So...how YOU doin'?
If you're wondering what's been up with me...thank you. If you haven't noticed I've been gone...well, a pox on you. Read on if you're interested...but be warned that this is more like a personal journal entry than a formal review of any kind. It IS a kind of much-needed therapy for me, writing. And not to worry: There will be movie reviews included down page, albeit short ones, catching you up on all that I've seen in recent months (which sadly is not nearly as much as I - or you - am used to). But mainly, this is a "me" update.
You know. "Me." The thing I've neglected most over the course of the years. A pretty average middle-aged white dude that finally got to witness his "dream job" violently crash head-on into the oncoming traffic of reality.
Talk about a plot twist.
It's been over three months since I've written a proper, full movie review. Or anything, really. If you have known me in recent years, that's unheard of. I've received such kindness during this "break"...several messages from friends - and even some random folks - sending their well-wishes and asking what's been up with me. I've felt lots of love and kindness, with some even telling me they miss my reviews.
Perhaps not enough of those ones for my ego to be fully satisfied, but it's still a nice sentiment. I'm a guy who has built my entire internal persona on my stubborn drive and endless ambition...I've had my hands in so many things, have worn so many hats, that those closest to me are always in awe. "How do you do all the things you do?" Is a question my family has often asked. I never quite had an answer.
Father. Husband. Business Owner. Movie Critic. These roles have defined my adult life. I'm not "old" I guess (I'm 44 for those wondering), but I am a "veteran" in everything that I do. I've been in the wedding industry for 22 years...half of my life! My son is seven going on 27. I have over 10 years of marriage under my belt, and with lots of luck and help, I'll rack up several more. And I've been a real, bona fide professional Film Critic now going on 15 years.
I still pinch myself when I think about the fact that I am a Film Critic (don't even get me started on my professional career covering my favorite TV show of all-time, CBS's "Survivor," a job which also came to a screeching halt in 2023). I used to watch Siskel & Ebert, like so many others did, and wonder to myself how the heck they got to watch movies - and talk about them! - for a living. Roger Ebert specifically is somewhat of a legend and inspiration to me. And I get to share in his profession (how I became a critic is a different story for a different time).
Living the Dream.
Wow. What a journey. For those keeping track, I started my career writing movie reviews for Examiner.com in 2010 as the "Detroit Movie Examiner." When the entire national site went belly-up unexpectedly in 2016, I didn't flinch...I shattered open the door of opportunity that was trying to close in front of me. Looking back, it's as if I WILLED myself to remain a film critic. I somehow lobbied (and found and connected with) the top brass at Examiner.com's parent company, AXS.com, and persuaded them to keep me on as their National Film Critic. AXS.com did not have any film critics, never had before and haven't had since. But for me, a new job was created. Where hundreds of other "Examiners" across the country saw all of their content wiped off of the internet, their jobs lost, my entire library of reviews were saved...transferred over to my new corner of their website dedicated to film. It’s as if I was a phoenix rising from the ashes of Examiner.com’s demise.
I made that happen.
AXS.com had a change in leadership sometime during 2020 that led to my role expiring, but by that time, I had established my own thang...well, I actually joined forces with another mentor of mine (and dear friend), Mr. Greg Russell, to pursue our dreams together. Greg's "Movie Show Plus" had existed on TVs in the Detroit area for over 20 years in some way, shape or form, and I took over as Executive Producer of the show in 2018. We were rockin'-and-rollin with our little show. I was - gasp! - making real money as a movie critic. I sometimes think "what could have been" if the pandemic didn't completely stop us (and the rest of the world) in its tracks.
While the pandemic really rocked "Movie Show Plus," it didn't kill it. It exists even today. Just not in the form that it had when I took it over in 2018 until this past Summer of 2023. Which is OK...Movie Show Plus has changed, stopped, reformed itself and evolved in many ways and so many times over the past several decades. It will continue on (more on that in a bit).
Around the time that I landed the AXS.com gig, I was also the elected President of the Detroit Film Critics Society (RIP). I was fortunate enough to be asked by FOX-2 critic (and also dear friend), Lee Thomas, to be a part of a new movie show he was putting together. Along with Adam Graham (The Detroit News critic whom I've known since college), we formed the critical trio of "Critic Lee Speaking," a show that still remains on the air today (albeit without me). Talk about living the dream: I was literally a film critic on TV arguing (mostly with Adam) just like my idols had done.
I was a staple on "Critic Lee Speaking" for four years - from 2016-2020 - until opportunity came knocking again. I had the chance to be the sole on-air featured film critic at rival WXYZ (ABC) in Detroit. Another opportunity that I had WILLED to happen. Going to WXYZ would mean I'd have to leave Lee's show, but it was the next evolution of my "dream job." I quickly went from monthly appearances on WXYZ, to appearing three times a week and producing my own movie reivew segments! Twice on Friday and once on their coveted Sunday morning broadcasts. My experience overall at WXYZ was nothing short of AMAZING.
My on-air gigs, hosting local events like The Maple Theater's annual "Oscar Gala," and writing movie reviews (usually 200+ per year!) was awesome...but the perks associated with my "dream job" would be unfathomable if you tried to describe what I do for a living to my younger self. I'm a member of the coveted Critics Choice Association, and I not only get a vote in the annual "Critics Choice Awards," but I get to attend the awards show!
My love and passion for movies - and my never-ending drive to succeed that I’ve had inside of me since childhood – has led me to literally getting to rub shoulders with the stars. I still can't believe that I had full conversations with Al Pacino and Patrick Stewart – and countless other stars - and that I got to ask a direct question to Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio at a press conference, where Meryl looked directly at me while answering my question (I have zero idea what she said, as I just kept repeating, "Meryl Streep is looking at me! Meryl Streep is looking at me!" in my head the entire time).
I was by all accounts living the dream...until I wasn't.
From a Dream to a Nightmare.
Flash-forward to 2023. A year removed from a devastating family tragedy has put a lot into perspective for me. Things were still going well, but change was on the horizon. Without notice, my coverage of “Survivor” ended mid-season when new management took over the website I had written for the past several years, and quickly axed their entire staff from the bottom up. I had covered Survivor since Season 20 (it’s now in Season 45!) and a younger version of myself would not have accepted this outcome. I would have found a way, a way to WILL another Survivor writing gig somewhere else.
But this is the 2023 me. Has the fire gone out? To put it into Survivor terms, has my torch been snuffed?
From there, I started witnessing some of the long-time anchors that I had bonded with at WXYZ leaving the station and going elsewhere. Without getting into the weeds of it all, let’s just say that upper management at WXYZ started interfering more and more with the news producers, and in turn, my segment. It became somewhat of a drag in all honesty. The anchors, the technical crew, the producers themselves – ALL AMAZING – and I can’t stress that enough. But the faceless “bosses” atop (or at least midway up) the corporate ladder who would chime in now and again just seemed to ruin everything for all of us.
Without fanfare, without mention, I had my last on-air segment on WXYZ in mid-June of 2023. I didn’t know it was going to be my last segment, nor did the crew, producers or anchors. By most measures, it was a normal live Friday segment, like the ones I had done every weekend for four years at WXYZ. But I received a call (never a good sign) from a WXYZ “upper management” shortly after the segment, telling me that I am no longer allowed to do any sort of on-air movie ticket giveaways. He blamed it on “legal,” the faceless, nameless branch of any corporation that usually takes the brunt of bad-decision making at a company.
It wasn’t this decision that got under my skin (although it was pretty lame), it was how this person chose to talk to me. Cold. Unappreciative. Condescending. I hung up the phone and in that instant, it was as if a massive wave – a tsunami – came rushing over me. “I really am not having fun,” I remember thinking. And for the first time in 15 years, a thought entered into my mind…a forbidden string of thoughts: “Maybe I’m all good with being a Film Critic? I’ve had a good run. But this just isn’t fulfilling anymore. I’m tired. I’m burnt out. And frankly, I have more important things in my life that need tending to.”
How does one give up on his dream job? A close industry colleague – and fellow critic – told me this: “You’ve got to remember, from the outside, looking in, being on TV is the kind a dream job that a lot of them will say, are you freaking crazy? You gave up a job in TV, willingly ????!!! A lot of them just won’t understand.”
He was right. Nobody really understands. Several would easily swap their jobs to have mine. I really struggled with what I should do next. But I was finally coming to the realization that maybe my dream job was coming to an end. Willingly, at least that’s something. But an end nonetheless.
The fear of losing my dream job came second only to the fear of what my life would be AFTER my dream job. Was I throwing away all I had worked for? Would a younger me find a way to WILL something fresh, something better, to happen?
A conversation with my wife would then change the course of my life and put me on my current trajectory. She simply said, “I know that being a Film Critic has always been your dream job. But today…in 2023…is it?”
Wow. She was right. My dream job had morphed into something else completely. It felt way more heavily leaned towards the word “job” than the word “dream.” I’ve done a lot. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.
But it was time that I woke up.
It wasn’t 20 minutes later after that conversation with my wife that I notified WXYZ that I was stepping away. The producers, the anchors and even some of the technical crew that I had built relationships with all responded with love and kindness. I felt like they’d genuinely miss me.
For 15 years, I had tried and was unsuccessful at becoming accredited for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Attending it would have been another feather in my cap. I had FINALLY earned accreditation for this year. Cancelling my trip to attend TIFF was my second action after stepping away from WXYZ.
In the same year that my Survivor career and my WXYZ career came to an end, there were dark clouds swirling on the horizon as well for Movie Show Plus. A long-time staple on WADL TV-38 in Detroit, the station had recently been sold to a massive international media conglomerate. Our days on the air with Movie Show Plus were numbered due to the incoming regime.
It was Saturday, August 5th when I took my son and my niece and nephew to see the new, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” I wrote and posted a review on MovieShowPlus.com. It would be the last review – and the last time I stepped foot in a movie theater – for over two months.
Something strange happened after I decided to “take a break.” The world, first of all, didn’t end. Nobody really – I mean REALLY – seemed to care all that much, to my bruised ego's surprise. My son still called me Daddy. My wife still gave her undying and unquestioning support to anything I wanted to do.
My hero – my wife – again would soon come to my rescue. Knowing how ambitious and intense I tend to be, she reminded me of something true: “You know Tom, it doesn’t have to always be ‘all or nothing.’” She – per usual – was right. In my headspace, I am either petal-to-the-metal going 200 mph, or I’ve parked and am inside Starbucks complaining about the traffic.
But there is an “in-between” space that exists between trying to ascend to be a world-famous movie critic and quitting it all cold turkey. I’m living in that space now, and…to my surprise…it’s actually not all bad. In fact, I’m finding that there may be more to me than my accolades, or at least I feel that there is. That’s ground-breaking stuff to a person whose entire life's worth seemed based upon what trophies had made it up onto the proverbial shelf.
My Life in the Great In-Between.
I finally returned to theaters in late September, to see “Oppenheimer,” although not in IMAX like I had wanted to earlier in the year. I loved it.
Not being on TV has given me a sense of freedom that I haven’t experienced in years. The idea that I had to have reviews of ALL of the new movies is addictive…I literally would get sick if I knew that I missed reviewing a particular movie. And while that feeling still creeps back up once in a while, being a movie critic when – and only when – I want to be has opened up all sorts of doors for my well-being.
An unexpected side-effect of watching only movies that I WANT to watch now, is that I am starting to enjoy movies again more than I have in years. I’m no longer on TV these days, and Movie Show Plus is on what we’re calling a "hiatus"…it still exists – as it has for many decades – and it will be back. I’m just not sure how, or when. And it's still all there online, and will continue to be - including my vast library of movie reviews - especially now that the Actors' Strike has ended and Greg will start getting those big-name interviews again on the site.
The thing I’m being asked these days is: Are you still a Movie Critic? The answer is YES. I’m just not the same movie critic – or the same person – that I was for the past several years, or that I was even earlier this year.
I’m still a RottenTomatoes-approved Film Critic. I’m still an active member of the Critics Choice Association. I’ve just accepted membership into another prestigious group, the “Hollywood Creative Alliance” – formerly the Hollywood Critics Association – and am excited to be included. I’m eagerly anticipating getting caught back up on all of the film’s that I’ve missed over the past several months – films that appear not only on the “must-see” list but that also appear on the “Tom wants to see them” list.
I’m still a part of Movie Show Plus, in every way as before. I’m still a Critic. But for the first time in 15 years, I’m going to see what life is like without that role defining who I am.
“Slowing down” does not mean giving up. Or falling flat. Or failing. I know that now. I can be passionate without being obsessed. I can love movies without claiming that I’ve seen all of them.
Dreams are not real. To live in a dream is to have your head in the clouds. But dreams can guide us. They can give us something to strive for. Dreams though, do not need to encompass or engulf all of our waking moments. At least not for me.
The key to dreaming – I’ve found - is in realizing that the dream is the journey. The destination is whatever you want it to be. What I’ve discovered this year is that for me, I have lots of dreaming left to do, and that there’s a whole new world out there beyond what I had previously thought was the mountain top.
I'm refusing to let my “dream job” define me, and there’s lots to explore in what comes after.
Movies I've Seen Recently:
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, here are the movies that I’ve seen over the past few months, and my thoughts:
One of the very best movies of the year, the story is surprising yet simple and it features some of the very best performances of 2023. I was especially taken by the performance of Greta Lee and the supporting work of John Magaro. A movie that sticks with you. Grade: A
It's everything I had heard and more. A cinematic experience and a showcase for Christopher Nolan who shows his mastery over mood and pacing. In a movie about impending global catastrophe, he gives a close-up of a face, and a twitch of a lip the power of an atom bomb. Grade: A
Another great surprise, now streaming on Netflix. It has the feel of a lost erotic thriller from the 80s or 90s, and yet, the story is given modern sensibilities. I knew that Alden Ehrenreich was a good actor, but he's never been better than this. Phoebe Dynevor is the break-out star, as is writer/director Chloe Domont. And wow, if I had the power to hand out awards, one would be given to Eddie Marsan, who elevates the "uncaring boss" to new heights (or depths). Solid, if uneasy watch. Grade: B+
A fairly straight-forward courtroom dram-edy, Jamie Foxx chews up the place and Tommy Lee Jones plays against type. Nothing ground-breaking here, but not a bad diversion. Grade: B
Here's a movie not for everyone, but I personally was all-in. I could not peel my eyes away from the breath-taking performance from Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley, and this is perhaps the most visually-stunning and beautiful surprise of a movie I've seen this year. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd will be nominated (he has one previous nomination for 2014's "The Grandmaster.") Sofia Coppola has such confidence and precision in her direction that I was surprised by how affected I was, even if I felt the film had a few shortcomings. Grade: B+
I've said it a few times already, but this is one of my FAVORITE films of the year. It's the kind of movie that I want to tell EVERYONE to see, even if it doesn't seem to have universal appeal at first glance. Paul Giamatti has never been better (tall words, that I stand by!) and the supporting cast led by Dominic Sessa and Da'Vine Joy Randolph are exceptional. This is Alexander Payne's best film in years, and the screenplay, by David Hemingson, is my top pick for 2023. It never goes where you think it's going, yet unfolds organically. There's not a false beat, and it's not a feel-good movie, it's a feel-great one. Grade: A
"Albert Brooks: Defending My Life"
Rob Reiner sits down and reminisces with real-life friend and comedy legend Albert Brooks, about his career and his life. Younger audiences may not understand the impact that Albert Brooks has had, but this is an appreciative and hilarious trip down memory lane. Grade: B+
No, I have still not seen "Killers of the Flower Moon," "The Killer," "Nyad," "The Marvels" or "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes."
I plan to see a whole bunch of movies for my award consideration over the next month, for both the CCA and the HCA, which I take great pride in being a part of.
Here too are My Favorite Movies from the First Half of 2023 (no particular order:
What to expect from here? I'll post full reviews...when I feel like it! Other times, I may post a "Review Round-up" and give blurbs on several films at once. Maybe other times I'll do nothing. That's the freedom of it all...and I must say, it's quite...freeing.
A genuine thanks to you for reading, following and supporting me now, and over the years.
I'll see you at the movies.
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