Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Reel Deal: Writing about Movies

As an instructor at the Long Story Short School of Writing, I’m pleased to share the following information about "The Reel Deal: Writing about Movies," an online course I’m teaching there.


In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising. --Pauline Kael

"It stinks!" -- Jay Sherman

Reviewing movies, of course, is much more difficult than tossing off a cryptic comment like the one from cartoon character Jay Sherman above. And it’s more complicated than Roger Ebert’s “Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down” appraisal. Nevertheless, because of the powerful role movies play in popular culture, good critics are needed to provide honest, independent opinions about the quality of films being released today -- just as the late Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous quotation.

Maybe being a film critic isn’t the best job in the world, but it’s one of the most satisfying if you have a passion for movies and writing. This course is designed for students who want to learn various techniques for writing movie reviews as well as for interviewing actors, directors, screenwriters and other film-related personnel.

Perhaps you’d like to be the next Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael -- a respected critic with influence throughout the world. Or maybe you’re simply interested in writing better reviews for your own Website or Blog. In either case, this course is a good place to start.

First Session: Developing a Reviewing Philosophy.

In this session, we’ll explore the role of the critic and his/her responsibility to readers as well as objectivity vs. subjectivity, film knowledge and ethical concerns related to film criticism.

Second Session: Deciding What Matters about a Film.

The second session examines such important topics as: art vs. business; universal themes; personal and social impact of films; plot and character arc; production values; directing; cinematography; background music; editing; music; and actors’ performances.

Third Session: Organizing and Writing the Review.

This session covers the basic steps involved in writing a cohesive, insightful and entertaining review.

Fourth Session: Dealing with Negative Feedback.

Most critics receive their fair share of “hate mail.” Our fourth session provides tips for appropriate responses to such messages. This is the most fun session – and a prize will be awarded to the student who writes the best reply to a hypothetical “hate mail” message.

Fifth Session: Conducting Celebrity Interviews.

The fifth session offers suggestions for questions to ask actors and other film personnel when interviewing them about their movies. It also includes information about how to obtain such interviews.

Sixth Session: Finding Outlets for Your Articles.

Our final session provides advice on how to get movie reviews/interviews published in print and on the Internet.

For details concerning registration and fees, please go to::

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

No Bed of Roses

Many people believe a movie critic’s job is one of the best in the world. And maybe it is. However, there’s definitely a flip side of that coin. I’m not referring to writing deadlines and all the bad movies critics must sit through. Instead, it’s embarrassing interactions with actors and other film-related personnel as well as mail from certain irate movie fans that cause me problems. Here are a few examples:

Under the category of “stupid things I’ve done,” my behavior toward Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston ranks high on the list. At a party in Taos (New Mexico) after she received the Taos Talking Pictures Maverick Award, I clumsily demonstrated to her the funny curtsy she performed while playing Cinderella’s wicked stepmother in Ever After. Fortunately, she just laughed and said, “I’ll be sure to remember you!” And she did. A few months later, I received a personal note from Huston thanking me for the articles I wrote about her.

Although I’m reluctant to reveal my most embarrassing interview, it provided a great story for director Jan Sverak to tell his friends in the Czech Republic. Sverak and his father Zdenek came to San Diego in February of 1997 to arouse interest in their wonderful film, Kolya, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year. The handsome Zdenek, who plays a middle-aged Czech cellist saddled with a six-year old Russian refugee named Kolya, resembles Sean Connery both physically and in terms of his screen charisma. Naturally, I was eager to meet him in person. But the elder Sverak suffered jet lag and opted for a nap in his Hyatt Hotel room instead of doing interviews. Claiming his father doesn't travel well, the younger Sverak said, "Maybe you can take a peek at him before you leave." At the close of the interview, I reminded him of his offer by saying, "I'd like to peek at your father now. I'll be very quiet." Sverak just looked at me, stunned. "I was kidding, of course," he declared as he ushered me quickly to the door.

My first meeting with noted movie critic Roger Ebert was also not one of my finest moments. After introducing myself to Ebert at one of the Telluride Film Festival events a few years ago, I decided to take a picture of him -– so I took my trusty camera back to where he had been sitting in the huge auditorium. But, by that time Ebert was standing to videotape the audience. When I pointed my camera at him, Ebert said, “Your picture-taking is ruining my videotaping.” To which I replied, “Your videotaping is ruining my picture-taking.” He was not amused.

Hearing reactions about my reviews from movie fans usually makes me very happy – even if they disagree with my opinion about a particular film. But some “hate mail” has just the opposite effect. For example, one person was quite upset about my positive review of The Day after Tomorrow. “You are a lousy film critic -- but a great comedian,” he wrote. Obviously, that particular review also hit a nerve with another man who called me “The stupidest person on the face of the earth.”

My parody of The Ring provoked almost as many negative vibes. One fan of the movie stated, “You’re just trying to be clever and prove you’re smarter than the rest of us.” After re-reading what I wrote, I had to apologize for not including a disclaimer and explaining that the piece was meant as a parody. I should never forget how seriously fans take their favorite movies!

In all honesty, despite humiliating incidents and hostile mail, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than watch movies and write or talk about them.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Charlton Heston: A Personal Memory

As a film fan saddened by Charlton Heston’s recent death, I would like to share a personal memory of him.

When Charlton Heston received his 1995 Lifetime Achievement Award in San Diego, one of the multiplexes honored him by showing a different one of his films on each of its 24 screens. But Touch of Evil, my favorite, was missing. I expressed my disappointment to Heston as he held court in the huge lobby. Not expecting to hear anything more about my concern, I felt pleased when he later announced to the group during his acceptance speech that program officials had not been able to secure a proper print of Touch of Evil. Evidently, Heston was disappointed too, probably because he wanted fans to view this Orson Welles classic on the big screen.

“People see most of their movies at home on television today instead of in movie theaters,” he complained. “And the emotional impact is not the same.”

I couldn’t agree more.

After meeting the elegant Charlton Heston at this event, I realized how gracious and perceptive he could be. May he rest in peace.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

More Remakes?

Thanks to the success of last year’s 3:10 to Yuma (based on a 1957 movie with the same title), Hollywood studios can’t wait to update additional oldies, hoping to earn even more big bucks from eager fans. Rumor has it that movie moguls have given the go-ahead to the following projects:

1. CITIZEN KANE. Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese promises that Orson Welles’ first movie will be made right this time. He plans on recruiting versatile Jim Carrey for the role of the power hungry newspaper owner patterned after real-life William Randolph Hearst.

2. CASABLANCA. With stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld in the Humphrey Bogart role (they do look alike) and Sharon Stone replacing Ingrid Bergman, this new version should go over like gangbusters. Because filmmakers have a basic instinct about these things, they’ve added an interrogation scene for Stone that will give new meaning to the film’s most memorable line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

3. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres will pair up (in the former Paul Newman and Robert Redford roles) for this feminist treatment of one of my favorite flicks. I understand even all the horses will be mares and fillies.

4. MRS. MINIVER: THE MUSICAL. Madonna gets another shot at an Academy Award nomination with her unique interpretation of a valiant British housewife during World War II. Keeping a stiff upper lip, she will lead sing-a-longs in air raid shelters and dance up a storm at the end of the war, just like Greer Garson did in the original movie (or was that Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music?)

5. TOOTSIE. Dustin Hoffman earned a well-deserved Oscar for dressing up like a woman in this classic 1980 comedy. I smell another Oscar here, this time for wrestler-turned-actor The Rock.


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