Issue: October 2015 - Critics

A very brief history of film criticism

For as long as there have been films, there have been people writing about them. As film transformed from a nickelodeon fancy to an established art form and a dominant medium of entertainment as it exists today, film criticism has changed as well. However, just as the history of film is too broad a subject for any one article to summarize, the history of film criticism as a whole is equally too vast. Instead, it is more worthwhile to examine popular film criticism and discuss its influence in the past century. This article is a very brief history of film criticism up until the dawn of the Internet. To define the term for anyone unfamiliar, popular film criticism is the evaluation of what a film is doing, narratively, thematically and formally. It typically takes the form of published reviews and essays that are meant to inform readers with an interest in the art form. Furthermore, film criticism attempts to explore why films are or are not working. Veteran Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere (author of “Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road” and “Mondo Canuck”) believes that what generally defines a film critic is “expertise, insight and an ability to provide a judgement of a film’s quality that’s backed up with a cogent argument, a clear indication of the critic’s position and standards for evaluation, and a style that engages the...

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How the internet killed film criticism

Film criticism is dead. At least that’s what traditionalists would have you believe. If education and experience in the field of writing no longer carry the same gravitas as previously, what are the criteria? The Internet swept in and levelled the playing field, giving anyone with an opinion a voice, creating a conundrum for those whose job it is to render an informed one. Of all the major advancements brought about by the Internet, blogging is the one that has, arguably, had the largest impact on film criticism. Since everyone has an opinion, and blogs and social media allow everyone to express it, dialogue about film has been both elevated and lessened. Hollywood — forever obsessed with profits and opening weekends — listens to the loudest consensus in an attempt to craft critic-proof films. Blogging, for better or worse, is the ever-expanding present and unarguable future of film criticism. However, major questions remain: should bloggers be painted with a single brush and vilified for their often lack of formal education in the field? Are the atrophying traditional print and television journalists to be revered as the only ones qualified to critique film? The answer, unlike most current movie reviews, is not a simple thumbs up or down. A Brief History of the Blog Before we get to blogging’s effect on the film industry, it’s important to explore its backstory....

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A field of tomatoes: how to keep film criticism fresh in the Information Age

Take a look at the box office totals from this summer’s movie season, and one may conclude that the film critic played a mighty part. Fantastic Four—clobbered by critics—couldn’t even reach the top of a tepid August weekend. Lukewarm notices couldn’t help Aloha connect with audiences, as the film barely reached the US$20,000,000mark in its run. (The film’s budget? $37,000,000.) Remember that heavily promoted nostalgia fest with Adam Sandler predicted to be a summer blockbuster? Pixels now hovers near the US$75,000,000 mark in North America, due partly to disastrous reviews. That’s only slightly more than this spring’s already forgotten sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which cost Sony a lot less to make and promote. Meanwhile, strong notices from critics aided several of the summer’s biggest hits. Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, the two biggest critical hits of the season, earned big bucks, even amidst huge competition. Straight Outta Compton defied so many box office expectations that the film is now generating Oscar talk. However, although toxic critical reception helped to halt potential hits and written approval bolstered others, were any other films hits due to critics? Probably not. The summer’s biggest blockbuster, Jurassic World, earned lukewarm notices—not that it would have made much of a difference amid the T-Rex–sized buzz. Film critics are still an important part of the conversation, but the influence of powerful film columnists seems to...

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Is it possible for a superfan to be a good critic?

We live in the age of the superfan (often known as fanboys or fangirls).Massive movie franchises based upon comic books dominate our theatre screens. Old fan properties from the ’80s and ’90s, like Jurassic Park and Star Wars, are being revived to feed future generations of geeks. Events like San Diego Comic Con have swallowed the industry whole, forcing studios to compete with each other for the intense adoration of zealous but hypercritical uber-fans. Sequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots of genre films top the year-end box office. This focused targeting of fanboys/girls has overwhelmed the movie industry and film criticism has drastically changed to follow suit. While individuals like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris, who certainly loved movies but gave no specific favour to one genre or franchise, so long as the movies were good, dominated the past century of film criticism, our new millennium has seen the rise of critics with unabashed pop-culture favouritism. Websites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Birth Movies Death, Cinema Blend, Comic Book Movie.com, JoBlo, Screen Rant and SlashFilm now control the movie news landscape, publishing dozens of articles each day that repurpose studio promotional material into meaningless click bait. There are good articles to be found, but they sit uncomfortably alongside naked promotion for whatever fan property is deemed worthy of our collective attention at the moment. Even older and once-respected publications like Entertainment Weekly have changed...

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A day in the life of a film critic (or: don’t quit your day job)

Being a film critic is a fantastic job, with great perks. I get to watch numerous films and am frequently able to speak with their creators. I’ve been lucky enough to converse with some of my favourite actors, actresses and directors. I’ve also been able to watch a number of movies I never would have seen had it not been for my job at Toronto Film Scene. Of course, sitting around watching movies isn’t the only thing I do. There’s also the critic part of the job, where I need to intelligently write about said films. To make things a little more interesting, I’m also a stay-at-home parent to two teenagers. This is the harder of the two jobs. As a film critic, I simply have to watch whatever is assigned, intelligently speak about it, submit my review on time and, if I’m lucky, get an interview to go along with it. If that happens, I’ll have to come up with some interesting questions and deal with a few hours of transcribing. As a parent, I need to make sure my kids grow up to be happy, healthy human beings, who are polite and respectful of the people around them. This is a much more challenging task. Being a film critic isn’t the hardest job in the world—I’m leaving that to parenting—but it has its challenges. Since watching movies...

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Find your film critic soulmate

Most people ignore film critics simply out of a perceived lack of choice. Not everyone will gravitate towards the critic that works for their regional newspaper (or the wire service they crib from, because it’s cheap) for a variety of reasons. They might not like the writing. They might not like the breadth of coverage. There might be overtly political and sociological disagreements. They might think the author is talking down to their personal tastes in an unnecessarily snarky way. Equally, there’s so much film writing on the Internet that the prospect of trying to find a writer worth following on a weekly, or monthly, basis is a daunting one. With that in mind, here’s a handy, but in no way comprehensive, primer on places you might want to search for your specific film criticism fix. “I really only pay attention to the big releases every week, but I still care about what I watch” Suggestion: A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis — The New York Times It might sound cliché, but despite recently abandoning their mandate of covering every release in NYC every week (a suicidal mission, considering the popular practices of four-walling and platform releasing), The New York Times remains the absolute gold standard in film criticism. While other writers often contribute, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis hold down the most important and nuanced mainstream film coverage in North America....

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CineAction: a look at the criticism of Robin Wood

York University has a different history compared to its older downtown sister, the University of Toronto (UofT). UofT dates back to the 19th century, its downtown campus integrating organically with the surrounding community, Gothic buildings on tree-lined boulevards side-by-side with Edwardian houses and public schools. York University, however, was purposely planned and created to serve Toronto’s booming population. When its main campus opened in the mid-’60s, it was vastly removed from Toronto’s core, a geographically large field with its few Brutalist buildings situated far apart. To the east were oil refineries. To the west it was geographically isolated from its closest neighbourhood, Jane and Finch, which has had a negative reputation. Many people may be surprised to learn that York’s original classes were taught at UofT’s downtown campus, and York’s first campus, Glendon, was previously owned by UofT. By 1985 — the 20th anniversary of its main campus — York was still a commuter school, as the institute was more easily accessible by car than by walking or transit; its large parking lots on its outskirts may have contributed to its unsafe reputation. Yet by this time, several of York’s programs were developing strong reputations, including its film theory courses, which for many years were housed in its Atkinson night school. It was in this setting that in the spring of 1985, many York film scholars collaborated to form...

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