Criticizing the Critics

The complaint on critics used to be that cliche thing about “Those that aren’t talented enough to make movies, critique them.”

David Lee Roth was once angry over a critic that knocked a Van Halen album. He said, “The music critics all like people like Elvis Costello because…they look like him.”

It was a great line. Now, as somebody that loves both Costello and VH (well, pre-Sammy Hagar), it’s hard to imagine a critic knocking them.

I’ve been reviewing movies, in various capacities on TV, radio, print, and online for almost 30 years. The first time a famous actor knocked movie critics and got me riled up, was Meryl Streep a few years ago. Her movie Suffragette didn’t do so well, and she talked about how there weren’t enough female voices in film criticism. Although that might be true, her point didn’t make sense. Is she saying women like bad movies? Oh no, wait…I think she’s implying that it’s of more interest to women, since it dealt with women issues. Sorry Meryl, it doesn’t work that way. And male critics have been praising her since The Deer Hunter. Even her horrible movie Ricki and the Flash got much better reviews than it should’ve, simply because it starred Streep. Nobody said you had to be a female rock singer in a bar band to appreciate that character’s plight.

Male critics (or at least me) gave great reviews to Thelma & Louise, The Prince of Tides, Terms of Endearment, Sleepless in Seattle, and Fried Green Tomatoes. They didn’t get bad reviews while Terminator got raves, from the “mostly male” film critics. So why when the stars get bad reviews do they start bitching?

A few weeks, Brie Larson went on a rant about critics. She wanted to see diversity among journalists that cover entertainment and movies. When she accepted an award at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, she made sure to state, “Am I saying I hate white dudes? No, I am not. What I am saying is if you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is an insanely low chance a woman of color will have a chance to see your movie, and review your movie.” She went on to say, “I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ It wasn’t made for him. I want to know what it meant to women of color, biracial women, to teen women of color.”

Larson’s statement is perhaps, the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard regarding bad reviews. My wife has a niece that’s a 30-year-old (white) women, that adored the book and was really looking forward to the movie. Is Larson saying it’s not for her? Is Larson trying to imply that studios merely make movies for one segment of society? If she thinks that, she’s rather naive. Coco wasn’t just made for 10-year-old Mexican boys, and that’s why it made a gazillion dollars. And guess what? Nobody from that movie said they didn’t care what old white dudes had to say about that movie. It appealed to EVERYONE, it was a good animated movie, and that’s why it was a success. Sure, there might be an 8-year-old black girl that liked A Wrinkle in Time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. Children aren’t good at telling you the flaws in a film, cliches, character development, bad special effects, etc. In fact, it’s amazing that A Wrinkle in Time got a handful of good reviews. It had around 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and should’ve gotten 0%. Right now, Gotti (John Travolta) is getting a 0%. I don’t hear anybody saying you need to be Italian to appreciate it, or it’s not for white, 40-year-old critics, but mobsters. No, it’s simply called a bad movie, and the race card isn’t brought up. It’s always funny when the race card is played. Jada Pinkett Smith used it when Will Smith didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Concussion (he was great it in, but it was merely an average movie). She complained about Academy members being old white guys, yet…they nominated him a few other times for Oscars. Seriously, don’t these actresses see how self-serving this complaining sounds?

Siskel & Ebert once had this great debate. I forget the movie they were reviewing, as I was about 13-years-old at the time. I remember it was animated, and Gene Siskel was just tearing the thing apart, saying how bad it was. Roger Ebert smiled and said, “Oh, come on! You’re being too harsh. It was a cute little movie for 6-year-olds. They didn’t make this movie for guys like you, they made it for kids.”

Gene looked at him, then looked at the camera, and exclaimed, “Okay. This movie sucks. Unless you’re a 6-year-old, then you’ll love it. If you’re under six, or over six, you’ll hate it. But all you 6-year-olds out there, rush out and see it.”

Ebert laughed, and it taught me something I still employ today when reviewing movies. I try to let people know if a movie will be good for kids, even if adults don’t care for it. Especially since a lot of critics come off as pretentious old curmudgeons that only like foreign films, or esoteric indie flicks.

But movies that might cater to a certain segment of society, should still be good movies. I hated Hope Springs (Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell). Meryl Streep was in that, and I’m guessing she’d say it’s only for older couples. Yet I brought my friend who is my age and she liked it. Would Streep try to say “Okay, it’s only for women, not men.”

The year before, I brought that same friend to Pariah (the first movie by Dee Rees, of Mudbound fame). I hated it, she liked it. I’m sure Rees would say it’s because my friend is African-American, but how would that explain the mid-90% good reviews it got from the “old, white, male critics” that praised a movie about a black, rebellious, lesbian protagonist. The conclusion I came to (after much discussion with my friend), is that she just likes everything. She couldn’t even think of the last movie she saw that she didn’t like. Yet if movie critics were that way, it wouldn’t tell audiences anything. Every movie would get praised and they wouldn’t know what was good or bad. Sometimes you notice a publication like Entertainment Weekly gives all good reviews, and you can chalk that up to the fact that they probably want to retain a good relationship with the actors they’re hoping to interview. It’s kind of like how all the late night hosts always tell their guests how much they loved their new movie, and all the critics at home are rolling their eyes at the ass-kissing. The point being, is a person going to trust Jimmy Fallon, endlessly laughing at Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and saying how great his latest movie is, or a critic that’s telling you all the flaws with it? And if you were to pin Johnson down (no wrestling reference intended) on critics giving his movies bad reviews, he’d probably smile and say “Hey man, it’s stuff blowing up, cars driving fast, me dangling from buildings…I get that. I’m not making Citizen Kane.”

Larson brought up a recent study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, that found more than 63% of film critics are white and male, and only 18.1% were white and female.

There were also stats about the amount of minority women being even lower numbers. Larson concluded, “It sucks that reviews matter.”

Actually Larson, that doesn’t “suck.” Let me give an example, using Brie Larson. Her movie Room wasn’t expected to do much at the box office. It’s about a teenage girl that gets kidnapped and kept in a shed, where she’s raped nightly by her captor. She has a baby with this rapist, and when the kid turns 5-years-old, they escape. Cheery subject matter, huh? Guess what? That movie made my Top 10 list that year and most critics praised it. The studio, based on the great reviews, gave it a wider release and exposure. They advertised it more (with critics quotes on the screen). It ended up making over $36 million at the box office (and probably cost only a million to make), and won SAG, Golden Globe, and even an Oscar for Larson. At the Critics’ Choice awards (where I’m a voting member, and sat a few tables away from Larson), she won “best actress” and the movie won a second award. Funny, she wasn’t complaining about critics then, and as she freely admits, that led her to having a successful movie career.

I didn’t care for her movie Kong: Skull Island, but she didn’t complain about critics when that got mostly good reviews.

Larson was adding to all the complaints the previous week that actress Mindy Kaling made. She was peeved (as one of the stars of A Wrinkle in Time) that her last few movies weren’t well received by the critics. She feels they should’ve been nicer in their reviews of Ocean’s 8. Well, it has 66% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which is probably where it should be. Kaling said she wants there to be less white people starring in the movies she does (correct me if I’m wrong, but…isn’t that racism?). She also said she wouldn’t have a career if it was all about what white, male critics wanted. I’m not sure I even get that. She was one of my favorite characters in The Office, and in my review of Ocean’s 8, I said that she was the most interesting character and should’ve been given more to do. The few lines she had were the funniest. Does she think if there were more Indian critics they would be kinder to her because they’re the same ethnicity?

Speaking of Indians, the critics all loved writer/director M. Night Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (I still talk about that being one of the most underrated movies ever). Even Signs was a serviceable alien invasion flick. Yet when he started doing horrible films, he started getting horrible reviews. His last movie Split was good, and the good reviews came in. Nothing about race was involved in these decisions by critics, and he’d be the first to agree.

Why don’t actors understand how these things work?

I realize people get upset when you give a bad review to something they love, and that’s probably tougher if you starred in, or directed a movie, that got bad reviews.

I was once leaving a movie in Clairemont, and an 80-year-old man approached me. He said, “Are you that critic that’s on TV?” I smiled and said yes, only to have him stick his finger in my face and scream at me for not giving a good review to the first Hobbit movie. His relatives tried to pull him away from me, but I didn’t mind. We ended up having a good conversation about it. A few years earlier, I had gotten another old guy mad. A grandfather sent me a letter, furious I only gave a B+ to Toy Story 3, and some other movie he claimed was the best of the year. One of his reasons for liking them so much, was that his grandkids were highly entertained. If this was the criteria for good movies, they’d make movies with people walking around continuously farting.

One of the radio stations I do reviews for, has a co-host that loves Marvel movies. He constantly gives me a hard time. When I did my review of Thor: Ragnarok, he lost his mind. He went off on me, saying “Why do you continue to review comic book movies? You obviously hate them. This would be like a restaurant critic that’s a vegetarian, reviewing a steakhouse.”

Clever line, but he’s wrong. I told him I loved the first Iron Man. I liked the first two Captain America movies. I’ve been hit-and-miss with the Wolverine films. I liked all the X-Men movies (although one of them I didn’t see).I loved both Deadpools, and I was surprised at how good Spider-man: Homecoming and Black Panther were. Yet just because I wasn’t so fond of the last Avengers and Thor, he went nuts on me and thinks I’m not credible to speak on comic book films.

I was one of the few critics that was merely lukewarm on Wonder Woman. I guarantee you if other critics felt the same (they didn’t, as it got lots of praise), female director Patty Jenkins would’ve been singing this same tune — male film critics are to blame.

Deadline Hollywood did a story that stated 78% of film critics are male, and 82% are white. People see numbers like this and lose their sh*t. Well, let me tell you something Deadline might find interesting. Of all the movie critics I know, at least 40% of them don’t get paid. Of the 60% that do get paid, it’s not enough that they can do this for a living. They have another “real” job.

And so many other, long-time critics (including Anders Wright, who was terrific at his job for the Union-Tribune and CityBeat), have lost their jobs because it’s cheaper to just syndicate and use the same critics in multiple cities.

My point with that last paragraph is, we’re reviewing movies because we love them. We’re not doing it to become the next Siskel & Ebert, Pauline Kael, Jeffrey Lyons, Leonard Maltin, or Peter Travers. But by even explaining that, I’m sure the actresses griping, will merely take away the fact that I only had one female on that list of the most famous film critics I could think of.

If Brie Larson and Mindy Kaling want to know what a 12-year-old black girl thought of A Wrinkle in Time, are they going to wonder why that same 12-year-old “film critic” didn’t understand a thing about Inception or 2001: A Space Odyssey?  

Yes Larson, what you said is true, that “it sucks that reviews matter,” and that they can help or hurt a film’s success. A talented writer/director/stunt man named Nash Edgerton, had his box office numbers hurt by critics, for the terrific comedy Gringo (Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, and David Oyelowo). It bothered me so much, I contacted a few of the critics that specifically gave good reviews to A Wrinkle in Time, and didn’t like Gringo (since any critic that actually liked A Wrinkle in Time, shouldn’t be doing movie reviews, as they clearly don’t know how to properly judge a film).

I was talking with a black woman who does movie reviews for Black Girl Nerds, and we both talked about how Tyler Perry’s Acrimony started out well, and turned to crap. In fact, all of Tyler Perry movies are bad. That’s not because I’m white. It’s because they’re bad movies. Heck, Spike Lee even agrees on that point. But don’t get me started on all the idiotic things Spike says about film. He’s clueless.

I didn’t hear star Taraji P. Henson complaining about the critics that all hated Acrimony. It would’ve been silly if we did, because we all loved her and the movie Hidden Figures.

Regarding Ocean’s 8, Kaling tried saying white male critics “don’t understand it.” Huh? What about Ocean’s 8 does somebody not understand? And none of the critics complained about it being an all-female cast doing an Ocean’s movie, the way some did with Ghostbusters. That was mostly because it was a classic film, and we get sick of remakes and reboots. And for some reason, critics were kind to that (it got around 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, and should have gotten 15%; it wasn’t that funny).

It’s also strange when people talk about inclusion. When the “Oscars so white” thing was trending, I had talked to a few of my black friends about movies. Guess what I found interesting. Three of the black guys hated Moonlight, the story about a young, gay black man trying to deal with his sexuality and horrible home life. Well, one didn’t see it, claiming he didn’t want to see “none of that gay stuff…it’s not for me.”

Yet Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture, by an Academy that is mostly white, and old. So again, people can like all kinds of movies, and for stars to claim you need to “relate” to the characters is hogwash [side note: that’s probably a word only old, white dudes use]. I didn’t care for Brokeback Mountain, and I thought Moonlight was merely an average movie. It’s not because I’m not gay and can’t relate, because Colin Firth’s A Single Man was wonderful, and broke my heart. I liked seeing George Carlin play the gay best friend in A Prince of Tides (he even sent me a nice letter thanking him for the praise).

Jordan Peele won an Oscar for Get Out. I thought it was good, but overrated. I prefered his cat movie Keanu more, and found his show Key and Peele way better.

Peele himself, thought the movie wouldn’t do much, and was surprised by the box office success and critical praise. He thought it would only resonate with African-American moviegoers. Yet old, white film critics and audiences, liked it. So please, somebody have Kaling and Larson explain to me why white critics were praising a movie where the white people were the bad guys. I’ll tell you why — critics like good movies!!! Opinions may vary on what is good, but it’s not because they aren’t the same race, sexual orientation, or any other things you want to attach to that.

If Larson and Kaling are so upset at the power reviews have on the outcome of a film, they should instead complain about movie studios. Why do they continue to make so many crappy movies? Why all the sequels? Why so many horrible Fast and Furious movies? And why do actors not mind taking millions to be in such bad movies? Complain about people like Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage making millions, for churning out garbage. Or, pull a Greta Gerwig and write your own damn movie! I thought her film Ladybird was the best movie last year, and I’m not a teenager girl fighting with my mom. Heck, I liked Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Edge of 17, and this year, Love Simon; none of the characters in that were remotely like “40-year-old, pale and male critics.”

I’ve never been into video games, but I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I’ve never been that into musicals (and probably even made fun of the drama geeks in high school that performed them), but I loved Chicago.

I’ve never been in a book club, and me and a few critics were talking about how bad that movie was going to be, and…we ended up liking Book Club (it was flawed, but entertaining enough).

Folks have so many ways to watch movies now online and ordering them. So, a parent has probably grown tired of taking their spouse and two kids to see Cars 2 (a movie that was so bad, I left in the middle of it). The tickets for the two adults — $30. The two kids — $15. A tub of popcorn for the family — $7.50. Sodas for everyone — $17. I’m too lazy to do the math on that, but that’s a lot of money, for an animated movie by the legendary John Lasseter (who won’t be making movies anymore, but that’s another story for another time). It’s much easier for people to see what the reviews are saying, and decide to skip it. You can’t rely on trailers, because they make everything look great.

If our bad reviews hurt the box office numbers, that’s on you guys, Mindy and Brie. You actors are the ones making all these bad movies. Don’t shoot the messengers.