Movie critics get their share of criticism

public editor

Public Editor

March 12, 2006|By PAUL MOORE

The Sun's senior film critic, Michael Sragow, can drive some readers to distraction with his challenging and uncompromising reviews.

In 2005, he panned three of the five best-picture Oscar nominees: Munich, Brokeback Mountain and Crash, the last of which won best picture at the 78th annual Academy Awards last Sunday.

In his analysis Monday of this drama about the racial and cultural divisions in contemporary Los Angeles, Sragow called Crash's co-producer's acceptance speech "high-flown spin on a movie about racism that was pretty much a two-hour hatefest. "

Sragow said later that he found it ridiculous that many believe Crash was a more conservative choice for best picture than the homosexual love story Brokeback Mountain, which had been heavily favored to win the best-picture Oscar.

"Crash has one of those chic, Tinkertoy narratives, and it's deliberately abrasive in its treatment of racism," he said in an interview. "Brokeback is aesthetically much more traditional, a doomy love story told with director Ang Lee's trademark angst."

The Sun's other film critic, Chris Kaltenbach, was prescient in his March 5 Oscar predictions when he wrote that "Crash could prove the dark horse; people who love it really love it, and it is set in Los Angeles where most of the Oscar voters live."

It is known that the opinions of America's movie critics, the majority of whom work for newspapers, do not necessarily have a great impact on a film's box office. Film reviewers do, however, have a real impact on adult filmgoers who are seeking a high-quality movie and on the growing number of organizations that award prizes for movies.

Collective critical opinions can give a film the kind of buzz a movie publicist can only dream of.

This buzz also can affect the expectations of readers awaiting reviews from Sun critics.

Sragow has been The Sun's film critic since 2001. Before that he was a staff writer at The New Yorker and Rolling Stone and had reviewed films for publications in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. He is a nationally known and respected critic. Kaltenbach is a veteran Sun entertainment reporter who became a full-time movie critic in 2001.

When writing recently about why movies often open later in Baltimore than in other cities, reader Timothy Kjer said: "Another unhelpful factor is the contrarian nature of The Sun critics, who frequently bash movies that have been highly esteemed by the vast majority of the film critics around the country."

Reader Carlye Benedict complained that Sragow's reviews reflect a long-standing dislike of Clint Eastwood films, especially the highly praised Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby, which won the best-picture Oscar for 2004.

"Eagerly extending his anti-Eastwood campaign, Sragow also panned Crash, which was directed by Paul Haggis, Eastwood's screenwriter on Million Dollar Baby. Given Sragow's history I was not surprised," Benedict wrote.

Despite such criticisms, Sragow and Kaltenbach do what an effective critic must: evaluate the material based on their own knowledge and aesthetic vision.

Since many movies are reviewed elsewhere before they open in Baltimore (often weeks after their initial opening), a film critic here must be immune to outside influence.

Sragow says he rarely reads any reviews of a movie before he sees it and takes great pains to avoid any outside influence. "I feel an obligation to always be honest with readers, even though I've been in situations where editors were disappointed when I did not give a certain movie a good review," he said. "That has never happened at The Sun."

Reviews and articles about movies generate great reader interest, which is one reason that last fall The Sun launched a new Friday section called Movies Today. Sragow and Kaltenbach write reviews, profiles, analyses and commentary pieces every week, making film one of the most demanding coverage beats at the newspaper.

Last Sunday, Sragow produced a substantive front-page article about the rise of documentary and fact-based movies in Hollywood. He also wrote an analysis of the Oscars for Monday's editions. Kaltenbach was in California reporting and writing about the awards show both days.

Arts Editor Holly Selby, who supervises the two critics, said: "They bring to their jobs a wealth of knowledge about the history and the art of movie-making and aim to provide intelligent, lively criticism, analysis and news that truly covers the beat. And as critics, they understand that the goal is to write reviews that are as honest and informed as possible, even if few others agree with their assessment."

Whether you agree with their opinions or not, it is hard to deny the critics' commitment to movies, the people who make them and the readers who love them.

Says Sragow: "If I have one bias, it's that critics have a passion for the form they are hired to criticize."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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