The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: Reviews

Red Medicine bans L.A. Times food critic, calls HER irrational

RuthReichl It’s a truism of the entertainment industry that a movie must be a real stinker when it's rushed into theaters before a round of reviews.

That wouldn't be the dynamic at play at Red Medicine, the Beverly Hills restaurant, would it? The Vietnamese fusion joint booted out my colleague LA Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila this week and posted a notice on the Internet that suggested other restaurants might consider doing the same.

The Times’ assistant food editor, Rene Lynch, explains how the restaurant’s managing partner, Noah Ellis, gave Virbila and her three companions the hook on Tuesday. Ellis also took Virbila's picture, without her permission, and posted it on the restaurant’s Tumblr site.

Many restaurant critics work hard to maintain their anonymity to assure they are treated like any other customer. In her book “Garlic and Sapphires,” then-New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl (left, who also once worked at the L.A. Times) described the elaborate costumes and tactics she used to avoid being recognized by restaurateurs.

Red Medicine boss man Ellis said he outed Virbila this week so that other restaurants can decide whether they want the likes of her around. “We find that some of her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational…," he wrote.

Times editors defended Virbila, who has been at the paper for 16 years, as one of the top restaurant critics in America. (I've never met Virbila and hadn't laid eyes on her until her photo whipped around the Internet.)

Much of the initial response to the restaurant’s action has not been kind: “Would you ever go to a restaurant where people are photographed and kicked out for expressing their opinions about the food like you or I do here on Yelp?.... I'm disgusted,” Garry G. of West Hollywood wrote on Yelp.

So what’s next? Movie makers banning the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern from the screening room because he might be too tough? Locking the Disney concert hall doors to L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed?

It’s tempting to say to Ellis, if you can’t take the heat. . . . Better yet, defenders of legit criticism might band together as one, "Spartacus" style, and make future reservations (if they must) at Red Medcine with one voice: "I am Sherry Virbila. I am Sherry Virbila."

— James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: This is NOT S. Irene Virbila. The photo is of Ruth Reichl, the noted food critic, who has worked at the L.A. Times, New York Times and Gourmet magazine. Reichl went to great lengths to disguise her identity so restaurants wouldn't give her favored treatment. L.A. Times critic Virbila was outed this week by a restaurant executive. Credit: Richard Drew / Associated Press.

Glum and glummer: The movie critics weigh in on 'Iron Man 2'

Rob_downey I guess it's no longer a shock to discover that film critics, along with a sizable portion of early moviegoers, are discovering that "Iron Man 2" is, ahem, not nearly as fresh, daring and intoxicating as the original film that took critics and fanboys by storm two year ago.

As my colleague Kenneth Turan wrote Thursday morning, as sequels go, "this one is acceptable, nothing more, nothing less," which is the faintest of praise, because with sequels, you're already grading on a curve at the start. The reaction has been glum in most other critical quarters as well, with the sequel currently earning a lackluster 65 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, quite a drop from the original's amazing 93 rating.

But I've noted a common thread in the early reviews of the new film. The complaint isn't just that "Iron Man 2" is such a disappointment, especially considering the top-flight talent associated with the film, from Robert Downey Jr. on down the line to director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux. It's that the behind-the-scenes gurus at Marvel, who have done such a great job in recent years of stretching the creative boundaries with their big-screen characters, seem to have settled for less -- much less -- when it came to propelling this sequel down the summer movie-visual effects-extravaganza assembly line.

When it comes to a prized property like the "Iron Man" franchise, you need to push the envelope. But more important, you need to create something that doesn't feel fabricated just to replicate the original film's formula of success. Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek put it best: "'Iron Man 2' is more of the same -- a lot more of the same -- and yet a lot less. ... The big problem with [the movie], maybe, is that it so dutifully gives the people what they want, instead of giving them what they didn't know they wanted."

Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum echoed those sentiments in her review. As she described it:

"The diminished satisfaction [from this film] has less to do with the quality of the star's trademark catch-me-if-you-can energy than it does with a performance anxiety that now pervades the whole shebang. Are returning director Jon Favreau and the Marvel Studios producing team buckling under pressure to give the people more of what they think the people want, and make it bigger too?"

If you get a chance to see the film this weekend, let me know where you stand. But I have to wonder: Isn't it time (with "The Dark Knight" as the template) for people who make sequels to spend less time worrying about reprising all the popular stuff from the original and more time inventing stories that take us where we've never been before?

Photo: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in "Iron Man 2." Credit: Francois Duhamel / Paramount Pictures/MCT

Variety on 'Wolverine': A Hollywood 'work for hire'

Wolverine Not that this is exactly a shocker, but Variety just posted its review of Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which opens Friday, with a host of 12:01 a.m. theater showings. And according to the trade's Justin Chang, the much-anticipated summer tentpole is ... a snooze.

Arguing that the "dull-witted" film falls considerably short of the first two Bryan Singer-directed installments in the series (but better than the third Brett Ratner film), Chang explains: "This brawny but none-too-brainy prequel sustains interest mainly -- if only fitfully -- as a nonstop slice-and-dice vehicle for Hugh Jackman."

Chang is toughest on the script, which he views as having aimed low -- and still missed. Here's an excerpt:

"Though its as thick with exposition as any cinematic adaptation of a complex and beloved superhero mythology, the script, by David Benioff and Skip Woods, relies, to a lazy and excessive degree, on both Jackman's considerable charisma and fan awareness of Wolverine's preternatural abilities. There's little emotional modulation or sense of discovery as Logan morphs from hardened soldier to angry but principled rebel, seeking revenge on the mad scientist who engineered him.... Script also traffics in the kind of flat, shopworn comic relief that's become de rigeur for superhero fare.... Noisy and impersonal, 'Wolverine' bears all the marks of a work for hire, conceived and executed with a big budget, but little imagination."

Photo: Hugh Jackman in "Wolverine." Credit: Michael Muller / Associated Press

The early buzz on 'Frost/Nixon' is frosty

Kris Tapley's In Contention website has the first real review I've seen of "Frost/Nixon" and it's not good. Guy Lodge has few kind words for the Ron Howard film, which the Oscar soothsayers have been touting as a top contender in the Academy Awards demolition derby. In fact, the biggest problem with the movie, says Lodge, is the director himself, who seems miscast at the helm of the Frank Langella and Michael Sheen-starring adaptation of Peter Morgan's hit stage play. (Morgan did the adaptation himself.) As Lodge, who saw the picture at the London Film Festival, puts it:

"Howard responds to [Morgan's script] in the manner he knows best: with the most prosaic of visual aesthetics to hand, a doggedly linear approach to storytelling and the spotlight thrust squarely on a reliable pair of actors. Howard's hands-off direction makes for an oddly bloodless viewing experience, with a lot of talk standing in for any fresh perspective (or frankly, any perspective at all) on the events.... It's difficult to think of a director less-suited to take on the intricate, minutiae-obsessed writing of Peter Morgan than Howard, a director who, even in his finest films, has always been interested in the big picture first, with characters serving history rather than the other way around."

Frostnixonpic_3Lodge goes on to say the movie is undermined by a "sluggish" first hour where the film's historical context is "painted in broad, CliffNotes fashion, with a gallery of reconstructed talking-head interviews and distracting look-alike cameos in place of significant internal character development." He's not much more enthusiastic about Langella's turn as Nixon, which has been touted as a slam-dunk Oscar performance, calling it "broadly entertaining." As for Michael Sheen's Frost, Lodge says the actor's performance "quickly becomes one-note, offering neither the magnified subtlety or shading to make Frost a compellingly flawed hero, nor the firepower to match Langella's in the film's showy set-pieces."

I remain eager to see the film (perhaps Universal will eventually find time to show it to some of us lowly L.A. Timesians), but getting slapped around right out of the box isn't a good sign. The movie needs a raft of great reviews to build momentum for a film whose core audience is probably 50 and over. Universal hasn't had much luck lately with quality adult-oriented filmmaking, seeing audiences stay away in droves from "The Express" and "Flash of Genius," its two most recent releases. I liked both films, but they didn't get the kind of money reviews those projects need to survive at the multiplex. If this early notice is any indicator, "Frost/Nixon" may have a rocky ride ahead too.

Update: More bad news. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw has just weighed in. He doesn't like the movie either.

Photo of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in "Frost/Nixon" from Universal Pictures 

The streak reaches 18!

Bill Klem umpired 18 World Series, Chicago Cubs reliever George Washington (Zip) Zabel once pitched 18 innings in relief (eventually winning the game) and now 20th Century Fox has made 18 movies that couldn't even score a mediocre 50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To recap:

Everyone knows Fox makes bad movies, but just how bad? We've been keeping a running tab on the lousy reviews for each of their new movies. With the exception of "Horton Hears a Who" last spring, Fox has released 18 movies since last summer's "Simpson's Movie," none of which have earned a 50 rating on the Web's leading aggregator of movie reviews.

This Friday's new film, "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," kept the streak alive, scoring a measly 31 on Rotten Tomatoes. Our reviewer wasn't all that impressed, a reaction shared by most critics. The Charlotte Observer's Lawrence Toppman, hardly a fancy-pants big city snob, put it best: "They've given us a mash-up of a procedural police thriller, a B-grade mad scientist movie of the 1950s and some mumbo-jumbo about God's influence that hasn't a real shock or surprise throughout."

Xfiles_pic What's the potential No. 19 film in the streak? "Mirrors," a thriller with Kiefer Sutherland and Amy Smart, that's due out Aug. 15. Let's just say, considering Sutherland's big-screen track record, that we've got our fingers double-crossed.   

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox/ Diyah Pera

'Space Chimps': The bad movie streak continues

Spacechimps_5_3 Believe it or not, it's another week, another critical dud for Fox.  As I noted last Friday upon the release of the execrable "Meet Dave," 20th Century Fox has a knack for making bad movies. How bad? Putting aside last spring's "Horton Hears a Who," Fox has released 16 movies since last summer's "The Simpsons Movie" that haven't managed to even score a mediocre 50 at Rotten Tomatoes, the Web's leading aggregator of movie reviews.

The release of "Space Chimps" today stretches that streak to 17. The kid-friendly animated monkey movie landed with a thud, scoring a 35 at Rotten Tomatoes, putting it in the same dregs with "Speed Racer" (36) and "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" (34). The movie did get a big valentine from the New York Times, but most other critics were merciless. USA Today's Claudia Puig called the film "truly dreadful," saying it was reminiscent of "bad Saturday morning cartoon fare." Entertainment Weekly gave it a D. (Our review wasn't much better.)

Nearly all the critics noted how cheap and cruddy the animation looked, especially compared to the recently released "Wall-E." In fact, the animation appeared so cheesy that the LA Weekly's Robert Wilonsky joked that the movie "looks like they ran out of the $292.96 budget halfway through."

The critics' other favorite number was 81, which is how many minutes the film lasts. My wife is trying to get our 10-year-old to see the movie this weekend, though he seems worried that the film, which is G-rated, might play too young for him. If we go and it turns out to be a masterpiece, I'll be happy to cross swords with all those wrong-headed critics. As for the Fox streak, it will last until at least next weekend, when "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" hits the theaters. I like that title: I want to believe that it's a good movie, but based on the Fox track record, only seeing will be believing.   

Photo from "Space Chimps" by Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Fox

Dark Knight' mob attacks defenseless film critic

Darkknight Not that it matters of course, when it comes to a pop-culture tsunami like "The Dark Knight," but so far most of America's much-maligned film critics have embraced the Christopher Nolan-directed film, which is due to set all sorts of obscure box-office records this weekend. (Is there, for example, a record for biggest July opening during a presidential campaign year?) But there's always a skunk at every wedding. When it comes to "Dark Knight" fans, the skunk is New York magazine critic David Edelstein, who had the temerity to slag off the new Batman film, calling it "noisy, jumbled and sadistic."

And that was just the beginning: Edelstein hooted at the action scenes ("spectacularly incoherent"), the director ("Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action") and the movie in general ("it's all fits and starts, fitfully suspenseful, fitfully scary... with jolts of brutality to keep you revved up"). "Dark Knight" loyalists did not take this lying down. Edelstein has been bombarded with so much e-mail abuse since his review posted that he felt obligated to respond to the vitriol. (The New Yorker's David Denby didn't like the movie much either, but he's somehow escaped being tarred and feathered by the angry mob, perhaps because everyone was more enraged by the Obama cartoon on the cover of this week's magazine.)

I'm not going to get in the middle of this maelstrom, since sadly, I'm such a cultural slacker that I haven't seen the movie yet. But I feel a pang of sympathy for Edelstein, who notes that the Batman fanboys seem to want to have it both ways--calling him a snob for taking the movie seriously, then mocking his pretentiousness for offering more than a "Wow!" as a critical response. The ranting and name-calling all takes us back to the primal question of today's moviegoing age: Do critics still matter?

You should read Edelstein's entire response, but here, in a nutshell, is his argument, which is worth pondering:

"There has been a lot of chatter in the last few years that criticism is a dying profession, having been supplanted by the democratic voices of the Web. Not to get all Lee Siegel on you, but the Internet has a mob mentality that can overwhelm serious criticism. There is superb writing in blogs and discussion groups ... but there are also thousands of semi-literate tirades that actually reinforce the Hollywood status quo, that say: 'If you do not like "The Dark Knight,'" you should be fired because you do not speak for the people.' Well, the people don't need to be spoken for. And a critic's job is not only to steer you to movies you might not have heard of or that died at the box-office. It's also to bring a different, much-needed perspective on blockbusters like 'The Dark Knight.' " 

Photo of Christian Bale as Batman in "The Dark Knight" from Warner Bros.

Eddie Murphy keeps Fox's Rotten Tomatoes streak alive!

Murphy_10 According to an age-old Hollywood maxim, it's just as hard to make a bad movie as a good one. If true,  I guess we can't accuse anyone of slacking off at 20th Century Fox. The box-office jury is still out came in with a guilty verdict on "Meet Dave," joining the critics: The sci-fi comedy -- about an alien spaceship that looks like, well, like Eddie Murphy -- is a stinker.

Even Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, the man who rarely sees a movie he can't shamelessly blurb ("Speed Racer": "The movie is a powerhouse!"), turned up his nose at  "Dave," calling it "bottom-feeding material" with "lazyass toilet jokes." (Our review isn't much better.)

Rotten Tomatoes, the leading online aggregator of reviews, gave "Dave" a 21% fresh out of 100. The abysmal score keeps an unenviable Fox streak alive. Putting aside "Horton Hears a Who," which got good notices when it hit the theaters in March, Fox has released 16 movies since "The Simpsons Movie" came out last July. And guess how many of those films got a 50 or better (considered the minimum for an average score at Rotten Tomatoes)?


Getting a 50-plus score at Rotten Tomatoes isn't that hard. After all, "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" scored a 55 while "Get Smart" earned a solid 53. But Fox hasn't even been within shouting distance lately, with "The Happening" getting a 19 (ouch!), "What Happens in Vegas" scoring a 27 (yikes) and "Deception" barely cracking double figures with a lowly 11 (whoa Nellie!).

The good news: Fox only has to wait a week before it has a chance to break the streak. The bad news: Its next movie is "Space Chimps," an animated comedy about a pair of NASA chimps who blast off into space to save a distant planet from its evil nemesis. Does that sounds like 50-plus material to you? I'd love to hear from anyone who thinks they can predict "Chimps' " Rotten Tomatoes score. You may want to watch the trailer first--and adjust your scores accordingly:

Photo of Eddie Murphy in "Meet Dave"  by Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Fox

Avi Lerner: the new Big Picture movie critic

Lerner_2 Avi Lerner is my favorite producer in Hollywood because while everyone else makes such a big show about how much they care about art while busily doing whatever dirty deeds they have to do to get a movie made, Avi is up front about his point of view: If the money is right, he's ready to pull the trigger. Maybe that's why he makes more movies in a year than most producers do in a lifetime. Full of Israeli immigrant energy and salesmanship, he's produced more than 200 films in the past 20 years, including everything from low-low-budget efforts like "Shark Attack" and "Octopus" to the Iraq war film "Home of the Brave" and the recent "Rambo."

But what impressed me when we had lunch the other day was that he goes to the movies every weekend like a regular moviegoer, paying his $11 to see whatever new Hollywood film has popped up in the local multiplex. Sometimes he'll see as many as five films in a weekend. Since today's critics are famously out of touch with the common taste, I decided to recruit Avi as my own personal multiplex movie critic. He doesn't use as many five-dollar words as Manohla Dargis and he doesn't have quite as firm a grasp on the auteur theory as Kenny Turan, but he knows what he likes--and why he likes it--which is always a good starting point for any critic.

Here's Avi's blunt take on some recent studio releases:

Continue reading »

No love for 'The Love Guru'

There's usually a direct relationship between how long a studio stalls before screening a film and how bad the movie is--as was evidenced in Fox's decision to show "The Happening" to critics 48 hours before it opened. The latest example is "The Love Guru," Mike Myers' supposedly comic take on a guru who yearns for fame (the above video shows Myers playing the sitar on Steve Miller's "The Joker"). Paramount has kept the movie under wraps, far, far away from working stiffs like me, even though as a sports fan, I was dying to see a major motion picture that cast Jessica Alba as the owner of a hockey team.

Variety's Brian Lowry finally got to see the movie last night at the Avco Center 4. He delivers the bad news here, saying that the film is crammed with Three Stooges-style shtick.

" 'The Love Guru' is so relentlessly juvenile as to merit a new twist on the PG-13 rating--one that strongly cautions not only those under 13 but anyone much above it too. Even so, producer-co-writer-star Mike Myers partially wears down resistance by simply pummeling the audience with bathroom jokes, sixth-grade puns and silly songs.... If watching someone get sloshed with urine sounds like a knee-slapper, then Mike Myers is determined to make movies for you."

The movie also has Justin Timberlake trying out a (perhaps hilariously) bad Canadian accent as a well-endowed hockey player named Jacques (Le Coq) Grande, as well as cameo appearances from a pair of Comedy Central regulars, Stephen Colbert and "The Daily Show's" John Oliver. But for me, the best news of all is the movie's running time: 87 minutes. As Sam Arkoff once memorably put it: "If you can't make it a better picture, you can always make it a shorter picture."


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