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Crix hunting for voice

Post-Maslin Times review squad gets reviewed

From the nation’s newspapers and magazines to the air waves to cyberspace, America is teeming coast to coast with film reviews. But if one review outlet still towers over the rest, it’s the New York Times.

Indie survival, said one actor-director-writer, is contingent on “a New York Times blast to put in front of the Quad Theater so that it can run for six months.”

Even the filmmakers behind mainstream pics seek the NYT imprimatur, motivated perhaps more by career concerns and ego than actual B.O. receipts.

Recently, however, the Times film review desk has been afflicted with budget problems.

When Janet Maslin’s beleaguered tenure as chief film critic came to an end last September, insiders expected the Gray Lady to land a name replacement — Anthony Lane, David Kehr or David Denby, say.

Denby told Daily Variety last year, “If they had offered me a lot of money, I would have seriously considered it.” The chief film critic’s salary is reported to be between $105,000 and $110,000.

Instead, the Times divided Maslin’s duties, giving equal billing to long-standing Times critic Stephen Holden; A.O. Scott, plucked from a job as Newsweek’s book reviewer; and Elvis Mitchell, formerly of the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

Among those polled by Daily Variety, Maslin’s two newest successors received low marks.

“Elvis Mitchell is trying to be like Pauline Kael and isn’t succeeding,” said one producer. “He’ll either find his voice or he won’t.”

Many said Mitchell’s reviews don’t succeed in their sometimes self-conscious attempts to be clever and pop-culture savvy.

“Now that Elvis Mitchell is at the Times,” said a film producer, “one has to go to the newsstands to get all the hip magazines to know what he’s talking about. I’m pretty trendy, and I still have to wade through all of his hip club references to find out what he’s talking about.”

Mitchell is “one of those guys who come out of the fanzine journalism,” said one young actor.

He is “always trying to insert himself into the creative process after the fact,” griped a director, while one 40-ish writer-director who remembers Mitchell from his L.A. reviewing days described him as “a nice guy but not a great critic.”

An actor-writer-director declared that Mitchell and Scott “write like they’re sophomores in college doing book reviews.”

The reaction wasn’t all bad, however.

One documaker said he’s “really into Elvis Mitchell and A.O. Scott. I think there’s great hope on the horizon. They’re both great writers and extremely nuanced.”

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