Ad Watch | Media | The Blurbs

May 24, 2005

Blurb Racket 5/24/05

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs in movie ads takes on Star Wars, House of Wax, and more. Plus, new this week: Placing ad blurbs in context for videos, books, and theater.

Carl Bialik

The arts section of each Friday's New York Times has pages of movie ads that feature positive blurbs from critics. Leafing through the ad pages in last Friday's paper, I found quotes out of context, quote whores, and other cinematic sins. See the inaugural Blurb Racket column for background and useful links. Movie titles link to, which compiles movie reviews in a far-more honest way than do movie ads.

Also, starting this week, Blurb Racket is expanding to cover critics blurbs on other media: new-release videos, paperbacks, and New York theater.


Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (Twentieth Century Fox)

A. O. Scott, New York Times: "Better than the original 'Star Wars.' "
Not quoted: Writer and director George "Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking—acting and writing—is remarkable."
Despite the dig at Lucas, this review is a rave, as are the other two mentioned in a TV ad for the film (USA Today and Chicago Tribune); the Friday Times ad didn't carry any critics blurbs, perhaps because there was never any doubt Sith would be a box-office hit.

Unleashed (Focus Features)

Richard Harrington, Washington Post: Spectacularly intense!
Actual line: "The fight sequences, choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping ('The Matrix,' 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'), are spectacularly intense, scored by the aptly named Massive Attack. As for Danny's dual mentors, the bulldoggish Hoskins could play pugnacious, loquacious Bart in his sleep (reference 'The Long Good Friday'), much as Freeman could play the wise and soulful Sam in his sleep. These veterans do most of the talking in a film that could use a little less conversation, a lot more action, please."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Jet Li is action poetry in motion. He lets fly with his fists and feet of fury."
Actual line: "As Danny, an orphan raised as an attack dog by a Scottish loan shark he calls Uncle Bart (a glowering Bob Hoskins), Jet Li lets fly with his fists and feet of fury. Which is all to the good. It's the sentimental story that screenwriter Luc Besson sandwiches in between fights that induces a gag reflex. ... Li is action poetry in motion. Damn them for spoiling our popcorn fun with salty tear-jerking."
This Travers blurb was only in the ad in the prior Friday's paper.

House of Wax (Warner Bros.)

Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News: "A fright film that delivers the shocking goods with wit and style."
Actual line: "Fright films that deliver the shocking goods with noticeable dashes of wit and style are so hard to find these days, even a flawed one such as 'House of Wax' deserves to be given a chance."

Todd David Schwartz, CBS Radio: "The best American horror film of the year."
At least he waited until May to anoint 2005's best.

Kicking and Screaming (Universal)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "This comedy is perfect for the entire family! You'll be 'Kicking & Screaming' with laughter from beginning to end."
For the rap sheet on film enthusiast Edwards, read this prior Blurb Racket column.

Layer Cake (Sony)

Kyle Smith, New York Post: "A smart, vivid, thrillingly real gangster picture! Impossible to ignore! A cocked fist of a movie."
Actual line: " 'They've been villains in his family for generations, second nature to check whether we're being tailed, learnt in the cradle, first words out of their mouths, "No comment." ' That's J.J. Connolly's rather scorching pulp novel, 'Layer Cake.' But in adapting his bitten-off language into images, much of the crackle and bile is lost. This is a smart, vivid, thrillingly real gangster picture that nevertheless resembles many others."

Mindhunters (Dimension)

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazine: "A first-rate thriller that keeps you guessing 'til the end!"
Dittman, notorious lover of awful films, was examined in the original Blurb Racket column. The other dubious quotes on this ad come from two different people at WBAI Radio, and one from Life & Style Weekly.


These blurbs are pulled from the cover jackets at my local video store.

Son of the Mask (Dimension)

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazine: "Son of the Mask is a comedic gem!"


Titles are pulled from the new paperbacks list in the Chicago Sun-Times. Links go to the publisher's site for the book.

Nothing Lost, John Gregory Dunne

New York Times: "Gripping ... Dunne ... uses his virtuosic skills as a social observer, his ear for street talk and his gut instinct for a story to create his most compelling novel since True Confessions."
Actual line: "The first chapters are slow, self-conscious and overly complicated. The prose occasionally slips into the staccato rhythms made famous by the author's wife, Joan Didion, and like the first act of a movie that is too concerned with exposition, the opening pages spend too much time introducing people and clues and red herrings. But Mr. Dunne soon hits his stride, using his virtuosic skills as a social observer, his ear for street talk and his gut instinct for a story to create his most compelling novel since True Confessions."

A Nation Under Our Feet, Steven Hahn

Eric Arnesen, The Nation: "Drawing synthetically but fruitfully on a vast scholarship on slavery, emancipation, and the New South, it will likely become required reading, if not for the general public, then at least for students of American history. Those readers will encounter an elegantly written, deeply moving, powerful statement of black humanity and black agency in the momentous struggles to end slavery and to define freedom."
Not quoted: "If Hahn's vision of politics is generously expansive on one level, it is curiously constricted on another. What we would recognize in A Nation Under Our Feet as conventional kinds of politics (parties, coalitions, and elections) as well as newer kinds of politics ('community building') largely revolve around interracial conflict: masters struggle against slaves, white Democrats against African American Republicans, white Republicans against black Republicans, white planters against emancipated black laborers. ... Hahn is correct to stress what historians have identified as the universal desire of African Americans to be free of white control, particularly in moments of intensified white violence and domination. But the showcasing of this impulse as the dominant theme in postbellum black history comes at a cost of downplaying the multiple lines of division within black communities and treating the black 'community' as more of a monolith than it was."
The strangest part of this blurb? The review ran in the New Republic, not the Nation.

Publishers Weekly: "Original and deeply informed, the book does an excellent job of rendering those devoted 'to the making of a new political nation while they made themselves into a new people.' "
Not quoted: "Occasionally overstated ... the book's prose is often congested."

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Alice Randall
Rebecca L. Ford, Chicago Tribune: "Randall is a marvelous writer. ... Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a perfect book-club selection."
Actual line: "This book, by contrast, was written in response to an author who had nurtured her spirit. 'Pushkin and the Queen of Spades' is a perfect book-club selection. It's provocative but not dark; deep and shallow at the same time. Still, we can't help but ask for more. Randall is a marvelous writer. She portrays the lives of contemporary blacks and the porous boundaries between high and low culture in a way no other writer is shouldering at the moment. She assumes her readers will get Pushkin and Tupac, Harvard and Detroit, interracial relationships and racial pride. She doesn't flinch from awful truths, such as the history of sexual exploitation of black women and its shattering effect. In 'Pushkin and the Queen of Spades' we can see the kernel of a sweeping cultural-his-torical family epic in the vein of 'Roots,' 'The Thornbirds' or—Dare I say it?—'Gone With the Wind.' The time is now. The field is wide open. Come on, Alice, write the big book."

Not quoted: "Randall is something of a show-off, and her you-won't-believe-this voice resonates at times like Tom Wolfe's (without the mocking contempt), and her mosaic style requires the reader to step back occasionally in order to take in the entire picture."

Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer: "Unyielding in its intensity. ... this is intentionally provocative stuff, designed to open your eyes and make your heart burn."
Actual line: This novel is unyielding in its intensity. Considering Windsor's frame of mind, it's pitch perfect, but for the reader it often comes across as harangue. As an author, Alice Randall stews and rambles and erupts with sharp observations. She isn't writing to make ideas palatable for others this is intentionally provocative stuff, designed to open your eyes and make your heart burn.


These blurbs are from ads in last Friday's Times. Links go to the theaters' official sites.

Memory House

Charles Isherwood, New York Times: "Watching Dianne Wiest affords such moment-to-moment pleasure. She instills the far more rewarding role of Maggie with enough tenderness, wit and intelligence. A captivating emotional ballet that is also a moving demonstration of the strenuous work that goes into good mothering."
Actual line: "The crust looks crumbly, and the blueberry mixture probably isn't up to Martha Stewart's standards either, but watching Dianne Wiest bake a pie in Kathleen Tolan's play ''Memory House'' affords such moment-to-moment pleasure that it doesn't much matter if the result won't win any prizes at the Pillsbury Bake-Off. ... Fortunately, Ms. Wiest instills the far more rewarding role of Maggie with enough tenderness, wit and intelligence to draw our attention to the finer qualities in the writing, which is marked by a compassionate insight into both the simple satisfactions and the long-shelved sorrows of a middle-aged woman's middlingly successful life. ... Ms. Wiest turns Maggie's quicksilver darting among all these roles into a captivating emotional ballet that is also a moving demonstration of the strenuous work that goes into good mothering. When the play comes to an end, the pie may look dicey, but the future looks bright for the girl."

Michael Sommers, Star-Ledger: "It's a pleasure to observe how beautifully Wiest commands the stage in David Esbjornson's neatly staged and well-designed production."
Actual line: "Director David Esbjornson's neatly staged and well-designed production is immeasurably strengthened by the warm presence of Dianne Wiest as Maggie. ... It's all too easy to be impatient with 'Memory House,' but it's a pleasure to observe how beautifully Wiest commands the stage, even when she's playing a selfless, unassertive individual."
Not quoted: "The conclusion proves to be anti-climactic. Although the author attempts to paint a sympathetic portrait of Maggie, this well-meaning character registers mostly as a mighty soft punching bag for her child."

A Streetcar Named Desire

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "The truly radiant Natasha Richardson is an actress of shining skills and unexpected insights."
Actual line: "Somebody has to tell Blanche DuBois, who is having her latest nervous breakdown at the theater at Studio 54, that she really doesn't need to worry so much. You know all that ducking from harsh lighting and fretting about her faded beauty that she's famous for? Well, as incarnated by a truly radiant Natasha Richardson in the production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' that opened last night, Miss DuBois appears as pretty, dewy and healthy as a newly ripened, unbruised peach. Let them bring on those naked light bulbs, Blanche honey. You look marvelous. ... Ms. Richardson, an actress of shining skills and unexpected insights, is always worth watching. But like Mr. Leveaux's 'Menagerie,' which features the movie stars Jessica Lange and Christian Slater in roles they were not born to play, this 'Streetcar' suffers from fundamental mismatches of parts and performers."
This is a stunningly misleading blurb, one of the worst Gelf has seen. Critic Ben Brantley is asserting that Richardson is miscast, too radiant for the part of Blanche Dubois. Yet the ad manages to turn that into a seeming positive.

Glengarry Glen Ross

Linda Winer, Newsday: "Liev Schreiber is triumphant."
Actual line: "Liev Schreiber is sleaze triumphant."
None of the blurbs here distort the original meaning, but they do stretch the wording of the original reviews in order to present the image that six different critics said six different good things about six different cast members, in simple 'Cast member is adjective' form. Critics aren't always quite that helpfully consistent.

Associated Press: "Frederick Weller is suberb."
Actual line: "This powerhouse revival, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Royale Theatre, scorches, thanks to superb performances down the line. The seven actors—Alan Alda, Liev Schreiber, Frederick Weller, Tom Wopat, Gordon Clapp, Jeffrey Tambor and Jordan Lage—define what it means to be an ensemble."

Howard Kissel, New York Daily News: "Gordon Clapp is splendid."
Actual line: Gordon Clapp provides a splendid portrait of not-so-quiet desperation as a salesman whose nerves are perilously frayed.


Helen Shaw, New York Sun: "A 'Flight' worth boarding! A high-flying cast!"
Actual line: "An attractive production and a high-flying cast helps the piece transcend many of the usual limits of biopics—but, as is often the case, a 'life' never quite turns into a satisfactory play. ... As a play, the ride has its spots of turbulence. But as a cautionary tale about fame, callousness, and pride, it's still a 'Flight' worth boarding."

Spot a misleading media quote in an ad about a movie, show, book, or anything else? E-mail Gelf with your find.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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