This post is inspired by some recent byplay over on Wordplayer, in which Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest authors Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio complain about some of the reviews their movie is getting.
They aren't complaining about the bad reviews, per se. I respect the fact that these two writers openly admit that the film isn't perfect, and not as good as the first one.
What they are complaining about is a slew of reviews that have come down on the movie like a sack of bricks. Reviews that essentially say that the movie is so terrible, that no one will enjoy it.
And Ted and Terry are right to complain.
Because whether you like Dead Man's Chest, or thought it was okay, or didn't like it at all, it's clear that there are a large number of people in each of these camps.
It's a fascinating movie, in that it's a really good example of how movies can hit people different ways, and how expectations can also play into that -- a lot of people hoping for the same fun experience from the second movie as the first didn't really get enough of that, and their disappointment over that soured their entire feeling of whether the second movie works, even as the kind of different movie from the first that Dead Man's Chest is really trying to be.
But there's no question that a large percentage of the people who went to see the film were entertained, some immensely, some to a moderate level (I generally liked it, didn't love it).
And film critics have the responsibility to bring across in their film reviews that it's this kind of movie. Don't they?
Film criticism is a weird genre of writing, because there's really two aspects of it. Most film critics want it to be the kind of job in which they analyze films and talk about why they do and don't work, (actually being "film critics") but the problem is that few critics can really do this well, or have an audience that particularly cares.
Pauline Kael was a great film critic. Roger Ebert is too, though it has been softened by the fact that few people actually read his film criticism any more; instead, too many people just get his bite-sized reviews from the TV show.
Because that's the main part of writing about movies today. People who write movie reviews might believe that they are critics, but really, people reading them just want to know if it is worth spending $10 to see the movie or not. The job really isn't "film critic", it's "film reviewer".
And this is harder than you think. Because most movies aren't going to be enjoyed by 100% of the audience, or 0%. Most movies fall into a gray area, and most critics really find it hard to bring across exactly how large this gray area is. They'd rather review the movie on its merits, and whether it worked for them (for what that's worth), than worry about what most audiences will think.
And many critics just get lazy. If they sort of like a movie, they rave about it, even if it isn't that good, and everyone isn't going to like it. Or they dump all over it, even if that is unwarranted too.
They filter their opinions through a sensibility honed by seeing way too many films, that may indeed be able to discern filmmaking skill, but which has lost its edge regarding the simple question of whether the average audience member will enjoy it.
Many critics can't even write a review without giving away half the movie -- because again, they are trying to pretend that their job is something it really isn't.
But here's the problem. Most people don't want to read reviews that are going to give away plot points before seeing the movie. And most of the time, when you finally see the movie -- and then might enjoy that piece of film criticism -- the newspaper has long been recycled.
Generally, I just find myself skimming film reviews, because I'm tired of having too much spoiled for me in advance. I let my eyes leap over it, looking for words that will give me the general feel of the story. Ironically, generally the headline is enough, or, in the instance of reviews that do it, the number of stars that it gets.
And that's the main problem. If you are a film critic, and few people are actually reading your reviews start to finish, then what purpose are you really serving?
And if you can't review a movie to give an accurate sense to someone reading it if this is a movie they will enjoy, then what's the point?
I think the perfect film review can blend reviewing and criticizing, if they follow these simple steps:
-- Don't give away anything that hasn't already been shown in countless commercials. This gives you more leeway than you think.
-- Be open to the fact that, though you might hate certain genres of movies, that these genres have audiences, and you need to be able to tap into whether these films will work for these audiences or not.
-- Realize that it is quite possible for a movie to have large flaws and still be very entertaining to a large swath of people.
-- Realize that even if you hated, or loved, a movie, that you aren't the end-all, be-all of human taste, and that your reviews should be able to say that, even though the movie is lacking in X, Y and Z, that nevertheless its still a fun time at the movies, if you don't expect that much. Or realize that even though you loved that obscure French film, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.
-- Be able to concisely reflect all this in an entertaining, intelligent review, that at the end will leave the reader relatively confident about whether or not this is a film that they might want to take a chance on.
It's not easy.
I used to review movies in college (my first review was on "Splash") and I dabble in tearing apart movies here (my last was on "Lady in the Water" -- symmetry), and I like to think that I can be thoughtful about whether or not movies work or not.
And I always appreciate reading what a knowledgable film blogger like Billy Mernit has to say about movies, such as in his current review of My Super Ex-Girlfriend here. This is the kind of review that really works well; it's a good read, it gives you a real idea about whether or not you are the kind of person who will like this movie, and he is able to analyze it without giving much away that you don't already know.
I'm not anti-film critic. There are good film critics, there are bad film critics, and critics have their place. And the wrath of M. Night Shyamalan toward them is generally unfounded, because too often they are right about his movies.
But film critics who hammer a movie like Dead Man's Chest -- which though it isn't perfect, certainly isn't unwatchable -- have just lost touch with what their job really is.