Thursday, November 8, 2012

'Life of movie critic isn't always boffo,' Sept. 15, 1989

"The Critic"
"Outtakes" movie column


"You must enjoy the trash of so many movies you can't recognize wholesome entertainment when you see it. ... I don't place much value on your reviews."

That letter arrived after I panned a relentlessly bad film aimed at family audiences called "On Our Own." These kinds of letters come in the mail every so often. The other kind, the ones in which people say they appreciate what you write, pass my way about as often as Halley's comet. It comes with the territory, I suppose. When you write opinions in a business concerned primarily with facts, you're bound to take lumps.

Misconceptions abound concerning the business of journalism -- a broad enough word, I think, to cover movie criticism. No matter what, people will always believe reporters are biased, left-wing Commie sympathizers. They also assume we'll go for the sensational over the mundane at every opportunity.

Misunderstandings about film reviews are common, too. The one that irritates me most is embodied in one of The Most Asked Questions of a Film Critic: "Do you see all those movies before you review them?" (The inference being that I'm a slimy charlatan who purposefully deceives readers by forming opinions without taking time to attend the film in question.)

So, do I see them beforehand? Does Pete Rose play the ponies? Does the Earth revolve around the sun? Is Michael Jackson bizarre? Yes. Of course. Critics see most movies before the public does -- at daytime screenings (for media only) and radio station-promoted screenings. That's how we're able to see and write about most films before they are released in theaters. When we can't see them beforehand, we go to theaters with the general public.

One more of The Most Asked Questions of a Film Critic (besides the tired, "Have you seen any good movies lately?") is: "It must be great to have an easy job like yours, huh?"

Well, yes, it is -- in some respects. I enjoy going to movies and writing about them, so it's easier for me to do this than, say, write about the regulation of nuclear power plants. Other journalists enjoy writing about politics, or business, or public safety, or sports, or education. They know their beats, their fields of specialty. So it's "easy" for them, too. It's a breeze to sit through a city council meeting or to chat with business leaders about their companies and it's pretty doggone simple to sit on your fanny and watch a movie. It's not so simple to take any of these experiences and make sense of them -- intelligently and succinctly -- to each person in more than 56,000 households where this paper is delivered each day.

I love my work. But I'm not complaining. Hell, no. I love my job. Might even consider doing harm to anyone who tries to take it away.

But, contrary to popular belief, I'm not perfect. I'm human and I've missed a few. To this day, when I hear or read a reference to "Top Gun" I become nauseated. I saw the movie in a large theater in Salt Lake City -- massive screen, packed house, huge Diet Coke at my side, the works. I was thrilled by the flying sequences, blown away. And when I returned to the office the next day, "Top Gun" got five stars -- my highest rating.

The week "Top Gun" was released on videocassette, my brother-in-law rented it and we watched it again. I hated the movie. It was junk. Ditto "Switching Channels."

But on to the really important questions, like: Why won't Don review "Police Academy" and "Friday the 13th" movies anymore?

Because I'd rather endure oral surgery without anesthesia. And because movies like that aren't worth writing about. All the "Friday the 13th" movies go like this: Teenagers go to
camp, teenagers have sex, teenagers are drawn and quartered. End of movie.

As for the "Police Academy" movies. Well, they're just not funny. The last one I saw -- "III" or "IV," I don't remember -- didn't make me laugh once. It's one thing to lose steam or momentum in a series of movies, but the "Police Academy" films didn't have any to begin with.

No, that doesn't mean I always go for subtitled or artsy films, either. I have liked three of the five "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies. And every time [Mad Max 2:] "The Road Warrior" is on television, I try to watch it. Why, I'll even go so far as to say I've enjoyed most Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

Another thing people seem to want to know is whether I grow tired of watching movies. Are you kidding? My wife and I see movies on vacations, at home on weekends, and sometimes at home on weeknights. Yet it would be wrong to assume I'm a movie "buff." l know some trivia, as anyone does who sees as many movies each year. But I don't file all sorts of clutter away in my head so I can win at the Silver Screen Edition of Trivial Pursuit -- which, by the way, I've never played.

The movies have been a sanctuary throughout my life. To sit in a darkened theater with strangers and forget the world outside is therapeutic. The experience isn't remotely the same as sitting at home and watching a video, where interruptions are common -- mandatory, even. Seeing a movie on the big screen is magic, even when the movie is only
mediocre. But when the movie is bad, it's a chore to sit there and watch, to not think about what I could be accomplishing elsewhere.

So, is it all worthwhile? Of course. People love movies, Americans especially. Almost no one hates them, except for the occasional burned-out critic who quits reviewing movies because they are so awful and violent and depraved. That much should have been apparent beforehand; anyone who's watched movies for any length of time knows half of them suck bilge water.

Actually, that's one reason movie reviews exist: to let the buyer beware.

Not so long ago, I imagined I was a consumer reporter. (The movie business is unique in that the manufacturer expects consumers to buy a product sight unseen and, furthermore, not to ask for their money back when dissatisfied.) I reasoned my task consisted primarily of warning people away or encouraging them to see a movie. That's essential to a point, but can be accomplished by way of tackling the main objective: to discuss the success or failure of individual movies, and the art and business of filmmaking for readers who are interested.

If the many, many people I've talked to over the years are an indication, movies are a universal topic of conversation -- like sports, only more so. Talk of movies is popular in
offices, factories, on street corners, in jail, you name it. It's important for a newspaper to recognize the popularity of the art form, and be willing to discuss it. By doing that, the
readers are being served.

Which brings us to questions like: What do you look for when you watch a movie? And is there a list of things that a movie must accomplish for it to be good?

First of all, I look for the same things you do. And secondly, no, there isn't a checklist. I watch a movie the same way you watch a movie, except I take notes once in a while and always write about the experience afterward. The real pleasure of this job is to walk into a theater expecting nothing and exiting afterward having experienced a film of wonder and quality. Or, barring that, finding flat-out excitement and having a raucous good time.

Imagine my surprise when I went to see the Sultan of Smirk himself, Bruce Willis, in an action movie called "Die Hard." To be kind, I wasn't expecting much. But the darn thing
put me on the edge of my seat and kept me there. It worked. So much so that I saw it twice.

It's comparable to my golf game: The bad strokes disappoint or frustrate me, and sometimes I question the worth of pursuing the game. Then I'll hit a beautiful shot or sink a mile-long putt, and I remember why the game is so much fun. Reviewing movies is like that: The bad ones annoy you, but the good ones keep you coming back for more.

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