Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer in a publicity photo for “The Choice.”

Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer in a publicity photo for “The Choice.”

by Hugh Gilmore

I worried all weekend that my friend Ross Katz got his head handed to him, and I didn’t like the way it was done. Ross is a former student of mine who has become my friend over the years since he graduated from Haverford High School in Havertown a generation ago. He is now a movie director, most currently of “The Choice,” which opened last Friday. The critics panned it mercilessly.

On the website Rotten Tomatoes, a gathering point that reprints professional reviews and analyzes critical reaction, “The Choice” got slammed. As of Sunday afternoon 51 reviews were posted. Only four were positive. The rest were snide, dismissive, negative, snarky and nasty. Since I know Ross and want the best for him, reading the reviews was like witnessing a gang attack – cyber-bullying at its most savage.

But I think I know what happened since I’ve thought a lot about the nature of criticism, especially film criticism.

First though, you should know that after high school Ross spent a few years at Temple University and then went out to Hollywood to try to get into the film industry. He lucked into being a grip for Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” After several more pay-your-dues jobs, he became a co-producer of HBOs “The Laramie Project” (2000). Esteem followed. He went on to receive Academy Award nominations for co-producing “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Lost in Translation” (2003). After that he lived in Paris for a year, producing “Marie Antoinette” (2006).

Like everyone with artistic dreams, Ross wanted to direct. He got his first chance (including screenplay co-credit) with an HBO drama starring Kevin Bacon, called “Taking Chance” (2009). Directing “Adult Beginners” last year marked his entry to commercially released movies. And this year, still paying his dues, he agreed to direct “The Choice.”

“The Choice” is not being marketed as a Ross Katz film in the way that “Amarcord” was touted as a Fellini film, or “Pulp Fiction” a Tarantino movie. Ross has not had the opportunity yet to shoot his own stories, or put his personal stamp on someone else’s. Especially not this time, when the story comes from a famous, fabulously successful writer like Nicholas Sparks, author of “The Choice.” This is the 11th Nicholas Sparks story to be made into a film. Predecessors include “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “Dear John” and “The Longest Ride.”

Sparks has been so successful in getting his novels made into films that he formed his own movie production company whose first film is “The Choice.” Somewhere along the line – I’m not privy to how deals get made – Ross was asked to direct the film. He accepted. It was filmed mostly in and around coastal Wilmington, North Carolina and just about everything you see in the movie is beautiful.

On Friday, Feb. 5, the movie opened nationally. My wife, Janet, joined me on opening day and we dashed off to the Movie Tavern in Flourtown to catch the 1:30 p.m. matinée. We were glad we did. Few pleasures in life are as exhilarating as stolen ones. The movie is sumptuous in its physical beauty – and that includes the actors and actresses who are all very good-looking. It’s a love story. Opposites attract. Love finds its way. A tragedy occurs and we’re kept in terrible suspense until the very end.

Jan and I nudged one another knowingly here and there while watching. Laughed. She ate popcorn. I ate three Mini Me burgers. We held hands. Snuck in a kiss during the big smooch scene (a last-row benefit of a romance movie). Came out of the movie into the afternoon sunshine feeling glad we went. And thinking we sure are glad we let go and allowed ourselves to enjoy a corny romance movie.

I exchanged a few emails with Ross when I got home, telling him we liked the movie. Then I went to Rotten Tomatoes. Almost everyone who panned the movie complained that the story was a typical Nicholas Sparks love story. Well, duh. They didn’t mention the direction, because the direction was seamless. The highbrow critics don’t like Nicholas Sparks. His fans love him, but the critics jump on him.

And why? I got to thinking, who are the typical film critics writing for? Mostly, it would seem, they are addressing film buffs, cineastes, persons who know their Caligari from their Saraghina. If that is so, why are they bothering to review so meanly such mid-brow fare as “The Choice” with all their pistols blazing away? Who are they protecting? I mean, the sort of people who read reviews in the New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe and so on, do not need to help the artsy class shun Nicholas Sparks. They wouldn’t go anyway. In the meantime, Sparks has hundreds of thousands of fans.

On Monday morning I asked Ross how he felt about the critical reaction.

He replied, “I don’t pay much mind to the critics in this case. We knew from the start that it wouldn’t be well reviewed. What counts to me, with a film like this, is the audience response, which has been fabulous. The movie received a B+ Cinema Score, which is tallied after audiences have seen the film.”

Good. Ross was not disappointed. In fact, he said, “I set out to make a romance – a lovely love story that captured the world of North Carolina and offered laughs and emotion with some sexiness.”

Was that fun to do? I asked. “Oh yeah,” Ross said, “I had the time of my life making this movie – it was not only fun, but exciting at every turn. From the shoot in North Carolina – spending glorious days on the Intracoastal Waterway – to the editing and scoring in Los Angeles. The whole thing has been a blast. We made an audience movie – popcorn a must! – and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.”

That’s good to hear. Sounds like he’ll survive. What’s next for Ross Katz? He said, “Each one of my films has been completely different, which is exciting for me. A wartime drama, an indie comedy, and a studio love story. Next up, another sharp left turn, as I’m making a noir in the vein of Body Heat.”

We’ll all be looking forward to that, Ross. Thanks for the interview.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine,” a noir mystery story set in the world of old and rare books.

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