James Berardinelli's ReelViews


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July 3, 2006 (Monday):

The Mid-Year Top 10

This is something I have been doing for a few years: selecting a Top 10 for the January-June period. Since a majority of entries in the end-of-the-year Top 10 are released in November and December, presenting a mid-year list allows me to highlight some very good movies that will be overlooked in six months' time. It's hard to say how many of the following ten films will survive to land in this year's final Top 10. However, based on history, I would guess two or three. #1 is a sure bet. After that, it depends on how good the late autumn crop is. Here's how I see things for the first half of 2006 (in reverse order):

#10: Winter Passing
Winter Passing is an example of a film in which a great performance elevates an otherwise average motion picture. The reason to see the movie is Zooey Deschanel, who brings such power and passion to her role as Reese that we are drawn into her world, almost against our will (it's not a nice world). Supporting roles are filled by the likes of Ed Harris, Will Ferrell, and Amy Madigan, but this is Deschanel's movie from start to finish. It's already available on DVD, so it's easy enough to find.

#9: The Proposition
The Proposition is the kind of "modern" Western that makes John Ford's contributions look tame. That's to say it's grim and gritty, and overflowing with nihilism. Despite taking place in Australia, this is a story that could easily unfold in the more cinematically familiar Old West. There's some action in The Proposition, but this film is more about moral conundrums than shoot-outs.

#8: Running Scared
Running Scared is a lot of fun - a fast paced action thriller filled with twists and odd tangents. It also shows a side of Paul Walker we're not used to seeing. The film is violent in a Tarantino-inspired way, and features a child in danger. For whatever reason, Running Scared failed to find an audience when it arrived in theaters. It's on DVD now, giving viewers another chance to catch what it has to offer.

#7: Art School Confidential
With Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff has aimed his satirical camera at slightly older individuals than the protagonists of his earlier Ghost World. With winning performances from Max Minghella and Sophia Myles, the movie takes aim at the college experience in general and art schools in particular. The first half is better (funnier, more incisive) than the second half, when things become more serious, but there's plenty to like about the production as a whole. The biggest hurdle faced by this movie is that it never opened wide so, for those who wanted to see it, the search became a challenge.

#6: The Notorious Bettie Page
As bio-pics go, this is one of the better non-epic ones. Although it doesn't offer anything new or challenging, it's an engaging look at one of the 20th century's memorable pin-up girls. As played with considerable daring by an uninhibited Gretchen Moll, Bettie comes across as a mixture of frankness and naivete - an odd melange considering her job. Well acted and beautifully photographed, this one is worth a look when it arrives on DVD. (It's currently in the limbo that exists between theatrical showing and home availability.)

#5: Lucky Number Slevin
I liked this film better than most because I thought it succeeded in doing what director Paul McGuigan intended. McGuigan surprised me on at least two occasions - not an easy thing to do - and he succeded in getting the audience to root for what would normally be considered an unsympathetic character. Lucky Number Slevin also allowed me to understand the appeal of Lucy Liu - something that had previously eluded me.

#4: V for Vendetta
The first 3 1/2-star movie of 2006, this one had me exhaling deeply the moment the end credits rolled: So studios can still make good films. Entertaining and intense, V for Vendetta takes viewers along for the ride with a Phantom of the Opera-inspired vigilante who has something to prove. The story is delivered with flair and there's some good acting to be found. It was a box office disappointment, but will probably do well on DVD. Maybe it was too intelligent for the target teenage audience, or maybe the release strategy was badly executed.

#3: Hard Candy
With its controversial subject matter, Hard Candy became a love it or hate it kind of film. Put me in the former category. I like its twisted world view, the manner in which it turns morality on its head, and the way it makes the audience squirm. I appreciate movies that push the envelope, and that's what this one does. Is it perfect? No - the last act drags and there are logical flaws with the resolution. But watching Hard Candy isn't an experience I'm likely to forget. It stays with you and, if you're honest, forces you to confront questions you might prefer not to think about.

#2: Superman Returns
Superman Returns has received its share of mixed reviews, but I stand by my opinion of it, and that's after seeing it a second time. Unlike others, I don't think there's a problem with the pacing, because I see it as much a love story as an action/adventure film. If you want non-stop superhero kick-ass action, the third X-Men film is still out there. Superman Returns is something altogether different. It's character-based, not stunt-based, and that makes it a rarity in the genre. It's either the best or nearly the best superhero movie ever to reach the silver screen.

#1: United 93
United 93 is a near-perfect retelling of some of the events of September 11, 2001. By using the same pseudo-documentary approach he employed for Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass brought home the intensity of what may have happened on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. He also offers a window into the chaos that enveloped NORAD and flight control towers on that day. In the end, the picture painted by United 93 has a powerful and lasting impact. Not only does it bring back events with unexpected force, but it tells a story that is simultaneously tragic and heroic.

July 7, 2006 (Friday):

Conflict of Interests

Ethics are a curious thing, since they define how we live our lives. Consider for a moment the importance of ethics across a wide span of life, from big business to politics to religion. Everyone has to develop their own personal code. I'm not going to claim that my ethics are stronger than anyone else's, but they are skewed in a different way.

The topic I have been thinking about is advertising on a website (specifically this website). The concept is straightforward - put up a few text links and banners to subsidize what can otherwise be an expensive proposition. What's the harm in a little extra cash? But a nagging question arises: how to determine which ads are appropriate and which ones are not. Some categories are obvious. I define ReelViews as being "PG-13," so porn and other adult-oriented advertisements are out. That's a no-brainer. Now let's travel into the gray area.

First, two comments. First, web advertisers like what is known as "target advertising." That means you sell vacation packages on a travel website, dating services on a romance/sex site, and movies on a movie website. Second, advertisement is the art of promotion. In fact, my handy thesaurus lists "promote" as a synonym for "advertise."

A lot of movie review websites advertise movies. This is a line I feel uncomfortable about crossing. There's no doubt that movie advertisers like this, since it fits the "target advertising" strategy. But it raises ethical questions. If I, as a website owner/operator, take money from a studio to promote their movie, could it impact how I review a movie? (Hopefully not.)Or, more cogently, could it impact how I am perceived to review a movie?

Let's take a hypothetical case. It is established that I liked The Phantom Menace, a movie that was widely reviled in fan circles. A lot of people can't understand why I favor the film, but they chalk it up to bad taste. How different would things have been had I advertised TPM before seeing and reviewing it? How many people would have dismissed the review as the words of a shill? When you advertise a movie, then write a positive review, your words are discounted in many circles, even if the review is a legitimate reflection of your feelings.

Then there's the flip side. If a studio is paying you hundreds or thousands of dollars to promote something, is it biting the hand that feeds you to write a negative review? Or perhaps there's an incentive to "tone down the negativity." After all, it's possible to assign a two-star rating but not be nasty in the write-up. I have personal experience with something like this. In 1998, I was hired by Playboy to write a review of Blade. In good conscience, I saw the movie and wrote my thoughts. It was a mildly negative piece but, unbeknownst to me, Playboy was being paid big money by New Line Cinema to promote the movie. When my editor got the review, he was horrified. I was asked to go back and do some "touch-ups" to make it more positive. With misgivings, I did so. The "touch-ups" were insufficient; the review never ran, although I was paid for it. Thus ended my relationship with Playboy. (Two versions of the Blade review are available on this website: the one I wrote for ReelViews and the one I wrote for Playboy. Both can be accessed via the link above.)

There are two possible solutions, as I see it. The first is for a reviewer to recuse himself/herself from writing about any movie that is advertised on his/her site. In simpler terms, if I choose to advertise Pirates of the Caribbean, I wouldn't post a review. Then there's no conflict or interests or the appearance of a conflict of interests. Of course, that doesn't solve the question of whether there's an issue about taking money from a studio to advertise one of their movies while reviewing another...

The second option is not to accept any advertising from movie studios. That's the route I have taken. I have turned down several lucrative offers from studios to promote the summer's would-be blockbusters. It's tough to turn down thousands of dollars, but tougher to contribute to the immolation of my integrity. So my stance is to advertise only "information related" sites, services, and products.

Ethics are a bitch.

July 10, 2006 (Monday):

Shiver Me Timbers!

$132 million. I'll be damned. I didn't think it was physically possible for a 155-minute movie to make that much money over a three-day weekend.

Consider the following... (All numbers are rounded off) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (or Pirates 2, as it will hereafter be called) opened on about 8500 screens. The average countrywide price of a ticket is about $6.40. (This takes into account matinee and evening prices, as well as cheap locales and expensive ones.) For a 155-minute movie, the average theater can accomodate roughly 4 showings per day. (10:30 am, 2:00 pm, 5:30 pm, 9:00 pm) It's tough to guess at the average auditorium size, but let's say for argument it's 250. Doing the math (8500 screens x 4 showings per day x 3 days x 250 seats x $6.40), we end up with about $163 million, which means that over its opening weekend, the film played to (on average) 81% full houses. That's a lot of sold out shows. Amazing.

Here's something else to mull over. If the movie was about 95-100 minutes long, which it could easily have been with tighter scripting and editing, it could have expanded to six showings per day (10:00 am, 12:30 pm, 3:00 pm, 5:30 pm, 8:00 pm, 10:30 pm). That would have inflated its earning potential to $245 million. That probably represents the ultimate ceiling of a 8500-print movie opening on a 3-day weekend.

This weekend, Superman Returns played in about the same number of theaters as Pirates 2. It's about the same length. Doing a little reverse arthimatic, that means that, for it to make $22 million, there were an average of 35 people at each showing of the movie. Not bad, until you consider how full those Pirates 2 auditoriums were.

One could argue that Pirates 2 had the "perfect storm" of openings. It's family-friendly. It's action-packed. It's a blockbuster sequel. It has been well marketed. It comes during the year's peak movie-going season. And it follows a summer of mildly disappointing and underperforming movies. (To-date, only X-Men 3 has been better received than expected. Everything else, from Mission: Impossible 3 to Superman Returns, has made less than forecast, even though only Poseidon can be considered a financial failure, and it will likely recoup its costs overseas and on DVD.

Is there a lesson for Hollywood in all this? Perhaps. Trying to distill the elements that have made Pirates 2 phenomenally successful into a formula is a fool's errand, but two things should be kept in mind. People love sequels, and they love sequels even more when there's a broad-based appeal. Kids love Pirates 2. Parents love Pirates 2. Unaccompanied adults love it. It's a good date movie. Perhaps most importantly, teenagers love it. Incredibly, this is a movie that hits all demographics. That's what Hollywood should be paying attention to.

In May, I thought either The Da Vinci Code or Cars would top the summer box office. I was wrong. However, about a month ago, I changed my opinion to Pirates 2. I saw the way the wind was blowing. It will be interesting to see whether the movie can weather the second week drop-off syndrome that has plagued everything else last year and this year. Still, even a 50% fall-off would be impressive. Not many movies can claim to pull in $65 million during a first weekend, let alone a second.

Pirates 2 is a sure shot to reach $300 million, and I wouldn't bet against it topping the $400 million mark, but what about it taking aim at Titanic? That would surprise me. Today's movie market doesn't seem capable of supporting the kind of rabid, repeat viewing that was necessary to keep the sinking ship afloat. To reach Titanic, Pirates 2 would have to top the box office all the way into October. Considering how weak the rest of the summer slate is, that's not unreasonable. But a bigger obstacle is the traditional nosedive that the box office takes in August and September. People go to the beach and the mountains then back to school during that period, not to multiplexes. To match Titanic, Pirates 2 would have to reach $400 million (at a minimum) by the end of July. And, as impressive as the movie has been in its first three days, I'm not sure it's capable of that feat.

Of course, the real question is: What's the potential of Pirates 3?

July 12, 2006 (Wednesday):

The Dog Days

The Dog Days have begun. They are so-named for that time of the year when Sirius (the "Dog Star") rises around the same time as the sun. That equates on the calendar to the period beginning in mid-July and ending in late August. Movie-lovers looking at their schedule of upcoming releases don't need an astronomical definition to recognize that the Dog Days are here.

What were the most anticipated movies of the summer of 2006? Mission: Impossible 3, The Da Vinci Code, Cars, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. By July 12, all of those have been released. What's left? You, Me and Dupree; My Superhero Ex-Girlfriend; Miami Vice; The Lady in the Lake; World Trade Center; Snakes on a Plane. Impressed? Think Pirates 2 will enjoy a looooong run at the top of the revenue pile?

It's not that all the upcoming movies are bad. I haven't seen many of them, so I don't know. In fact, one of the summer's most enjoyable low-key movies, Little Miss Sunshine, is arriving in August. But when it comes to spectacle and high expectations, summer has shot its load. There's nothing left now except the long road to the Awards season. That's the problem with frontloading everything.

Hollywood keeps boasting how profits are up this year, but I wonder how much of that is smoke and mirrors. According to the raw numbers, gross box office receipts are up 10% over last year (that includes the Pirates 2 bump), but still down from the year before. However, 2006 has seen a 6% ticket price increase over 2005, so indications are that, despite the "increase," tickets sold are either flat or slightly up from last year.

Viewers are drawn to movie theaters if they're excited about a title. If it's just something that gets good reviews, or that they might want to see, they'll wait for the DVD. How many of this summer's remaining movies are generating the "I have to see it" buzz? Not many. You, Me and Dupree might pull in some of the Wedding Crashers crowd. Movie-goers are probably too superheroed-out for My Superhero Ex-Girlfriend to make much of an impact. There's no apparent interest in ANOTHER TV show making it to the big screen. Shymalan has lost whatever fan base he once had. World Trade Center faces the same problems as United 93. Regardless of how well-made it may be, many people aren't ready. As for Snakes on a Plane, no matter what you may have heard, it's more cult than mainstream. Don't expect it to challenge the big guns at the top of the 2006 summer box office chart.

The reality, however, is that many of the cheaper July/August movies aren't being released with the expectation that they'll set the world on fire. These are films made with the DVD market in mind; a theatrical release is a necessary precursor for two reasons: (1) generating awareness through commercials and word-of-mouth, and (2) avoiding the direct-to-video label. For these movies, any money that comes in during a theatrical run is a bonus. Blockbusters can's surivive on video alone. They cost too much, and need a big opening weekend to help defray costs.

The problem with many of the summer's remaining movies is that they likely represent studio miscalculations. They're big pricetag features with video appeal. Miami Vice is a great example. The budget is an estimated $125M, yet there's no buzz. The level of interest is low. Kids can't officially see it (it's rated R) and older viewers have about as much interest in a revival of this TV program as in The Dukes of Hazzard. The movie will do well on video. Had it cost $40M or $50M to make, that would have been fine. But the bloated budget has led to box office expectations that this film will not be able to meet.

If you don't like hearing doom-and-gloom predictions from Hollywood, now's a good time to tune out. Once Pirates has made its heist, the profitability of this summer's crop of movies is about to become a mirage.

July 16, 2006 (Sunday):

Differentiating the Critics

There are essentially four types of film critics, and there's not a lot of love lost between members of the different groups. That doesn't mean we can't get along, but it's like putting Democrats and Republicans in the same room. As long as you don't talk "shop," you're usually on safe ground.

For the record, this is how I label the groups:
1. Elite Critics
2. Popular Critics
3. Quote Whores
4. Non-critics

Let me elaborate about each category.

"Elite critics" are those who view film first and foremost as a medium for art. They downplay the commercial and entertainment aspects. Elite critics tend to be highly educated with degrees in film and/or film-related subjects. They often write lengthy reviews that delve into esoteric subjects that will be of interest primarily to like-minded individuals.

"Popular critics" are those who do their best to write for the general population of movie-goers. They view film as a valid medium for artistic expression and entertainment/commercial purposes, and don't outright dismiss a film for falling into the latter category. Their reviews tend to be shorter and more easily accessible to readers without specialized knowledge of the subject. Many of them do not have a formal education in film, but have arrived in film criticism after taking a non-linear career path. This is the largest branch of film critics, and the one that shows the most growth. It also contains the most diversity.

"Quote whores" aren't really critics, and shouldn't be confused with them. They're people who are in the business of seeing movies at advance screenings and providing positive sound bytes that studios can use to publicize their films. Some of their names are familiar as a result of overexposure: Earl Dittman, Jeff Craig, Jeffrey Lyons. These are people who trade quotes for the red-carpet treatment: free trips to movie premieres, access to stars for puffball interviews, and other assorted goodies. Whenever a studio can't find a quote from a legitimate critic to sell their movies, they rely on blurbs from quote whores. No matter how bad the movie, you can always rely on one of these individuals to call it a "masterpiece" or "one of the year's ten best."

"Non-critics" are often confused with "quote whores" and, indeed, the line between the two is blurred. I would, for example, consider Harry Knowles to be a "non-critic." He's a fanboy who operates his own (popular) website, but it's misleading to call his ramblings "film criticism". After all, one expects some degree of coherence and grammatical integrity from a film critic. Non-critics write about movies, but usually from the perspective of a fan or an entertainment reporter. Throw Larry King into this category as well. Are Knowles and King quote whores? One could make that case, but I prefer to think of them as babbling movie lovers rather than individuals who have sold their souls.

That brings us to the disagreements between the groups.

Elite critics believe that their members are the only ones who deserve the title of "critic." They are the keepers of the true flame; anyone who defends a movie on the grounds that it's enjoyable or entertaining has become a shill of the studios. They are unforgiving in their censure, dismissing popular critics with the same disdain as quote whores and non-critics. In some instances, they don't seem (at least to studio heads and the general public) to like movies all that much. Their words of praise are often reserved for the most obscure independent and foreign films. They often sneer at blockbusters. And they would rather be tarred and feathered than give a "star" rating or a thumbs up/down designation. In short, when people talk about the chasm that divides critics from "regular" viewers, the finger points directly at the elite critics.

I am a popular critic, so I have received my share of slings and arrows from members of the elite groups. My reviews are unsuitable because they are not scholarly enough. They do not show enough insight into the mechanics of filmmaking and its aesthetic aspects. I have the temerity to recommend movies that are lacking in artistic value. And I lack the proper educational background (being trained as an engineer and a writer) to possess a true appreciation of film. These are all things that have been written about me, many in print publications. However, those who are making these statements are missing the point. I am not trying to be scholarly, nor do I view artistic achievement as the holy grail of cinema. My agenda is different. I know my audience and my audience knows me. My reviews are informed opinion pieces, not essays that dissect the essence of cinema. I leave that to someone who is better qualified to perform a motion picture autopsy.

Popular critics often dismiss elite critics as being snobbish and arrogant. I will admit to falling into that category at times. However, it's impossible to deny that they bring something to the table that popular critics rarely do: a thorough examination of filmmaking as a craft. I don't aspire to be an elite critic (it would kill my enjoyment of film), but I can, on some occasions, admire the work they do. Unfortunately, the feeling is rarely reciprocated. The reason? Elite critics view popular critics as a blight on the vocation - improperly educated hobbyists whose growing "voice" is threatening the fabric of serious criticism.

The disdain of popular critics is reserved for the quote whores. This lowest breed of "critic" is shunned across the board. Their lack of ethics is only part of the problem. If they would cease calling themselves critics and be honest about their profession (they are a form of publicists), we would treat them less viciously. I am more kindly disposed toward some of the non-critics, who are open about the things they write. They do not pretend to be serious reviewers. They're interviewers, entertainment reporters, and Internet bloggers.

The point to this is to illustrate that all critics are not created equal, and there are deep divisions within the community about what constitutes legitimate film criticism and what is worthless writing designed for popular consumption. From the outside looking in, it may appear that we're all part of one big happy club. Like in any other industry, however, the truth is more complex.

July 18, 2006 (Tuesday):

DVD's Scarlet Letter

Direct-to-DVD. Those words are not so much a label as they are a Scarlet Letter. If the industry wants to move forward with its stated goal of expanding the video market, the negative connotations associated with this term have to be removed. As long as "Direct-to-DVD" is viewed as a perjorative, there's going to be a lack of enthusiam on the part of both consumers and distributors for a product that bypasses a theatrical release.

There's a reason why people are wary of Direct-to-DVD films. For the most part, they stink. They're often the dregs of the barrel - movies so bad their distributors don't want to spend money marketing them, so they get dumped onto DVD. Even some high-profile examples, like the recent Havoc and the current Edison Force, have received a less-than-enthusiastic critical response.

The stigma will remain in place until distributors begin releasing better quality movies directly onto DVD. They don't have to be high profile titles (in fact, they likely won't be), but they have to be the kind of thing that people will be interested in watching. Today, "good" movies with an intended primary DVD audience still receive a theatrical release to avoid the "direct-to-DVD" label. It's an advertising gimmick. There's no expectation that the films will make money during their limited theatrical runs, but the consequences of not giving them exposure in theaters can be unfortunate.

Bubble represented an interesting experiment - a movie that was released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on pay TV. Mark Cuban footed the bill, and the results were intriguing. Bubble was widely viewed as a theatrical failure but a DVD success. (I haven't seen any figures concerning how well it did on TV.) If more films of that quality showed up directly on DVD, the Scarlet Letter might begin to fade. It's something that must happen eventually if Hollywood is going to take full advantage of the DVD market. Currently, home video brings in more revenue than theaters, so it no longer makes sense for DVD to exist as a secondary market for "used" products and a primary market for "defective" products. What kind of business model is that?

It appears that we are headed for a bifurcation of the movie system. Big-budget, blockbuster movies will receive their primary exposure in multiplexes. The first-weekend success rate of recent "event movies" has proven there's still a significant market out there for this sort of fare. But the lower budget, less ostentatious productions will begin to migrate toward home video as their primary venue. How quickly this happen will be in large part a reflection of how aggressively studios pursue elminating the stigma and marketing smaller releases on DVD. The theater-to-DVD window is already shrinking, not only for big movies (King Kong, for example, took only 3 1/2 months to go from multiplexes to DVD players) but for small ones as well. Clean is a good example. It opened in limited release only a month before showing up on DVD. Once unheard of, this is becoming commonplace.

There also needs to be a change in the mindset of directors. Many view it as "slumming" to make a movie that goes directly to DVD. Barbara Kopple, who directed Havoc was apprarently upset that her movie was never accorded a theatrical release. Susan Seildelman's new feature, Boynton Beach Club, struggled mightily to find a theatrical distributor (The Samuel Goldwyn Company eventually bought the distribution rights). Before Goldwyn came on board, Seildelman was faced with the possiblity of having to take the film directly to DVD, and the prospect horrified her. This was, in her words, a "real" movie, not something that was put together on a whim to make a few bucks. That's the perspective many established directors have of direct-to-DVD releases, and it's something that has to change.

So here we are, in an era when home video is bigger than it has ever been. Why, then, are its children still being regarded as second-class citizens? More importantly, why aren't the studios giving us a reason to change this view?

July 23, 2006 (Sunday):

Siegel's Sin

The following quote has been widely attributed to Good Morning America movie critic Joel Siegel: "Time to go! First movie I've walked out of in 30 fucking years!" The movie that so distrubed Siegel is Kevin Smith's Clerks II, a mildly raunchy but hardly horrifically offensive comedy. For this to represent the straw the broke Siegel's camel's back, I can only scratch my head (considering what he has been through in his life). I have never paid a lot of attention to Siegel's reviews, but for him to choose Clerks II as his inagural walk-out makes me wonder what his opinion was of Freddy Got Fingered or The Devil's Rejects. (My guess is he didn't see either.)

There are two issues worth addressing here. The first is whether a film critic has the right to walk out of a film. The second is how he should conduct himself in the event that such a thing happens. I know a lot of critics have been leaping to Siegel's defense this week; I will not be one of them. I'm not sure he deserves the fusillade delivered by Kevin Smith (after all, he apologized, and the apology seemed sincere), but he doesn't merit the free pass he is being given in some quarters. What he did was unconscionable.

(Odd that I find myself writing this two weeks after writing an entry about ethics.)

There's nothing wrong with a critic walking out of a film, provided that he is upfront with his readers. Excepting film festival offerings that I'm "sampling," I have never walked out of a movie, regardless of whether I intended to review it or not. There have been times when I was sorely tempted, and on one occasion (when I did not write a review), I allowed myself to doze off. (In my defense, I was medicated at the time and my friends wanted to stay.) In the future, I could see myself giving up and leaving the theater before the end credits, but this isn't something I would want to hide from my readers. However, I do not believe it's reasonable to assign a "star rating" on the basis of an incomplete viewing. I might state that the film was unwatchable and I had to leave, but the rating would be "n/a" or something similar. I have stayed the course with some films like Freddy Got Fingered mainly so I could provide a perspective of the entire product. (There comes a point in every movie when you realize it's not going to get better.)

There is a difference, however, between walking out and making a spectacle of oneself in the process. Getting up and annoucing "Time to go! First movie I've walked out of in 30 fucking years!" is not defensible, irrespective of the circumstances. If Siegel could no longer stomach what was on screen, he should have quietly risen and headed for the door, then used his two minutes of TV time to lambast the film. Interrupting everyone else's enjoyment is not the right approach. Furthermore, by doing what he did, he altered the viewing experience for everyone in the theater. An interruption like that pulls an audience out of their reverie, if only for a moment. Watching a movie can be a delicate balancing act between shutting out distractions and allowing the director's vision to pull you along. When someone wilfully interrupts that flow with a thoughtless distraction, he sabotages the movie-going experience. Therein lies the heart of Siegel's sin.

Of course, we live in a time when crude behavior in movie theaters has become an expected occurrence, and this is sad. It's the reason why many movie-lovers above the age of 40 (and some younger) no longer attend multiplexes. People talk through films as if they're in their living rooms. They put their bare feet on the seats in front of them. They eat noxious substances that stink up the auditorium. So, taken in that context, maybe what Siegel did isn't so bad after all. Maybe he's just reflecting how people act these days in theaters. If that's the case, those of us who love the experience of sitting quietly in an auditorium watching something unfold on the big screen can wish that all such people would walk out, with or without announcing it beforehand.

July 31, 2006 (Monday):


I thought about writing something about Mel Gibson today, but what's the point? Everyone else is writing about him. He joins Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan in the category of self-destructive celebrities. Gibson's problem is twofold: he's an alcoholic and an anti-Semite. The first problem he can get help for (as apparently he is doing). I'm not sure about the second. He has been contrite over the past few days, but one has to wonder whether this is heartfelt contrition over his sins, or sorrow that this has come into the public. Gibson is probably experienced at burying his anti-Semitism. How else could he have thrived in Hollywood for so many years? But alcohol has a way of stripping away barriers and letting things out. Gibson may have been working for years to overcome or surpress his anti-Jewish feelings, but they're obviously still there, just beneath the surface. We live in a society where we delight in raising up movie stars to the level of false gods, then tearing them down. Gibson has aided the latter process, providing not only the necessary rope for a hanging, but fashioning the noose and draping it around his own neck.

That's the extent to which I'm going to write about him, and one paragraph may be more than he deserves.

What I want to address today is my extreme boredom with compiled movie lists. It seems that every group in existence feels compelled to put one or more of these together. The Best 100 of this, the Top 100 of that, and the Most Extreme 100 of the other thing. The AFI is the biggest offender, but they're not the only ones. The film critics' group I belong to, the OFCS, is currently putting together lists. I have abstained from participating. Why? Because I find the project to be a waste of time and effort. And boring. Who wants to read a list put together by a committee?

Some might find this stance hypocritical, since I spent the better part of two years posting my own Top 100 list, and take time every January to revise and update it, as necessary. I also provide end-of-the-year Top 10s, as well as mid-year lists. My objection, however, isn't with individual Top 10s or Top 100s or Top whatevers. Those can be interesting, since they provide insight into the mindset of the person who compiled them. But I hate group lists. I don't find them useful or interesting or indicative of anything. Plus, there's no one to argue with if you strongly disagree with a selection.

I believe, though, that I'm in the minority. I think there's an endless fascination with lists of all kinds, and people don't care much who is responsible for putting them together. They are gratified if their favorites make it onto the list, and insulted if they don't. I have received numerous e-mails praising my choice of Movie X on my Top 100 and asking if I have lost my mind for not including Movie Y. People feel strongly about films and want others to feel the same. That's human nature.

I read other people's lists to figure out how closely their tastes match mine. Perusing a Top 100 list is a good way to make a first assessment. But when the list is the result of group voting, it has become a neutered, least common denominator grouping. It represents nothing. It's the mean of the bell curve with the quirky choices removed if they're more than one standard deviation away. That's why Citizen Kane is always called The Best Film Ever Made. It's a safe choice, and a good film. But it's a consensus pick that many individuals do not agree with. (Apologies to Roger Ebert, who sincerely believes it is the best film ever made.) It's possible for a film that isn't #1 on any lists to achieve that position on a group list, if it places high on enough lists to earn the most "points." In that case, how valid is this #1? Do even the people involved in compiling these lists care about the results, or are they doing it simply to have a new "project" to work on?

Does that sound cynical? Possibly. I have my cynical moments. But is it more cynical than the truth about one of America's most beloved actors harboring horrible, racist sentiments that will only earn him the brunt of the condemnation he deserves if his upcoming movie fails?

©2006 James Berardinelli

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