How did you get started as a film critic?
In junior high school, I wrote the occasional television review for a handmade paper created and published by classmate J.J. Abrams. That's where I discovered my gift for snark, which I've been increasingly less proud of as I've gotten older. In college I wrote album reviews, where I learned that picking apart the DNA of any artistic creation is a difficult, unique yet worthwhile challenge. After college, I used what I'd learned writing TV and album reviews to write about film. I remember seeing movies, critiquing them and emailing the reviews to my friends and my father. My first professional experience was with a local Los Angeles independent weekly so cheap they were willing to employ me. But they enabled me to continually write, which is what all writers must do in order to improve.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
I don't have one experience that changed everything. Instead, I have strong, brief memories. I remember happening upon the Avco theater in Westwood, CA with my father and marveling at the enormous line for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. We were going to delay seeing the film for a few weeks until the lines died down, but as we walked by we thought, "who cares about the line, let's treat ourselves and see it." When the lights dimmed in the theater, my father kissed me on the forehead and I was glad we waited in line.
What was your first published review?
That would be one of the aforementioned junior high school-era television reviews. It was a review of a terrible game show called Face the Music, which concluded with my advice, brilliant and trenchant, to "face the other way."
Cut me a break, I was in junior high…
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Anything sci-fi from the watershed fanboy year of 1982: E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, John Carpenter's The Thing or Blade Runner.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
I always find myself depending films that are legendary flops. For instance, I liked ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, THE POSTMAN and ISHTAR. I figure eventually all three will have their reputations restored in the manner of HEAVEN'S GATE. But for now, the ROBIN HOOD fan club has only one member.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
If you love film, you should see everything you can, which will allow you to determine your likes and dislikes. Also, the more films you see, the more you'll get a sharper feel for why a movie works or doesn't work. I'm quite aware that I'm avoiding the question, so for completion sake, I will quote the advice I gave a student when asked to recommend three movies they had to see:
THE BIRTH OF A NATION because, despite its unbelievably horrible racism, D.W.
Griffith's epic is the Big Bang that established almost the entire language of narrative motion picture storytelling as we still practice it.
CITIZEN KANE because Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland not only
told a riveting story, but invented new ways to tell it. It blew people's minds in 1941 and while its visual masterstrokes are hard to appreciate today, it's still a great, great film.
STAR WARS because it'll make you feel like a kid again, in ways that only film
What's the most common question you're asked when someone discovers you're a film critic?
It's either "seen anything good?" or "what's your favorite film?" The answer to the first question is usually "probably not." Then I'll whip out my iPhone, where I keep a running, graded tally of all the films I've seen that year, and name something terrific that they've invariably never heard of. The answer to the latter question depends on the moment. My go-to answers are DR. STRANGELOVE, PLAYTIME and BEING THERE. And STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. But that's between you and me.
What's the most controversial review you've written?
If only I were influential enough for my reviews to be labeled controversial. However, my review for the film BAD BOYS 2 was written in the voice of a 12-year old, because I figured only 12-year old boys could possibly glean any enjoyment from such obnoxious crap. The website's comment board was filled with the kind of opprobrium that, on the surface, I enjoy but, deep in my heart, makes me scared for my safety.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I have two answers for that: the first is 80s science fiction. The second is American films from the late 60s to late 70s, when the Production Code was abolished and directors like Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese were free to chronicle the human experience as they saw fit, regardless of whether, to paraphrase the Code, the sympathy of the audience was thrown to the side of crime or if natural and human law were ridiculed.
What is your process in approaching a review?
I write notes as I watch the film. The less notes I write, the more pedestrian the film. When pages are filled with my near-indecipherable scribblings, that means I had a strong reaction to the movie. I used to go home immediately, transcribe my notes and write my initial thoughts down, but now I find myself wanting to sleep on it. The toughest part is always the first graph. The way in. Once I figure that out, the rest comes a little easier. I try not to be blithely sarcastic, but sometimes a line jumps out that's too juicy to resist, which is fine as long as it's consistent with my opinion of the film.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
The answer to that should really be "no." Critics should write their review unsullied by the opinions of others, especially critics, who can be very persuasive. But in the real world, the answer is often "yes." Sometimes I'll talk about a film with someone as a means to work out my own opinion and road test my theories. But also, talking about films is fun, especially if you've just walked out of something really good or really bad.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
I don't judge critics based on whether I agree with them. I judge critics based on whether I like their writing. I enjoy the writings of many colleagues, but currently I'll seek out Anthony Lane, A.O. Scott, Todd McCarthy, Richard Schickel and Robert Ebert. Growing up, I read Sheila Benson and Pauline Kael. The collected writings of Manny Faber is a great read for critics old and new.
P.S.: Dorothy Parker was briefly a drama critic and book critic. I lament that she was never a film critic. I can only dream of what we missed…
Is there a classic film you're embarrassed to admit you've never seen?
Until 2009, I'd never seen CASABLANCA. About seven years earlier, I received the DVD as a gift and I still refused to watch it because I thought my shunning of an all-time classic would be a funny story to tell at parties, press conferences and depositions. Then I bought the special edition Blu-ray and finally gave in. And it was so damn good I kick myself for waiting so long.
What's the worst film you've ever seen?
My default answer used to be SHAKES THE CLOWN, which I continue to stand behind even though Bob Goldthwait has since become, if not a polished director, one who tackles ostensibly juvenile subject matter with serious intent. However, after seeing THE LAST AIRBENDER, I think we may have a new contender for the title.
If I weren't a film critic, I'd be a…
Captain of the Enterprise.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
The internet has been the worst thing to happen to film criticism and the best. While blogging and social media have activated millions of uninformed moviegoers to spout their lame, juvenile, vaguely considered, poorly expressed opinions, it's also motivated millions of movie lovers to let their wonderful thoughts and insights be known to a wider, grateful audience. So nowadays, with a laptop and a blog, everyone is truly a critic. But does that mean there's no hope for the trained critic? Although we're still in the settling down phase of the New Media revolution, it seems there will be fewer places for trained critics to make an impact and a name for themselves. Scholarly texts for college consumption and the occasional mainstream non-fiction book will be all that's left for them. Indeed, individual critics will have less influence because there are less high profile jobs and more competition, even if the competition is comprised of people who are horrible writers but can successfully market and promote their blog. Groupthink, as evidenced in review aggregation websites like Rotten Tomatoes, will have more impact. So professional critics will have to fight for whatever paying gigs are left and then use sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote themselves and drum up interest in their work. It's a bit dire, especially if you like making money. But the verdict is still out.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
Film critics can do two things: 1) point the viewer in the direction of a great film they'd otherwise never consider seeing and 2) incorporate a film into a larger context, one that admittedly, requires the kind of heavy lifting and cultural reflection that readers aren't much interested in anymore.
What's the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
The best part is free movies and the receptions we attend towards the end of the year, when studios throw parties to promote the films they're pushing for awards. The worst is having to sit through hundreds of crappy movies and then come up with 800 words of scintillating opinion about them. Oh, I forgot: the real best part of being a film critic is seeing an amazing movie that reminds me why I love film. It's a warm, satisfying feeling that seems to happen less often.
Name the worst sequel ever.
I'm taking the coward's way out and narrowing this to "the biggest drop-off in quality between an original film and its immediate sequel." Given that, you can't go wrong with STAYIN' ALIVE and ROBOCOP 2.
What's the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
The biggest misconception is that being a film critic is a glamorous and exciting occupation. Not to throw a pity party, but the fact is you're forfeiting thousands of hours of your life to see hundreds of mediocre movies. Being in the almost-daily presence of soul-sucking crap writ 50 feet wide can really wear you down. Worse, a majority of films screen in the evening, which means you're seriously reducing the amount of time you can spend hanging with friends, eating out, cultivating hobbies and meeting members of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if you prefer).
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
I can only speak for myself. While there are plenty of critics who went on to make movies (Truffaut, Godard, Lurie), I have no interest in making films. My interest is in seeing great films and writing about them. Any failed filmmakers who become critics so they can spew hate and jealously to get revenge against those who succeeded is a sad and disgraceful example of the profession.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Almost assuredly not, although sometimes critics can champion a film which then goes on to great acclaim which then might motivate someone to green light (or pick up and distribute) another film with similar artistic aspirations. But generally, artists should only be beholden to their art. They should not compromise their creativity to take into account potential critical or commercial reaction. Of course, in this era of corporate filmmaking, the previous sentence has been rendered meaningless, if not outright hilarious.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
I've written many checks that have had a measurable impact on my bank account. But that's because I bought my condo two years too soon. Regarding film reviews, if I dissuaded one thirtysomething woman from seeing a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, I'd consider my career a success.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Don't expect to make any money. If you love film enough to write about it, for the time being, it'll have to be a hobby. The good news is that the bar for entry is so low that anyone can do it. You just need a laptop, a blog and an opinion. But if you're reading this I assume you don't want to be one of the thousands of idiots spouting off about how that new, soulless, summer blockbuster is totally, awesomely rad and that foreign film is all boring and stuff and junk. So watch everything you can and start getting a feel for why a movie is artistically successful or unsuccessful. Download services like Netflix are an amazing resource for learning about film. So keep watching, keep writing and find any website that'll publish your work. Even the smallest one. But having that small credit on your resume will make it easier for you to matriculate to a larger website. And then off you'll go!
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
I'm one of those poor, sad souls who has yet to fully embrace social media to promote his work. That's mainly because I'm not a natural promoter and I'm still not comfortable going on Facebook and telling people about myself, even if involves my own career. I'm basically the least qualified person to answer this question, although it's an extremely valuable and important question. However, having read plenty of Facebook posts from fellow critics, unless you operate at a Dane Cook level of social media interaction, I doubt a critic can pick up more than a few dozen dedicated new readers from a bunch of Twitter posts. But every little bit helps nowadays, so if you have the time and you're into Twitter or Facebook or Friendster or MySpace or FourSquare or whatever the next privacy-destroying website will be, it can't hurt.