Trolling Amazon: The Dark Side of Customer Reviews

I woke up this morning to an email from promoting a series of 2013 Oscar-nominated movies that were available on DVD and Blu-ray. Those who know me know I love movies and am completely enamored by televised award ceremonies that honor and celebrate them.

Now, I know there is no quantitative means of discerning which film was "best" and that, at best, many of the awards go to those movies and their collective collaborators who enjoy the politicking efforts of their respective studio executives, but it doesn't stop me from having my own rooting interests nor does it stop me from cheering (while eating pizza and chips during the Oscar party I hosted) when my favorite films win awards.

In preparation for the 2013 Academy Awards, I attended the AMC Best Picture Showcase where, over the course of two Saturday marathon sessions, I watched all nine nominated films:

So, this morning, as I marked the first full week of my post-Oscar malaise, I was delighted to see Amazon promoting the Oscar-nominated films.  Wanting only to briefly tap into the good feelings that great movies instill in me, I clicked on several of the movie titles listed.

The first film I clicked on was Beasts of the Southern Wild and, before I saw anything else, I noticed how many customer reviews it had (nearly 800 as of this writing).

While the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, there were some negative reviews. Anytime a piece of art reaches a wide audience, negative reviews are to be expected, so this wasn't anything that caught me off guard. What did catch me off guard, however, was how mean-spirited some of the words were amongst the reviewers, such as:

 "Miserable. I want my time back."

"Ugh, I really hated it!" 

This compelled me to read other negative reviews from the Oscar-nominated films, such as Life of Pi:

" much energy and charm as a vibrator with a dying battery..."

"The only good thing I can say about this movie is that it recreates the experience of sea sickness without actually being on the water..."

And Silver Linings Playbook:

"Bradley Cooper has no charisma whatsoever. Jennifer Lawrence is bad girl boring. Robert De Niro has been playing this exact same part forever and physically looks to be morphing into Tony Bennett. And De Niro's wife - well, I thought it was Sally Struthers post-diet making a comeback - but it wasn't her - but whomever it was, all the actress did was stand around looking pole-axed."

"One star because zero stars isn't an option, nor is a black hole icon."

Before I knew it, more than an hour had past of me reading negative reviews for many movies that I have overwhelmingly positive feelings for. And I found that the exercise of reading these negative words served only to upset me and put me in a sad mood. It got me to thinking about the people who wrote the mean-spirited reviews, wondering what their motivations were. If they simply wanted to offer a critique to help inform curious consumers, that's one thing, but their objectives seemed far more devious and cynical than that.

And this all led me to thinking about the culture of social networking and cyber-bullying, how, when faced with a computer screen, certain individuals are filled with the bravery to say truly awful and hurtful things without hesitation or remorse. Such people are, in Internet vernacular, generally referred to as "trolls" and what they do is known as "trolling." What trolls do is enter into Internet communities and speak in inflammatory terms for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response, like a petulant child who misbehaves for attention. A troll will spend five minutes of their lives trashing art that has taken someone else years of hard work to produce.

As an author, I've seen and read most all of the negative reviews of my novel Inside the Outside. While it never feels good to read somebody's take on why they didn't like it, I've always approached customer reviews with the attitude that the moment somebody pays money to read my novel they're free to say whatever they like about it. That said, I still wish we lived in a more cordial time, where reviewers could share their negative critiques in more respectful terms; I wish they'd assume the artists behind the works they're trashing are actual human beings with hearts, minds, and feelings.

It's all subjective, of course, and everybody is entitled to their opinion, but whenever I see a particularly shitty or hurtful review of a movie or a book or anything of the like, I ask myself: Would they say those same exact words if the artist were standing in front of them?

Unless they're severe sociopaths, the answer is no.

But, because we live in this new and evolving age of cyber-communication, trolls and cyber-bullies are becoming more and more emboldened to fill the world with hatred and negativity. And while I'd like to think this is just some passing phase, I suspect it will exist  for as long as we have the Internet, which, barring some sort of apocalyptic event, will be the rest of our lives.

On the bright side, we can only be affected by trolls if we empower them by reading their words, which means the obvious and simple solution is to ignore them.  And that's exactly what I plan to do.

10 Movies That Feel Like Novels: PART ONE



My two great loves in this world are books and movies, so when a great book is adapted into a great movie, I am generally left in a state of euphoric bliss. I love when, during the opening credits, some version of "Based on the novel _____ By _____" turns up, as it means that somebody's already put in the hard work of writing a novel and getting it published, then somebody else read the novel and decided to go through the trouble of adapting it into a movie, so, by virtue of its journey, by the time the film reaches the big screen the probability of me loving it has gone up exponentially.

The most recent book adaptations that I saw—and loved—were Silver Linings Playbook (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) and Life of Pi (based on the novel by Yann Martell). A few of my other favorite films adapted from books are Jaws (based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley), The Godfather (based on the novel by Mario Puzo), The Shawshank Redemption (based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" from the collection Different Seasons by Stephen King), Slumdog Millionaire (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup), and 25th Hour (based on the novel by David Benioff).

Sometimes, however, I'll watch a movie that tells a story with such literary flair, I simply assume it was based on a novel. And when I discover that movie was not based on a novel at all, I'm left feeling appreciation and disappointment. Appreciation for a story well told and disappointment for the wonderful novel that does not exist. There are several movies that I've watched over the years that felt like they were adapted from novels; in some cases the feeling was so strong, I nearly checked my bookshelf to read a particular passage that only really exists on celluloid.


1. Almost Famous (2000)

Watching Almost Famous in the theatre was like watching a movie that was made just for me (and, considering how poorly it did in the box office, it may very well have been). It's a coming-of-age story that is screaming to be a novel, especially since it's the semi-autobiographical tale of the writer/director Cameron Crowe who penned the novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as well as its subsequent screenplay adaptation. The story is about William Miller, a 15-year-old boy who loves rock n' roll and dreams of being a music journalist. He lucks into the chance of a lifetime when Rolling Stone Magazine (completely unaware that he's not yet a legal adult) hires him to go on tour with rising rock band Stillwater for a feature story. Even film critic Roger Ebert senses the literary nature of this story, as he writes in his review, "It's as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 1970s, and instead of taking a raft down the Mississippi, got on the bus with the band."


2. Bull Durham (1988)

Written and Directed by Ron Shelton, Bull Durham is easily my favorite sports movie and one of my all-time favorite films period. While it's not based on a novel, it has a smart and sultry narrator in Annie Sevoy, as well as some interesting things to say about the overlapping interests of sports and religion. The story is about two minor league baseball players: Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, a young pitcher destined for the major leagues, and Crash Davis, a veteran catcher who's smarts and savvy were never quite enough to get him into the big leagues.  Crash resents Nuke both for his physical gifts and his inability to fully appreciate them. But, more than that, he resents him because they both want the same woman: Annie.


3. Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan is probably my favorite Woody Allen film. It's the story about a 30-something man name Issac, recently divorced and currently dating a 17-year-old high school student. Issac quits his well-paying job as a TV writer in order to pen his first novel. The movie actual starts with a voiceover from our protagonist, Issac, as he attempts to compose an opening passage for his fictional novel. "Chapter One. He adored New York City," Issac starts, "He romanticised it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin." My goodness, how I'd love to read the rest of that book!


4. Good Will Hunting (1997)

In 1997, I probably watched Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting at least five or six times; and, a couple years later, it would become the first DVD that I ever owned. This one has novel written all over it.  It's about a 20-year-old  mathematical genius, Will Hunting, who works as a janitor at MIT by day and drinks with his knucklehead buddies by night. Will is an orphan who suffered severe physical and emotional abuse from his foster dad. He's never really had a father figure in his life, until, after getting in trouble with the law, he's forced by the court to go to therapy. He's eventually paired up with Sean Maguire, a widowed psychology professor who—like Will—was once a boy genius growing up on the wrong side of town. Oh, I can practically feel my fingers turning the pages when I think about this movie.


5. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich not only feels like it was adapted from a novel, it actually feels like that novel was written by Franz Kafka. The story is about Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer who, in need of money, gets a miserable office job on the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building. Hidden behind a filing cabinet, Craig discovers a portal into the head of world-famous actor John Malkovich (who, being a good sport, plays himself in the film). The story itself isn't simply a gimmick, either; it explores issues of personal identity and self, as each character, at various points in the film, pretends to be somebody they're not (usually John Malkovich) in the hopes of gaining love and acceptance from people who they worry (sometimes rightly so) would neither love nor accept them for who they are. If that's not the stuff of literature, I don't know what is!