Cover Story: Critical Shortage

Area film critics are a dying breed

Weta Digital LTD

King Kong don't need no stinking critics.

After rampaging New York City in at least three movies, the giant ape King Kong needs no introductions — much less a critic's recommendation — to convince people that he's worthy of big-screen treatment.

The film critic — whether he's full of praise, derision or lukewarm complacency on director Peter Jackson's plush monster movie remake — is lost among the paid ads and the millions of King Kong cereal boxes, Volkswagen car ads and Toshiba television promotions. It's hard for anyone to be heard above the hubbub.

King Kong is bigger than any movie review, a blockbuster people around the globe have heard about and already decided they want to see no matter what any critic says. (You know a movie is huge when its $66.2 million opening-week earnings are considered a letdown.)

Kong follows in the footsteps of a teenage Harry Potter and a talking lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, recent films that play well to the largest possible audiences and are the best example of Hollywood's fierce commitment to the blockbuster. Following close behind Kong in 2006 are The Da Vinci Code, Casino Royale, Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns — all equal to Kong's stature and none of them needing critical praise to get the word out or describe their plots.

There's little room for little films anymore, films with limited appeal. There also seems to be less need for critics.

The Cincinnati Enquirer did away with its local film critic a few months go, opting for syndicated movie reviews from wire services, as did The Dayton Daily News.

The Enquirer's decision is part of a staffing policy to emphasize entertainment stories according to Enquirer Arts and Entertainment Editor Pamela Fisher, and Dayton's decision looks to be part of budget cutbacks.

Many of the daily newspapers that have retained critics are cutting back on their space. The argument is that nobody likes a complainer, no matter how well-spoken he or she might be.

Another argument is this: If the majority of newspaper readers primarily care about King Kong and all the other supersized movies they see on TV, perhaps the critic is becoming the entertainment industry equivalent of the movie theater organ player. A critic is just not as important as he or she used to be — there are better ways to deliver the message.

Feelings of neediness come from those rare, small films, the ones tagged as "art house," "specialty" and "independent." There are still films produced without celebrity casts, elaborate computer effects and mainstream plots tailored to appeal to the largest possible audiences.

Kong might be the film on everyone's cereal box, but it's Brokeback Mountain, a western about two young cowboys who conceal their love affair in 1960s Wyoming, that's collecting all the year-end accolades. Veteran director Ang Lee's intimate and quiet love story is a film that needs critical reviews to boost its profile above the "gay cowboy movie" sound byte.

Brokeback Mountain is a bold, unashamed critics movie, one that relies on advocacy and praise to get people into theaters more than promotional merchandise and TV talk-show appearances. The dilemma for Lee and his young cast — Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway — is trying to build support for a critics' darling when there are fewer critics around to spread the word.

The child inside the critic gets excited over Kong, Harry Potter, Narnia and any other well-made adventure movie. The films that make critics love their jobs — Capote; Good Night, and Good Luck; The Squid and the Whale; The Constant Gardener — are the ones they have to defend and explain.

A critic defending and explaining his love for Terrence Malick's almost silent Jamestown settlement drama The New World and Wong Kar-wai's time travel love story 2046 explains why he'd rather spend time watching those movies instead of King Kong — although I think I'd enjoy Kong a lot more if I walked into the cinema an hour after the film started.

Studio economics are changing. They're making fewer movies, and they're focused on big event pictures and creating partnerships to support these movies and the sizable marketing costs involved.

Monster-sized movies like Kong determine their own destiny, but a film like Brokeback needs help. That's what film critics do and will continue do, advocating worthy movies and trying to persuade people to seek them out, even if no one else is paying attention. ©

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