Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

January 3, 2010

The 'Flat Dialogue, 'Obvious Characterization' of 'Avatar'

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 ads for 'Avatar,' 'Sherlock Holmes,' 'It's Complicated,' and more.

David Goldenberg

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 metacritic.com, 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.

"Mr. Cameron has devoted a significant chunk of his movie to a dark, didactic and altogether horrific evocation of Vietnam."—Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

Avatar (Fox)
Metacritic Score: 84

Maonhla Dargis, New York Times: "Glorious. If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it's because 'Avatar' is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie's truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking."
Actual line: "Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie—one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump—is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged. … If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it's because 'Avatar' is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie's truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking."
Not quoted: "He's a masterly storyteller if a rather less nimble prose writer. (He has sole script credit: this is personal filmmaking on an industrial scale.) Some of the clunkier lines ('Yeah, who's bad,' Jake taunts a rhinolike creature he encounters) seem to have been written to placate those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find themselves squirming at the story's touchier, feelier elements, its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story …"

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Extraordinary. I felt the same as when I saw 'Star Wars.' "
Actual line: "I felt sort of the same as when I saw 'Star Wars' in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his 'Titanic' was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film. There is still at least one man in Hollywood who knows how to spend $250 million, or was it $300 million, wisely."
The blurb is sort of the same as the review.

Richard Corliss, Time: "For years to come it will define what movies can achieve. You're meant to cheer. And you will."
Not quoted: "For me to say that Avatar is better than Titanic is not the highest possible praise. I was no ardent fan of Cameron's grafting of a poor-boy/rich-girl love story onto the true saga of that doomed ship, which set sail from Southampton in 1912. … Some of the dialogue in Avatar's opening sequences may be on the starchy side—Cameron has never been a great director of actors nor sympathetic to their sensitive needs …"

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: "Restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long. 'Avatar's' shock and awe demand to be seen. You've never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else. To see 'Avatar' is to feel like you understand filmmaking in three dimensions for the first time."
Actual line: "… restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for too long. … Whatever way you choose to look at it, 'Avatar's' shock and awe demand to be seen. You've never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else. To see 'Avatar' is to feel like you understand filmmaking in three dimensions for the first time."
Not quoted: "Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cameron's visual accomplishments is that they are so powerful we're barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and obvious characterization that put such a dent in 'Titanic.' Those qualities are here, all right, no mistake about that … definitely not into breaking new narrative ground …"
Given Turan's rave, it seems like overkill to add the "far" to the blurb.

David Denby, New Yorker: " 'Avatar' is the most beautiful film I've seen in years."
Not quoted: "Let's not dwell on the sentimentality of Cameron's notion of aboriginal life—the movie is striking enough to make it irrelevant. Nor is there much point in lingering over the irony that this anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce; or that this anti-imperialist spectacle will invade every available theatre in the world. … The movie's story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!"

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "A sense of delight that quickly gives way to a sense of astonishment. The movie is nothing short of Unbelievium. You're transfixed by the beauty of a spectacle that seems all of a piece. Special effects have been abolished, in effect, since the whole thing is so special."
Actual line: "The vein of awe mined by the movie is nothing short of unbelievium. This is a new way of coming to your senses—put those 3-D glasses on your face and you come to a sense of delight that quickly gives way to a sense of astonishment. The planetary high doesn't last. The closer the story comes to a lumbering parable of colonialist aggression in the jungles of an extragalactic Vietnam, the more the enchantment fizzles. Much of the time, though, you're transfixed by the beauty of a spectacle that seems all of a piece. Special effects have been abolished, in effect, since the whole thing is so special."
Not quoted: "Yes, there's circumstantial evidence that Mr. Cameron knows about 'Dances With Wolves,' along with 'Tarzan,' 'Green Mansions,' 'Frankenstein,' 'Princess Mononoke,' 'South Pacific,' 'Spartacus' and 'Top Gun.' … their interspecies love story lacks the heat of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet clinging to each other on the storm-swept decks of 'Titanic.' Teenage girls will not return to see this film half a dozen times or more unless they possess a rogue gene for wigglable ears. … Mr. Cameron has devoted a significant chunk of his movie to a dark, didactic and altogether horrific evocation of Vietnam, complete with napalm, Agent Orange and helicopter gunships (one of which is named Valkyrie in a tip of the helmet to 'Apocalypse Now.') Whatever one may think of the politics of this antiwar section, two things can be said with certainty: it provokes an adrenalin rush (what that says of our species is another matter), and it feels a lot better when it's over. Other narrative problems intrude. For all its political correctness about the goodness of the Na'vis, 'Avatar' lapses into lurid savage rituals, complete with jungle drums, that would not have seemed out of place in the first 'King Kong.' While [Sigourney] Weaver's performance is a strong one, it isn't clear what her character is doing as an avatar, or how the Na'vi perceive her."

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros.)
Metacritic Score: 57

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Downey is irresistible."
Actual line: "Downey is irresistible. The movie, not so much."
Not quoted: "Holmes scholars will cry their eyes out over this update from hell. Rachel McAdams is mere window dressing as a mystery woman from Holmes' past. In place of romance, we get cheesy computer effects (that collapsing bridge—please). [Director Guy] Ritchie is all about the whooshing and headbanging, leaving no space between Holmes' words to savor their meaning."

It's Complicated
It's Complicated (Universal)
Metacritic Score: 57

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Memorably hilarious."
Actual line: "[Steve] Martin makes his pot-smoking caper with [Meryl] Streep memorably hilarious."
Not quoted: "… a romcom that qualifies as a waking nightmare for teens and infantile men whose definition of 'hot' hovers around jailbait. Screw them. … Streep is asked to giggle often, often for no good reason. … You don't have to feel guilty for lapping up this froth. Just don't expect nourishment."

Rex Reed, New York Observer: "Laugh-out-loud funny. What a joy to just sit back and be entertained."
Actual line: "It's complicated. It's also exaggerated, and not always believable. It's also sweet, commercial and laugh-out-loud funny. … In a horrible year of vampires, aliens, abused children and raped and mutilated women, what a joy to just sit back and be entertained without being insulted or losing any I.Q. points. For a movie with nothing on its mind but fun, It's Complicated is headed for box office gold."
Not quoted: "… silly but mostly delectable … The result may be silly … an indulgence that tastes great going down, but oh the guilt you feel later … a hard movie to defend. It's too long. It falls apart toward the end, when the mature adults turn giddier than their children. There are three endings. It's been labeled a chick flick, which is not entirely off-base."

Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg: "Funny, sexy and poignant. A laugh-out-loud good time."
Actual line: "The apt words for Streep here—funny, sexy, poignant, determined, ambivalent and seriously beautiful—also apply to writer/director Nancy Meyers's savory revenge fantasy for the First Wives Club. … It's very hard not to have a laugh-out-loud good time when three stars in top form are so obviously enjoying themselves this much."
Not quoted: " 'It's Complicated' has the glossy look of culinary porn, a Sur La Table catalogue come to life. You probably won't be surprised to learn there's a rain-drenched scene in a Martha Stewart-worthy garden with glistening lettuce leaves the size of palm fronds. Apartment dwellers may be moved to throw tomatoes at the screen. The moments that evoke the Noel Coward of 'Private Lives' underscore the contrivance at the heart of things. But what an enjoyable contrivance."
"Determined" and "ambivalent" apparently aren't words the film's marketers wanted associated with it.

Invictus
Invictus (Warner Bros.)
Metacritic Score: 74

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "[Morgan] Freeman and [Matt] Damon give stellar performances in a story that stirs hearts and intrigues minds."
Not quoted: "… the scenes of the World Cup final drag on."

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Great entertainment!"
Actual line: "A great entertainment. Not, as I said, the Mandela biopic I would have expected."
Not quoted: "Morgan Freeman has been linked to one biopic of Nelson Mandela or another for at least 10 years. Strange that the only one to be made centers on the South African rugby team. The posters for Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus' feature Matt Damon in the foreground, with Freeman looming behind him in shadowy nobility. I can imagine the marketing meetings during which it was lamented that few Americans care much about about Mandela and that Matt Damon appeals to a younger demographic."

The Princess and the Frog
The Princess and the Frog (Disney)
Metacritic Score: 73

David Germain, Associated Press: "Fresh and funny."
Not quoted: "Sure, the romance is a little sticky and cloying."

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 68

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Heath Ledger's last screen performance is remarkable! Christopher Plummer is terrific! The magic works!"
Actual line: "Heath Ledger's last screen performance, a remarkable one interrupted by his tragic death at age 28 in 2008, comes wrapped in the kind of passionate provocation of a movie that the Aussie actor favored. … As the movie was conceived, Ledger's con man, Tony, would join the traveling horse-drawn caravan of Dr. Parnassus (a terrific Christopher Plummer) and lead customers behind a mirror to a parallel world of computer-generated fantasy. … Despite a shaky framework, the magic works."

Crazy Heart
Crazy Heart (Fox)
Metacritic Score: 84

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Jeff Bridges' performance is incredibly good, perhaps the best of his career."
Not quoted: "… simple, ordinary story … His romance with the much-younger Jean is less convincing."

The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones (DreamWorks)
Metacritic Score: 44

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Stanley Tucci is magnificent."
Not quoted: "The murder is unseen, the rape barely hinted at. The novel never flinched, the movie does. … [Director Peter Jackson] may oversaturate the Claritin-ad colors in Susie's in-between place …"

David Ansen, Newsweek: "Saoirse Ronan is extraordinary."
Not quoted: "… a hybrid of unmatching parts—shuffling between thriller, police procedural, family melodrama, and mystical fantasy. … How do you literalize heaven? It's a problem moviemakers have struggled with forever, and Jackson hasn't solved it. … The tackiness, intentional or not, is jarring. Even worse is the vision of Susie and the other murdered girls as a happy, gamboling clan of free spirits. At such moments, the story's willful wish fulfillment seems downright cuckoo. … he's inadvertently highlighted the book's vulnerabilities. When The Lovely Bones loses its grip on you, its momentousness turns into silliness."

Harry Knowles, Ain't It Cool News: "One of the best films of the year. Incredibly powerful."
"This is an incredibly powerful film, masterfully told and captured as only cinema in the hands of a consummate storyteller can tell it. LOVELY BONES will be one of the films of the year."
Knowles probably meant "one of the best films of the year," not just "one of the films of the year," which is considerably less praise-like. For inserting the implied "best," this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award. New York's Vulture blog is most concerned that Knowles, who is known for his raves, was given a sneak peak, meaning "that Paramount was nervous enough about the film's critical prospects to give him first crack at it at all. Hold those Oscars!"

Nine
Nine (Weinstein Co.)
Metacritic Score: 48

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Dazzling! A hot-blooded musical fantasia full of song, dance, raging emotion and simmering sexuality from Rob Marshall, director of 'Chicago.' "
Actual line: "Rob Marshall's flawed but frequently dazzling Nine is a hot-blooded musical fantasia full of song, dance, raging emotion and simmering sexuality."
Not quoted: "Those who hated [Marshall's] music-video editing in Chicago will hate it here. He errs by cutting three great songs ('Getting Tall,' 'Be On Your Own,' 'The Bells of St. Sebastian') for three inferior ones. 'Cinema Italiano,' sung by Hudson, is a tacky, overproduced misfire. He also shortchanges the influence of Catholicism on this man-child, and keeps Guido's nine-year-old alter ego too much in the shadows."
The blurb writers inserted a reference to Marshall's Chicago that wasn't in the original in order to attract that movie's fans, but Travers points out that Chicago haters won't like this one much. Big week for Travers, with five questionably quoted blurbs.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?
Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Columbia)
Metacritic Score: 27

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker are a perfect combo."
Sure they are, Shawn. You've never erred before, after all.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol (Disney)
Metacritic Score: 55

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "Marvelous and touching. An 'A.' "
Not quoted: "[Writer-director Robert] Zemeckis does hit one false note, dropping an incongruous 'action' scene into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come episode."

A Single Man
A Single Man (Weinstein Co.)
Metacritic Score: 75

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Stunningly gorgeous."
Actual line: "Though the deliberate pace can feel slow to glacial at times, the visuals are gorgeous, and the melancholy mood is exquisitely evoked. … Ford's visuals, especially his tight close-ups, are stunning, not surprising for someone who has made his career in fashion design."
Not quoted: "… sometimes gets lost in the details."

Police, Adjective
Police, Adjective (IFC)
Metacritic Score: 77

David Fear, Time Out New York: "Genius."
Fear's colleague Joshua Rothkopf disagreed, calling the film "shockingly dull" and writing that the "the movie's didactic mode is a killer, a sorry excuse for audience punishment to achieve modest ends."

The Young Victoria
The Young Victoria (Apparition)
Metacritic Score: 64

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "Blunt is radiant!"
Not quoted: "… at times it's calmer than you may like. Director Jean-Marc Vallée's images have a creamy stateliness …"

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Emily Blunt makes Victoria irresistible."
Actual line: "Emily Blunt makes Victoria as irresistible a young woman as Dame Judi Dench made her an older one in 'Mrs. Brown' (1997)."
Not quoted: "The Empire magazine reviewer Kim Newman writes, 'If you're collecting British royal history by installments in the cinema, you'll know exactly how to place this on a shelf with "Elizabeth," "Restoration," "The Madness of King George" and "The Queen." ' Wouldn't that make a great weekend of videos? Yes, 'The Young Victoria' belongs on the same shelf, but at the lower end, I'm afraid. It's a charmer, but it lacks the passion of the others, perhaps because it's so, well, Victorian."

Rex Reed, New York Observer: "Blunt puts the Vicki in Victoria."
Not quoted: "This is a lavish and lovingly detailed period piece that attempts to re-create England's last golden age, but the enchanting Ms. Blunt is the whole movie, and it wouldn't register even a small bleep on the Richter scale without her. … French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée gets the pomp and pageantry right, but reveals little insight into the qualities that turned Victoria into the beloved and enduring monarch she later became. What a shame the movie is only about her youth. … Julian Fellowes' script doesn't get to the good stuff, and reveals nothing about her personal or family life. It's hard to sift through the numerous palace intrigues. Some of the actors speak with accents thick as gravy. The music is intrusive, overpowering every scene, and there's even a soapy song by Sinead O'Connor under the end credits called 'Only You—Love Theme from The Young Victoria'; it sounds like an audition for one of those Oscar night horrors staged in a cloud of smoke with costumed dancers in white wigs waving candelabras."

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Screen Media)
Metacritic Score: 49

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "An Oscar®-worthy turn by Robin Wright."
Not quoted: "… the plot can be a bit episodic and has a whiff of the familiar …"

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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