How to review movies you haven’t seen (and get away with it) in 2014

Sunday January 26th 2014

Every now and then I’ll write something about a film — either for this blog or another outlet — that isn’t true. This is usually down to a lapse of concentration on my part, rather than anything malicious. Still, whenever it happens, I’m quite justifiably torn apart on Twitter for failing to uphold the rigourous standards of the esteemed discipline that is film criticism. For days on end, I’m chewed out for misrepresenting a film and doing a disservice to its makers. And inevitably, I’m told that I — and the rest of my online cronies — are ‘killing film criticism’.

On the plus side, it’s this kind of scrutiny that keeps online film critics on their toes. The internet is anything but a vacuum, and if you fuck up, you’re liable to hear about it over and over again until the hivemind moves on to more pressing concerns. The same cannot always be said of print criticism, where the immediacy of reader reaction is replaced by a network of subeditors, who comb over a writer’s words as delicately as possible in the hope of rooting out any falsehoods.

It’s therefore expected that a subeditor will have a reasonable degree of knowledge about the subject that they’re presiding over. It’s hoped that — were a writer to say that Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a gun-slinging free man named Django in 12 Years a Slave — they would be corrected, and scolded. But what if they weren’t?

Here are today’s Sunday Telegraph DVD reviews by Alan Stanbrook (image via @johnwarrender):

And here are just a few of the errors present in each of these capsule reviews:

Upstream Colour

  • Shane Carruth does not play a naturist — in either sense of the word — in the film. The only character who even loosely fits that description is played by Andrew Sensenig, an actor 20 years Carruth’s senior.
  • The character who examines the soil, meanwhile, is played by a third actor: Thiago Martins.
  • The insects aren’t uncovered in ‘the soil around a woman’s apartment’, but in a carefully cultivated nursery several miles away.

The Great Beauty

  • Servillo’s journalist was never looking for a hard story. Journalism itself is the compromise, as he was once a celebrated novelist.
  • It isn’t his ‘friend’s wife’ who is found dead. The widowed man is a stranger to him.

Computer Chess

  • There are no chess masters in the film, only computer programmers.
  • Wiley Wiggins isn’t a character in the film, but an actor.

It’s quite an achievement to cram so many mistakes into so few words, especially given that the review discs sent to DVD and Blu-ray critics like Stanbrook come with plot synopses attached. Assuming his reviews aren’t some kind of elaborate art statement though, they’re a good illustration of the kind of unique failings that are available only to print critics.

That Stanbrook clearly hasn’t seen more than five minutes of each film is certainly disheartening, but more remarkable is his outright confidence in launching into quite specific descriptions of what are — to him — entirely unknown entities. This brazen disregard for accountability feels like a hangover from an earlier time — a time when writers like Stanbrook had little to no exposure to reader feedback. Ten years ago, the only thing stopping a Telegraph writer from saying that Troy was a great tribute to the late Troy Donahue would’ve been an editor who knew better. Nowadays we have Twitter, and everyone knows better.

And so, my message to the Stanbrooks of this world is simple: if you are going to continue reviewing films you haven’t seen, you need to start covering your tracks. Random assertions about nonexistent plot points won’t cut it in 2014. Instead, take a synopsis from the IMDb (it’s like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide but with more irritating pop-up ads), chuck in a few of your favourite pet adjectives (‘elegiac’ and ‘ethereal’ are very hot right now) and bung a vague, poster-quote-friendly endorsement on the end. Super stuff.

The mysterious case of Blood Glacier, a.k.a. The Station

Wednesday January 22nd 2014

At the beginning of the year, I took over the Guardian Guide’s home entertainment column. After half a decade of covering only theatrical titles, my letterbox is now laden on the regs with forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases, from the sublime (Upstream Colour) to the ridiculous (Insidious: Chapter 2) via a high definition re-release of Tinto Brass’s saucy early-noughties sex comedy Cheeky.

Every now and then, I’ll also receive something utterly perplexing and instantly fascinating, as I did earlier this week when — hidden amongst a wodge of press releases and review discs — I uncovered Blood Glacier, a.k.a. The Station.

The film, due for release next Monday from StudioCanal, arrived burned onto a DVD bearing the latter title, though an attached compliments slip warned that…

The disc will be marked as “The Station” but please rest assured that the film’s name has been changed to “Blood Glacier”. In any reviews or coverage that you may give for this, please refer to it as “Blood Glacier”.

It seemed odd that a single film might bear two such disparate names, so I assumed that perhaps StudioCanal had purchased a sophisticated arthouse title called The Station and were now trying to market it to the FrightFest mob by giving it a provocative title. That is, until I turned over the press release to reveal…


It turns out that the film is about a team of scientists (a bit like the ones in The Thing) who travel to a remote, wintry research centre (a bit like the one in The Thing) and are stunned to discover a mysterious sickness (a bit like the one in The Thing) affecting local wildlife. Amazingly enough, the film has drawn comparisons to The Thing, as noted at the top of its DVD cover art:

It’s original German title — Blutgletscher — translates literally as Blood Glacier, making no bones about the film’s horror credentials (or the involvement of a blood glacier) so it’s hard to imagine what some sales agent or other was trying to achieve when they elected to offer up The Station as the film’s English-language title. As if there weren’t already enough boring indie movies with almost precisely that name.

Still, the name must have gained some kind of traction, because as you can see above, it still merits a small mention on the film’s otherwise overwhelmingly bloody, glaciery, cover art. Fellow UK distributors, take note — it can’t hurt to hedge your bets…

Here are this year’s BAFTA nominations, beneath five paragraphs of arbitrary text

Wednesday January 8th 2014

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Best film

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips

Outstanding British film

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Saving Mr Banks
The Selfish Giant


Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)


Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks)

Supporting actor

Barkhad Adbi (Captain Phillips)
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Supporting actress

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
Oprah Winfrey (The Butler)


Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
David O Russell (American Hustle)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Adapted screenplay

12 Years a Slave
Behind the Candelabra
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street

Original screenplay

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Inside Llewyn Davis

Animated film

Despicable Me 2
Monsters University


The Act of Killing
The Armstrong Lie
Tim’s Vermeer
We Steal Secrets

Foreign film

The Act of Killing
Blue is the Warmest Colour
The Great Beauty
Metro Manila


12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis

Costume design

American Hustle
Behind the Candelabra
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
Saving Mr Banks


12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street

Make-up and hair

American Hustle
Behind the Candelabra
The Butler
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


12 Years a Slave
The Book Thief
Captain Phillips
Saving Mr Banks

Production design

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Behind the Candelabra
The Great Gatsby


All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis

Visual effects

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek Into Darkness

Short animation

Everything I Can See From Here
I Am Tom Moody
Sleeping with the Fishes

Short film

Island Queen
Keeping Up with the Joneses
Orbit Ever After
Room 8
Sea View

Outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer

Colin Carberry, Glenn Patterson (writers, Good Vibrations)
Kieran Evans (writer-director, Kelly + Victor)
Scott Graham (writer-director, Shell)
Kelly Marcel (writer, Saving Mr Banks)
Paul Wright. Polly Stokes (writer-director and producer, For Those in Peril)

Rising Star award

Dane DeHaan
George MacKay
Lupita Nyong’o
Will Poulter
Lea Seydoux

Bizarre fact for a Tuesday morning

Tuesday January 7th 2014

It’s a little-known fact that Ron Reagan, son of 40th President of the United States Ronald Reagan, had a small role in the film Soul Man (in which C. Thomas Howell blacks up in order to qualify for a African American-only scholarship to Harvard Law School) while his father was in office. He’s pictured on the right in the photograph above as ‘Frank’, a Harvard student who conspires to get Howell on his basketball team because he’s black.

In today’s money, that’s Barack Obama’s 15-year-old daughter Malia popping up as an extra in White Chicks 2.

Netflix need to lose the star ratings and embrace the chaos

Monday January 6th 2014

I’ve just about tuckered myself out going on and on and on in praise of Netflix. Safe to say, I think it’s a brilliant service. Nonetheless, there are a few niggling oddities in the system — mostly hangovers from the company’s previous life as a DVD mailout service — that strike me as odd. The most obvious is their continued operation of DVD rental in the States, an absurdly archaic practice that they sensibly did away with when they began expanding internationally a few years ago. But equally worthy of reconsideration is an altogether more inconspicuous part of the Netflix experience: star ratings.

Star ratings are one of the things that finally convinced me to do away with my LoveFilm account, besides their hopelessly convoluted navigation system, pervasive advertising and insistence on making you speak to a guidance counsellor before they’ll allow you to cancel your account. It seemed as though every time I loaded up LoveFilm, I was being told what the 100 best movies of all time were, asked whether I’d seen the 12 most important documentaries of 2011, or ordered to rate Forrest Gump out of a possible five stars. If I’d wanted to turn my film-viewing habits into a competition, I could have just browsed through the IMDb Top 250 (which reminds me, let’s all watch Fight Club and City of God a few thousand more times shall we?)

LoveFilm’s entire interface seemed to be based on locating the best film available, and shoving it down your throat. Now is it just me, or is that precisely the opposite of what a streaming service should provide? Unlike a video rental store, where your £3.49 buys you a single film and therefore you have a certain amount invested in it being good, streaming services don’t call for deliberation. You can try out whatever you like, whenever you like, and for as long as you like. You might stumble upon something brilliant or you might not, but the level of commitment required is so small that it hardly matters. It’s a bit like watching a film on a plane: All rules are off, and the adventurer within each viewer is unleashed.

Hell, just look at my recently watched list…

(I will say that Too Cute!: Season 1: “Puppies & Ducklings” fully deserves its five stars.)

Netflix is exceedingly good at not discriminating between its ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ films. Scroll through a selection of horror movies and you’re just as likely to come across The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) as you are Rosemary’s Baby. So it seems anachronistic that they still insist on branding everything with an indication of its supposed quality. What kind of feeble mind would eagerly load up Gaspar Noé’s three-hour psychedelic mess-terpiece Enter the Void only to renege at the last minute due to its two-star rating? Has anyone ever thought, “well, InAPPropriate Comedy looks like the worst art ever created by a human being, but I guess it can’t be all that bad if it has three stars on Netflix”?

Don’t get me wrong — I think people should be free to watch InAPPropriate Comedy as many times as they choose. (I’ve seen the inexplicable Lindsay Lohan framing device three times already.) But let’s not kid ourselves: the joy of a film like that — and the joy of most of the good, bad and impossibly ugly stuff on Netflix — is that it doesn’t matter how good it is, it only matters that it’s there.

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