Monday, March 12, 2012

"John Carter" and 10 Tips to Movie Reviewers

My wife and I just saw "John Carter." Totally enjoyed ourselves. It was absolutely worth the $37.50 ($27 for two tickets and $10.50 for the medium drink and medium popcorn - I'm in training, hence the mediums). I'm thinking I'll buy the DVD when it comes out, too. Fun, exciting, great to look at. Lynn Collins is hot, Taylor Kitsch was a very good new face, Ciaran Hines headed up a marvelous supporting cast, and the creatures were totally cool looking. Oh, yeah, and the music was great, too. Just a very satisfying afternoon at the movies for a kid like me -- having refused to grow up. The theater was almost full, which was a good sign on a Sunday afternoon. All ages, too. Fun. Really fun!

On the way home we started talking about all the harsh reviews on this film. Hum. What are these guys smoking? Was it "Citizen Kane?" No, not supposed to be. Was it "Avatar?" No, didn't try to be. It was an adventure movie that was meant to take us to Mars for a couple hours on an journey with a hero who gets stranded in a foreign land, fights some really bad guys, makes some friends along the way and meets a pretty girl. It was a big Disney movie based on a classic science fantasy work by Edgar Rice Burroughs from one hundred years ago. Why all the negative reviews? What did they expect?

Anyone in show business has a love/hate relationship with reviewers. (Rant for Another Day Notice: I'm not referring to them as critics. Film critics are something else entirely and there aren't many of them anymore.) We love reviewers when they are nice to us and we hate them when they aren't. Hopefully, we are able to take them all with a grain of salt and keep doing the best job we can. Of course, if you are not in show business and read a bad review, you may inclined to avoid something if you read a bad review. Fight this urge! You'll miss out on many enjoyable surprises if you blindly follow any reviewer's opinion. Particularly, when reviews like many of those for "John Carter," where actually discussing the business of making "John Carter" and not the actual movie "John Carter.".

In the 24 hours since watching this movie, I've gone back and re-visited many of the reviews. The one thing I noticed is that, I almost always agree with Roger Ebert. He's fair and while he may ask questions like "why this and not that," he'll always stop and say something like, "But I must not review a movie that wasn't made." Good on you, Roger. I have come up with a few tips I think movie reviewers ought to try. I call them the Ten Tips for Better, More Relevant Reviews. Yeah, it's kind of a pretentious, but reviewers can be pretentious and none of them are going to read this blog anyway, so WTF. Here  they are.

Ten Tips for Better, More Relevant Reviews
  1. Watch a movie like a regular person. (I know, you don't think you ARE a regular person, but you are writing for regular people. So learn to talk to your audience. Not every one who reads your reviews is an industry insider.) Pay for some popcorn like the rest of us, leave your attitude at the door, sit down next to someone (not all by yourself on the end of an aisle) and let the movie wash over you. Laugh, cry, invest your emotions for a couple hours in the experience. Audiences have to do some work, too, you know. The same is true for watching a play, listening to a concert, or reading a book. You, as an audience member, are expected to play along for a little while.
  2. Review the movie that you are watching not the one YOU would have made had you chosen to be a lowly film maker instead of the heightened literary genius you are. Don't be a wimp, just admit that what you really want to do is be a screenwriter or maybe a director. Hell, everyone in Hollywood is a hyphenate. We'll understand.
  3. Don't review the trailer as part of your review. For me, trailers have always served more as awareness tools rather than 1-to-1 comparison utilities. Trailers are marketing tools made by trailer houses and designed to elicit a reaction like, "Hey, I love that actor!" or "Oh, man, that looks <insert appropriate adjective here>" or "okay, not my cup of tea." They are not meant to represent everything the movie may or may not be.
  4. Shut up about the budget of the movie. Yes, "John Carter" coast a ton of money to make. So what? What do I care when I sit down in the dark to watch? The amount of money a studio spends on a movie is a business decision. It's on the people who make the film NOT the people who watch it. It's a risk they know they are taking. A low budget film that makes a bazillion dollars is not necessarily a "better movie" than a more expensive one and vice versa.
  5. Don't complain that there aren't any "big stars" in the movie. Every actor starts as a nobody. They become famous later. Besides, once they DO become big stars, your expectations of them and their salaries are going to influence your reviews. So, do yourself and us a favor and just review the actor's performance not their StarMeter. 
  6. Stop comparing the movie to the book. Wanna know somethin' weird? We know that they are two different things. We actually are aware of the fact that some things we really like about the book may not make it into the movie. Yes, we have our opinions about these things, but let us judge for ourselves. Besides, if you read the book 30 years ago your opinion about whether or
  7. Stop comparing movies simply because they are in a similar genre. Not all science fiction movies can be compared to each other any more than all films with boats in them can be compared to "Titanic."
  8. If you think someone or something is particularly terrible -- tell us why. Don't just make a critical statement and expect us to infer your reasoning. For the most part, we are intelligent people who are interested in movies and in what you have to say. Otherwise we wouldn't be reading your review. We are not mind-readers, however. Besides, as I tried to explain to my first wife, "Just because," ain't a reason.
  9. Don't try to impress us with your journalism background or the depth of your film school language. We know how smart you are because you have a job writing for a living and we like to read what you write. (Well, except Entertainment Weekly writers. Jury's still out on some of them.) Face the fact that most movies are meant to entertain. As Lina Lamont would say, " bring a little joy into our humdrum lives."
  10. Don't judge the movie before you see it. We know the difference between a "preview" and a "review."  In fact, don't even write a preview. Let one of your staff writers (I believe you would call them "minion") handle that job. 
If you need an example, here's a pretty good review from a blog at The Houston Press. It holds pretty close to most of the tips. Of course, the other option is for everyone to just stop reading reviews entirely. But then, what would guys like me have to complain about?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why You Can't Read Plays

I was going to title this post: "Shakespeare Should Never be Taught as Literature." Then I thought some people wouldn't read it thinking it might only be about Shakespeare. Then I thought I'd be sneaky and call it "Never Read a Play Again!" in hopes that high school and college students would read it trying to get out of yet another assignment where they would have to analyze a boring drama by some dead guy who always wore a suit and tie.

Then a miracle occurred.

My wife found the following excerpt in a old theatre program. So instead of coming up with thoughts of my own this week, I'm just going to cheat and let you read what the legendary William Gillette had to say about reading plays. It's from his book, The Illusion of the First Time in Acting (New York, 1915, printed for the Dramatic Museum of Columbia University). You can get the ebook on Google Books for free. It's an excellent read for any student of acting, actual actor or theatre historian. on:

"Incredible as it may seem there are people in existence who imagine that they can read a Play. It would not surprise me a great deal to hear that there are some present with us this very morning who are in this pitiable condition. Let me relieve it without delay. The feat is impossible. No one on earth can read a Play. You may read the Directions for a Play and from these Directions imagine as best you can what the Play would be like; but you could no more read the Play than you could read a Fire or an Automobile Accident or a Base-Ball Game. The Play -- if it is Drama -- does not even exist until it appears in the form of Simulated Life."

I have always railed against the teaching of Shakespeare (all plays, actually) in an English class. It is ultimately pointless. Plays are not meant to be read as literature, they are meant to be performed and seen by an audience at that moment. Each performance has the potential to be different from the night before. For the audience, and the actors, a play in performance is visceral. They are meant to be experienced then dissected. Didacticism must follow that intimacy of sitting in the dark.

Imagine trying to teach a class in cinema without watching some movies? A cooking class without food? Can't be done. Same with plays.

Monday, February 13, 2012

War Horse. See It.

Movies are manipulative. They are intended to be. That's why we go to them. We accept the fact that a good filmmaker, and even occasionally a bad one, will help us escape into our imaginations for a couple hours. We'll get to go to Pandora and have an adventure with sexy blue aliens, we'll fall in love with Sandra Bullock or Ewan MacGregor, we'll rob a casino with George Clooney, we'll even team up with Samuel L. Jackson and try to retrieve a suitcase stolen from our mob boss. We go to the movies to be swept away. Don't we?

My wife and I went to see War Horse this weekend. This film is based both on a 1982 children's book by Michael Morpurgo and a 2007 stage adaptation of the book (originally mounted at the Royal National theatre in London and now on tour in the U.S.). The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, music by John Williams, produced by Dreamworks & Disney, blah, blah, blah. You probably know all this is you follow movies at all.

We left the theatre in a shambles. In fact, everyone in the theatre was a wreck. It is a beautiful, old-fashioned, sentimental story. A fabulous story that, yes, manipulates you -- at times to tears. If there is one thing Spielberg knows, it's timing. He has a masterful way of letting you breath in a movie between emotional high points. He knows when to soften a powerful scene with a bit of humor and how to make the character of a horse move you to tears and cheers and gasps.

But as we were walking out of our little neighborhood cineplex, we overheard another couple ask, "Why hasn't this movie done better? Everyone would love this picture." Why, indeed? When we got home, I flung open the iPad and Liz sat at the computer. We both started looking up reviews to find out what the problem was. Very quickly, we found the answer. Thanks to Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and a few other movie buff sites we frequent, we saw that this film was favorably reviewed by only 75% of people, we'll call them critics, who were writing about it. A full 25% did not like the film or found big flaws in it. How is that? How could this old-fashioned, sentimental beauty of a movie not score higher by everyone who loves movies?

Then it hit us. Like a ton of bricks. It's old-fashioned and sentimental. More John Ford than Christopher Nolan. The "user" reviews were occasionally shocking in their assessment of this movie. Boring, bland, awful, tedious, saccharine, poorly acted, trite, laughably bad. Wow. Granted, we don't know who most of these online "critics" are. No one uses their real name on the internet. But they certainly didn't see the same movie I saw.

Of course, art is subjective. I get it. Some things just may not be your cup of tea. But reading these 25% reviews, I found myself getting rather sad. My fear that we humans (at least a fourth of us, anyway) are denying ourselves the very things that make us human. The ability to empathize, to feel, to imagine. To view art, or life, openly and without filters. Letting it smack us right in the face and permitting our reaction to surprise us then taking it all in and allowing it to wash over us. Certainly, there are some of us who feel the need to cower in our shell and deny our feelings. Some who won't cut loose and risk the chance of their emotions rendering them silly or uncool. Some who don't rage or scream or recoil in fear or sob uncontrollably in the dark. Some of us are above that. Too cool, too considerate, too cynical of any thing that might smack of sentiment.

War Horse began life as a children's book. A successful one. So, I only can assume that kid's get it. But where does that innocence go? When do we pound out of our children the very thing that makes them, and us, human. Do we actively deny ourselves the ability to experience catharsis or are we programmed by others to stop it up. Sentimentality is not a bad thing. If you haven't already, go see War Horse. It's not a "war" movie. It's a story about a boy and his horse and how that horse touches others during a frightening time. I suggest you do with this movie what I advise all my acting students do with art in general: Don't judge too quickly. Let it wash over you in the dark. Allow it to manipulate you. That's why we go to the movies.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Class is Only the Beginning

My acting students piss me off. I know, I know, they are probably going to read this. That's okay. They know I'm pissed off. No other artists have the utter lack of discipline as actors. Somehow, many young actors have bought into the old adage, "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture." Thank you, Spencer Tracy. Well, unless you ARE Spencer Tracy, you gotta do more than that. Learning your lines would be a pleasant start. But just a start.

Actually, if learning to act is just about adhering to someone's else quotes about it, then John Gielgud may have better advice for young actors, "Before you can do something you must first be something."

So many actors just starting out seem to believe that taking a class and auditioning is all it takes to call yourself an actor. (I say this having had the same misplaced attitude, lo these many years ago.) But it's what you do between classes and before auditions that make you a true actor. Does a musician just pick up an instrument a play a concert? No. There are hours upon hours of rehearsal, playing scales, practicing a particular piece of music. There's is the care and tuning of the instrument. Oh, yeah, and the rehearsal. I'm wondering if Yo-Yo Ma or B.B. King only played their instruments when a teacher was around? And when they were done playing, I wonder if they just tossed their instrument on the sofa until they needed it again. Doubtful.

Taking an class does not make you an actor any more than owning a fiddle makes you a concert violinist. But acting class is a place where you go to learn to play your instrument. Where you learn to tune it and care for it. It's a place where you pick up tips on how to get the right sound out of it; when to play fast or slow; when to play loud or soft. When to contort the strings violently to your will or when to gently stroke them. An acting class is a place where you learn how to play with other musicians in concert. How to form chords. When to let someone else take the lead and when to pull back and settle into the rhythm. It's also a place where you get to try out different styles of music in the form of scene work or monologues. Maybe for a very few, a little improvisation if it makes sense for your particular instrument or style of music.

AFTER class is over, go act. Find a play. Audition. Do something. Do another scene in class, hell, another class for all I care. Learn a new monologue on your own, memorize a whole play, whatever. There is no excuse not to pursue roles wherever you can find them. Sure, I know, you are holding out for the big pay day that a series or blockbuster film role will give you. But don't just wait around  for it to magically happen. Just like Yo-Yo and B.B., you gotta play the bars and piddly little stages. You have to work for a couple of beers or, maybe if you're lucky, a couple bucks to buy some Ramen. That's just the way it is. Those are the rules. No matter what city you are in those are the rules. Keep your trumpet polished. (Uhm, okay, maybe that one means the opposite of what I meant for it to mean.)

When actors comes to my class, there is an unspoken contract. They are agreeing that they are going to actor. All in. That means they are going to do more than just show up to class. It means they are going to take everything they learned in class and put it into practice somewhere else. The class isn't the end, it's the means to an end. One of them, at least. It means they are going to learn their lines and maybe bump into the furniture until their shins bleed. Finally, it means they are going to stop listening to those that think because they are the class clown or funny at parties, that they would make a great actor. 

Let's face it, not everyone is cut out to be an actor. It takes work. Talent helps, but work separates the wheat from the chaff. (And no, I am not going to switch from music metaphors to agricultural ones. That would be too much even for me.)

Many years ago, Les Paul gave me an autographed guitar. Now, I'm not a guitar player, but I have a beautiful, un-played guitar signed by the man himself. I cherish it.  But, If I took that guitar and charged people to hear me play, it would cheat them and dishonor Lester. 

Before you go "do" acting -- "be" an actor. All in. Tune your instrument, maintain it religiously and play it whenever you get the chance. Oh, yeah, and learn your f**king lines.