Friday, August 15, 2008

Fire Stephanie Zacharek

As I have stated many times, last year was one of the best years for movies, ever. It was fantastic through a combination of prestige pictures (Darjeeling, Blood, No Country), great indies (Once, Away from Her), animated pleasures (Simpsons, Persepolis), and thinking man's genre entertainment (Bourne, Clayton, Knocked Up). One branch of moviemaking painfully, disastrously failed: summer blockbusters. A whole group of 3s (Spidey, Rush Hour, Shrek, Pirates) just flat-out sucked. Although they made tons of money, the studios completely failed to deliver good popcorn movies in 2007.

Of course, that's not the case in 2008. The big pictures have been not only big, but great. Iron Man, Wall-E, Hellboy II, Dark Knight, and Tropic Thunder have all delivered. Indy 4 and Prince Caspian weren't masterpieces but were a lot of fun. Even Incredible Hulk, Wanted and Hancock weren't horrible (ok, Hancock was almost horrible).

So you'd think a critic would be happy that Hollywood rebounded from one of its worst summers ever with possible the best ever, right? Wrong.'s Stephanie Zacharek has been making a name for herself this summer as one of our worst critics (disliking Dark Knight, loving You Don't Mess with the Zohan, raving about the merely tolerable Indy 4). Now, not content to miss the boat on individual films, she wants to be wrong about the entire summer.

To be fair, Zacharek's article sounds at first like she's tired of summer hype, not summer movies. Statements like "Just how much excitement can movie advertising realistically whip up? Is there a limit to how much movie hype we can take in before we say 'So what?'" are certainly accurate, although also not very interesting (News flash: Online movie critic tired of movie advertising!)

But Zacharek goes off the deep end when she complains: "And when it comes to the movies themselves, how big is too big and how much is too much - in terms of money spent on special effects and marketing at the expense of the basics, like having a decent script and a director who knows how to tell a story visually?"

Here, she's got no case. Sure Stephanie, unlike last year's "auteurs" (Michael Bay, Sam Raimi, Gore Verbinksi, Brett Ratner) Hollywood sure put their hopes in a bunch of hacks this time: Guillermo del Toro, Andrew Stanton, Christopher Nolan, Ben Stiller, and your favorite, Spielberg. Of course, none of them knows how to tell a story visually - they've never done it before, in Zoolander or Pan's Labyrinth or Memento or Finding Nemo or Schindler's List. Oh Stephanie, how I yearn for yesteryear, when the biggest movies were delivered by the brilliant minds behind Mouse Hunt, After the Sunset, the Hercules and Xena TV shows, and Pearl Harbor. Boy, it wasn't exhausting at all watching the films from last summer, but after Iron Man, Hellboy II, and Dark Knight, I'm worn out. Please Hollywood: no more good movies!

Zacharek also manages to completely misunderstand how blockbusters work, which is something I've harped on over and over again. First, she points out that success for blockbusters is based on anticipation. This is partially true: Dark Knight and Iron Man made lots of money because they were anticipated. On the other hand, great reviews and word of mouth drove them to make hundreds of million dollars more after they were out and no longer being anticipated.

But she really fails by believing (as the studios clearly do) that marketing is what creates anticipation. She notes: "Last summer "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" raked it in at the box office, and even though many die-hard fans of the "Pirates" franchise found the final installment disappointing once they saw it, the picture was so highly anticipated that its quality -- or lack thereof -- barely mattered. Blockbusters are built, and marketed, to make money, and more often than not, they do."

She's absolutely right that those movies sucked, and that they made money because they were anticipated. But they weren't anticipated because they were hyped. They were anticipated because Spidey 1, Spidey 2, Pirates 1, and parts of Pirates 2 were really good. Message to ignorant studio heads and elitist film reviewers: people do not see movies because of hype. People want to see movies that are good! That is all! And when the hype for something makes it look good (see the first Spider-Man) they will go to see it. When the hype for something makes it look bad (see The Love Guru) they will not go. Yes, anticipation can help make money, but the anticipation for Pirates 3, Spider-Man 3, and Shrek 3 were based on previous movies being good. Good movies, not marketing, raked in those hundreds of millions of dollars.

I don't even really feel like discussing the rest of Stephanie's points. She spends the middle third of her article explaining what the blockbuster is, and how Jaws was the first one, which I found interesting when I first learned that when I was 17. Then, in yet another absolutely pointless and pretentious jab at The Dark Knight, she writes "I suspect 'The Dark Knight' will inspire more budding video-game designers than it will filmmakers." Finally, she tells us that great summer blockbusters are rare.

That last bit is probably true - most of the time. But it's not true this summer. So if she's exhausted, she needs to get the hell out of the theater, and maybe even find another job. When your response to the best summer of blockbusters ever, which came just after the worst summer of blockbusters ever, is "I'm tired of these movie," you might not be film critic material.


Anonymous said...

...she can't write worth a crap either, but then that might be setting the bar a bit high, she is a movie critic after all.

Dean said...

You're wrong. Zacharek is a fine critic and a compelling writer. And she was absolutely right: "Dark Knight" sucked.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree that Zacharek is a poor critic; I find her reviews, even those I disagree with, are often very insightful. Even if she cops it pretentious sometimes, I always read her reviews. That being said, I think the author's point about why summer "popcorn" movies are successful is compelling; word of mouth and previous success tend to have a large impact. I'm not sure Zacharek or other critics would necessarily disagree with you, however.

Anonymous said...

Worst reviews i've ever read by far. At least she is consistent though. The more she dislikes a movie the more i know i will like it, and vice versa. So thanks Stephanie, for being consistently terrible.

Kev said...

Zacharek does seem to miss the mark when it comes to film reviews. I agree with the concept the film reviewers are allowed to have their own taste in the review, but really professional reviewers use logic and try to review the film so that people of different tastes can get an idea if they should go see it. Zacharek comes off as self centered and yes, hating Dark Knight and loving Indy 4 is a great example of how she does cannot tell truly good films from bad ones. If Indy 4 was the first in the series, odds are the series would have never happened. Dark Knight won to much praise from media and movie goers to say it was bad. No movie will make everyone happy, but Zacharek comes off like if it does not make her happy that the movie just sucks. My gut is she also knows by bashing good films she is making creating buzz, which seems funny for someone who so anti-hype.

harrysaxon said...

I've never been able to stand her. I always find her contrary and pretentious to the extreme.

In many ways, it's just because she echoes the biases of her generation. She critiqued Avatar's dialogue as "sub-comic book"; while she intended it as an insult, I'm not sure that in the era of Moore, Gaiman and Miller that it's critical enough of Avatar's just-passable dialogue.

Anonymous said...

How and the hell do you not like Up??? What the hell is UP her contrarian butt?? (UP...get it?) For real though, she said:

"The vision of Carl and Ellie's marriage, which consists largely of their beaming at one another, holding hands and having picnics, even well into old age, looks more like a denture adhesive commercial than a real romantic partnership"

Denutre Commercial???!!! The romance sequence was so heart felt (even I'm saying that, and I'm pretty manly...I've been to jail seriously...for fighting...JAIL...TWICE!)

Graham said...

Anonymous, I didn't realize she didn't like Up. That's unbelievable. I cried during that "denture commercial."

She sucks.

Anonymous said...

I have been saying this for a long time. I somehow have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly (not sure how it got started, possibly through using my debit card). Anyway, in the movies section, they show the current slew of movies with a list of the top critics and how each ranked the movies. Hers are consistently not only unbelievably bad, but completely different from what every other critic says. Now I know movie enjoyment is a matter of taste. But every week you can look and see how movies that the critics loved, she pans, and movies that she despises are usually critic favorites.
I literally don't even understand how someone that bad and whose opinion continually goes against what the general public and what other actual "respected" movie critics say.

Dean said...

The really good critics have never been those who are always in alignment with consensus opinion; Pauline Kael, perhaps the greatest of all American film critics, was frequently at odds with her peers. To say that Zacharek isn't any good simply because her opinions are different from other critics' is ridiculous and shows a fundamental lack of understanding.

Anonymous said...

Zacharek is a complete quack and has no taste nor any capacity for critical analysis.

Tadalafil said...

In my opinion, Stephanie Zacharek exaggerated a few with her article, however we should understand she just was trying to give her viewpoint, and even it was drastic, we can not judge her.

NTP47 said...

Stephanie Zacharek is the stupid, pretentious, extremely douchey and offensive to eyes and ears. She disliked cinematography for The Tree Of Life because according to her it was sterile and clinical. Talk about Brainfart.