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Criticwire Survey: Off-Limits Language

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by Sam Adams
January 6, 2014 11:32 AM
2 Comments
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Critics: Don't be this guy.

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk


Well as much as I am irked by seeing "the best [insert franchise] yet", I would be happy if every fantasy adventure or anything with a healthy amount of explosions/action wasn't called an "epic.” I like quotes with some real thought -- more tailored, less general -- like the ones that show up on For Your Consideration screeners and adverts. Now I know the point of any quote on a trailer/poster is brevity, and in the end it's the studios' choice to use the quote so if they wanted something that can quickly grab the general public we could start making up outlandish pull quotes. Imagine seeing billboards with "mind-blastingly insane" and "kick-ass, smashtastic thrill ride" or, bear with me, "Hold on to your socks, they're about to be knocked off!" That I think might be still be just as generic, exaggerated and/or subjective, but it'd be amusing.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

"A gamechanger," "the scariest movie since The Silence of The Lambs," "an important film," "irresponsible," or "...for the whole family." Each annoys because it comes from presupposition rather than from education or theory. Also, Silence of the Lambs is creepy, gross, and unconventionally swoony, but not really scary.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

"Amazing performance." I'm not without sin here. Sometimes you want to express your fondness for a particular performance but don't have the time, space or, frankly, eloquence/insight to articulate what it is that truly makes it great. So you take the shortcut and just call it amazing, I get it. But it's meaningless. Not exactly blurb material, but I would also throw out any variation of "It's not perfect." Of course it isn't perfect. We're talking about art, not comparing diamond clarity.

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review, CriterionCast

To be honest I don't really mind those readymade-quote-heavy reviews because I just fundamentally steer clear of them. They know exactly what they're doing in terms of making a movie easily digestible via stock phrases, and are generally harmless as a whole because it's easy to identify the otherwise worthwhile reviews opposed to them. But if I could simply get rid of a figure of speech altogether it would be to describe something as a "crowd-pleaser." It's such an empty -- and therefore easy -- phrase to get away with that ultimately renders any cogent thought behind what somebody says meaningless.

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

The phrase I would most like to remove from the critical lexicon isn't something any producer would want to put on a poster, but rather something I often hear in spoken criticism and film discussions: "[insert actor] is just being [insert actor]." I never understand what people mean when they say things like "Clooney is just acting like Clooney." To me, it's a lazy way to say that you have nothing interesting to say about a particular performance. Sure, some performers fall back on their personality as a celebrity and bring that to their performances, but it's reductive and certainly imprecise to just say they're acting like themselves. Let's all resolve in 2014 to be more specific when analyzing performances.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I'm love to remove the phrase "Movie A is no Movie B". It just reduces a review or an article/think piece to basically a pitch meeting, and I'd like to think that we're all a little bit better than that. I've been guilty of this one from time to time, and on occasion it can be of some use, but by and large if we took this phrase away, we'd be better writers for it.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

"Gamechanger" gets my nomination for sacrifice. For me it reached its apex in June 2011, when a pal used the term to describe The Amazing Spider-Man. I've not been able to take it seriously since. 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound and MUBI

This Critic Answered a Weekly Poll. What Happened Next Will Leave You Numbed and Depressed.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Over the years I've developed a blurb-blindness that prevents me from seeing these pithy little phrases that get tacked onto trailers and posters which, I suppose, feed the general interpretation of the movie concerned within the pop-culture unconsciousness. I'd like these impossible to live up to modifiers of "Best" or "Most" removed entirely, but the one that needs to go is "thrill-ride." This term sounds like the first name given to roller coasters. So the next time you see the term thrill-ride imagine a 1920's guy in a bowler hat saying, "Better hang onto your britches mister cause this thrill-ride's leaving the station!" 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My favorite hyperbolic quote is also a personal favorite phrase: "I laughed! I cried! I hated to see it end!" I'd retire it only to keep others from using it (so I could claim it for myself). I've probably been guilt of overusing the quote "a must-see" myself, so could not have that one removed.

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com, Dipnot.tv

Until a few years ago, "taut" was the adjective of choice to describe thrillers, and even though its popularity seems to have subsided, it deserves total elimination. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters

Having just had an opportunity to read through a bunch of my old, half-finished reviews from the past few months in order to put together my end-of-year list, I can speak to various weak-ass writerly crutches, but none seemed more glaringly ridiculous than my drastic over-use of the adverb "fairly" in conjunction with the verb "crackles." Not at all sure why I kept on using it, but there it was, over and over again, in everything from my description of Scorsese's infectiously fun Wolf of Wall St. to Tobias Lindholm's steady direction of A Hijacking. As I stand before you, my esteemed jury of peers, I humbly pledge that nothing I see this cinematic year will "crackle," either "fairly" or "unfairly" as the case may be.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

There's one simple, overused word I’d like to see never get used again: "epic." This word has, in most of its current usage, lost all meaning. Anchorman 2 is “epic”! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is "epic"! The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is "epic"! This slice of apple pie I had for dessert is "epic"! And so on. The word can be used accurately -- recently, I saw Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, a film we can call that “epic” and feel confident in doing so -- but is now frequently used as a, I suppose, fancier way of saying "This looks/looked cool." If it's cool, say it's cool. If it's funny, say it's funny. Stop saying "epic." Please.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com, Film Threat

So many choices. There's a bizarre need by the critical body to proclaim something the best of a small subgenre or of a performer's career. "The best Marlon Wayans haunted house comedy yet!" "The best film of January 2014!" "The best Croatian vampire western in years!" The desire within the context of examining one film to rank it against others often feels like pull quote-baiting. Let's cut that shit out. That way when a movie really is the best Marlon Wayans haunted house comedy, saying so will matter.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Thanks to Kevin Thomas, I never, EVER use the phrase "bravura picture." I would have encouraged him to retire it too.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

My pet peeve word to read in reviews is "hypnotic." How many critics -- and, more importantly, how few readers -- have actually experienced hypnosis and know what that experience feels like? (I know I haven't.) What separates a "hypnotic" movie from one that is, for example, "riveting"? Worse, the word is often applied lazily to dramas simply because they have scenes of hypnosis in them, such as Donnie Darko and Trance. Critic-dom, listen carefully: on the count of three, you'll find a better way to describe those "hypnotic" movies. One, two...

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

I would axe the phrase, "it sneaks up and floors you." It's been well-documented, but Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says it all the time. Similarly, in his review for The Spectacular Now, Travers says, "the movie hits like you a shot to the heart." What does that even mean? Come to think of it, let's go ahead and jettison all praise that implies the movie is so good it causes surprise bodily harm.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

I hope there won't be any follow-up film in 2014 that triggers critical “fever dreams” to excuse away ham-fisted filmmaking.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: Her

Other films receiving multiple votes: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Wolf of Wall StreetAmerican HustleNebraska.



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2 Comments

  • NeilFC | January 7, 2014 9:53 AMReply

    I second that critics should never, ever describe a performance as being "Oscar-worthy" as it doesn't tell you anything about the performance. It could mean it's a good performance like Jane Fonda's in "Klute" or Jack Nicholson's in "Cuckoo's Nest", or it could mean an awful, shameless, hammy performance that the Academy often reward (I'm thinking of Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" or Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain".
    I wish someone would point out to Stephanie Zacharek the number of times she refers to a film as being "alive" - she really needs to retire that one for good.

  • woo | January 6, 2014 12:04 PMReply

    This whole article is proof that a lot of criticism is bad writing. Bad writing is often an indicator of insincerity. Insincerity is the enemy of real film criticism.

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