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When Did Critics Stop Actually Watching/Listening/Reading What They Review?

21_poster_2 A movie review by Christopher Orr in today's The New Republic is not much of a review at all, at least not by conventional standards. Orr, apparently fed up with movie trailers giving away the entire movie months before it is screened in theatres, based his aptly named "(p)review" of this week's new release 21 solely on the film's trailer.

Orr actually explains what he's doing from the outset, so readers won't be misled by his (pretty hilarious and likely dead-on) review. From his introduction:

An irritating trend in the movie business is the increasing tendency of studios to lure folks to the multiplex with trailers that are essentially complete summaries of the films they're advertising: Here's the main guy and the problem he needs to resolve; here's the love interest, here's how they first meet, here's the rough patch they have to get through; here's the villain, here's the wisecracking best friend, here's the unexpected plot twist that's not going to be very unexpected now that we've featured it in the trailer--and there's the movie.

Orr then manages to write over 800 words about a movie he's never seen. He promises to post an updated review after actually seeing it, though. But watch the trailer (below), then read the review:

Orr's "review" in The New Republic follows last month's news that Maxim magazine published a speculative two-and-a-half-star review of the Black Crowes' new album, written by a critic who had apparently heard only its first single (advance CDs were not made available). The band  was, understandably, pissed off:

Black Crowes manager Pete Angelus said, "Maxim's actions seem to completely lack journalistic integrity and intentionally mislead their readership.   When confronted with the fact that they never heard the album they are claiming to 'review' in their music section--with a star rating, no less--they attempt to explain that it was an 'educated guess.'  In an email correspondence, Maxim went on to state: 'Of course, we always prefer to (sic) hearing music, but sometimes there are big albums that we don't want to ignore that aren't available to hear, which is what happened with the Crowes. It's either an educated guess preview or no coverage at all, so in this case we chose the former.' "

Angelus continued, "It speaks directly to the lack of the publication's credibility. In my opinion, it's a disgrace to the arts, journalism, critics, the publication itself and the public.  What's next--Maxim's concert reviews of shows they never attended, book reviews of books never read and film reviews of films never seen?"


Angelus also wrote an open letter to Maxim. Unfortunately, when music reviewers actually did listen to the entire album (Warpaint), most agreed with Maxim's initial average 2 1/2 star rating. That does not excuse the practice of reviewing works without experiencing them firsthand, however, and Maxim did not preface their article with the same sort of mission statement that Orr did.

Black_crowes_warpaint But are these (p)review writers mavericks who are prodding the entertainment to push the envelope, rather than continue to rely on tired cliches and formulas? Or are they simply undermining the credibility, and the basic role, of arts critics in the first place?

I remember watching the trailer for Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and thinking that it looked like a forgettable one-joke comedy that starred Steve Carrell because they couldn't afford Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. Who knew it would become a modern classic that would launch Carrell's successful film career and Apatow's comedy empire?


Sure, some bands, films, and artists can be disappointingly predictable. But critics are supposed to filter the good from the bad, and discern work based on merit, not reputation. (What happened to the days when film critics weren't even supposed to watch movie trailers, let alone review them?)

But what do you think? Is this a dangerous new trend, or a call for change? A revolution, or a devolution? Can you think of other music or films that have been exactly what you expected--or others that caught you completely by surprise?

-- Daniel Lehman

UPDATE: The New Republic's Christopher Orr has now seen the movie, and has written his review.  The only surprise? The film is actually much worse than he expected.

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