Rich Heldenfels: Movie critics aren’t always right

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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A Christmas Story.
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On Feb. 24, the winners of the Academy Awards will receive their statues, celebrate victory and, in some cases, deal with controversy over their wins.

Already we have seen some of that controversy as Argo’s Ben Affleck, not even nominated for a best-director Oscar, has picked up two other awards for his work, from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice awards. On the other hand, the New York Film Critics Circle gave its directing honors to Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow — who wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, either. (The directing Oscar contenders are Michael Haneke of Amour; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, and David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook.)

But the idea of critics being at odds with the Oscars, or with the paying public, is hardly new. And some of the evidence can be found in a couple of dozen binders once housed at the Akron-Summit County Public Library. The loose-leaf notebooks contain clippings of movie reviews published in the Beacon Journal from the late 1970s into the 2000s, bearing locally known bylines like Bill O’Connor, Bob Downing, Dick Shippy, Mark Dawidziak, Chuck Klosterman and George Thomas, as well as national critics like Roger Ebert.

When the library decided to dispose of the binders, I took them, and began a long trip down movie-memory lane. To be sure, many of the reviews fit the thinking about movies, then and now. Dawidziak called the acclaimed Schindler’s List “as close to an absolute good as filmmaking gets” — and correctly anticipated director Steven Spielberg finally winning an Oscar as best director with it. O’Connor declared 1990’s Dances With Wolves “one of the year’s best films.” Klosterman called Gladiator “the rarest of cinematic treats: an epic, eye-popping summer action film that’s not intellectually insulting.” Thomas said A Beautiful Mind is “a journey no one will regret taking.”

Shippy, famous for his acerbic views of art and life, nonetheless said Kramer Vs. Kramer was a “wise and witty drama of human relations” and “deserving of high honors.”

But there are other points where the reviews part ways with the wider perception. Shippy, for one, faulted Kramer Vs. Kramer for its insistence on an upbeat ending.

I have been out of step with the Oscars for years. In 2012, I wrote The Artist was “a clever re-creation of silent, black-and-white filmmaking with an endearing lead performance by Jean Dujardin,” but still believed it rated behind The Descendants in quality; the Oscars nonetheless loved The Artist. The year before, when The King’s Speech was the big winner, I ranked it behind five other best-picture nominees.

But don’t just look at recent movies for a disconnect. Dip into those old reviews and ask yourself, for example, why Thomas thought Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas was superior to the animated version of the Dr. Seuss tale, or why Klosterman thought the much-panned 13th Warrior was “sincere entertainment” and “something of a thinking man’s Conan the Barbarian.”

A holiday classic

A Christmas Story, shot partly in Cleveland and having long since earned audience love, received a very mixed notice from O’Connor when it arrived in local theaters in 1983. The movie had moments of charm, he wrote, but was “not even close to what real childhood is,” instead being “cute and ‘warm’ in the way that we want the world to have been.” The Old Man, played by Darren McGavin, was merely “a sputtering caricature.”

Then there’s Major League, about a ragtag Cleveland Indians team that became a winner, which was eventually ranked among the 25 best sports movies of all time by Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and by both an ESPN panel of experts and ESPN online readers. (The experts had it in 14th place, the fans in fifth.) O’Connor called it “good-natured and playful,” light entertainment — “very light” — with a paint-by-numbers plot and heavy borrowing from Bull Durham.

Not that O’Connor is alone in offering some surprising assessments. Consider Ebert on the now-loved Tommy Boy: “No one is funny … There are no memorable lines. None of the characters is interesting except for the enigmatic figure played by Rob Lowe.”

Holy schnikes! Ebert didn’t like Scrooged, either.

But O’Connor’s review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the action homage to old-time serials, became something of an in-house legend, according to at least one writer for the Beacon Journal at the time.

Scathing review

“I recommend this film highly,” O’Connor said in 1981. But wait: “You will laugh yourself silly watching it. It is one of the funnier comedies to come out of the Hollywood dream machine in a long time. The problem is that most of it is not supposed to be funny.”

One colleague is said to have never let O’Connor forget his panning of a film that was a box-office blockbuster and is now considered one of the best action films of all time. And when the Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, appeared in 1984, it seemed that O’Connor had a change of heart. Raiders, he then declared, was “a stylish cartoon. … It drew us into its world because we got a kick out of its people.” Temple of Doom, in contrast, “makes you want to go and see Raiders again, rather than this plastic imitation.” (O’Connor did finally warm up to the next film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which he considered the best film of the three and a “wonderful ride.”)

That’s just a hint of the larger lesson in those binders, that every review is an opinion and even when there appears to be a consensus about a given production, that’s not the same as unanimity.

Not that you need a Beacon Journal file to tell you that. The Artist had 211 favorable reviews according to the Rotten Tomatoes website, which collects film reviews and assigns the movies a favorability score; still, its score was 98 percent because there were also four negative reviews.

But that’s how reviewing goes. Opinions are expressed and the awards-givers, the public at large or the march of history offer additional views. You can find, for example, online discussions of the least deserving Oscar winners. Other times, perspectives will suggest the initial reviews were somewhat lacking in insight — and not just in movies.

Actress Diana Rigg once collected wrongheaded theatrical reviews for a book called No Turn Unstoned. In it, you can see that Samuel Pepys called Romeo and Juliet “the worst [play] that ever I heard in my life.” The Birthday Party, by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, was dismissed by one reviewer for characters who “speak in non sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings.”

And you know there are times you think that critics’ own ravings are a bit loony.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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