It's Oscar time. Everyone wants to be a critic.
On Thursday evenings at the Starbucks on Northwest Highway near Preston Road, for the price of a cup of java, everyone can do just that: voice their cinematic opinions nonstop for 90 minutes as Gary Cogill, the film critic for WFAA-Channel 8, holds court.
This past week, the cine-klatch was brimming. Some 40 movie lovers, most of them regulars, chatted up Hollywood's latest offerings amid the whir of cappuccino machines.
The weekly gathering attracts a wide variety of movie lovers. An actor, a librarian, and a software developer all rank as regulars. A white-haired woman draped in silks sat beside a slumping teenager. The 14-year-old, Charles Stricklin, kept his team jacket on and looked a bit sullen. But his mother, Kay Stricklin, said he had made sure to finish his homework that night. That was the prerequisite for getting her to drive him over to Starbucks, where Charles provided the group an adolescent but nonetheless articulate critique of Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in The Beach.
From different walks of life, the participants have bonded with their movie talks. One woman brings cookies, a gesture that the café's employees, standing behind cases of pricey pastry, don't seem to mind. Another regular is already seeking a location for the group to gather for Oscar night.
"I know this is pathetic, but this has become the only thing in my life I look forward to," concedes Shawn Mahan, a computer programmer and James Bond fan.
Movies are the glue that holds these people together, but Cogill is the matchmaker who warmly introduced them to one another in the first place.
With a gap-toothed grin, glasses, and thinning hair, Cogill resembles bad-boy director Oliver Stone. But the movie critic, who has broadcast his opinions for the past 14 years on Channel 8, projects a much kinder and gentler personality than does the maker of Any Given Sunday.
"There are no rules," Cogill reminded the crowd as he began last week. "It's about dialogue, the exchange."
Cogill, who says the evening chats offer him a chance to talk about movies at length rather than in one-minute segments, had heard about authors and musicians making regular stops at Starbucks. So a year ago when he met Nancy Kane, the coffee company's marketing manager for Dallas and Houston, Cogill mentioned that he would like to see a movie critic take a shot at entertaining a caffeinated crowd. The Starbucks executive liked the idea. Early last summer, Kane agreed to pay Cogill an undisclosed sum ("I'll tell you that he gets free nonfat no-whip mochas," says Kane when pressed about the reviewer's compensation) to show up at Starbucks shops on Thursday nights. Initially, Cogill went around town to different Starbucks shops, but he has settled at the café on Northwest Highway, the chain's largest store in the Dallas area. Cogill, who says that "most of the people here have become friends," has missed few Thursdays since starting.
For the regulars, the Starbucks evening offers an opportunity to meet people who share an interest in movies, a chance for some to sound off to a group about the last picture they've seen, and what Kane refers to as "an up-close feel" to moviemaking through Cogill.
Kay Stricklin, who allows her son to see some R-rated movies now, believes the dialogue at Starbucks provides him an educational experience. "He writes movie reviews for his school paper, and this helps," she says. For most, however, the evening's big draw is friendship. "At first I was going to see a major movie reviewer," says Steve Friedel, a technical course developer at Richardson-based Ericsson who reviews movies on the Internet, "but now it's the camaraderie."
The group also gets lots of side benefits. Cogill happily looks over the work of the aspiring screenwriters and film directors. He also occasionally hands out passes to sneak previews. Last week, the WFAA critic began the evening's discussion with a description of the movie Mission to Mars. Most of his regulars hadn't seen it since it, as it wasn't scheduled to open at theaters until the next night. Directed by Brian De Palma, the new flick was a loser, Cogill told the group. "The more I think about that film, the worse it gets," he said.
With his Starbucks gig, Cogill, who studied acting in college and works as a voice actor for radio and television commercials when he's not reviewing movies at WFAA, gets a chance to ham it up a bit -- much more so than he does in his relatively staid segments on Channel 8. At the café, he gave his audience a sample of how the star of De Palma's film, Gary Sinise, appears when he moves around in outer space. Cogill swiveled his hips like a slow-moving Elvis impersonator. "It's just so stupid," he said. "There's more reasoning in your shopping at the mall than their trip to Mars."
During the course of the evening, Cogill, who started his broadcasting career as a movie reviewer in Nacogdoches and Lufkin, name-dropped more than a little. He frequently mentioned the stars and directors he's met on junkets. The trips, typically to New York or Los Angeles, are paid for by movie production companies and offer journalists a few minutes with the stars of upcoming films. De Palma, Cogill told the group, had stood him up. "He called up and said he was sick," Cogill said with a smirk.
After the scheduled talk was done, Cogill stayed on, chatting with a dozen or so people who came up to him one at a time. He didn't have to be at Channel 8 until the 10 p.m. news anyway.
"You think it would be possible, Gary," asked one his Thursday regulars, "to watch the Oscars together?"
"I don't know, because I'm gonna be there," said Cogill, who is scheduled to attend the big Hollywood happening for the first time in his career. "You guys are going to have to get together and figure that out on your own."
But Cogill's absence didn't seem to be a deterrent. The man left still trying to determine whether there was a classier location than a CiCi's Pizza that could provide the space and the large-screen television for himself and his friends.
And on the following Saturday night, without Cogill chaperoning, some of the crowd also managed to go together to see a movie. Chris Richard, a software programmer at Center Financial Services Inc. and a Thursday-night regular, met up with Mahan and Friedel to see Dr. Death, an eerie documentary that Cogill had highly recommended about a man who manufacturers execution equipment. At the movie house, they ran into another group of new friends from the Starbucks crowd. "This thing just happened," said Friedel about the chance meeting, "but it was good."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.