I’ve been quietly mourning the demise of the Variety movie review. Once upon a time, Todd McCarthy (Variety’s lead critic) wrote reviews that were astonishingly close to objective truth–there was (literally) no one else in America who viewed movies through the same kind of lens. McCarthy was like some Platonic ideal of a critic: He seemed to come at every movie with an impossible balance of encyclopedic knowledge and a perfectly open mind.
The McCarthy review would begin with a paragraph appraising the economic realities and prospects of the film, then describe (briefly) the plot, and finally move through the project with rough appraisals of everything from the direction to acting to cinematography to costume design. There was never condescension or worship; just clear-eyed appraisal. You could read five of Roger Ebert’s reviews and get a pretty good sense of what he liked and what he did not like. I read hundreds of McCarthy’s reviews and couldn’t even guess as to what his personal tastes were.
And while not every critic needs to be like McCarthy, his worldview was the perfect one for Hollywood’s trade publication.
Well. It’s been a couple years since Variety shuffled McCarthy off to pasture because of what with this new Internet and everything. In his place, Variety has installed some more, shall we say, “traditional” film critics. So, for instance, earlier this week we got this Justin Chang review of the Thor sequel, which opens thusly:
Early on in “Thor: The Dark World,” the latest slab of briskly amusing, elaborately inconsequential 3D entertainment from the Disney/Marvel comicbook factory, an evil Dark Elf announces his sinister plan to “unleash the Aether.” What sounds at first like an arcane euphemism for breaking wind turns out to be just another way of stating what you probably already suspected: The megalomaniac of the month is about to activate the latest all-powerful weapon capable of triggering mass annihilation, necessitating yet another intervention by a popular superhero and his ragtag band of sidekicks.
You can practically hear the editors giggling. Can’t be on the Internet without snark, can you.
Today comes Peter Debruge’s review of Ender’s Game. Debruge shows some restraint in waiting until the second paragraph before decrying Card’s “anti-gay statements.” So that’s something, I guess. But then he circles back to kick Card again, writing:
Though Card may have publicly revealed his own prejudices, the casting department has assembled a wonderfully diverse group of actors — male and female, they come in all colors, shapes and sizes — to serve alongside Ender, including not only Latino best friend Bean (Aramis Knight) but also a fresh set of rivals and bullies, led by the odd-looking Bonzo (“Hannah Montana’s” Moises Arias).
But of course it’s not the “casting” department that’s responsible for the ethnic diversity of Ender’s Game. It’s Card. All of those “wonderfully diverse” parts–Bean, Bonzo, Petra–were written as such by Card. I’m slightly surprised Debruge doesn’t know that.
But of course, a film critic can’t read every source novel. And it’s entirely possible that McCarthy wouldn’t have read Ender’s Game either. The difference is that if he hadn’t, McCarthy wouldn’t have revealed his ignorance by adding a flourish of exhibitionism to his review.