How did you get started as a film critic?
I was just an avid moviegoer when I started first reviewing films for my bi-weekly high school newspaper, and then I transitioned smoothly to college at the University of North Carolina, where I was lucky enough to matriculate in a town where there was adventurous programming, and movies like The Scent of Green Papaya screened alongside Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show and Speed. In Los Angeles, two years out of college, I was hired as editor-in-chief and lead film critic for Entertainment Today, at the time the city’s oldest free weekly paper focusing exclusively on entertainment.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
I’m not certain that there is one and one alone, actually. (Notably, I can distinctly recall telling my father that I didn’t want to go see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, because it didn’t sound interesting. Maybe his pitch was weak, though, who knows.) I mostly recall just cycling through a fascinating lowbrow-highbrow mixture of videos with a good friend in middle school and high school. John Carpenter’s Halloween summoned a sort of existential dread in me that I didn’t know existed. I also saw Blue Velvet probably before I was age appropriate.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
For some reason three very different films immediately spring to mind: The Graduate, West Side Story and Network, I think because they’re all fantastic, well-acted stories that intersect in interesting ways with the changing social mores of their times.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
I have a sincere affinity for Cannonball Run, and there is very little of reason that anyone can say to dissuade me from the opinion that it is capital-A awesome.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
I’ll step outside of the box a bit and name not one film, but instead a guiding mantra, which is this: seek out that which is not immediately on your radar. Even if you generally abhor horror films or action films or screwball comedies, go out of your way to seek out 10 to 15 of the best regarded examples of each genre. It just better informs your cinematic sensibility. And OK, I’ll name one film, too: Jacques Doillon’s Ponette. Seriously, it’s absolutely devastating.
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
Most people are understandably intrigued by the day-to-day schedule of the job (and then in turn shocked by the volume of work), so their questions relate in some fashion to that. Also, there’s a subset of inquirers that immediately (and obviously) go to their favorite recent film or most cherished actor, so one has to weigh how much honesty of opinion they’re interested in, versus how much politeness.
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
My review of the original The Boondock Saints earned me a threatening phone call from the director, Troy Duffy, and a campaign of harassment from some of his acolytes. That was interesting. I was also accused by a producer of clearly not having the age, wisdom or intellectual capacity to understand and appreciate The Reader, so it seems like I struck a nerve there.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I can find delight in all eras and genres, but I guess I’d say that coming-of-age movies, broadly speaking, still hold a special place in my heart. Whether it’s early adolescence, high school, college or even someone coming out of a state of arrested development a bit later in life, I tend to adore films that acutely capture that fumbling sense of self-discovery, of learning through trial and error.
What is your process in approaching a review?
A good review should be its own discrete thing, an island of analytical prose that serves a moment-in-time snapshot (after all, some films age well, or seem more prescient when removed from the current zeitgeist), but can also be returned to later on. Whether it’s the authorial signature of a director, the forcefulness of its star’s personality or just the narrative itself, in a commercial release I try to identify some element or combination thereof that most readily explain a film’s existence in the marketplace, and tackle it from there. I try to take into account a movie’s relative mission (that is, judge it on its own terms), but also subjectively judge its originality and success within those parameters.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
For the most part I don’t mind discussing a film with fellow critics after a screening; it can help codify your thoughts, to have to defend or articulate your feelings in a more conversational setting. But there are certain times — with movies both good and bad — that for whatever reason I definitely don’t want to talk about it a lot.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
Roger Ebert, certainly, and too many others to name-check, though I’ll say with complete honesty, too, many among LAFCA’s current ranks. That’s the beauty of this organization — the depth and breadth of knowledge of its membership, and how different folks are so well versed in micro-foreign cinema, documentaries, American underground, pre-Code Hollywood films, international animation, martial arts flicks, outsider cinema and experimental non-narrative works, among many classifications. If you’re intellectually honest and not scared by it, you admit to yourself that you’re still, and always will be, a student of cinema. That’s a thrilling thing.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
It’s tough to grade with decisive finality the bouquets of true cinematic turds, but essential to this quest is some degree of shared audience antipathy. For that reason, Fear Dot Com always ranks high with me; the steam of commingled bewilderment and anger was palpable at the all-media screening I caught. Though, to be fair, Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark holds special memories, too. After its seven-minute opening text crawl, it was clear we were in for punishing tour of duty, and, goaded on by the dumbstruck reactions of those around me, I literally laughed until I cried, though I don’t think that was necessarily Boll’s intent.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
Wait… Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West isn’t a classic, right? Because I quite purposefully skipped that movie. No, I’ll totally own it: I’ve never seen The Sound of Music in its entirety. I typically love the work of Robert Wise, I realize it’s a multiple Oscar winner, and I know all the touchstone references that have been carried forth in pop culture (“The hills are alive…” and what not), and yet there was and simply just remains something that keeps me at arm’s-length from the film. I keep waiting for Todd Gilchrist to shanghai me and trick me into a viewing.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
Film criticism is undeniably becoming more anecdotal and responsive, and less from-on-high formal, but I’m not necessarily of the group that automatically assumes that makes it worse, and/or less valuable. Among the many wonderful things about cinema, I think its best quality is that films serve as portals into other worlds and times — both very real and entirely imagined — and so when one sees an affecting work, or even maybe just a portion of an otherwise pedestrian offering, they stand a chance of having their perspective enlightened, their mind opened, their heart lifted. Whatever style it takes, film criticism should have an informed historical and professional perspective, but also retain and attempt to communicate an elemental understanding of the fact that stories bind us, as I have yet to meet a cinephile totally lacking in empathy.
Name the worst sequel ever.
I guess as quantitatively determined by IMDb, this was Troll 2, right, as chronicled in Best Worst Movie? Well, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, for me, were distended, joyless, corporate-plotted affairs that almost completely sapped my enthusiasm for the original. Oh, and one must not ever forget Lethal Weapon 4. The sheer night-sweat desperation of that bloated movie’s ungainly desire to please (and in particular its closing credit sequence, set to War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”) has left me still quite cross with Richard Donner.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
That we are insufferably serious, latte-sipping genre-haters who only respond favorably to one “type” of film — prestige-bait adaptations in which Meryl Streep plays a Polish survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who rediscovers her humanity by teaching a Tagalog orphan how to box, or in which Clint Eastwood directs a World War II veteran solemnly reading a phone book. While not without our percentage of cranks and fetishistic cynics, as with any occupational cross-section, I can honestly say most film critics I know personally number among the most open-minded people I know. We want to be thrilled and taken new places, believe me.
Are movies better because of film critics?
This is a tricky question, because I believe the answer is actually both yes and no. On an individual and practical level, it’s the latter. Of course everyone likes people saying nice things about them, so critical embrace is desired. But filmmakers or studio executives don’t spend days or hours fretfully reworking dialogue, muttering to themselves, “We have to get this scene right… for the critics!” They want to tell a story, and satisfy an audience. However, more broadly speaking, I do believe that critics help elicit the better angels of human nature, and drive certain artists to tell stories which more fully utilize the possibilities of the medium of cinema and stand the test of time as stories, instead of serving merely as fleeting, diversionary, branded entertainment. To echo Melvin Udall in James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets, perhaps we help make filmmakers want to be better filmmakers, which results in some better films.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
Film can be alternately illuminating, uplifting, escapist and thought-provoking, so it’s heartening enough to simply learn that a review recommendation was sampled by someone, and received and embraced on the same level which you tried to articulate. It’s also nice to sometimes get feedback from the producers of smaller films who talk about the thrill of simply having their work acknowledged, appreciated and championed. So by those measures, yes, some things I’ve written have had an impact. In terms of Pulitzers or gold medallions, though, no, alas.
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
While it is not the only contributing factor, yes, social media has undeniably changed the nature of a working film critic’s job, especially for those of a younger generation. For the most part I welcome the interaction, actually, because I think some sort of open channel of communication makes for a more personal connection with readers. But the tension between time for reflection and expected volume of output has never been more pronounced. That’s not all the fault of social media, but it is a product of myriad demands on one’s time.
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