I am a motion-picture aficionado. In fact I’m probably even farther up the scale, somewhere between ‘film buff’ and ‘movie fanatic.’ I know how to pronounce ‘M. Night Shyamalan,’ but I can’t name the gaffer from Annie Hall.
But despite (or, rather, because of) my love for movies, I cannot abide movie trailers. In point of fact, I refuse to watch them. Oh, I’ll watch the teaser for a film I’m certain to forego (Swimfan leaps unbidden to mind), but if I have even the remotest intention of seeing an upcoming film I will advert my eyes from the screen when its trailer begins. And while I don’t stopper my ears to avoid hearing dialog, I will try to mentally distract myself with aggressive contemplation of the Pythagorean theorem or Franke Potente. Trailers simply reveal too much these days. Every special effect, each funny line, and often the plot itself—all are loudly announced: ‘Starring Academy Award winner Julia Roberts as The Mistress and Academy Award winner Russell Crowe as The Guy Who Is Revealed To Be The Murderer In The Last Scene Of The Film!’ Watching some trailers is akin to viewing the entire DVD on fast-forward.
The only movie ads I usually see are those in the newspaper. When perusing these I take careful note of the reviewers’ quotations that accompany the ads—I will, for instance, see just about anything Peter Travers endorses. But while I’ve come to rely on some critics, I have no faith whatsoever in the marketers who pluck these words from their original context and shoehorn them into quotation marks. Who knows what the review really said, which words the PR guys hand-picked to give the film a positive spin? Perhaps ‘Breath-taking!’ came from ‘This film is directed with breath-taking ineptitude.’ And last year, you’ll recall, Sony pulled quotations from the ether and assigned them to the fictitious David Manning of the Ridgefield Press. I therefore assume that the vast majority of these quotations are not representative of the reviews that sired them.
But a hypothesis is just a hypothesis until verified or negated, so this week I decided to put my assumption to the test. I went through last Sunday’s Arts & Entertainment section of The New York Times, as well as the movie sections of both Seattle dailies and both Seattle weeklies, and circled every movie ad blurb that I found suspect. I chose blurbs based on their ambiguity. In other words, I didn’t bother with ‘*****! The Adventures of Pluto Nash is the finest motion picture since Citizen Kane!’ because it seemed unlikely that such a quotation could be misconstrued. Instead I chose:
- Blurbs that were unnaturally short, contained ellipses, or had other hallmarks of editorial shenanigans
- Blurbs for movies with generally unfavorable reviews
- Blurbs attributed to respected sources, such as Rolling Stone or The New York Times, since twisting the words of ‘Jean Packleberry, Quilting Bee Monthly’ or any of the other legions of small-potatoes movie reviewers is, from a marketing point of view, like counterfeiting nickels
Having gathered a passel of shady looking quotations, I looked each up in its original review. Here’s a sampling of what I found:
Movie: Blue Crush
Blurb: ‘Blue Crush is hard to resist!’—A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Context: ‘It’s hard to resist being swept up in Blue Crush, not least because David Hennings’s shimmery photography carries the breeze and spray of the island right into the theater.’
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): 7
[ source ]
Blurb: ‘A highly stylized adrenaline rush of a move.’—Jess Cagel, TIME
Context: This quotation came not from a review of the movie, but from a puff piece about the making of the movie and the ‘re-invention’ of the spy genre.
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): N/A
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Blurb: ‘Get ready to rumble! Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, both powerhouse actors, duke it out!’—People
Context: The ‘Get Ready to Rumble’ bit is taken from a photo caption on the page, reading ‘Jailbirds Ving Rhames (left) and Wesley Snipes get ready to rumble in Undisputed.’ The first line of the actual review is ‘Snipes and Rhames, both powerhouse actors, duke it out in Undisputed and each scores a personal victory even if this minor, punch-weary boxing drama grows fatigued before its finish.’
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): 6
[ source ]
Movie: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Blurb: ‘Surprise hit of the year!’—Richard Natale, Los Angeles Times
Context: Again: this didn’t come from a review, but instead from a business article outlining the various summer movies and their box-office grosses. ‘In what continues to be the major independent surprise hit of the year, My Big Fat Greek Wedding…took in an additional $1.8 million in its ninth weekend of release.’
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): N/A
[ source ]
Movie: Who Is Cletis Tout?
Blurb: ‘Tim Allen is a riot!’—Lou Lumenick, New York Post
Context: ‘The good news about Who is Cletis Tout? is that Tim Allen is a riot as a movie-obsessed hit man who quotes lines from classic films—while constantly complaining they don’t make them like that anyone. The bad news…is that it turns out to be the exactly the kind of movie Allen’s character puts down—with laborious plotting and dialogue that poses no competition to Elmore Leonard, to put it mildly.’
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): 4
[ source ]
Movie: One Hour Photo
Blurb: ‘To its credit, the film drowns you in dread without any of the violence or bloodshed that seems de rigueur in most Hollywood films about psychos.’—Rex Reed, New York Observer
Context: Verbatim. It’s curious that they did not omit ‘to its credit,’ as this phrase makes it sound as if the reviewer is pointing out one worthy quality in an otherwise lousy film. In truth, the review is unrelentingly positive.
Reviewer’s Rating (Out Of 10): 8
[ source ]
I was quite surprised with the overall results. Of the 25 quotations I investigated, one (Cletus Tout) came from a panning, six came from articles, and the rest were taken from favorable reviews. ‘Tough and smart! Blood Work is Eastwood at his best!’ was taken from a Chicago Tribune rave. The New York Times called Reign of Fire ‘Loads of fun!’ in a remarkably enthusiastic review. Even the lone testament for Halloween: The Resurrection (‘Surprising and fun!’—Glenn Lovell, San Jose Mercury News) gave the film three out of four stars. In fact, on a scale from 1 to 10, the average rating of the reviews I examined was a healthy 7.1—much higher than I would have predicted.
I contacted Lou Lumenick, chief film critic for the New York Post and author of the aforementioned Cletus Tout review. He was considerably less surprised by the accuracy of the quotations. ‘In my experience, studios rarely will take a quote outrageously out of context,’ he said. ‘They don’t want to annoy us too badly because we will continue to be reviewing their movies in the future. Actually, they will often call and ask for permission to use a quote, even though they don’t have to.’
As for that ‘Tim Allen is a riot!’ line: ‘It doesn’t bother me,’ said Lumenick. ‘If they had shortened it to ‘a riot,’ I would have called them and complained, as I have done on occasion. But if a Tim Allen fan is going to see this movie on my recommendation, I guess that’s OK.’
Although heartened by the results of my experiment, I was disturbed that a fourth of the quotations came from articles about the movie rather than criticism of the movie. These puff-piece articles are often written well before the film is released, and sometimes appear in publications affiliated with the motion-picture studio. In these cases, the movie ad blurbs rarely mention the name of the ‘reviewer,’ instead attributing the quotation to the periodical or newspaper that carried the article. Given that these ‘articles’ are often thinly disguised advertisements to begin with, it seems doubly deceptive to repackage them in the guise of objective reviews.
In other cases, it was almost impossible to figure out where the quotation originated. The ads for K*19 boast:
‘Riveting…solid performances.’—Jane Horwitz, Los Angeles Times
But in trying to track down this blurb, I ran down a series of blind alleys. Although Jane Horwitz does write reviews for the Los Angeles Times, she did not write the one for K*19. Nor does the official L.A. Times review (which gave the movie 6/10) contain the word ‘riveting.’ I finally gave up and wrote Ms. Horwitz directly, only to find that she seemed as puzzled as I.
‘I write ‘The Family Filmgoer’ for the Washington Post Writers Group,’ she explained. Her column is sent to participating newspapers, including the L.A. Times, in two forms: longer reviews (a few paragraphs) and short ‘box’ reviews; the individual papers then decide which and how much to print. Horwitz’s longer review opened with ‘Never mind the much-discussed Russian accents affected by stars…Director Kathryn Begelow’s film, based on a 1961 Soviet submarine disaster, is long and occasionally ponderous but riveting once it builds up steam, with a claustrophobic intensity fueled by solid performances.’ But Horwitz is fairly certain that the L.A. Times never ran this version. ‘It’s always been my understanding that they only run those shorter blurbs and not the full reviews. If the studio quoted the longer review—in which I mentioned ‘solid performances’—I’d be curious where they got the quote and why it was attributed to the L.A. Times. Unless the L.A. Times has changed its policy, it wouldn’t have appeared there.’
Still, it’s comforting to know that most movie ad blurbs, so long as they have the name of an actual reviewer attached to them, are probably on the up-and-up. And sites that compile and categorize movie reviews on the web—sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes—make it easier than ever to do your own background check. You may not need to, but it’s something to keep in mind when the Washington Post says, ‘Swimfan is a terri[fic] movie!’