Film critic Stephen Whitty published approximately 5,000 stories for the the Star-Ledger over the past 20 years — opining on blockbusters, local film festival screenings, and just about everything in between.
Recently, the Star-Ledger decided to phase out Whitty’s position. “As of tomorrow New Jersey — the birthplace of the American motion picture — will no longer have a single, full-time film writer,” he wrote in his farewell to the Star-Ledger audience in January 2018. “It’s a shame, because it’s a state with a rich cinema history, a vibrant present and a still exciting future. I’ve loved covering all of it.”
But there’s good news: Whitty will continue to provide his celluloid insights to New Jerseyans at NJNext.com.
We had a chance to speak with Whitty about his career, the challenges of film criticism, and what he likes to snack on when he’s on the job.
Donny Levit: In your farewell article, you wrote, “I will replace this gig with others. I will not be able to replace you.” You’ll be writing for Daily News as well as other outlets. Is continuing to write for the New Jersey audience a priority for you?
Stephen Whitty: Well, the great thing about the web is I have readers all over the world — I’ve gotten email from a schoolboy in England and filmmakers in Eastern Europe. But I’ve been writing for New Jersey readers for more than 20 years; I have folks who started reading me when I started who now have kids in high school following me; people who started reading me as kids and are now in film school or even pursuing movie careers. It’s hard to just say goodbye to an audience like that. And why would I want to? Who else would get my NJ Transit jokes?
DL: What was the first film you reviewed?
SW: The first, ever, was probably “The Terminal Man,” one of the few really bad Michael Crichton movies, back for my high school paper. It had George Segal running around as some kind of short-circuited sci-fi killer. It was a pan — the first of many.
DL: Are there certain film genres that you find more challenging to write about than others?
SW: All of criticism is subjective, of course, but I think certain genres — comedies, horror films — are more personal than others. What makes you laugh? What scares you? I’m not a huge fan of slapstick Adam Sandler movies or gory slasher pictures; other folks can’t get enough. But the most difficult film to write about is the one that leaves you feeling — meh. I love writing about movies that moved me, for good or for bad. But a so-so action sequel, or Part II of some superhero saga? It’s harder to work up the strong feelings that, I think, make for good criticism.
DL: What film (or films if you’d like to name a few) are you looking forward to in the near future?
SW: Of course, I can’t wait to see “The Irishman” — it’s got Martin Scorsese directing, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci starring, and it’s about a real-life mob hitman. I just hope that Netflix, which is behind it, gives it a genuine theatrical release in addition to streaming. There is a lot of great work being done for TV, but any filmmaker as visual as Scorsese really deserves to have their work seen on the biggest screen possible. I wonder if people who only saw “Mudbound” on Netflix, for example, really understand why it just got a much deserved Oscar nomination for its cinematography.
DL: I have to ask: Do you eat popcorn or snack when you’re reviewing? Or is it a foodless/drinkless endeavor?
SW: I am a movie-concessions purist — small popcorn, extra salt no butter, and a large regular Coke. But that’s a treat. I see more than 200 movies a year. If I had that every time I went I wouldn’t be able to fit in the seat.