Summer may be nearing its end, but for Hollywood and for movie fans, fall means the start of awards season hype. In this Slate Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate film critic and Culture Gabfest co-host Dana Stevens about the movies she’s looking forward to most this fall, how streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon are changing the film industry, and one review she’d probably take back.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: Let’s start with what your film reviewing process is like. How do you prepare for a review? Do you watch the director’s previous films? Do you read about the making of the film, anything like that?
Dana Stevens: That completely depends on the film. I wish I could say that I have a week of exhaustive research. I write once a week now; I used to review two movies a week. I’m writing a book right now, so I’m on a reduced schedule and just writing once a week, so that gives me a little bit more wiggle room if I need to watch a movie for research, but normally, I barely have time to see the movie itself.
There are exceptions, though. There are times that I’ll watch stuff for background. For example, if it’s part of a series, and I haven’t seen the previous films in the series, I’ll go back and watch as many as I can. If there’s eight superhero movies, I might not get to them all or if it’s a movie that’s based on a big book, a best-seller or a book that everybody knows, everybody has read. For example, the Twilight movies. When those came out, I thought, I need to at least grapple with what this Twilight novel is, and that was painful, much more painful than the movies. That book was so awful. But if it’s something like that, a book that’s sort of everybody coming in. Fifty Shades of Grey’s another example. If everybody coming in is going to have a clear, preconceived idea of what the novel is, it’s being adapted, I try to read the novel.
It’s sort of grappling with it case by case, but most of the time, unfortunately, the movies are just coming at you like tennis balls from one of those tennis ball machines, and you have to just grab them as they go.
Do you usually find that the books are better than the movies or vice versa?
Not in those cases! Actually, most of the cases, when I end up reading the book, the book is not necessarily better than the movie because it will be one of those giant best-sellers that is sometimes not the most exquisitely written book. I think there’s a cliché, that a great novel is hard to turn into a great movie, and that seems to be instinctively true to be. If you look back and think about an attempt to make Moby Dick into a movie or a Virginia Woolf novel or something, they tend to fall flat because the richness of the novel is not there anymore. It’s almost like the reverse case when you’re adapting a trashy best-seller, and you have an interesting director or somebody who has a nice approach on the material, it could improve on the book.
That makes sense. Do you usually take notes during the screening or do multiple viewings of a movie? Probably if you have time?
I’d love to do multiple viewings, especially of complex movies. I rarely have the time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one example where it’s hard to figure out what’s going on [at first]. It’s beautiful, but it’s a difficult movie that takes two viewings to really even start to talk about. That was a case where I begged for a chance to see it again. But most of the time, no, I just get the one chance to see.
Do you take any notes during screenings?
Yes, yes. That’s really important to me, even if I never look back at them. I’ve heard a few different critics say this—we critics have to take our notes in the dark—and people get very upset if you have a lighted pen or any kind of light in a movie screening. A lot of times, your notes are not even readable the next day, but to me, just the act of having a pen in your hand and a piece of paper and that you can take a note if you need to makes me feel like I’m focused and I’m there, and on the rare occasions when I forget my pen or paper and I find myself without the tools, I panic watching the movie, thinking I’m not going to remember anything. But I may not ever look at the notes again.
Looking back at this past year, has there been anything in film that’s surprised you?
Oh, yeah, I can think of a few things. Well, this surprised a lot of people, I think, but how much I liked Wonder Woman. That was a big surprise, the fact that a superhero movie might actually end up on my 10 best for the year, that might be the first time that’s happened—certainly the first time in many years.
This is more of an industry kind of note, but I feel like just in the last couple of years the dividing line between film and—you wouldn’t even call it television anymore but—nontheatrical platforms of viewing has gotten blurrier and blurrier. It seems like more and more the case that theatrical’s not the holy grail anymore of releasing movies, and that’s really new.
It makes the job of a critic really different because you start to ask, “Well, what is it be a movie critic as opposed to a critic of TV or some other genre?” and that seems like it’s been slowly changing over the past many years, maybe 10, 20, but really radically, so in the last few, when, for example, Amazon started to release theatrical movies. I don’t know if Netflix has done that yet, but those services are starting to be producers of a different kind of content than before, and that changes the critical landscape a lot.
Do you have any opinion about that, in terms of if movies are only released on these streaming platforms, per se, does that take away from the experience? Does that take away from—I guess, you wouldn’t think it takes away from the quality, but maybe it does takes away from the quality?
I mean, it lowers the bar to production somewhat, which is a good thing. It makes it more possible to make an expensive or smaller movies or movies for smaller niche audiences, and all of that is great. I think a lot of indie filmmakers are really happy that this is happening because there’s more ways their work can be seen besides just getting the classic theatrical release. But of course as a lifelong movie person, I would be really sad to see that the theatrical experience disappear. It doesn’t seem like that’s quite happening. I don’t think that attendance has been going down every year at the movies, but it’s remained somewhat flat, and certainly, viewership in other platforms is constantly increasing and growing bigger.
I don’t know. I have complex feelings about it. I want there to continue to be social spaces that people gather and look at screens together. It’s just that seems like a cultural experience that we still value and that we would want to reproduce, but right now, I would say that the movie industry’s less healthy than the non-movie, content-producing industry, whatever we want to call it, streaming along with television and the web. I would say it’s in less than good health, and it’s more dependent on huge tent-pole blockbusters to hold up the smaller movies, and it makes those smaller movies harder to push through.
You mentioned Wonder Woman; what are some of your other favorite films from this year?
Let me see, what’s been a great film this year so far? Well, Get Out. I mean, Get Out was also a big surprise this year, especially given that theatrical directorial debut of [Keegan-Michael] Key and [Jordan] Peele, their Keanu movie, was somewhat of a disappointment. I actually like that movie, but it’s obviously in a smaller register and sort of a much lighter comedy and a less important movie than Get Out, and so to see Jordan Peele emerge as really an important filmmaker with his first big solo debut film was really exciting. That was a great surprise of the year.
What do you think is the most difficult part about being a film critic?
Oh, I don’t know. I mean, it’s such a great job to have in so many ways that it feels bad to complain about anything. I mean, I guess just that tennis ball effect that we were talking about earlier, especially when I was writing twice as much for Slate as I am now, just trying to keep up with everything that’s coming out and to have any other life.
I mean, the studios often will screen their movies for critics at night, so it’s a job that requires random work hours. You never quite know when you’re going to need to run off to a screening, and that keeps things changing up. It’s not routine, in that way, but it also kind of means that your schedule can be exhausting. Sometimes, there’s a really short window in between being able to see something and being able to write about it, especially if the studio, for whatever reason, because it’s a bad movie or because they’re creating some kind of mystique around the film or because they’re afraid of piracy, sometimes things are held back until, really, 24 hours before the movie opens. Sometimes, you really are just racing, and with a complex movie that you really want to have something to say about, and like you were mentioning earlier, maybe do some background research on, that can be really frustrating. But I mean, it’s a great job so I’m not going to bitch about it anymore.
I mean, especially with the time constraint, have you ever had an instance where you’ve changed your mind about a film, like you’ve gone back on one of your reviews personally?
Yeah, I get asked that, and I try to think of a really good example. The best one I can remember, and this also involved another Slate writer kind of calling me out is that we used to have this podcast called the Spoiler Special where I would, after reviewing a movie, get together with somebody else from Slate or outside and just have a spoilerific conversation where we could talk about whatever we wanted.
I did that with Dan Kois, culture editor at Slate at the time, on the movie Young Adult, the Jason Reitman movie with Charlize Theron, which is this comedy about a very unlikable character, and our debate was whether the movie knows to what degree she’s unlikable.
I had reviewed the movie negatively because while I understood that she was supposed to be presented as kind of an awful person, I just felt the movie glamorized her awfulness. I never quite sorted out what we were to feel about this character, and Dan really basically just told me, “You saw it wrong. You didn’t understand the basic message of this movie, which was effectively delivered, and if you saw it right, you would understand.”
I rewatched the movie when it was available streaming, and I think he was right. I think I watched that movie wrong, and I think it’s possible that I went into it with some sort of Jason Reitman bias because I wasn’t a big fan of Juno or some of his previous movies, I thought, and still think he’s kind of an overrated director.
Maybe I went in wanting not to like it and found a reason? I think that’s one movie that, yeah, it’s not the most consequential wrong choice to make because it’s a minor comedy either way, but seeing that again made me realize that, yeah, you do walk in with biases, and even if you try to clear your slate and go in with a completely fresh mind for every movie, you’re still the person you are with the history you have who knows what you do about the creators of that movie. I think that entered in in a way that maybe biased me in that case.
What are some of the films that you’re looking forward to most this fall and why?
I’m glad you asked this question because there’s a big list. It’s about to start happening now; with September, sort of the big smart movies start coming out, the stuff that made a splash at festivals early in the year that you hear about and think I can’t wait to see that, it’s all going to start coming out all at once. This is the pressure of time to be movie critic, actually—talking about what are some of the difficult parts—is that this season coming up, especially in December when essentially all the big Oscar stuff gets dumped on the market, is that it’s just a really packed and stressful time of running from one movie to the next and trying to get them all in. Here’s some of the ones that I heard buzz about from festivals that got me really excited.
One is Lynne Ramsay’s film, You Were Never Really Here. I don’t know much about this film, but it won two prizes at Cannes—the best screenplay and the best actor, which went to Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a thriller of some kind. It’s based on a book by Jonathan Ames, who was the creator of Bored to Death on HBO, and all I know about it is that it’s some sort of thriller in which Joaquin Phoenix searches for a missing teenage girl, and that his performance is supposedly incredible, and it was one of those things that made me jealous—there’s like a festival-jealousy kind of tweet. There are a lot of those about this Lynne Ramsay [film], and she’s the director of a few really interesting movies including We Need To Talk About Kevin, the Tilda Swinton movie. Apparently, this is her masterpiece, thus far. I wasn’t able to find an exact release date for that, but it’s sometime this fall.
Then there’s another movie that was a big Cannes splash, which is Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck. That, I do have release date for: It’s Oct. 23. I’m just excited about that because Todd Haynes is one of my favorite directors, and he’s never made anything that wasn’t, at the very least, fascinating, and in best case scenario, a real masterpiece. All I know about Wonderstruck—because another thing that I was going to mention earlier, actually, is that I try to know as a little as possible about a movie going in. I don’t like to watch trailers or read plot summaries. Definitely don’t read reviews before seeing a movie because I don’t want to—it’s the clean-slate thing, I don’t want to get biased. But I sort of peeked a little bit at what this is about just so I could tell listeners now, and it’s about two children in two different time frames. There’s a story in 1927 and a story in 1977 that intercut and relate in some way, and apparently the child actors that play these two is a boy and a girl are both really, really good. They’re unknowns as until this point. That seems really exciting.
There’s a Frederick Wiseman documentary, which for me is really exciting. If you like three-hour process documentaries about institutions, that is what Frederick Wiseman specializes in. He’s 87 years old. He’s one of the great documentarians alive, and despite his age, just seems to have endless energy to document institutions. That’s what he’s interested in doing. He’s made movies about, filmed at mental hospitals, regular hospitals, at the Paris Ballet. He made a movie about Queens, about what it’s like to live in Queens, which I believe is his last movie.
This new Frederick Wiseman doc is called Ex Libris. It’s about the New York Public Library, which is a really great institution to explore. Like I said, it’s almost three hours long, and it’s supposedly great. I mean, Frederick Wiseman is kind of an acquired taste. You have to really love process and focus and just kind of paying attention, but he’s absolutely brilliant, so I’m excited for Ex Libris. It’s going to be a small release so you have to keep your eyes open for that.
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my favorite directors along with Todd Haynes, has an untitled as yet movie that’s being released on Christmas day, which is going to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ last-ever movie—if he sticks to his promise of retirement that he made a few months ago, and the first time that that actor and director have worked together since There Will Be Blood 10 years ago. In fact, it’ll be 10 years to the day; that was a Christmas release as well. An untitled Paul Thomas Anderson movie on Christmas, that’s just like the best present ever. All that I know about that movie is that it’s set in the world of fashion, in some way, and that Daniel Day-Lewis plays an uncompromising dressmaker. That’s how he’s described in the press release, which is so perfect for him, for Daniel Day-Lewis and also for Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s sort of an uncompromising dressmaker, as a director. I think that’s going to be a really good marriage of actor, director, and material.
Richard Linklater has an interesting project that’s coming up. I don’t have an exact release date for this one either, but Linklater has a movie called Last Flag Flying. That’s a comedy starring Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne. It’s sort of a much later sequel to a 1973 comedy—a Hal Ashby comedy, the director of Harold and Maude—called The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson that was a very, very dark comedy about the military and two military guys on leave. The idea of doing a follow-up to a movie that many years later, in the hands of many directors, I would think why? Why do we need to revisit The Last Detail all of these years later and are we just rebooting for the sake of rebooting? But the fact that it’s Richard Linklater makes it really interesting to me. I don’t know what he’s going to do with Hal Ashby, but they have somewhat similar interests but very different tones. Richard Linklater is this very sweet, openhearted filmmaker and Hal Ashby is this really black, dark satirist, so the idea of the marriage of those two styles seems pretty interesting.
All right, I’ll do one more: Call Me by Your Name. This is another movie that got rapturous responses at festivals. I believe it was at Sundance. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino, who’s this Sicilian director. The movie that I know and love of his is called I Am Love from 2009, another Tilda Swinton–starring movie. If you’ve seen I Am Love, it’s this very intense visual onslaught. It’s incredibly gorgeous and stylized and almost just violently beautiful, and that was how people responded to Call My by Your Name as well. The story of that is it’s a gay romance, it’s set at a villa in Italy, and it takes place over the course of this summer. What else do you need? It just sounds really gorgeous and transporting.
As a movie critic, is there anything that you are a crusader for? I feel like you were talking about these documentaries about process. Is there anything else that you were like, “I want to promote as a movie critic, and I want another people to watch.”
Right, I mean that kind of thing, people like Frederick Wiseman, who’s this great artist who’s operating just really under the radar. He’s really beloved by cinephiles and documentaries fans but not known to the wider world, so that’s somebody to champion for sure. Yeah, in general, I would say that I have a very soft spot for a DIY kind of filmmaking.
Oh, that reminds me—speaking of DIY—Sean Baker is a director who made his debut a few years ago with Tangerine, this really interesting incredibly micro-budgeted movie that he shot on an iPhone, and that was the festival hook for that movie, a movie shot on an iPhone. It actually looked really good and just was a wonderful story. He has a new movie coming out called The Florida Project this fall as well. I don’t know if it’s as DIY; I presume that he’s got more studio money than when he was filming on an iPhone. But he is somebody who’s working on the fringes in that way and telling stories that aren’t usually told, so he’s somebody to champion, for sure.