How did you get started as a film critic?
In college I aspired to be a political cartoonist, but after I used up my two mediocre ideas, I volunteered to write reviews for The Daily Tar Heel, my college newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I produced dozens of reviews during college, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 that I started writing professional reviews for the weekly publication Entertainment Today under the editorial guidance of fellow LAFCA member Brent Simon. After that I met other journalists and editors at a number of sites and started freelancing, before joining IGN DVD in 2005 at that channel’s Editor in Chief. After I was let go in 2008, I returned to freelancing and am working steadily for several different outlets.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
When I was 11 or 12, I saw Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Although I’d already seen lots of movies, it was the first one to make me cry – at least from some sense of absorption in the story or emotional identification with the main character. It sort of opened me up to the greater possibilities of cinema affecting my life or impacting audiences at a level deeper than entertainment, and made me love the medium in the way I continue to do today.
What was your first published review?
At 14, I reviewed James Cameron’s The Abyss for my Carmel Junior High newspaper, The Paw Print. I very specifically remember using the phrase “naïve and idealistic” to describe the movie, mostly without quite knowing what it meant, although I later realized I was more right than I knew.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Although I wrote reviews in college and worked steadily as a critic after moving to Los Angeles, between 1997 and 2001 I focused primarily on music writing, and I’m disappointed in retrospect I was never able to write anything about Eyes Wide Shut upon its initial theatrical release. It’s one of the few films I was in precisely the right place in my life and surrounded by the right circumstances to really understand what it was trying to say about relationships, and more than anything, it’s a film that continues to need passionate, insightful defenses mounted on its behalf.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
Although I am not embarrassed about any of the movies I love, the movie I probably should be embarrassed to admit that I love is Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder. As one of the single most formulaic, derivative, superficially glossy blockbusters ever made, it is pretty much artistically unredeemable, but it’s a piece of entertainment I really enjoy and I think is fun to watch.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
The more time I spend writing about genres of all kinds, the more I realize that I am almost entirely unbound to any one of them more than another. Admittedly, I love mainstream moviemaking and its capacity to connect with audiences on a massive, global scale, and I also really enjoy genres like horror and science fiction, but I find that I’m no less hard on any of them simply because I love them, and ultimately appreciate the genre as a whole more than many of their individual entries. At the same time, I love Japanese and Chinese cinema, and a lot of the late 1960s Italian avant garde, so I find that my personal interest in a very eclectic roster of movies keeps me from becoming too attached to any one genre or movement.
What is your process in approaching a review?
Technically speaking, I start by taking as many notes as I can or as I feel are necessary during a screening of the film I’m reviewing. Afterward, depending on how quickly my thoughts sort of congeal, I may go right home and write about it, or wait a few days and let the film sink in. Then, when I sit down to write, I start my review with a thought, thesis, or theme of some kind, which transitions into an introduction and/or summary reaction to the film. I generally devote no more than one paragraph to synopsizing the plot, and then write three or four more paragraphs analyzing the acting, storytelling, cinematography, or any other part of the film that I felt was important to its effectiveness (or lack thereof). And finally, I return to my introductory theme or idea and wrap up the piece.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Generally speaking I prefer not to discuss a film too much before I’m going to write about it. Occasionally, I seek the opinions of colleagues or friends who saw the film if they feel differently than I do, if only for a specifically different perspective, but I would rather put my thoughts down in a review unencumbered by outside influence because (a) my initial reaction is what I am most interested in capturing in a review, and (b) I don’t want to flirt with the possibility of absorbing someone else’s insight, or turn of phrase, into what I am writing, much less give it away to someone else.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert are certainly the two critics whose writing and analysis most influences mine. But Ebert’s continued passion for film and evolution as a writer inspires me on a weekly basis, with each review of his I read; his approach, which focuses on the human truths that we can uncover and connect to via the art form, provide a very personal point of access into what is otherwise a professional template. Interestingly, I find that I disagree with Kael more often than I agree with her, even though her prose is so incisive and dense and quite frankly exciting to read.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Freddy Got Fingered is probably the most unbearable moviegoing experience I’ve ever had, even if it completely plays into writer-director Tom Green’s intentions to make a truly awful movie. Other than that, Wes Craven’s Cursed is one of the few films that inspired me to recommend that everyone in it never work in Hollywood again (and which I recant, at least for some of the members of the cast).
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
The best part, easily, is to be able to watch movies all day every day for free, and moreover, to get paid to write about them, whether or not you like them. To be able to devote yourself fully to the study and analysis of a subject that you love is an enviable opportunity in any field. But the worst part, particularly today, is the struggle to be able to pursue that subject that we as critics love and still be able to live comfortably. Beyond the financial considerations, however, the only potential drawback to being a film critic is getting burned out on watching bad movies, although as in any other profession, there will always inevitably be components of your job that aren’t fun or wear you out, and as a result it’s up to you as a passionate supporter of the medium to retain enthusiasm and find reasons to continue loving it – or else stop entirely.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
This is the same argument that many people make about pundits or commentators who criticize successful people in other fields. It’s entirely possible that some critics are or were aspiring filmmakers, and see in what gets made all of the mistakes that they think they would never make. But by and large, I sincerely hope that the reason people become film critics is because they unabashedly love the medium and want to immerse themselves in it personally and professionally. It is entirely possible to eviscerate a film or filmmaker, describing the many ways in which the critic thinks that he, she or it is unable to convey the meaning or message they set out to communicate, without the motivation being jealousy. And to suggest that’s the reason a critic doesn’t like a film or filmmaker isn’t merely intellectually lazy and an indefensible argument that cannot be proven or disproven, but it’s an immature reaction to an opinion that differs from theirs that they simply can’t accept.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
The biggest impact I ever had as a critic was also the best compliment I was ever paid. When I was in college, I reviewed David Cronenberg’s Crash, and I loved it. A friend of mine who also saw it hated it, but after reading my review, he told me that he understood why I liked it, and watched it again to see if it meant any more to him a second time. And it didn’t. Anytime I write a review that inspires someone to see a film, whether it’s to agree or disagree with my opinion, I am grateful. Any time I am able to inspire some affection for the medium or arouse the intellectual curiosity in a reader to look more deeply at the films they watch, it is enormously flattering. I honestly do not believe that my opinions are better or more right than anyone else’s, and I’m never trying to convince anyone to change their opinion, only understand mine, so when there is respectful disagreement, passionate discussion, and ultimate understanding, those are the times when I feel I’ve made an impact.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Learn how to write, study film, and live a full life. Without the ability to articulate yourself, it doesn’t matter how insightful your observations are. Without a strong understanding of film language and history, it’s impossible to put new films in an appropriate context in terms of their intent, execution, and artistic impact. And without a well-rounded, socially-active life, you won’t develop a sensitivity or an empathy for film characters that allows you to connect emotionally with their stories, especially when they aren’t identical to your existing lifestyle.
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 is another part of the ongoing interaction internet-based writers have with their readers. Prior to media like Facebook and Twitter, many sites already had talkback or comments sections somewhere on the site, if not on each individual article. In a sense, social media has provided an immediate connection with the critical community and the readership of all writing about film, because it allows strangers to view content via links or other mentions from friends, colleagues and other respected authorities.
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