Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

August 1, 2008

'The Tired Tenseness of Anchors on C-SPAN'

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 'X-Files,' 'Step Brothers,' 'Swing Vote,' 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 X Files may seem as musty and forbidding as one of those dank secrets that Mulder and Scully were forever digging up."—Time's Richard Corliss

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Fox)
Metacritic Score: 47

Richard Corliss, Time: "The movie has manifold pleasures…as much for the interplay of Mulder and Scully—the soulmates who were afraid to become lovers—as for a story that concentrates on human, not astral, malfeasance."

Actual line: "The movie has manifold pleasures for the show's fans, as much for the interplay of Mulder and Scully—the soulmates who were afraid to become lovers—as for a story that concentrates on human, not astral, malfeasance. But for the uninitiated, The X Files: I Want to Believe may seem as musty and forbidding as one of those dank secrets that Mulder and Scully were forever digging up from some backyard, or fetid swamp, or their own aching hearts."
Not quoted: "… today's moviegoers will have to forgo expectations of wisecracking heroes and snarling psychopaths, and to take seriously a couple of anguished folks who look and behave with the tired tenseness of anchors on C-SPAN. Which is why, this weekend, perhaps four times as many moviegoers will take in The Dark Knight on its second weekend as will see Mulder and Scully on their first date in six years. [Director Chris] Carter has underlined that this is a stand-alone story; indeed, the film feels like a middling two-parter from the old show."
For implying that the movie has manifold pleasures for all viewers, based on a review with the headline "X Files Movie: For X-Philes Only," this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award.

Step Brothers (Columbia)
Metacritic Score: 50

Vanessa Farquharson, National Post: "A perfectly funny movie."
Actual line: "…while Step Brothers, the latest effort from Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), is clearly just an excuse to get Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly behaving like spoiled brats for 90 minutes, it nonetheless results in a perfectly funny movie."
Not quoted: "Ultimately, Step Brothers is by no means comedic genius—but then it's no less funny than any other Ferrell-Reilly endeavour. And because it doesn't look like another episode of The Landlord is making its way to anytime soon, it's probably worth splurging on the ticket."

Bill Goodykoontz, Gannett News Service: "Man, is it funny."
Actual line: " 'Step Brothers' is stupid. Childish. Moronic. Simple. Juvenile. Silly. Just ridiculous. Man, is it funny. It falls into that weird category of films that you can't really say is good in any way, yet you would advise all your friends to see as soon as possible so that you can start repeating lines to each other over beers until you're laughing so hard, you just throw up your arms and say, 'What the heck, let's see it again.' "

Swing Vote (Touchstone)
Metacritic Score: 47

Pete Hammond, "So funny and inspiring, you'll stand up and cheer!"
Actual line: "Considering how close the last two presidential elections were, including the 2000 race between Gore and Bush that came down to hanging chads and the Supreme Court, it was probably inevitable that filmmakers would find a credible way to focus on a campaign that somehow comes down to just ONE vote. If you can accept that premise, you'll have a great time with Swing Vote, which manages to be so funny, and ultimately inspiring, you may just want to stand up and cheer."
Even if you can accept the premise, you might want to stand up and cheer—a far more credible scenario than the blurb's guarantee of said actions, rarely seen in cineplexes by Gelf or any other sentient being.

Frozen River (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 88

Ella Taylor, Village Voice: "Finally the terrific actress Melissa Leo gets her place in the sun."
Actual line: "If Frozen River finally gets the terrific actress Melissa Leo her place in the sun to boot, so much the better."
Not quoted: "…like many first features that began life as shorts and were shot over two weeks with a Varicam, 'Frozen River' can be ragged viewing. [Director Courtney] Hunt's a bit free with the thin ice as metaphor and slathered-on pathos, and the movie careens uncertainly between gritty realism, sudden bursts of melodrama, and inspiration. Too many bad things happen, then too many good things, and I took bets with myself on the precise arrival time of the flowering of female solidarity between these two tigresses risking all for their cubs. That it comes on cue in a rushed climax only takes away from Leo's powerfully direct evocation of Ray's aloneness, the way she grows so hard and cold with the grind of trying to survive day in, day out, and her willingness to get what she needs off the backs of others, if necessary."
As the un-blurbed version of Taylor's quote makes clear, the critic was much happier with the actress than with the movie.

Brideshead Revisited (Miramax)
Metacritic Score: 65

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Emma Thompson is superb."
Not quoted: "While elegantly mounted and well acted, the movie is not the equal of the TV production, in part because so much material had to be compressed into such a shorter time. It is also not the equal of the recent film 'Atonement,' which in an oblique way touches on similar issues. But it is a good, sound example of the British period drama; mid-range Merchant-Ivory, you could say."

American Teen (Paramount Vantage)
Metacritic Score: 68

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Fascinating."
Actual line: "…fascinating, queasy-making new documentary. The fascination comes from how unguarded these young people seem to be about their own lives, speaking frankly to the camera and allowing it to observe uncomfortable and intimate moments in their lives. The queasiness, inevitably, arises from the same source. It goes without saying that a documentary film that finds non-famous, non-adult people at an especially vulnerable crux in their lives is something of an ethical minefield. Can a filmmaker investigate the sexual, emotional and family lives of innocent youngsters without slipping into exploitation? The easy answer, confirmed by 'American Teen,' is no way. And why even try? In a project like this one, the line between sympathy and prurience is not so much thin as nonexistent. Once we know a little about how these kids think, interact and behave, we are caught between the hunger to know everything and the impulse to look away before we learn too much."
Not quoted: "This is the kind of movie the people in it might have made, which means that its revelatory power as an investigation of teenage life in America is limited. It tweaks but does not entirely satisfy your desire to see the alleged typicality of the Warsaw High seniors deepened into a source of social insight. Matters of class come up only obliquely, and parents are largely in the shadows, and when they emerge they are reliably clueless, bumbling and unsympathetic. They have the double disadvantage of being grown-ups in a teen movie and of being, compared with their children, less intuitively aware of what it means to parade before the camera, on screen, living an ordinary American life."

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Revealing, funny and involving."
Actual line: "American Teen, a documentary set in small-town Indiana, effectively captures the highs, lows and in-betweens in a way that feels authentic, despite occasional obvious staging. Though it could work as effectively as a television vehicle, American Teen is revealing, funny and involving."

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (IFC)
Metacritic Score: 60

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: "A beautiful piece of work."
Not quoted: "…there is as much to repel as there is to allure, and I cannot imagine leaving a screening of it in anything less than two minds."

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon: "Profane, hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking, You root for it all the way."
Actual line: "Profane, hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking, Alex Holdridge's black-and-white feature 'In Search of a Midnight Kiss' has a gutter purity that makes you root for it all the way and forgive its patches of ultra-indie awkwardness."

America the Beautiful (First Independent)
Metacritic Score: 37

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "Powerful."
Actual line: "[Director Darryl] Roberts has a powerful message in 'America the Beautiful,' but he includes too much material not really necessary for his story. We could have done without his own experiences on a Web site named, where applicants are rated on a sliding scale to discover if they're beautiful enough to qualify. We don't need still more standard footage of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and other plastic creatures. Even more unnecessary is an interview with celebrity-gossip correspondent Ted Casablanca, whose four-letter language earns an R rating for a film that might rescue the lives of some girls age 12 and up."

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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