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Over-rated! Part Two of a Critique of Critics

Over-rated!  Part two of a critique of critics by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Rotten Tomatoes' fundamentally flawed rating system and the new wave of critic-bloggers, some of whom have questionable credentials, intentions, vested interests, and prejudices.  This week, we will look at the larger picture: Film criticism as it stands in the US today.

Journalism is in trouble.  That's no secret.  More newspapers are folding or reducing staff, going to tabloid format or, in some cases, moving to electronic format only.  And it's not just small and medium-sized town papers, although their demise has been the canary in the coal mine.  How many of us have gotten solicitations to subscribe to the Boston Globe, NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others?  Newspapers are mining for readers, and they are fighting to keep the readership they already have.  The best way to build and maintain readership is, to coin an old country music phrase: "Do what you do do well."

But then, not everyone is a Katharine Graham or an H.L. Mencken, or a Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert.  And even those that approach that level are stressed by the pressure to sell papers.  So, some go the sensationalist route, pandering to the voyeur, the mean-spirited, the salacious--appealing to the basest in human nature.  Because, to many in America right now, the bottom line comes above all--and nastiness is a booming market.

Ironically, this watering down--and in some cases, poisoning--of the critical gene pool comes at a time when the critical community enjoys unprecedented and inordinate power. There is an old saying: "With great power comes great responsibility."  There's another old saying: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  This is an alarming development for film-makers and their multi-million dollar investments in an age when "screenings"--preview, by invitation only, showings for masses of critics and select viewers--are increasingly common.

True, some open their films at festivals--especially international festivals--where serious cinephiles and ethical international critics judge films based on their art and craft rather than preconceived notions and prejudices that increasingly dominate US screenings.  Film makers often place embargoes on public criticism until opening weekend, but leaks happen.  The leaks aren't the problem, though.  Critics attend screenings before general audiences get a chance to judge a film on their own, and afterward a sort of group think evolves (if critics A and B agree over martinis that a film or a performance stinks, it puts great pressure on critic C to come to the same conclusion)--a common narrative that either promotes or, worse, blatantly undermines a film before audiences get a chance to form their own opinions.  They take self-important pride in building stars up and tearing them down, and they take self-righteous stances on what films are worth seeing and what films to avoid.  And, as we stated in Part One, too many moviegoers rely on Rotten Tomatoes to decide on what films to see.

This can be terrifying for film makers because the first weekend can make or break a film, and screenings can make or break the first weekend.  Critics recognize this, and woe to the director or star that refuses an interview, or a studio that doesn't give due deference to the all-powerful critics because vengeance can be wicked.  

A tangent that will eventually bring me back to my main point.  Gold Derby is one of my favorite sites for articles, videos, and news about film.  GD's awards handicapping is fun and informative.  The Gold Derby forums used to be a place for stimulating discussion, and they still are to a significant degree.  Over the past several years, though, more trolls and haters have appeared, harpies and bullies that have picked several directors and actors (mostly actresses) to tear down every chance they get.  Ironically, these self-obsessed "experts" are rarely capable of articulating their disdain beyond the vapid descriptor "overrated."  

A few months ago, this group took off on a thread about the many critics that follow their discussions, arguing that the Gold Derby discussions can shape professional critics' opinions of films, actors, and directors.  At first, I thought it was simple hubris, but the correlation between the petty prejudices of these forum gangs and the petty mob mentality of the critic-bloggers indicates that the two nasty collections of humanity may have a symbiotic relationship.  And at this juncture, I should point out that Internet bloggers, fan sites, and other media that covers pop culture feed into this frenzy with titillating headlines that scream, "CLICK HERE!"

A few examples: A general consensus of these groups (a handful of dissenters aside) is that among directors, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg can do no wrong and David O. Russell can do no right.  Most actors have pockets of supporters and detractors that balance each other out, though Johnny Depp and Will Smith get a lot of shade thrown their way.  

As a group, though, it is always open season on actresses, with a direct correlation between the level of hatred and the deadly triforce: youth/beauty/talent.  These ladies can't win: the standard for perfection is so high that anything less is cause for convening the Inquisition.  And the media insists in constantly pitting them against each other.  Meryl Streep, of course, is on that Scorsese-Spielberg Nirvana level, and Cate Blanchett approaches it--unless a Blanchett fan commits the sin of comparing her to Streep.  Kate Winslett love/hate teeters on the precipice of whether or not an individual loves Titanic.  

Not so fortunate were Kristen Stewart, whose sin of making the Twilight movies rivals that of animal abuse in some quarters.  After a thoroughly chastised K-Stew beat feet into European art-house seclusion, the Purity Police determined that Anne Hathaway was just too much of a goody two-shoes and she needed her angel-wings singed. The current whipping-girl is Jennifer Lawrence, whose sins include being down-to-earth and well liked and respected by industry peers, being an outspoken feminist, standing up for equal pay, calling out bigotry, and flipping the bird at Donald Trump.  J-Law's biggest sin, though, is something she herself despises: the fanatic media coverage that supersaturates the landscape with coverage of her every move.  Eventually, the haters move on, as they have for Charlize Theron, who weathered the storm several years ago and returned to the pedestal.  Margot Robbie is still enjoying her honeymoon period, but then that might be because she hasn't won the big award yet.  Witness the uptick in hatred for the two most recent Best Actress winners: Brie Larson and Emma Stone.  All they need to reach the fury-of-a-thousand-suns level is more media coverage and a few more awards.  

What does all of this have to do with critics?  Too many of them follow (suck up to) the crowd of trolls, fanboys, haters, and cool kids.  There are trash sites, like TMZ and Jezebel, simply click bait sewers.  Variety used to be a standard of the film industry, but some of their editorial decisions in recent years have been trashy, and they are descending to the levels of the tabloids.  

For the purpose of a point, we will cite Entertainment Weekly and its comparative treatment of Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence.  For several years, Jennifer Lawrence was their darling, a love affair that peaked when she was named their Entertainer of the Year in November 2015.  The backlash in the comment sections must have been more than EW could bear, though because they haven't had a positive thing to say about her or her films since.  EW reviews of all of Lawrence's subsequent films have been significantly lower than the average score on Metacritic (IMDb's aggregate site): Leah Greenblatt gave Joy a "C-";  the following spring, X-Men: Apocalypse came out, and Chris Nashawaty gave it a "C"; most recently came Nashawaty's eviscerating and unfair "D+" review of Passengers.  (Fans' CinemaScores for all three films were much higher.)  Nashawaty has been particularly off-mark in pandering to his hipster/hater following, noting a "general expression of tedium creeping across the faces of Jennifer “Mystique” Lawrence and Michael “Magneto” Fassbender" in XM:A.  He was able to feed off of approval in the comments section (though he must have missed Director Brian Singer's observation that Mystique was supposed to be "world-weary" and a "reluctant heroine").  And EW's staff presents a united front: a week later, on EW's LA Daily radio show, Kyle Anderson shrieked that Lawrence's was the worst performance he had ever seen by a major star in a Marvel movie; more recently, Jessica Shaw on the EW morning show said that she likes Lawrence "more as a concept than as an actress," adding that Lawrence is a one-note performer; finally, in a recent issue of the magazine, the "Bullseye" section showed a poster of Lawrence's upcoming Mother! and having no knowledge of the film, placed it on the next to last outer ring (indicating a real misfire) with a sarcastic note that "Jennifer Lawrence is so relatable."

This amazing ability to tell whether or not a movie is good without the benefit of, you know, actually seeing it seems to be a special talent of Entertainment Weekly writers.  We have that same talent when it comes to predicting EW's film reviews.  For example, we know that Charlize Theron's upcoming film, Atomic Blonde, to be released on July 28, will receive a glowing review from EW.  How can we see the future so acutely?  Well, for the past two months, EW has been running its own public relations campaign for the film.  Sight unseen, it has already been on EW's Must List, Dalton Ross has called it the summer movie he is most anticipating, and several other glowing references have already been posted.  Even before all of that, we could have anticipated it because EW loves all things Charlize.  They gave the same treatment to Mad Max: Fury Road.  (Full disclosure: We love Charlize, too, but we wait until we make sure her movies are good before we start raving.)  So, look for an excellent review for Atomic Blonde next week from EW's staff of suck-ups--most likely the obsequious Nashawaty.  We know this for the same reason we knew that Passengers would be crucified a month before EW staff had a chance to see it, for the same reason we know that any Star Wars or Disney movie will automatically be extolled: EW plays favorites and, above all, its writers suck up to the haters and the cool kids because, at its core, that is where their souls are.  

Who do we trust?  A.O. Scott, Joel Siegel, David Edelstein, Manohla Dargis, Christie Lemire, Peter Travers, Leonard Maltin, and a few other established critics.  We trust Rolling Stone but not the Wall Street Journal--politics sway their reviews. 

And we like to reference the aforementioned Metacritic, the aggregate compilation of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).  No site is perfect, but Metacritic is picky about the movie reviewers it publishes; it converts their scores to percentages; it clearly delineates between positive, mixed, and negative reviews; it allows you to click on a reviewer's name and see his or her reviewing history; and, in most cases it allows you to click on individual reviews and read the entire text.  Over time, you will develop your own list of reviewers you trust.  To build your own circle of trust, I suggest you start with Metacritic:

And finally, it should be noted here that most film reviewers are males, and many of the less reputable show a strong misogynistic strain.  Let me assure you that FilmZ and I are in touch with our feminine side.  Also, we will tell you our biases up front.  Enjoy.


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