By Richard L. Gaw
Recently, 16-year-old Sean Cooper of Landenberg attended a showing of the film "12 Years a Slave" at a local movie theater.
Beside him was his mother, Desiree, who, because the film was given an 'R' rating, was required to accompany her son. The film is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northrup, a New York State-born free man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery for 12 years before his release. All around him, Cooper saw people in the audience walk out of the theater, disturbed by the scenes that depicted the torture of slaves. He too, was horrified at what he was seeing in front of him, but he sat still, riveted to the screen and the story being told.
In the car while driving home with his mother, Cooper was not only engrossed in the story he had just been told, but in where his mind was taking him. He looked down at the scribbles of notes he'd just made in the dark theater, trying to decipher what he'd written. Cooper had a job to do, a writing assignment, and thousands of people were about to read it.
Since he submitted his first movie review on July 30, 2011 to his blog “Cinemaniac Reviews,” Cooper, a sophomore at Kennett High School, has attracted the readership of thousands of fellow cinefiles – more than 55,000 visitors and close to 1,000 followers as of this week -- who regularly flock to themoviefreakblog.com to read what Cooper thinks about "Captain Phillips," "Stoker," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," or any one of the more than 650 reviews he has written to date.
During an average month, he watches 10 to 20 films in movie theaters, on DVR and Netflix, and by renting movies at a local library. He communicates with his readers through Twitter and their own movie blogs, and has met a few personally. He engages many of them in a running dialogue about both recent and classic films, across many genres. Occasionally, independent filmmakers ask him to critique their films, which he does not include on his blog.
“The first thing I look for is, 'Does it make sense?' and 'Is there something about it that's distracting me from the story?'” Cooper said. “'Does the set look like it was filmed in Disneyland, instead of on location? Can I see the story as squarely as I am supposed to?”
In order to understand how Cooper got to where he is now, it is important to retrace his childhood. In fourth grade, he became obsessed with Steven Spielberg after seeing "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In fifth grade, he began watching Alfred Hitchcock films. At the time, he hadn't yet cultivated an appreciation and knowledge of cinematography, character development and acting, but he loved the stories that Hitchcock was telling his audiences.
In the sixth grade, he began to rent movies from Redbox. When he was in the eighth grade, the parameters of what he was watching broke the barriers of what most kids his age were watching. He saw films as diverse as "Annie Hall" and "Nosferatu." He began to read film books. A filmmaker's first film inspired Cooper to see the filmmaker's second one, and by the time he reached high school, when most kids his age were flocking to see the latest popcorn flick at the local cineplex, Cooper had seen nearly the entire catalogs Spielberg, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh.
“Sean started reading when he was 4,” Desiree said. “We didn't realize it, but one day we handed him a book, not knowing that he would be able to read, and he sat down and read it. He was always writing little stories, writing them in big letters.”
“Early on, Sean's writing ability exceeded mine in terms of creative writing ability,” said his father, Branan. “He doesn't show me his reviews anymore. Being a former English major, I'm apt to break out the pen and make adjustments, but I've learned not to do that, because he writes better than I would, and the adjustments that I would make are usually grammatical, and he doesn't appreciate the input.”
When he attends films in theaters, Cooper generally attends alone and isolates himself. He keeps a notepad beside him, and he writes in the dark. If he's attending an R-rated film, his parents accompany him. Branan and Desiree understand that their son's intention is not to go to see the violence and explicit sex, but to find the artistic element in a film.
Of the many filmmakers whose work he follows, chief among them is Quentin Tarantino, whose movies Cooper watches repeatedly, despite their often gratuitous portrayal of violence.
“Tarantino basically combines movie homages with pop culture and plays with the story the way he wants to, in order to make it as anachronistic as he wants,” Cooper said. “He does that until it's perfect, and they're so much fun to watch. It's not how bad the violence is in his films, it's the effectiveness of how he stifles it as comedy.”
“The gratuitous violence in some films I don't find interesting at all, but at the same time, I realize what Sean's trying to do, in evaluating and trying to come up with a fair critique of the film,” Branan said. “I think Sean's learned to put it into perspective, to sit through it and see it as art, rather than just blood and gore.
“He's taught us to appreciate films,” Branan added. “He'll watch anything that comes along, and that's impressive. Typically, kids gravitate towards what's most popular out there today, but Sean doesn't do that.”
In addition to his blog, Cooper has film reviews in Kennett High School's newspaper, The Demon Press, published quarterly throughout the school year. In order to bone up on how his fellow critics are regarding cinema, he reads the reviews of film critics Peter Travers, Richard Roper, and Leonard Maltin.
After high school, Cooper intends to become a film studies or journalism major in college, preparing for his desired career to become a professional film critic.
“I would love to be working somewhere in Europe, or in New York City,” he said. For now, however, Cooper has movies to see, and thousands of fellow cinefiles to reach.
To learn more about Sean Cooper's Cinemaniac Reviews, visit www.themoviefreakblog.com.
Samples from “Cinemaniac Reviews” by Sean Cooper:
“Captain Phillips depicts and is a remarkable feat. The script is Oscar-worthy. It’s as if written by someone who suffered the situation Phillips did, not someone who adapted Phillips’s book about the situation. Screenwriter Billy Ray throws us into a state where we could only hope the danger ends. The movie is an entirely unpredictable nailbiter.”
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t always offer the easiest scenes...How (actress) Rooney Mara so audaciously took on such a complex lead – her second ever, after the perfectly simple Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) – is something I’ll never be able to understand. Between her powerhouse acting, and Zaillian’s stellar adaptation, Dragon Tattoo flies by in over two and a half hours. It’s worth every minute.”