To toast the holidays on this fine Christmas day, we bring you an all-new Meet a Critic…with the ubiquitous Scott Weinberg!
Everyone in online journalism knows and loves Philadelphia native Scott Weinberg. Like his hometown, Weinberg’s passion for movies engenders a feeling of fraternal, film-geek kinship…and his well-observed film reviews are as satisfying as a cheese steak from Pat’s King of Steaks. (Or Geno’s. You choose.)
A beloved member of the RT community (and our former Newsdesk anchor), Weinberg has written extensively as a film and DVD critic for websites like Apollo Movie Guide, Cinematical, DVD Talk, FEARnet, Hollywood Bitchslap, and eFilmCritic, where he is managing editor. He also serves on the governing board of the Online Film Critics Association (OFCS), which counts over 175 international members among its ranks. As his ‘net-spanning resume suggests, Weinberg is a consummate critic — an opinionated writer with a voracious appetite for movies, sharing his insights into films you may not hear of otherwise.
And while he’s got a natural bloodlust for all things horror (a recent review extols the covert virtues of 2006’s Bikini Bloodbath), Weinberg’s appreciation truly runs the gamut — who else would dare take in a double feature of La Vie En Rose and The Evil Dead in one night? Read on to meet Scott Weinberg, look for him next month at Sundance, and give him a holler on the streets of Austin at South by Southwest!
Name: Scott Edward Weinberg
Age: I was born in the early 1970s. Someone else do the math!
Years reviewing film: About nine, and thanks for reminding me.
Why and how did you become a critic?
Scott Weinberg: I’ve always been a junkie for films. The final product moreso than the casting reports, the gossip, and the production stuff. As a kid I used to wake up on Fridays and BOLT for the newspaper so I could read all the new reviews, check out all the new movie ads, and plan when I was going to sneak into something R rated. It’s my dream job, really. As far as the HOW is concerned, I was working in Philly as a social worker when a friend who wrote for one of the weeklies read my stuff. She said it was a bit rough around the edges, but definitely informed, passionate, and entertaining to read. That one piece of praise and I was hooked. I found a few outlets that wanted my stuff, and I started writing (for no money) for a few years. I got a LOT better as a writer, made some contacts, asked around, and then some paying gigs came my way.
Fill in the blank: “If I wasn’t a professional film critic, I’d be a ____________.”
SW: Somewhere too depressing to think about. Thing is, you only live once, right? So it only makes sense to do something you LOVE. My hope is that everyone loves their job as much as I do. The money ain’t great, I’ll sure as heck tell you that much.
Describe your personal taste as a movie watcher…
SW: Well, thanks to my mom’s mom, I grew up a carnivorous horror geek. (And I’ll always love my grandmother for that!) But I also get misty-eyed at some of the girliest movies you can imagine. (Like, say, Waitress or Moulin Rouge.) Early in my career I discovered that you BETTER know a little about everything, just in case you’re asked to review an old Fassbinder title, a new Wayans brothers debacle, or something in between. But while I can definitely get behind some of the “arthouse” fare, the honest truth is that I’m a popcorn junkie. I love summer-time movies (when they don’t suck), and I still get pretty excited for certain ‘event’ movies. My #1 favorite, though, is being able to discover a new (usually horror) flick on the festival circuit and then helping to spread the word among my fellow film freaks. In other words, there’s nothing I won’t watch, but my preferences definitely lie in the genre department. Last night was a double feature: La Vie en Rose, followed by The Evil Dead.
Which filmmaker (living or not) who you’d most like to meet, and why?
SW: Either Sidney Lumet (check his filmography for why), Steve Martin (childhood hero, depsite his awful career choices of late), or Jennifer Connelly (just so I could stare at her face and then go stark raving mad). Or maybe Ed Wood, just so I could tell him that his name does live on.
What is your favorite film (or scene in a film)?
SW: If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I’d have another 25 bucks to buy yet ANOTHER copy of Ridley Scott‘s Alien. Because, yes, that’s my #1, all-time, top-of-the-chart, without question, supah-genius favorite film. For personal reasons, obviously, but also because I think it’s one of the most “primally” effective horror films ever made. Good god did that movie scare me as a kid. Close behind in second place would be Mel Brooks‘ Young Frankenstein, which I think is just about the most perfect comedy I’ve ever seen. Smart, silly, strange, beautiful to look at, satirical yet affectionate — and that cast! Tied for third place are about 500 films, including Miller’s Crossing, Airplane!, Laura, The Blues Brothers, Strangers on a Train, Jaws and Raiders, the original King Kong, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, and (yep) the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Who is your favorite director?
SW: Sidney Lumet, Terry Gilliam, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Hitchcock (kinda goes without saying), Joe Dante, Kubrick (see Hitchcock), David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Spielberg (see Kubrick), John Landis (pre-1984), Wes Craven, Adam Shankman (just kidding), Brad Anderson, Peter Berg, Brian Levant (see Shankman), and (of course) Joel and Ethan Coen.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
Who do you think is a shoo-in come Oscar night?
SW: Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood. The guy’s a force of freakin’ nature in that film. Plus he delivers one helluva two-hour Jack Palance impersonation, and I always liked Jack Palance. And while she’s not nearly a shoo-in, I’d be very pleased if Helena Bonham-Carter got some love for her work in Sweeney Todd.
Best overlooked film of 2007?
SW: For my fellow horror geeks, I’d say Bug, Hatchet, Behind the Mask, and Severance. Oh, and Vacancy. (And The Mist should have done better!) For films in general, I’ll go with Breach, Death at a Funeral, First Snow, The King of Kong, My Kid Could Paint That, The Nines, Sunshine, and the excellent This is England.
What’s your most anticipated upcoming film?
SW: I try not to look TOO far ahead, because waiting for Iron Man is sort of like torture. So I see in January we have Cloverfield (marketing aside, it’s a monster movie, and I was born for monster movies), Rambo (ha!), and not one but two Uwe Boll films. Plus I get to go classy and see a bunch of Sundance stuff, and their slate looks pretty promising this year. But yeah, Iron Man. Or The Hobbit.
Favorite film event of the year and why?
SW: Despite the fact that I’m lucky enough to attend both Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, my favorite events of the year both take place in Austin, Texas. In March we have my very favorite film festival, which is South By Southwest. (Great programming, excellent people, and you simply haven’t lived until you’ve had authentic BBQ.) Then in September I roll back into Austin and writhe around like a pig in poop at Fantastic Fest, which is one straight week of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, foreign weirdness, and a few BIG surprises. Great fun, great people.
What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?
SW: Well, since I’m presently on the Governing Committee of the OFCS, I’m required to read a lot of stuff, just to keep up on the membership, accept new applicants, etc. But truth be told, I read TONS of reviews every weekend. (I refuse to read reviews before I see/review a movie myself.) Aside from my illustrious colleagues at Cinematical and eFilmCritic, I’m a big fan of the very insightful MaryAnn Johanson, my pal James Berardinelli, the venomous Walter Chaw, Shawn Levy, Geoff Pevere, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Marjorie Baumgarten, a dozen I’m forgetting right this second but will be reading tomorrow.
How has the internet changed film criticism?
SW: On the one hand you have the folks who say “Oh, gee, so anyone with a keyboard and a DVD player is a film critic these days,” but on the other … I don’t know many people who could bang out 800 words on, say, White Chicks (or, even better, There Will Be Blood), and make the review both informed and entertaining. On the other appendage, the internet has allowed a LOT of excellent writers to find a podium, and I’d call that a good thing indeed. Plus I honestly believe that some “print” film critics can grow cynical and complacent, so perhaps the cyber-friendly up & comers have lit a few fires under the lazy-heads. On the third hand (the middle one), Hollywood is well-aware of how powerful the internet movie world is, which means you’ll get a bunch of websites that sell out for a few advertising dollars and then suck the studio teat whenever possible. Find a few critics you really ‘click’ with, regardless of whether or not you always agree with them. You’ll never always agree with anyone.
Do you feel there’s a sharp divide between the online and print film communities?
SW: No, not really. When I first started attending press screenings here in Philly, I got a few curious glances from ‘the regulars,’ but once you prove to folks that you take your work seriously and you’re not in it for the perks, respect often follows. I do find that as far as the studios go, print critics get a lot more favors and private screenings and what-not, but here in Philly (and at all the festivals I’ve attended), I am treated like a serious pro, and I appreciate that very much. Look, if someone says “I’m the film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer,” that tells you all you need to know. But if someone new says “Hey, I write for a website called eFilmCritic and Apollo Movie Guide,” it doesn’t matter that they’re both well-respected websites. The studios and publicists want to know that you’re a professional, which means real reviews on opening day. No script reviews or test-screening reports, junk like that. Basically I’ve found that “onliners” can sometimes have it tough in this industry, but once you break out, prove yourself, and become an individual, you’re fine.
Some of my favorite people are print critics. Just because they choose to work in an obsolete format, that doesn’t make ’em bad people. 😉
What is the state of current film criticism?
SW: This will sound like a blatant butt-smooch, but thank the movie gods for sites like Rotten Tomatoes. (I was a fan long before — full disclosure — I worked for the website.) Some folks would bemoan the fact that we don’t presently have “a Pauline Kael” to kneel before, but I’m of the opinion that there are some fantastic film advocates out there, banging out superlative content every week. (And I don’t mean Roger Ebert alone.) So while, sure, you may have to wade through eleven different sites like “Bob’s Movie Stoppe!” — if you know where to look you’ll find some fantastic movie analysis from really smart and passionate people. Film criticism might not be as “important” as it once was, but it still matters. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have screenings three nights a week and my mailbox wouldn’t be over-packed with ‘for your consideration’ screeners every December.
Most important of all, and infinitely more important than blockbuster releases or year-end awards: Lots of outlets means lots of film critics attending lots of film festivals. And that’s how smaller films and unknown-yet-talented filmmakers get found.
Which is the best city for watching movies?
SW: Well, I’d like to say Philadelphia because it’s my beloved hometown and I’ve seen more movies in this city than most octogenarians have seen anywhere, but I’m going to have to point my compass towards Austin again. Partially because they still have some cinemas that are actually older than 25, but mainly because Austin is the home of the Alamo Drafthouse, which I called the coolest movie theater in America two years before Entertainment Weekly did. I know I sound like a shill for the place, but … well, you’ve never been there. It’s a movie TOWN, really. You could open an Alamo franchise in Philly and it’d do great — for about a year. Yet in Austin the place fills up every night. For screenings of Troll 2, mind you. Not I Am Legend.
What does it take to earn a 4/4 rating from you?
SW: I’m one of those annoying critics who opts to rate on a 5-star scale, so to get the highest spot… Hm, well obviously I have to think it’s a well-made movie. Like most critics, my brain does run through an involuntary mental checklist as a flick unspools: the actors, the design, the camera, the dialog, the flow, the score, etc. But once a movie gets rolling, that inner chit-chat should start to subside, and the movie should just overtake the moment. The last movie I saw that I’d call “really excellent” is Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And since the guy is one of my very favorite filmmakers, I was watching the movie extra-closely, praying not to catch any glaring missteps or cinematic pot-holes. Aside from one (very) minor question about the need for the fractured narrative, I was just blown away by this movie. I called Erik Childress and told him it was “two hours of cinematic torture, but the really awesome kind.”
A movie like that gets five stars from me. Joyfully and enthusiastically, desperately hoping to bring a few new people to the film. But ultimately, for me to go five stars, a movie must earn four, and then really HIT me on some level.
Do you have a favorite review of your own that you’ve written in your career?
SW: Oh, jeez, no. I’m one of those writers who can’t freaking stand to read his own stuff. Once in a while (maybe one review out of eight or nine) I’ll think I nailed something succinctly, made a good point, or constructed a 700-word article that’s simply fun to read. But I’m really my own worst critic. However, I know for a fact that my MOTHER’S favorite review of mine is the ridiculous one I did for Ron Howard‘s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Years ago I used to try a few ‘gimmick’ reviews because I thought I was funny, and that one I did completely in Seuss-rhyme. If you link it here, I’ll deny I ever wrote it. (Link.)
What word or phrase do you over-use?
SW: Ooh, good question to ask a writer. But what seems to happen is this: a certain word, phrase, or even sentence structure will seep into your writing for a few months, you’ll use it a lot, and then it just sort of fades back into the arsenal (hopefully). Eric D. Snider is my regular ‘proofer’ so he could tell you better than I could. I know I sometimes use too many adjectives because I like to write like I speak — and I’m one loud, chatty bastard.
I know I’ve started too many horror reviews with the phrase “Stop me when this sounds familiar…”
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SW: This. Honestly. Even as a kid, I wanted to write ABOUT movies. Most people (or at least most bad filmmakers) seem to believe that film critics have their job because they couldn’t hack it as a filmmaker. That’s so outrageously not the case. Most critics I know are die-hard, list-making, mega-freaks who’ll talk movies all night, given a stool, a beer, and a conversation partner. That’s me. Acting is way too hard and I could never direct a movie (screenwriting … maybe!), but I’m fully obsessed with what’s in the multiplex, what’s playing at Sundance, who just got cast in the new Chris Nolan film, which horror sequel just came out, why Kubrick did this shot with that angle, what you thought of the end of Magnolia, and on and on and on. It just never gets boring, and therefore I have the perfect job for me. (See, there was a point in there somewhere.)
What is your most common concession stand purchase?
SW: A non-diet cola beverage of some variety. I’m not cheap but I’m also not stupid, and therefore the idea of spending $4.25 for three (3!) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is just flat-out ridiculous. Those cups are awesome, but c’mon. Not a big fan of popcorn, a fact my friends and family find endlessly ironic.
What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?
SW: Truthfully, it couldn’t be published on a PG-13 website, but the second one was at the Drafthouse a few months back and … damn, can’t tell that story either. I don’t have many bizarre movie-going experiences, although I do find it kind of bizarre how RUDE movie-goers are nowadays. People! Stop narrating the movie! Stop asking questions about what just happened! If you can’t follow the plot of I Am Legend, I wonder how you were smart enough to approach the freakin’ box office. Shut up! Stop crinkling! No texting! Some of us are (desperately) trying to take the movie-going experience somewhat seriously, and we didn’t pay $24 to hear you hoot at Will Smith in the shower or lean over to ask Chrissy what Paul is doing after the movie. Argh!