flick as soon as the lights lifted. (It's safer to gush in print.) If I'm carried away by a movie, the last thing I want to is a fellow critic sticking a needle in my balloon.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
My first day in LA, a veteran critic told me that there were Paulettes and Sarrisites and that I was playing for the wrong team. But Pauline Kael can capture the feeling of a movie in a sentence—reading her is like seeing a film for a second time. For as long as I can (usually just a few hours after posting), I'll avoid reading Nathan Rabin, Nick Schager and Anthony Lane for two reasons: I never agree with them, and even so, they wrote it better.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
Yes, and I'm not going to admit it now. I will say that at this point, I'm refusing to ever watch it on principle.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Larry the Cable Guy in Witless Protection. It didn't screen for critics, so I dutifully bought a ticket opening day and walked into a theater with literally—no joke—only one other paying customer. I wrote, “If you don’t find it hilarious, then you’re just part of the 98% of America Larry disdains.” Which, running the numbers, is still an overstatement as not even 2% bothered to buy a ticket—it opened at #13 and Larry's never been seen in the multiplex again.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
Playwright. I'm also a theater critic for the LA Weekly and the stage is my second love. If you have a scene where a knight rides up and says, “There be the castle!” in a movie, you have to show the castle. In a play, the castle can be a mural, a cardboard box or nothing at all. It lights up a different chunk of the brain.
Name the worst sequel ever.
Alas, Jaws IV. I loved you as a kid, even if you made me scared of Lake Michigan. Michael Caine once said of his wet star turn, “I've never seen Jaws IV, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that built and it's terrific!” I'd still like to see Jaws 19, which Back to the Future II says should be out in 2015.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
The critics I know are movie-lovers with a curiosity too big and broad to focus on one film. In a year, I could try to write and shepherd one film into production, or I could see 365 movies and documentaries covering a huge swath of all genres and interests, and tear what makes each one tick. The creator and the critic have two different brains. I have a lot of admiration for the artists who devote months of their lives to a single project—one of my friends has spent eight years producing a one-second film—but I'd rather watch a documentary on competitive eating in the morning and a comedy from Bosnia at night, and sit down and hammer out my feelings on both before bedtime.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Probably not. In fact, film critics are part of the reason that every awards season is flooded with B+ pedigreed snoozers. We've got to fight the urge to give standing ovations to half-decent, safe dramas. Film critics have kept most mainstream films from settling for a D-, but if we really want to make better movies, we need to applaud the ambitious failures—too often, we swat them down, but those are the talents we need to cheer on.
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