Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

January 16, 2009

Dialogue That Crashes Down on the Big Themes Like a Blacksmith’s Hammer

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 'Defiance,' 'Notorious,' 'Che,' 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.

"The performances would not be out of place in an old Second Avenue Yiddish melodrama."—A.O. Scott of the New York Times, on Defiance

Defiance (Paramount Vantage)
Metacritic Score: 58

David Denby, New Yorker: "A moving account of how an ordinary man, challenged and then electrified by catastrophe, grows into a great leader."
Actual line: "The picture offers the most moving account we've ever had of how an ordinary, rather disagreeable man, challenged and then electrified by catastrophe, grows into a great leader—in this case, a man possessed of an uncanny sense of timing, authority, and force."
Not quoted: " 'Defiance' is not without melodramatic flourishes, and, now and then, the movie seems mightily impressed with its own nobility. There's one rousing speech too many, and I could have done with less of James Newton Howard's music, which pounds away at us when the action starts up and turns cloyingly plaintive at times of mourning (Joshua Bell plays a lachrymose violin theme). There are bits of overly theatrical staging, as when everyone in the group talks at once and Craig silences them with a shout, and they turn to him in awe."

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber are excellent."
Actual line: "Craig and Schreiber are two excellent actors, and both of them connect strongly with their roles as well as their fierce rivalry."
Not quoted: " 'Defiance' has some genuine strengths but also some weaker elements, and these opposing traits battle it out kind of the way the contentious Bielskis fought not only the Germans but each other. … Whenever 'Defiance' departs from the harsher realities of its story, however, when it leaves behind the particularity of its story and deals with the generic, it risks trafficking in the kind of earnestness and sentimentality it is better off without. … the film has too much on-the-nose dialogue and wisecracking-through-tough-times sentiments, particularly in the dialogue between the religious Shimon Haretz (Allan Corduner) and the intellectual Isaac Malbin (Mark Feuerstein). It all feels like stuff we've heard before, and hearing it in the middle of a Belarus forest doesn't improve it enough."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The true and astonishing story of the Bielski partisans, who fought the Nazis and rescued hundreds of Jews through the darkest years of war and genocide."
Not quoted: "Mr. Zwick, whose other movies include 'Glory,' 'The Siege' and 'Blood Diamond,' is many things, but subtle is not one of them. (Remember that horse in the first paragraph? Did I mention that it was white?) He wields his camera with a heavy hand, punctuating nearly every scene with emphatic nods, smiles or grimaces as the occasion requires. His pen is, if anything, blunter still, with dialogue that crashes down on the big themes like a blacksmith's hammer. And the performances he wrings from his cast would not be out of place in an old Second Avenue Yiddish melodrama or a modern Egyptian soap opera. 'Defiance' presents itself as an explicit correction of the cultural record, a counterpoint to all those lachrymose World War II tales of helplessness and victimhood. This is a perfectly honorable intention, but the problem is that, in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity, Mr. Zwick (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clayton Frohman) ends up affirming them."
For presenting Scott's straightforward description of the plot as a compliment, this film wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week award.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "A story told with passion that has the power to inspire."
Actual line: "For all the film's flaws, this is a war story told with passion about a band of brothers that still has the power to inspire."
Not quoted: "Sadly, the script by Zwick and Clayton Frohman veers off into action clichés, clunky dialogue and Hollywood hoo-ha (a bare-chested sex scene for Craig—please!) when the facts reveal a richer tale."

Last Chance Harvey
Last Chance Harvey (Overture)
Metacritic Score: 57

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Pitch-perfect performances… a surprisingly tender and appealing love story."
Actual line: "The film's biggest asset is the pitch-perfect performances of the two stars. They have a gentle rapport that unfolds convincingly after some initial testiness. It takes two consummate actors to make quickly escalating chemistry feel so natural. We find ourselves heartily rooting for them. [Dustin] Hoffman and [Emma] Thompson rise above the sometimes obvious story arc, and the result is a surprisingly tender and appealing love story."

Lou Lumenick, New York Post: "Hoffman and Thompson have great chemistry."
Not quoted: "Slight but utterly charming … in a season filled with grim dramas, older audiences could make a far worse choice."

Notorious (Fox Searchlight)
Metacritic Score: 62

Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: "Riveting. The first gotta-see movie of 2009. 'Notorious' captures the soul and spirit of this larger-than-life figure."
Actual line: "… a riveting but strangely elusive biopic from Fox Searchlight. The film brings aboard many of the key players from his life as producers but can't quite solve the mystery of who was 'Biggie.' Nevertheless, this is the first gotta-see movie of 2009. … catches much of the soul and spirit of this larger-than-life figure cut down before his prime. But you don't only wonder what if; you also wonder—who was that guy?"
Not quoted: "But there's a problem here. The film is produced by Biggie's mother and his two managers and exec produced by Sean Combs, the rap impresario who produced his records. So the screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, Biggie's biographer no less, is something of an authorized biopic. Yes, Biggie's many character flaws are all over the place. But in his world, all that macho, gangsta nonsense only adds to one's street cred—and helps to sell a movie and a soundtrack based on his life. What the movie isn't able to do is show what he's thinking or, just as important, what he's not thinking. Where do the extreme moods swings come from? The awkward beyond-the-grave narration struggles to do this, but it's a no-go. The film is so close to its subject that it lacks perspective. "Notorious" also is in such a rush that it loses track of things. Biggie's mom, gracefully placed by Angela Bassett, is just coming out of cancer surgery when she literally disappears for an hour. His women—his baby's mama (Julia Pace Mitchell), his discovery and lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith)—leave him in red-hot anger, then are making nice-nice a few scenes later. The whole West Coast-vs.-East Coast rapper thing, the Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) vs. Biggie rivalry of blood hatred that got both men assassinated, is put down to a simple misunderstanding the two never quite got around to working out. Really? OK, maybe so, but that's pathetic, not tragic."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "A new star is born in Jamal Woolard, who defines what it means to hypnotize in this compulsively watchable biopic of rap icon Biggie Smalls."
Not quoted: "… a biopic that sees the flaws in the man but can't help accentuating the positive. Why? Check the producer credits, which include Biggie's teacher mom, Voletta Wallace (she called him 'Chrissy Pooh'), his Bad Boy Records mentor, Sean 'Puffy' Combs, and his managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts. … The movie is forced to rush things … even when this 'authorized' movie biography makes you long for the 'explicit' version, Woolard's tour de force finds the human details that forged an artist and lets Biggie fly."

Che (IFC)
Metacritic Score: 64

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "Truly epic."
Not quoted: "The movie has been described as dialectical, but two parts do not a dialectic make: something meaningful has to happen between those parts. Throughout the movie Mr. [Steven] Soderbergh mixes the wild beauty of his landscapes with images of Che heroically engaged in battle, thoughtfully scribbling and reading, and tending to ailing peasants and soldiers. Che wins, Che loses, but Che remains the same in what plays like a procedural about a charismatic leader, impossible missions and the pleasures of work and camaraderie—'Ocean's Eleven' with better cigars. Like that glossy, glistening bauble of a film, 'Che' seems to me very much a self-reflexive endeavor, a movie not just about two revolutionary campaigns, but also about the struggles—logistical, emotional, psychological—of moviemaking itself. … I admire Mr. Soderbergh's filmmaking more than his movie …"

Sheri Linden, Los Angeles Times: "Extraordinary. Unexpectedly rewarding … a work of austere beauty."
Actual line: "… extraordinary and challenging … If the film's adamantly public perspective is limiting, it's also unexpectedly rewarding. … this flawed work of austere beauty …"
Not quoted: "Where Soderbergh miscalculates badly is in his use of point-of-view camera work when Che is injured and, soon after, executed. The self-consciously cinematic choice is thoroughly out of sync with the film's dispassionate documentary sensibility. If the second half feels more problematic than the first, that's because it is, in essence, a countdown to execution. Death clings to the events in Bolivia's countryside, as the CIA wages its own battle for the campesinos' hearts and minds. The effect is both enervating and elegiac."

Marley & Me
Marley & Me (Fox)
Metacritic Score: 53

Jessica Reaves, Chicago Tribune: "Hilarious."
Actual line: "And then there's Alan Arkin, who, as John's editor, is hilarious and dry—it's frankly a shame he's not onscreen for every single scene."
Not quoted: " 'Marley' director David Frankel also helmed 'The Devil Wears Prada'" one of a very few movies much better than the source material. While 'Marley & Me' doesn't have quite the same bite as its predecessor, it is a similarly glossy, self-assured effort."

Hotel for Dogs
Hotel for Dogs (DreamWorks)
Metacritic Score: 49

Pete Hammond, "One comedy will have you begging for more!
Gelf couldn't find the quote in Hammond's review (three stars out of five), but he did write, "A motley group of talented canines outperform the humans … [Lisa] Kudrow and [Kevin] Dillon don't get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles …

Not Easily Broken
Not Easily Broken (TriStar)
Metacritic Score: 43

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Entertaining"
Actual line: "… entertaining, if occasionally melodramatic …"
Not quoted: "The cards are stacked pretty heavily against the nagging Clarice and her terror of a mother. Dave is the emotional center of this unabashedly sentimental movie. A voice-over narration speaks of a time when men were clear-cut heroes to women. But, it says, women have now become their own heroes. Men need to regain their heroic status. What about mutual heroism? … Nor does it avoid melodrama, which is where it most falters. A tragedy occurs in the last third of the film that suddenly turns this affable dramedy off course, into something more manipulative and tear-jerking. The film's cinematography also looks a bit amateurish. … this relationship drama may put some people off with its overt sentimentality and moralizing."

Soledad O'Brien, CNN: "Bravo!"
Dr. Phil McGraw: "Inspirational, hilarious and deeply moving, this is a must-see for the New Year."
What are these two doing in the film's ads? Los Angeles Times movie blogger Patrick Goldstein explains.

Ballerina (Ponderous Productions)
Metacritic Score: N/A

Variety: "A perfect complement to Ballet Russes!"
Not quoted: "First Run Features has skedded 'Ballerina' for scattershot Stateside release (it opens Jan. 16 at Gotham's Quad Cinema), where the pic's aesthetic pirouettes, though accompanied by breathtaking footage, may appeal mainly to those already of terpsichorean persuasion."
This blurb, like the film, may appeal mainly to those already of terpsichorean persuasion. I mean, who else has seen Ballet Russes?

New York Times: "Ballet lovers should adore."
Actual line: "There is much in here that ballet lovers should adore."
Not quoted: "There is also much to feel extremely irritated about, chiefly the lugubrious voice-over by Diane Baker, who utters woolly platitudes like 'In the land where ballet is a national art, ballet dancers enjoy unstinting prestige and stars draw crowds by their names alone' and 'Russian female dancers were sublimated in a series of masterpieces, the most famous of which remains "Swan Lake." ' … the film spends too much time on moody atmosphere shots of the offstage dancers, and its editing and continuity control are annoyingly vague. It never addresses the question that balletomanes will want answered: What is specific about the St. Petersburg ballerina? And by showing dancers who are all successful, whatever their rank in the company (even the corps de ballet newbie, Ms. Somova, gets a debut as Odette/Odile in 'Swan Lake'), Mr. Norman makes the backstage tears look eminently worthwhile."

Carl Bialik

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

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Article by Carl Bialik

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

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