Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The State of Film Criticism In America: Case Study 648

I really want to get back to watching "Last Comic Standing," but I had to register this mind-boggling blurb very quickly.

This is alleged film critic Scott Mantz of "Access Hollywood" on Pixar's "Cars"...

"The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."

First off, "Cars" is disposable and mediocre and they're working a series of suspect quotes [because the only thing kids love more than Pixar is movie critics], but they're from reputable sources. First, you get Richard Corliss of Time calling it an instant classic, which is almost exactly what he said about "Chicken Little" last fall. Then you get Pete Travels of Rolling Stone, who's paid by the blurb. The tuna fish at the Time-Warner Building features a "roller-coaster of flavor," says Pete Travers. His subway ride into the office was "an adrenaline-packed thrill-ride that really delivered." Then you have Ebert & Roeper, whose "Two Thumbs Up" seal of approval means less and less when they toss it to summer dreck like "The Da Vinci Code" and "X-Men 3." They're all hyperbolic, but Mr. Mantz takes the cake.

"The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."


Thank God! And there I was getting so darned frustrated! Back in February, I was already sitting in the corner of my apartment with my head in my hands muttering, "When will the Best Movie of the Year EVER come?!?!?" For a while, I made do with the year's first great military academy boxing movie ("Anapolis," probably), the year's first great movie about an African-American man in drag (either "Madea's Family Reunion" or that thing with Martin Lawrence), the year's first great sequel ("Basic Instinct 2," I think) and the year's first great slug-fest ("Slither," clearly), but those were all niche successes. Finally, indeed.

Scott Mantz says "The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."

I haven't been so excited by the word of a non-film critic (Does "Access Hollywood" even do movie reviews?) since the "Akeelah the Bee" ads quoted Greta Van Susteren calling it the best family movie ever made. Well, darnit, I thought it was slick, manipulative and yet surprisingly effective, but if a legal analyst from FOX NEWS says it's better than "Babe" and "The Wizard of Oz" and "Bambi," then I'm sold. But only if Larry King agrees. That man knows movies!

Now it helps if you know that it was only a couple weeks ago that Mantz declared that "V for Vendetta" was "The first truly great film of 2006." And with one truly great film already in 2006, you wouldn't think his relief at the Best Movie of the Year FINALLY arriving would be so great. I mean, yeah, my appetite was whetted, but I could hardly be starved with so much brilliance about.

I saw "Chinatown" last weekend at the New Beverly, the first time I'd seen it on the big screen. Beautiful print. Beautiful movie. Now there's a TRULY GREAT movie. Now, you don't have to be "Chinatown" to be truly great, but you probably have to be better than "V for Vendetta" (a truly good movie), and it seems that Mantz values "Cars" over "V," which means it must be "really, truly great. really."

What's sad, is that Mantz' quote doesn't even say "The Best Movie Of The Year So Far," because the "So Far" precludes the "Finally." It offers hope that something better is yet to come.

Now "The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here." That means that this is it. We're not even up to June 1 and our arduous wait is over. The best movie of the year is finally here. And you know what? We can just stop going to the movies.

I believe the ellipses in the blurb is there because the quote deserved two screens worth of attention and not because Mr. Mantz intended to write "The Best Movie of the Year [is likely to be 'All The King's Men,' but while you're waiting on it and if you're already sick of 'Over the Hedge,' another computer animated comedy] Is Here."

Anyway, this just makes me sad. "Cars" isn't a movie that needs desperate quote whores to shill for it. It's a movie that sells itself. And, frankly, kids won't be all that disappointed. Grown-ups will be, but kids will be perfectly happy with the flashing colors and the silly gags. This movie doesn't need the hyperbole of people calling it a "classic" or the FINALLY the year's best movie. It's not. But attention hungry critics are worried that they won't make the papers or the TV ads if they give the consensus response, "Eh. It was A'ight."

This is why we always appreciate the fine work done by the good people at Hollywood Bitchslap in their regular CriticWatch feature.


Back to watching so-so comics.

FINALLY the best comic of the year will be on my TV. Early pick? That Chris Porter guy is funny. He's like a less-needy Joey Slotnick!

Now there's a blurb you can take to the bank.

UPDATE 05/31/06: In the interest of equal access, I'm inclined to note that Mr. Mantz has chimed in on the "Comments" page and that he has, indeed, resorted to less name-calling than I did. I'm not sure if there's necessarily an intellectual discussion in progress, but if there is, feel free to join it.


  1. Anonymous7:56 AM

    how can anyone take you seriously when you begin your rant by saying "i really want to get back to watching 'last comic standing'"?

  2. Ummm...



    You see...

    Boy. You got me there.


    I've been invalidated and "Cars" really *is* FINALLY the best movie of the year.

  3. Anonymous8:30 AM

    not my point.

    my point is that you watch "last comic standing".

    and you respond to anonymous comments almost instantly.

    speaks volumes.

  4. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Dear Daniel,

    Scott Mantz here from Access Hollywood. I just read your recent blog, in which you take more than a few shots at me. Now it's my turn to shoot back, albeit with a lot more class than you obviously have.

    First off, I'd like to quote the great Anthony Lane, Film Critic for the New Yorker, who described a critic as "a regular viewer with a ballpoint pen, an overstocked memory, and an underpowered social life."

    Well, that pretty much sums me up (except for that last part)....

    I can understand why you're so confused that my name has appeared virtually out of nowhere as the film critic for Access Hollywood, and you're right -- Access does not normally review movies, at least, not on the air.

    But they do review movies online. And what you obviously do not know is that I've been reviewing movies for various websites (including my own at www.moviemantz.com) for more than 7 years. If you had the smarts to Google my name, you would have known that already.

    The bottom line is that I love movies, I know my shit and I back all of my reviews up with my own opinions. That's all a critic can do, right?

    So if I think that "V for Vendetta" is "the first truly great movie of 2006" (the key word being "FIRST"), then that's my opinion. And if I think that "Cars" is "The Best Movie of the Year," then that's my opinion too.

    For what it's worth, I said that "Cars" was the best ANIMATED movie of the year SO FAR, but I guess that the publicists at Disney decided not to use that part.

    Regardless of what you think of me -- obviously not a lot, which says a helluva lot more about you than it does about me -- I still think that the best reviews are being written online. Unlike some of the bigger critics (Ebert, Travers, etc), online critics have nothing to lose by telling it like it is, which has resulted in some of the best film criticism the medium has ever seen. The late great Pauline Kael would have been proud!

    So if you don't like what I have to say about a movie, then don't read my reviews.

    All the best,
    Scott Mantz
    Film Critic
    Access Hollywood

  5. Scott,

    First off, you'll notice (if you care) that I've updated the blog post to note that your response is on the comment page. It just seems right that if anybody reads my "rant" (as Mr. anonymous rightly described it) they may want to see your response.

    My frustration, or concern, is the reduction of any kind of writing or even conversation into blurb format. Just as the judges on "American Idol" devalue the language when they call a decent bar singer "brilliant," it does, indeed, raise my hackles when writers rely on hyperbolic language -- "brilliant," "classic," "truly great," "best of the year [when it's only May]" -- for the sake of providing studios with pull quotes. It causes those phrases to have less meaning if and when something genuinely "brilliant," "great," or noteworthy comes along.

    That part, though, is entirely subjective and I shouldn't be bitter that you liked "Cars" more than I did. It's your opinion. What bothers me more is how it messes with the relationships that all writers have with studio publicists when some writers -- you to some degree, but still to less of a degree than the Earl Dittmans and Pete Hammonds of the world -- are offer florid quotes that don't really say very much, but say it with great effusion. Unavoidably it pushes all writing in that direction because that's what publications decide they want. At the site I write for, we were mortified when our film critic at the time was blurbed in "Alexander" ads for calling it the best film of the year, or at least everybody on our editorial staff was. Then the Big Boss observed that even if it made the rest of us ethically queasy, it was good publicity and it was subsequently suggested that there was some advantage for us in being blurb-worthy like that. We become another leg of the studio's marketing department, rather than independent voices.

    As you clarified, your independent voice and opinion was that "Cars" is the year's best animated film so far, but that's not the way you were quoted and now your name is attached to that quote in countless television ads. I believe that at some point Roger Ebert told the studios they could use his quotes if they wanted, but only if they actually ran what he said, rather than what they wanted to use for their purposes.

    That's the tip of the iceberg, but it's the source of my frustration (a frustration articulated with even more annoyance and even less tact on Hollywood Bitchslap).

    You are correct, though, that your response to my posting was probably done with more "class" than the posting myself -- certainly with less name-calling -- and I appreciate that.


  6. Anonymous10:04 AM


    For what it's worth, I understand you're coming from about the state of film criticism where "blurbs" are concerned.

    That's why I simply cannot believe anything that Pete Hammond says anymore. It's one thing to like "The Break-Up" (which I did NOT), but it's another thing to call it "one of the best American comedies in years" (which he DID)...

    I cannot speak for him -- if that's how he truly feels, then more power to him.

    But when I write my reviews, I say what I want to say, and how I want to say it. I'm not a "quote whore." I don't get excited when I see my name in the paper. I don't customize my reviews so that my quotes can be used for TV ads. I only feel good when I'm finished writing a review that conveys my feelings. What happens after that is cream cheese.

    If anything, it's VERY rare that I actually like a movie enough that the studios will want to pull quotes from my reviews.

    Fox wanted me to give them a usable quote for "Just My Luck" -- I said, "no friggin' way." They also wanted me to give them a quote for the new "X-Men," which I thought was mildly entertaining, but not enough to give them a blurb.

    Again, I urge you to read some of my past reviews on my site (they go back to July 1999). Even if you don't agree with WHAT I said (which is fine), you might still appreciate HOW I said it.

    "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."


  7. No offense, Scott, but it takes some of the life out of a potential blood feud if you're a reasonable person.

    I have little doubt that if I read your older reviews, I'd discover that there's substance behind the blurbs, but the tyranny of blurbs is that they no longer operate as links or footnotes i.e. "Scott Mantz Calls 'Cars' the greatest movie since 'Citizen Kane,' click here to read his whole review." In the hands of studio marketing departments, they become the reviews themselves, part and parcel. I hear people make fun of Roger Ebert, because he's just become a "thumb" to the general public, rather than an excellent writer with occasionally daffy, but always well-defended opinions. Ebert hasn't changed his writing, but people like Peter Travers have. You read his reviews these days and they come across as nothing more than candy-coated words designed only to be blurbed indiscriminately.

    In your first comment, you quoted both Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane, two writers I respect because they're darned near unblurbable. They write for the sake of writing and expressing their opinions with joy and not just expressing the joy of his opinion. The fact that Earl Dittman loves everything doesn't bother me. It's the fact that he loves everything in a way that sounds only like advertising prattle and that he thinks that the best way to show his love is to give endless quotes, which lead to studios flying him to all the junkets, which lead to even more adoring and purple quotes, which leads to studios expecting similar quotes out of writers who express themselves in, um, different ways.

    The words "vicious circle" get thrown around a lot, but this is one. It all just becomes a huge mess and it becomes impossible to know if anybody really MEANS what they're saying. Does Pete Hammond believe that "The Break-Up" is one of the best American comedies in years? And is it worse if he does believe it or if he doesn't?

    Sigh. It just makes my head wanna pop sometimes...


  8. So Earl Dittman is real, then?

  9. Anonymous2:52 PM

    I just wanted to point out that I genuinely like LAST COMIC STANDING.

    In fact, I would go so far as to call it "the white knuckle thrill ride of the Summer."

  10. Hey Louis,

    Earl Dittman is, indeed, a real person. A large, sweat, limping person. He's annoying (very), but he isn't evil. Also, if I didn't know better, I'd think he actually believes every word he blurbs.

    I wish I liked movies as much. Or I wished I liked every movie as much...

  11. Andrew,

    I like the audition rounds of "Last Comic Standing." Once they get in the house and start doing challenges, it gets a bit foolish.

    I was amused that they acknowledged the third season, which I like to think of as a scheduling movie directly responsible for NBC's currently fourth place position.

    So who'd you like last night? And is there any way to get the 19-year-old cutie back on the show?

  12. Anonymous6:25 PM

    I have a hard time keeping the comedians all straight, based on 20 seconds of material a piece. I have a vague notion that I thought some guy with a moustache was funny. And the blond woman. And the woman who's father sexually abuses her. And a couple non-descript white guys. One of them might have been bald?

    But then, almost anyone can seem hillarious based on one joke. Ultimately, a comedian lives and dies based on the width and breadth of their material, and we'll be able to judge that as we see more of their material over the next few weeks.

    Also, if you go to the NBC site, you can vote to bring the 19 year old back for "the penultimate episode of the season."

    Or you can vote to bring back that really hairy guy who grew a big, thick beard since last season.