SALT LAKE CITY — When veteran film critic Chris Hicks began reviewing movies, he was working for the Deseret News on the city desk on a beat that had nothing to do with film.
A longtime movie buff, Hicks noticed that several movies were going unreviewed. After seeing what he considered a particularly awful film, Hicks decided to submit an unsolicited review to the then-features editor for consideration.
“It was a movie called ‘Rabbit Test,’” he said. “And I thought, you know, the audience needs to know about this because this movie is really bad. I’d never written a movie review before. I’d been a movie buff all my life. I loved movies and I loved talking to people about movies and I’d read a lot of reviews, but I’d never really written one.”
The newspaper printed Hicks’ review a few days later, and after two years of doing occasional reviews while working on the city desk, the features team asked him to be their full-time film critic.
Hicks is retired from the Deseret News, but still uses his decades of experience to contribute a weekly column. He keeps close tabs on new films being released and, like other film critics across the country, is keeping an eye on the upcoming Oscar season — a time with a bevy of films that are all aiming for those golden statuettes.
With the marathon of films coming down the pike hoping to make their way to the Academy Awards, Hicks and current Deseret News film critic Josh Terry shared their thoughts about movies and the process behind being a film critic.
Terry began writing movie reviews as a graduate student at Utah State University. In 2010, Terry wrote his first review for the Deseret News on the movie “Tron: Legacy.”
“I spent a lot of time writing that review,” he said. “There was this feeling like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ because I’d never done it before and what are people going to think? They’re going to tear this thing apart and catch me on every little thing I say or don’t say. I think I was probably a little more worried than I needed to be.”
Now with seven years of reviews under his belt, Terry has come up with a system. Both he and Hicks prefer to view each film with total ignorance.
“If I had my way, I would walk into every movie knowing nothing but the title of the film itself, if even that,” Terry said.
He said that marketing and trailers have a way of giving too much away, a sentiment with which Hicks agrees.
“I wanted to be like the people that were buying tickets,” he said. “I wanted to have my own first impression and reaction to (the movie) and not have it tainted by all the reviews that had come out before and not by the ballyhoo that the studios like to put out in the ads. So I tried to go in cold and be able to react like any moviegoer would.”
Each Deseret News movie review is accompanied by rating, a four-star system Hicks introduced when he served as its film critic, but now, he said, he wishes he hadn’t done it.
“I don’t care about the stars,” he said. “But at the time it seemed to work. People seemed to react to it and respond to it. So maybe it was OK at the time. (But) I go back and look at my old reviews and think, ‘Does that really reflect what the film says and is?’”
As for the newspaper’s current reviews, Terry called his rating system an “evolving process.”
“What I’ve settled on is if a movie just seems to be good, solid, inoffensive (and) I don’t have any obvious complaints about it, but I don’t really feel like it did anything special — that’s basically a three-star movie to me,” Terry said. “If it impressed me — if it wasn’t just good but it stood out a little bit and I can see that they’re making more of an effort or doing something special — that’s when it gets up to a three-and-a-half or, rarely, up to a four-star movie.”
The favorites and the gripes
Both Hicks and Terry find great enjoyment in watching movies, but both also admitted they have some issues with recent movie trends.
“The ones I really struggle with the most are the Nicholas Sparks (movies),” Terry said. “Obviously I’m not the intended audience. But I also feel like he’s taking advantage of his audience. I kind of feel like Nicholas Sparks is to romance what Michael Bay is to action. It’s kind of like, well, I know my audience likes this thing, this thing and this thing, so I’m going to chuck them all together. I actually like lots of movies with romantic plots. I just kind of feel like the Nicholas Sparks ones are manipulating the audience. It’s very contrived.”
Hicks also had a few gripes to share.
“There are a lot of trends,” he said. “The action movies have gotten more ridiculous. I guess the movie makers are feeling like they have to top the ones that came before, so they’re all trying to top each other and do it bigger and louder. I like action films, but I wish they’d be a little more sensible sometimes.”
The most important trait for a film critic to have is a love for movies, Hicks said. And Hicks certainly fits the bill.
“I would say Hitchcock is among my favorite stuff,” he said. “And I know this is a cliche, but ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a favorite one. My wife and I watch it every year. I love the Marx brothers. One of my favorite genres is film noir. I love thrillers. There’s a lot of them (that I love).”
While Terry said he likes plenty of different movies, his favorite is more traditional and even a bit "cliched."
“Usually the first movie to jump to my mind whenever someone brings up that question is ‘Star Wars,’” he said. “It was that franchise that got me thinking creatively and got my imagination going. It’s very easy to trace back and say ‘Star Wars’ was ground zero for this whole movie appreciation thing I’ve had my whole life.”