CRITICS

CRITICIZE | THE DAILY POST


Terrible reviews. Everyone hated it. One of our favorites.

Terrible reviews. Everyone hated it. One of our favorites.

I almost never read the “professional” critics these days.  By professional critics, I mean those men and women who are paid to review entertainment: television, movies, and books. Reviews by “the pros” never seem to have anything to do with me. I don’t know from what planet these folks are coming, but it isn’t my part of the galaxy.

Do they see the same movies? Read the same books? Watch the same TV shows? Almost all my favorite moves were panned by critics, though many have since achieved “classic” status. Many favorite books were ignored by critics but have ultimately done pretty well, if they had a publisher who believed in them.

Got mediocre or bad reviews -- we loved it

Got mediocre or lousy reviews — we loved it

It’s easy to slam something for its imperfections. It’s harder to find the good and put the less good into perspective. I have wondered why critics are so negative so much of the time. Is is laziness? Are they are just taking the cheap and fast way out? Are they jaded? Do they get paid more for bashing than praising? Are they completely out of touch with the idea that entertainment should be “fun” — and that entertaining fun is a legitimate “good thing” — not to mention that it’s the stuff most of us want from TV, books, and movies?

Serenity got tepid or worse reviews. Love it. Of course.

Serenity got tepid or worse reviews. Love it. Of course.

So here’s how it works. I read the review. If the critic totally hates it, I might love it or at least, enjoy it. If they love it, I might enjoy it, but probably won’t. If the words “poignant,” “sensitive,” “heart-rending,” or “artistic” appear up in the review, I’ll probably run screaming from the room.

And then, there are the movies and TV shows about which I have to ask: “Did they actually see this show/read this book — or did they write the review based on a summary provided by the publisher/producer/publicist?” I can’t help but wonder.

A HARD AND ROCKY ROAD: WHY AUTHORING DOESN’T PAY

I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and have reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.

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If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

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So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.

AUTHOR’S PICK: MY FAVORITE POSTS OF 2015 *

(*) At least those I can remember!

Statistics don’t tell the whole story. I’ve been looking through the stats on my various posts to see what they tell me about the “best” posts of 2015. Statistics reveal which posts got the most hits … but that’s all. It doesn’t take into account how the author felt about it.

Because I publish about 1000 posts per blogging year — including re-blogs, photographs, and four authors — it is difficult to remember what I posted this year. I have to rely on statistics to give me a list of the popular posts for 2015. I’m leaving out any post I already mentioned in the “all time top ten.”

These are my favorites of those that made the top hundred most popular — using views as the sorting tool … and then my opinion as the final criteria. Click on a title to open the original post.

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WHAT EMPOWERS YOU? From July 2014, this post apparently resonated with a lot of people and is still accumulating hits. It’s one of those posts that fell out of my fingers into the keyboard. On rereading it, it’s not bad. Perhaps I haven’t given it its due.

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MARILYN’S FAVORITE YEAR – 1969 Originally published in September 2014, it is still getting hits. Some posts apparently are “evergreen.” Not popular when first published, but has gathered momentum during the weeks and months that have followed. I’m glad, because it is one of my personal favorites.

NormanRockwell Little Rock

NON-WHITE AMERICA IN NORMAN ROCKWELL’S PAINTINGS – HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT,  JANE ALLEN PETRICK – This is a review of a lovely book that got almost no attention the first two times I published it. Yet this third time, it garnered hundred of views and several reblogs. I hope it convinced a few people to buy the book.

I’m not shy about republishing pieces that I feel were overlooked or under-appreciated.

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HE SAID YES was published in January 2015. It’s a piece of the very long story of Garry and my courtship. Edited for a G-rated audience and to keep the main characters out of jail. The truer story is longer … a book, not a post. Maybe I’ll write it. I’ll think about it. I’m not sure just how much personal information I’m feeling public about.

Brown-recluse-coin

BROWN RECLUSE SPIDERS DON’T LIVE HERE! So after Garry got bitten by one or two brown recluse spiders — who don’t live here even though everyone except the experts agree that they most certainly do live here — this is a piece of the story of the great spider bite debacle of 2015.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM! – GARRY ARMSTRONG Garry’s affectionate memories of his mom, on her birthday this past July, 2015.

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PASS THE ALUMINUM FOIL (DIRECTIONS INCLUDED) A humorous anecdote of one of the more amusing wackos I’ve met over the years. A little astrology and directions to make your very own aluminum foil hat.

Banks Ernie Plaque 142_NBL_0LET’S PLAY TWO: REMEMBERING ERNIE BANKS – GARRY ARMSTRONG Just what it sounds like. In Memorium for a baseball great.

Heston-Charlton-Ten-Commandments

DON’T COVET YOUR NEIGHBOR’S ASS I couldn’t remember the ten commandments. Doesn’t everyone know them? But Garry couldn’t remember them either, though we more or less pieced them together — two minds being slightly better than one. But then, what was the correct order? I’m still not sure.

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GENERATION GAP – GROWING UP BOOMER Communication between generations. Maybe not the impossible dream? Is there hope?

GARRY ARMSTRONG’S FAVORITE MOVIES* – 2014 UPDATE

The title has an asterisk because this is an impossible post. I can’t begin to do justice to all the movies I love when limited to ten. However, a dear friend (and fellow movie maven) asked me to compile such a list for a project.

Hollywood Legends Poster

I saw my first film at age four in 1946. I recall relatives saying I talked like a grown up, spouting familiar lines. Frequently they were lines from movies.

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Photo by Bette Stevens

That quirk would continue for the rest of my life right to the present.

I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with many of the legends from old Hollywood, which sometimes clouds my perspective. I become totally immersed with movies. I become part of the film, sharing the feelings of the characters. Love, hate, joy and sorrow.

And now … the movies.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – 1946. The first movie I saw. I was 4-years old. Mom and Dad looked like a celebrity couple. Dad, just back from active duty in World War Two, seemed 10-feet tall in his uniform. The film’s theme, GI’s readjusting to civilian life, would become a personal issue in our family.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – 1960. If I love movies, I am passionate about westerns! I saw “The Magnificent Seven” 6 times during its first week in the theater. Steve McQueen was “the man”. The stars were so very cool. Eli Wallach was a hoot as the Mexican bandit leader. His line, “Generosity, that was my first mistake…” is my email signature.

INHERIT THE WIND – 1960. Every time it’s on, we watch it. Marilyn and I smile, anticipating the lines, waiting for the Spencer Tracy/Clarence Darrow monologues. The Tracy-Fredric March courtroom scenes are perfect. Two masters at work. Gene Kelly does his best dramatic work as the acerbic H.L. Mencken character. The film’s an excellent classroom tool for anyone unfamiliar with the Scopes trial.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY – 1964. If you love great script and dialogues, this may be the all-time best movie. The real star is the script and its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. James Garner’s favorite movie and best film role. Garner was brilliant! Ably supported by Julie Andrews (her first dramatic role). Hard to watch a gung-ho action war flick after viewing this one.

TOMBSTONE – 1993. I came on board after the second or third viewing of this one because of Marilyn’s love of this version of the Earp saga. It’s fast-paced, well-acted, relatively authentic and beautifully photographed. The film gives us a jolt of vicarious pleasure as the good guys mow down the bad guys. We have coördinated Tombstone tee shirts.

GIGI – 1958. I remember seeing this first run. I was 16, head over heels in love with Leslie Caron. A couple of years earlier, I’d waited outside the tiny Trans-Lux Theater in Manhattan where Caron’s Lilli had a record-breaking run. A wonderful musical. Music, sets, cast. Marilyn and I know the songs and sing along. It never gets old.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – 1952. Maybe best musical. Ever. So many wonderful “numbers” including Gene Kelly’s iconic (I know the word is overused) title tune sequence. Once upon a time, I used to dance to work in the rain, just singing and dancing – like Gene Kelly. I got more than a few stares.

SHANE – 1953. Marilyn and I saw this first run at the Loews Valencia in Queens, New York, but not together. The Valencia was like Radio City Musical Hall. Fantastic and huge, with a starlit ceiling. Alan Ladd’s finest performance thanks to director George Stevens. I’ve seen Shane dozens of times and still marvel at its photography and editing. The scene of “Reb’s” funeral is classic – cinematic magic.

S.O.B. – 1981. Blake Edwards scathing take on Hollywood. It didn’t endear him to tinsel town’s movers and shakers, and they tried to sabotage S.O.B.’s distribution. William Holden and Julie Andrews head a wonderful ensemble cast. Holden’s dialogue to a suicidal friend could well have been Holden’s own eulogy.

CASABLANCA – 1943. Who doesn’t love this film? I met co-writer Julius Epstein in the 70’s. He shared lots of great stories about the making of Casablanca. He said every day was crazier than the previous one, with new dialogue arriving as scenes were set up. We saw a remastered Casablanca on the big screen last year, a celebration of its 70th anniversary. Bogie and the gang were in their prime.

Ask me to name my ten favorites next month, you’ll get different answers (with a few carry-overs)! Hooray for Hollywood!

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER — SCRIPT? CHARACTERS? PLOT?

Matters of Taste – When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?


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You mean … other people don’t make their own decision about how they feel after reading a book, seeing a movie or watching a television show?

Because I thought that was what we were supposed to do. You know. Think for ourselves. If not, what’s that big grey lump in the middle of our skull good for anyhow?

A high percentage of current pop culture movies and television annoy or bore us. The last one to leave us saying “Huh?” Was Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). It began with an explosion. It barely paused at any point during the next 136 minutes for dialog, character development, plot, or anything else. It ended with a really big explosion. At one point in the viewing, Garry left. He came back 20 minutes later. He said later he didn’t feel he’d missed anything. He didn’t because nothing had happened except a few more things blew up.

It got great reviews.

We are fans of the franchise. With the exception of Thor, which I thought was too dumb and poorly acted even for a late night stupid fix, I’ve enjoyed watching the superheroes of my childhood come to life and save the world. I don’t expect great art, just a modestly coherent story, handsome guys and beautiful women in spandex, and special effects.

However, I anticipate a plot. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but nothing is too little. I require dialog. In short, a script.

Explosions are not enough to carry a movie for more than two hours. If the production company is going to shell out all that money for big name stars, not to mention special effects, how about throwing a few bucks at a scriptwriter? Writers work cheap. Give it a shot, Hollywood.

I don’t care what any reviewer says. I never did. Or for that matter, what friends and family say. If they feel spending a lot of money to watch things blow up is a worthwhile trade, okay with me. In this household, I expect more. Require more.

I should add you’d never get away with that in a book. A book with no story? No character development?  Even if the plot and characters are lame, they nonetheless need to be there. Without them, it isn’t a book and won’t make the big time. Not yet, anyway. And aren’t we glad for that, at least!

DESERT ISLAND CLASSICS – Marilyn and Garry Armstrong

An oldie, but a goodie. Garry wrote it, Head In A Vice published and republished it — and now, I’m reblogging it. What goes around comes around, and around.

Head In A Vice

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Whilst I eagerly await your blogathon entries (7 DAYS LEFT PEOPLE!!) (please feel free to join in, click HERE for details), I wanted to shine some light on my long running Desert Island Films series, and more importantly the people who joined in and made it so much fun to do. I am therefore randomly visiting the archives and re-posting a few of the lists with some added kind words. I present to you; Desert Island Classics…… You may have read all of the lists so far, but I hope you won’t mind seeing a few of them again, and who knows, you may even find some new blogs to read.

Two people that have no interest in horror yet somehow found my blog are Marilyn & Garry Armstrong. It makes me so happy to see them both still visiting my blog and so today I want…

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ANOTHER ONE JUST LIKE THE OTHER ONE: PANASONIC LUMIX DMC ZS-25

Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS -25

Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS -25

I had no intention of buying a camera. I wasn’t looking for myself. Someone else was looking for a camera and I was just doing a little research.When Adorama popped up with a refurbished Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS-25 16.1 MP for under $100, I said “wow.” (There were only two at that price and both have been sold.)

Lazy daisy

Lazy daisy

It came with a Sony 16GB SDHC card and a cute little case (original from Panasonic). It is not new, though it certainly looks and feels new. It’s refurbished by Panasonic and comes with a new camera warranty. Resistance was futile.

I have a legitimate excuse. No jury would convict me.

Day lily, back lit

Day lily, back-lit

My “go everywhere” camera has been the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS-19 and the ZS-25 is essentially the same camera, with a higher resolution. My old camera has a nasty dent on the lens where I gave it a whack about a month ago. So far, it has been okay, but hitting a lens hard enough to dent its case has inevitable repercussions. It doesn’t owe me anything.

The ZS-25 uses the batteries and charger I already own. It’s the same size as its predecessor. So, of course I bought it. Then I had to do a little test drive.

Japanese maple and sunlight

Japanese maple and sunlight

Although the specs make it seem they are the same camera, they are not.

The Leica lens has the same zoom (20X). Both old and new lens are F3.3-F6.4. But the depth of field is different. It’s noticeably shallower working close on the ZS-25 and it has a more attractive bokeh. The color is true — less green, more neutral. It focuses faster and recycles much faster. All useful improvements.

The menus have been simplified and it is noticeably easier to find the functions I use. I like the streamlined controls, too, though I miss the on/off switch. It’s now a button, like every other camera. The view screen has the same specs, but because you can adjust it for varying light conditions, it seems brighter and sharper.

My last red lily

My last red lily

The little ZS-19 has performed yeoman’s service for me. I’ve carried it with me everywhere for two years. It has shot more frames than the rest of my cameras combined.

I am pleased to be able to continue using essentially the same piece of equipment. It suits me well. Compact and light, good lens. Not the longest super-zoom available, but long enough — and wide enough — for most purposes.

My ZS-19 has been a very satisfactory camera and its granddaughter, the ZS-25, seems likely to be equally satisfying. I’m more than pleased.

Camera Effective Pixels 16.1 Megapixels
Sensor Size / Total Pixels / Filter 1/2.33-inch High Sensitivity MOS Sensor / 17.5 Total Megapixels / Primary Color Filter
Lens LEICA DC VARIO-ELMAR / 12 elements in 10 groups / (3 Aspherical Lenses / 6 Aspherical surfaces / 2 ED Lens)
Aperture F3.3 – 6.4 / Multistage Iris Diaphragm (F3.3 – 8.0(W), F6.4 – 8.0(T))
Optical Zoom 20x
Focal Length f=4.3 – 86.0mm (24 – 480mm in 35mm equiv.) / (28-560mm in 35mm equiv. in video recording)
Extra Optical Zoom (EZ) 25.3x (4:3 / 10M), 30.0x (4:3 / 7M), 36.0x (4:3 / 5M), 45.0x (under 3M)
Intelligent Zoom 40x