Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

October 10, 2008

'A Spasmodic Exercise in the Void'

In this week's edition of The Blurbs—the feature in which we take a close look at those critic blurbs that are a fixture of ads for movies—see breakdowns of blurbs for 'Body of Lies,' 'RocknRolla,' 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua,' and more.

Carl Bialik

The critic blurb is a staple of arts advertising. Yet if you look behind some blurbs, you'll find quotes out of context, quote whores, and other questionable ad practices. Blurb Racket exposes the truth behind critics blurbs in movie ads from the New York Times. Movie titles link to, which compiles movie reviews in a far-more honest way than do movie ads. See the inaugural Blurb Racket column for background and useful links, and find out what critics think of the racket.

"In the end, terror still escapes the filmmakers' understanding."—David Denby of the New Yorker on Body of Lies

Body of Lies (Warner Bros.)
Metacritic Score: 58

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "A combustible spy thriller. Gritty action laced with simmering drama. DiCaprio's in top form. Crowe is a live wire."

Not quoted: "Does the film have rough spots? You bet. A subplot in the novel about Roger's hot fling with a blondie American volunteer worker has been rejiggered on film to become a passionate connection with a Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) who cares for Palestinian refugees. The result is commendably non-West-centric, but no less sentimentally conceived. Ditto the twist ending that drags in a glimmer of hope without laying a believable foundation."

David Denby, New Yorker: "Smart and tightly drawn, 'Body of Lies' has a throat-gripping urgency."
Not quoted: "The movie shares Hoffman's mastery of space and time, but, like some of his virtuosic but pointless manipulations, it has the feeling of a spasmodic exercise in the void. In the end, terror still escapes the filmmakers' understanding."

RocknRolla (Warner Bros.)
Metacritic Score: 57

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Kickass!"
Actual line: "RocknRolla is a kickass crime drama that just doesn't know to quit while it's ahead."
Not quoted: "Great title for a gangster flick. Too bad that writer-director Guy Ritchie only partially realizes the sizzling potential."

New York Times: "A face-smashing, belly-laughing gangster caper."
That's from a festival roundup; Manohla Dargis's review was harsh: "Like the filmmaking itself, the violence has no passion, no oomph, no sense of real or even feigned purpose."

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Disney)
Metacritic Score: 41

Debbie Lynn Elias, Culver City Observer: "100% entertaining, 110% fun."
Actual line: "Be they 50% warrior, 50% lover or 100% Chihuahua, the one thing you will all agree on is that BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA is 100% cute, 100% adorable, 100% entertaining and 110% fun."
Not quoted: "How many of you just melt at the sight of a little fourfooted friend—be
it your 'child' or not—looking up at you with soulful big brown eyes? Now imagine seeing over 200 sets of those beautiful brown eyes looking out at you from a movie screen. Then toss in themes of love, loyalty and friendship, mix it with a little fun, frolic and lots of adventure, designer duds, lots of Beverly Hills bling, lush tropical locales, eye popping pantheons of Mexican cultural delights and over 200 of the cutest, bravest, proudest and most incredible dogs you will ever see gathered together on the big screen, all under the gifted direction of Raja Gosnell and the most anthropomorphic storytelling and meticulous editing to come around in a while, and you have the simply irresistible, BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA. … Now don't go thinking this is a kids movie, because there is something here for everyone. Starting with Manolo Cardona. Ladies, you will be oohing and aahing over Cardona. In his first American film, as Sam, together with Papi, he is the heart of the film, the moral compass, and one fine human specimen to look it."
Elias is the only print critic blurbed, along with four TV reviewers. She tends to go her own way on reviews; in the latest issue of the Observer, her rave of American Carol (Metacritic score: 20) included the line, "Come on folks! How can one not laugh at a Michael Moore look-alike filmmaker being lectured to and inspired by the very real looking ghosts of JFK and General Patton while in a port-apotty!"

American Carol (Vivendi)
Metacritic Score: 20

Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post Writers Group: "It's radical … it's brave … and it's funny."
Actual line: " 'An American Carol' may not be the Best Movie You Ever Saw, but it's something. It's radical in its assault on the left wing. It's brave, given the risk of peer ridicule and the potential for career suicide. And it's funny—if you like that sort of thing. Generally, I don't. As someone who is slapstick-immune, I'm an unlikely cheerleader for this kind of film. But I admire its spirit."

Stephen F. Hayes, Weekly Standard: " 'An American Carol' is unlike anything that has ever come out of Hollywood."
That's from a feature article well before the movie came out. There was no review in the Standard that I could find.

Ain't it Cool News: "It's the ingenious and inspired comedy that we remember from 'Airplane!' "
Actual line: "It's the ingenius [sic] and inspired comedy that we remember from AIRPLANE!"
That typo gives an indication of the quality of Dr. Hfhurrhurr's review. It doesn't give an indication of the consensus opinion at Ain't It Cool News. One of the site administrators wrote, "I love that he wrote so passionately about it, and even if I think the film looks terrible (and I do), I still think it's important to approach the way I approach any movie: with some degree of optimism. Today's spy is determined to kill that optimism dead, though. He thinks Dr. Hfhurrhurr is insane, and he's got to have his say."

Rachel Getting Married (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 82

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "Anne Hathaway gives a performance of phenomenal energy and heartbreaking beauty."
Actual line: "Here are two arguments against seeing Jonathan Demme's remarkable 'Rachel Getting Married.' I hope they won't deter you, but in the interest of full disclosure let's get them out of the way. "Rachel" is similar in theme, though only in theme, to last year's "Margot at the Wedding." And you're unlikely to mistake it for drawing-room comedy. The heroine—not Rachel, but her sister, Kym—is the living, breathing, smoking, joking, snarling, mood-swinging embodiment of narcissistic desperation. That said, the young actress who plays her, Anne Hathaway, sweeps away all clinical categories with a performance of phenomenal energy and heartbreaking beauty."

Ashes of Time Redux (68)
Metacritic Score: Sony

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "A bold excursion into the realm of pure cinema. It also now seems like one of Mr. Wong's most important."
Actual line: "Drenched in shocking color—the desert shifts from egg-yolk yellow to burnt orange under a cerulean sky—the film is Mr. Wong's most abstract endeavor, a bold excursion into the realm of pure cinema. It also now seems like one of his most important."
Not quoted: " 'Ashes of Time Redux' will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in September. We’ll have more to say about it then."
Here's more of what she had to say then: "I never really understood what was going on in 'Ashes of Time' when I initially saw it years ago, and it took two looks at the redo for me to parse the narrative, such as it is. (See, there’s this swordsman. …)"

Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax)
Metacritic Score: 82

David Denby, New Yorker: "Director Mike Leigh brings an off-center humor to everything he stages."
Actual line: "Some of the scenes are a little ragged, but there's so much life going on that one doesn’t mind missing a line or two of dialogue, and Leigh brings an off-center humor to everything he stages."
Not quoted: "The only trouble with his scheme is that he has counterposed free-spiritedness and paralyzed moralism as mutually exclusive states, and there has to be something else—something like Leigh's film itself, which knows how to play easily within a firm over-all structure."

Blindness (Miramax)
Metacritic Score: 45

Stephen Schaefer, Boston Herald: "Powerful and provocative."
Actual line: "This Cannes' opening night competition entry is a powerful, disturbing, provocative film with a great cast but it had been criticized for both simplifying Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's source novel and sentimentalizing its rigorously bleak view."
For excising the word "disturbing," and for passing off this description from an interview as a critical judgment, this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.