Saturday, September 5, 2009

James Berardinelli: Bad for Everyone

I used to think there was nothing worse than a bad film review. A critic's only task is to watch a free movie and write 500 interesting words about it. Many fail at this very basic task. Rotten Tomatoes pariah Armond White seems content to comment on everything except the film. The result is a muddled mixture of pop culture musings and undeserved vitriol, as if a thesaurus threw up on a Spin Magazine by way of a sanitarium. Despite White's curmudgeonly misguided reviews, they are at least interesting to read. He knows the English language and uses it to its full potential, primarily by calling movies "dung-like" or misinterpreting song lyrics.

However, there is something worse than a bad film review: an irrelevant one. For every bad review there are 50 mediocre ones floating around the Internet, eager to offer their own unique take on the plot synopsis and star rating system. By some twist of fate, a few of these white noise reviewers have become relatively popular. The whitest of the white noise is James Berardinelli, founder of and Rotten Tomatoes Top Critic.
Yes this is the biggest picture of him I could find.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Berardinelli has "over 3,300 full-length movie reviews" on his site, meaning he sees about 300 movies a year and has an opinion about all of them. A casual observer may note "300 reviews a year? How does he find something interesting to say?" The answer is he doesn't. Berardinelli instead opts for the same basic template for each review:

1.Vague Intro
2. Plot Synopsis
3. More Plot Synopsis
4. Even More Plot Synopsis
5. Bland Opinion
6. Potential Differing Opinion
7. Even Vaguer Conclusion
Since it's structured like a middle school book report, it reads very similarly. The paragraphs feature a word soup of 7th grade vocabulary, serving little purpose and revealing nothing. His observations are either too bland to be useful, or completely obvious to anyone with basic brain function

On Inglourious Basterds:
It's interesting that the director of the "torture porn" Hostel movies should appear as a soldier who loves to beat Nazis to a pulp with a baseball bat while everyone around cheers.
Yes. Very interesting. It's interesting that chef Bobbly Flay of the Food Network's "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" should make food. It's also interesting that an auto mechanic can change a tire.

On District 9:
It is universally acknowledged (at least by those who don't play with Transformers toys) that the best science fiction stories are those that use the devices of aliens, robots, and space ships to illustrate some greater truth.
If it's universally acknowledged, why even mention it?
Star Trek (the TV series in its various incarnations and, to a lesser degree, the movies) understood this, and that's one reason it has become revered in some circles despite frequent lapses into dubious science.
This science is so dubious! It's so dubious they should call it science fiction!

On Cloverfield:
Cloverfield owes a debt to The Blair Witch Project. The most obvious similarity is the decision to show the entire event through the lens of a camera.
Both herald the groundbreaking artistic decision to make movies using cameras.

When Berardinelli isn't padding his reviews, he's completely misinterpreting movies.

On Crash:
Crash's strength is that it deals intelligently with serious subjects. Racism is a hot-button issue, yet Haggis manages to approach it in a universal, reasonable manner. We don't feel like we're being preached to, nor does this seem like a sanctimonious "message movie."
Crash takes a subtle approach to racism the same way a sledgehammer takes a subtle approach to brain surgery.

On Public Enemies:
His goal is to demythologize Dillinger - something at which he is only partially successful. Public Enemies' Dillinger is not about crime and money. Instead, he is driven by love and compulsion. The only thing more important to him than robbing banks is coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
There have been a lot of different opinions about Public Enemies. Some would call it listless and boring, while I thought it was the most earnest and tense look at Dillenger's celebrity and complete lack of emotional authenticity. He doesn't know what love is, which is why he treats Frechette as a possession instead of a partner, comparing her to baseball, whiskey, and fast cars. Dillenger is motivated by crime, money, and most importantly, fame. Claiming he's in love with Frechette is a cursory interpretation from a cursory critic.
What does the handheld camera bring to Cloverfield? There's a sense of immediacy that couldn't be obtained in any other way. We're in the trenches with these characters, not looking at them from a safe distance. There's an intensity that couldn't be achieved in any other way. Consider, for example, the scene in the subway when Hud turns on the camera's night vision. No other approach could have yielded that result.
There are hundreds of camera tricks a filmmaker could implement which don't involve giving Billy Brocakes a camcorder to swing around. District 9 implements similar techniques without inducing a state of nausea.
A giant spaceship has arrived at Earth and, after bypassing cities like New York and Chicago...
Name one alien invasion movie that takes place in Chicago.

On Heat:
Someone should have told Mann that if he was going to make a routine movie, he should have kept it to a reasonable length. I lost track of how many times I checked my watch during the nearly three interminable hours it took Heat to play itself to a predictable conclusion of a chase scene and a shoot-out.
Calling a movie "too long," especially one as nuanced and intricate as Heat, is the laziest criticism someone can make. It only demonstrates that you're not smart enough to effectively articulate your issues with the film.

I could forgive Berardinelli for his bland opinions and sophomoric analyses if they were fun to read, but they aren't. Each review is a chore, clocking in at around 1,200 words. For someone who's written over 3,300 reviews, his writing skills are painfully amateur. The reviews are cluttered with qualifiers, lack descriptive adjectives, and flow like a stagnant puddle. A quick read through by a capable editor would slim these reviews down to something readable.

On Star Trek:
By employing the services of Leonard Nimoy in the role that made him famous, Abrams has cemented the connection between "new Trek" and "classic Trek." Nimoy's presence allows the movie to be seen as sequel as well as prequel, although the time travel aspects of the story are weakly developed and poorly explained. (The original series, it's worth mentioning, rarely did time travel well.) If Nimoy's performance as Old Spock (or, as the credits refer to him, "Spock Prime") is a Valentine to longtime fans, there are also numerous Easter Eggs - from obscure references to whole passages of dialogue (even a Tribble). These are incorporated in ways that will not be distracting to viewers who are unaware of their place in Star Trek's mythos. When Old Spock says, "I have been and always shall be your friend," it's a natural statement within the context of the moment. The words, however, will mean so much more to those who have lived - and died - with Kirk and Spock through the years.
173 words to say "Leonard Nimoy appears in a callback to the original series."
Tarantino brings to Inglourious Basterds his not inconsiderable knowledge of films.
Tarantino doesn't bring to Inglourious Basterds his not uninconsiderate unknowledge of not films.

On Armond White:
I first encountered White in the early 1990s. A friend of mine, knowing of my fondness for movies, brought me a copy of one of White's reviews, written in a New York paper (maybe The Sun - I can't be sure). I was amused, intrigued, and a little outraged. The friend kept bringing me the reviews and I continued reading them. I believe I disagreed with White more than I agreed, but I was always entertained.
As a charming anecdote, this fails completely. He offers no quotation, review, name of a film White reviews, or even the publication in which he read it. Why mention any of this if he can't offer the simplest of proper nouns or pertinent information?
District 9 ends in a way that is both satisfying and unsettling. Although the story is told, there are untilled ground and unanswered questions - not the least of which is what will happen in three years. A sequel, if one is warranted, is effectively set up, but is not mandatory.
Someone needs to tell James about action verbs.

Berardinelli no doubt has a passion for film. Either he has no ability to articulate his opinions, or simply does not think about movies in a deep or engaging way. If you have nothing to contribute to the public discourse than something already mentioned by a more capable writer, why say it at all?

Here are some predictions for his upcoming reviews. Only time will tell how accurate I am.

On Jennifer's Body:
Diablo Cody took the Academy Awards by storm with her Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno. Jennifer's Body is her newest screenplay, and some will be shocked by how different it is from Juno's quirky, independent film feel. Megan Fox (who appeared in the abysmal and terribly bad Transformers 2) succumbs to a demon and goes around her fellow classmates and seducing them like a succubus, or sexual demon.

No doubt many will find this new turn disgusting and disturbing. Cody may have lost some fans in the process, but others will enjoy her capable foray into this interesting but strange story. 3 stars.
On 9:
9 is an animated movie made with computers. While it is a beautiful film, I thought that it didn't go in depth enough with its burlap title character. It lacks the quirky sincerity of Up, or the quirky robotic sincerity of WALL-E, or the quirky automotive sincerity of Cars. Overall it was a beautiful but not deep experience that I fault with it not being a Pixar movie, though it was computer animated like a Pixar movie. 3 stars.
On Sorority Row:
Horror movies, in their current incarnation as movies which are designed to scare people through shock and gore, are popular in theaters today. Sorority Row is one of those movies, and it is an abysmally stupid movie about a group of sorority sisters who accidentally kill their sorority sister (Audrina Patridge, who plays a stupid girl in the dumb MTV reality show "The Hills," though there isn't much "real" about it) in a stupid plan that is silly in its stupidness. 1 star.


  1. This reminds me of how I used to write my essays... in freshman English.

  2. Well 9 and Jennifer's Body Reviews are up! Dare to compare!

    James' 9 Review (3 stars):
    "The Terminator-like backstory implicates a war between humans and their sentient machine creations with destroying the world."


    "9 is certainly no WALL-E, but its intentions are different."

    I don't think he knows what "implicates" means.

    Jennifer's Body (1 star)

    "The tone is off throughout, like a piece of music played in the wrong key. The notes are there but the sound is dissonant."

    "For Diablo Cody, this represents an opportunity to prove that Juno was not a fluke. But the comfortable wit of Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay is largely absent here, although the rhythms of the dialogue indicate that she may be trying too hard."

    "Kusama and Cody are apparently trying to make some kind of murky statement about strong, powerful women in horror movies, although their take is neither original nor interesting. Yes, the hero and villain are both women and the victims are male, but that's less unusual in the horror genre than one might suppose."

    "Jennifer's Body also struggles to figure out whether it wants to be campy or a little less flamboyant, but it never finds the right balance."

    A simile comparing the tone of a movie to music played in the wrong key is SO IMPORTANT it requires two sentences. James says female horror monsters are common as are there male victims without bothering to offer any support.

    I guess I just don't understand why an internet film critic has to pad out his reviews so much.

  3. I would just like to mention for Google retrieval purposes that James Berardinelli sucks.

  4. I write movie and TV reviews for a living (for a site called Racialicious and do on-air segments for the Huffington Post) and am so obsessed with entertainment that I go on message boards on IMDB when I'm not working. LOL. I clearly have a problem. But even I would be reduced to mush if I had to write 300 reviews (plus whatever else this guy does) and have a clear voice about it. They'd all end up sounding the same. And they do. Apparently LOL.

  5. But I think it can be generally agreed upon that Berardinelli is miles ahead of Armond White.

  6. I do not care for his writing style, if you wish to call it that. I am not saying my reviews are any better (and I am sure someone could tear them apart like the Online Film Critics Society has) but I do my damnedest not to sound bland. James is rather bland and blah.

  7. Hey look, critic critics! Isn't that just fantastic.

    See the funny thing about critics is, you don't have to listen to what they have to say! If you don't like a critic, don't read their posts. Find critics that you do like and see what they have to say!

    Although James' writing style is undeniably formulaic...I don't mind it in the slightest. I read his reviews and am glad that they don't give away anything specific, yet still give a hint of what to expect, and how to expect it. I agree with his ratings 95% of the time, and it makes it very easy for me to know if I will enjoy a film before I go see it.

    In other words, to each their own, and until you've written as many reviews as he has, don't judge his methods.

    1. I would just like to point out the irony of you seeking out my website to post this comment.

    2. So is your point that because he's written so many reviews, James has somehow lost the ability to write interesting sentences or convey information in a manner that does not resemble a Freshman book report? Because if so, telling us to write as many reviews as he has sounds like some sort of horrible punishment instead of a poorly reasoned tu quoque fallacy.

    3. Nick is just a pathetic, whiny hipster who has a failed career in writing & has to rely on his job at Red Robin to get by.

    4. I work at Red LOBSTER, not Red Robin. Get your facts straight!

  8. Regardless, James can still write better than your sorry ass.

  9. You people are idiots. James does great reviews.

  10. You people are idiots. James does great reviews.

  11. Yeah, I don't agree with this guy one bit, but I can see where he's coming from. Even though James's sentences are not that descriptive sometimes, he can write interesting and sometimes funny reviews, like his review of "Pixels". His one-liner "....Kevin James looks like Chris Christie searching for a buffet table is hilarious alone.

  12. He is an atrocious writer, a man who exemplifies the power of the Internet to grant people fame by the sole phenomenon of overexposure, instead of talent or credentials. He is not a critic, or a pundit on film; he is a reviewer, good only for providing marketing firms with grade school level one-liners to accompany movie print ads and trailers. Compare him to legitimate cultural critics such as James Agee, Pauline Kael, David Edelstein, or even Owen Glieberman and the deficiencies are indefensible.

  13. He's always been one of my favorite and go-to movie reviewers.

  14. He's always been one of my favorite and go-to movie reviewers.

  15. Can't agree more. It seems he is one of those guys who couldn't make it as a film director and ended up just where he is: as a frustrated and talentless movie reviewer. Had to stop reading his reviews or I would end up hating cinema in all its forms.


    "I didn't do enough..." Oskar Schindler

  17. Berardinelli's prose is unremarkable, but he's more consistently right in his judgements than most other current critics, and even when he's wrong, he usually has better justifications and more thought has gone into what he writes. He does have a rigid structure for his reviews, true, but that matters much less than how he uses that structure. I think he uses it well.

    Compare this to Alex Sheremet's and Renata Adler's takedowns of Pauline Kael. They wrote detailed pieces that cross-reference and argue with specifics, whilst you firstly just throw around a load of generalities, then take a load of quotes from different reviews, bring them out of context or outright misrepresent them, and then pretend that you've actually written a proper critique.

    Take his comments on "District 9": you ask, "If it's universally acknowledged, why even mention it?" Why not ask the same to Jane Austen? He brings up the observation as a starting point for analysis of the film. Then you say, "This science is so dubious! It's so dubious they should call it science fiction!" But of course science fiction cannot COMPLETELY depart from any possible reality, otherwise it simply becomes unbelievable to the viewer. You can suspend your disbelief, but only suspend it so far.

    You make a heap of similarly indefensible points. Another is, "Calling a movie "too long," especially one as nuanced and intricate as Heat, is the laziest criticism someone can make. It only demonstrates that you're not smart enough to effectively articulate your issues with the film." It isn't lazy if it's true- it can be a legitimate observation. It at least arguably is in "Heat"'s case.

    "173 words to say "Leonard Nimoy appears in a callback to the original series."" Except a) that clearly isn't all he said in the extract- he also criticizes the time travel element and mentions that there are other references to the original series in dialogue, and b) he writes it much better than you do- ironic, given that you complain so much about his prose.

    "As a charming anecdote, this fails completely. He offers no quotation, review, name of a film White reviews, or even the publication in which he read it." That's because the purpose of the blog post, if you read it in full, is to explain to all those who were sending him emails asking for his views on Armond White what he thinks of him. Anyone even vaguely familiar with his reviews will know what he means, for example, by, "White sees a movie then rants about it. Sometimes, his eloquent articles become confused and confusing. It's not always clear what points he's trying to drive home." He's not trying to introduce him to readers who are unfamiliar with his work; he's answering a query.

    Seriously, though, there are so many worse critics you could write an evaluation of that get way more attention than Berardinelli does, and you choose him? You could go for Jonathan Rosenbaum who, whilst erudite, often spends more than half of his review space talking about films' making and ancillary issues to the content and quality of the film itself and who makes silly ideological complaints about films. You could go for Vincent Canby, with his genuinely awful writing and taste for the trashy and "safe". You could go for Leonard Maitlin, who dismisses masterpieces with mere sentences and writes criticisms that insult a five-year-old's intelligence. They were all much more powerful than Berardinelli ever has been.