ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, July 28, 2006

Critics

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.

16 Comments:

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Brett said...

Another notion to consider is the fact (well, *I* consider it a fact, based upon years of personal observation...) that a great many reviewers/critics honestly don't like their readers.

I startd to expand upon that, but then I realized I was going waaaay overlong for a blog comment, so I might just make it a blogpost of my own.

Maybe. ;-)
.
.

B

 
At 12:08 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I like your points about critics and agree with them mostly.

I think some of the problem that real, soup to nuts criticism of movies aren't really produced. I'm talking about the type of criticism where the reader goes in having already seen the movie. That let's you dissect and discuss. I think that's fun.

One thing I do think is that critics (and a lot of us) get ahead of ourselves and belief that there is a true objective standard to judge art against when there really isn't. And your emotional state, your level of maturity, the events happening in your real life all have a relevance to your viewing of any particular movie.

For this reason I really enjoy Harry Knowles' reviews. He doesn't make any bones about it. He talks about his personal life and how it interacts with his viewing experience, and I like that.

But, like Scott, I don't read much of the review until after I see the movie. I end up reading the opening paragraph, and then skipping to the end and reading up until I get a yay or nay judgment.

As always, I try not to let a reviewers influence me. More and more people are simply using sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to judge a film. And before you cringe, don't underestimate the collective wisdom of the masses.

Sorry for the long response.

 
At 12:32 PM, Anonymous phillip said...

While the masses are responsible for inflicting Paris, Brit and Jessica upon us, I do think their collective wisdom regarding movies is GENERALLY accurate.

I've been surprised at how in sync (again, generally) the 1-5 star ratings on Netflix are with my own opinions. There's always exceptions and even occasional moments of bewilderment but GENERALLY they're dead-on.

 
At 1:00 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

What's also troubling is that I consider myself a fairly good judge of movies.

And so I see something like Lady in the Water, which I'm predisposed to enjoy, since I like that kind of movie, but it is so disappointing storywise that I have no idea -- none -- how someone can sit through it, and possibly be really entertained/satisfied.

Yet apparently there are people out there who did like it. And I don't get why.

So there's a disconnect. Probably not a huge one, with a movie like this, that most people didn't enjoy.

But obviously there are a lot of critics out there who had a bigger disconnect with Dead Man's Chest, which is a movie whose varying appeal I can sense. I can get why some people dig the movie, and some people don't. But there are a lot of critics who don't seem able to make that jump.

 
At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Screenwriters are so damn sensitive.

We're regarded as the 16-year-old girls of the entertainment industry and this is why. I haven't heard Michael Bay or even Uwe Boll bemoaning the negative press their work routinely gets. Keanu Reeves has been ridiculed so many times over the last 17 years, I'm surprised he still gives interviews.

I don't get why actors, producers and directors have access to the antibody that makes them immune to the critics, while screenwriters never cease to get our feelings hurt. M. Night Shyamalan is a director, but he got his apple cart tipped over when Disney had concerns about the script he'd written. Concerns that ended up being right on the money.

This particular case with Terry Rossio can't be about respect, or money, or screen credit, because he's earned all three in spades this month. He seems like a great guy with a terrific sense of humor, and I haven't read his comments yet. Maybe they're not out of line. Still, I'd like to see more writers retain a sense of humor about what the critics say or don't say. Nobody's going to start a pledge drive for you. Acknowledge, move on.

 
At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anil Khedun said...

"I haven't heard Michael Bay or even Uwe Boll bemoaning the negative press their work routinely gets."

Here you go,
Uwe Boll bemoaning...

 
At 4:26 PM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

I always think it's a bad idea for filmmakers to defend themselves against the critics. Critics criticise. The louder they rant, the more attention they receive, and that's their job really. And they're weary and cynical of seeing so many movies.

But I'm also occasionally surprised by their lack of understanding of the filmmaking process, especially when they criticse the writer (don't they realise that the script could have changed out of the writer's hands?)...

As for Dead Man's Chest & M Night, it's probably the reputation and hype that the critics are knocking regardless of how good or bad the films actually are.

 
At 7:17 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I haven't read Terry's article yet but most of the reviews I saw couched their criticisms in language such as "it doesn't matter whether I tell you what I think about this movie, because you're going to see it no matter what." At the same time, most of the word of mouth I've heard since it opened has fairly echoed the problems that most critics had with it in the first place.

 
At 8:14 PM, Blogger Dave said...

I don't read reviews at all anymore. I base my going to see a movie on the previews, the cast and the writer. If I haven't heard from any of them, then it's the story.

I can't stand how so many critics will say this movie is good or bad and then recite why, but exclude that it's their opinion. Although that should be a given.

I'd rather see a review that acknowledges something akin to, "if you liked x or y, then you'll probably like this."

I'm right with you Danny when you mention critics slamming the writer or the script for a story. There are few writer/directors out there who are able to bring what they wrote to the screen and you have NO idea as a critic exactly what was changed from script to screen - and whether it made the film better or worse.

And Scott, I suspect the reason so many people have been able to enjoy Lady in the Water is because they're letting go in the movie and not thinking about the structure and story, etc. Perhaps because you do so much of it every day, it's a little harder for you.

Me, I find it difficult to analyze a movie at all while it's playing. I really have to concentrate because I tend to get wrapped up and forget why I was watching... I am gullible that way.

 
At 10:38 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I usually get wrapped up too, but Lady in the Water.... ugh.

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger Dave said...

lol, scott. For me, that movie was Arlington Road.

 
At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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 read a lot of classical music & jazz reviews, of both concerts and recordings, yet I hardly ever go to concerts (or buy classical music). I just like reading the reviews.

Same with films. I read reviews of films I have no intention of seeing (or films that I won't have the opportunity to see -- like obscure non-English language films that I know won't be in theatres anywhere near me).

I think that that if they invented some kind of readometer, to find out what kind of people read reviews and criticism and why (especially) why), they'd discover that the most just do it for their reading enjoyment. They are not seriously considering going to see that film or buy the CD. They simply like to read about someone else's experience and thoughts. So film critics better be more knowledgeable than the rest of us and able to come up with interesting tidbits of information, provide some insights and -- last but not least -- write entertainingly. Which is exactly what's required of all journalists, no matter what kind.

I don't think the people who are flocking to DMC are listening to critics. They trust their friends better than critics. It's all word of mouth.

The success of DMC doesn't surprise me because ever since the beginning of this year I heard the strangest people express keen interest. And by 'strangest people' I mean people who I know don't normally go and see summer blockbusters (except of course when they accompany their kids to see some kiddie film).

One of the things that I think works to POTC's great advantage is that Ted and Terry cooked up the whole thing from a to z (I sort of doubt that a theme park ride somewhere is much of a source material). It's a film that promises (and delivers) good rollicking fun without there being any tiresome pre-existing elements attached. Like superheroes. Or comic book / graphic novel characters. No prior knowledge is required, you don't have to be some kind of geek, everyone in the audience is on equal footing.

I also think that Lady in the Water has an audience (though a much smaller one) so perhaps the writer / director knew what he was doing.

I came to this conclusion after I'd read something like 10 or 15 reviews in one sitting (all critics at major newspapers, no juveniles ranting on the internet). The reviews were all negative (but none was outright hostile). One had a comments thread where a lot of people protested because they thought thought the film was not only great but that it has some kind of spiritual and timely message.

This audience is not listening to critics either. They know what they like.

Now, I haven't seen Lady in the Water (and I feel less inclined to with every passing day) but if the reviews are anything to go by it's soft core fantasy about a good and beautiful water nymph who is threatened by evil creatures. There is also a new agey message, something about saving the world, or effecting a major change for the better. Perhaps there is something about this film that appeals greatly to people who are very religious (and moralistic and anti-intellectual).

I think hard-core fans of particular film genres (for example soft-core fantasies with new-agey messages) tend not to ask a whole lot of their authors.

They are not fazed by things like plot holes, clumsy exposition, nonsensical story-world, general lack of logic, etc, and that's because they have such rich fantasy lives / imagination of their own that it more than compensates for the author's shortcomings. being avid fans they'll suspend their disbelief at the snap of a finger (or a beautifully photographed scene or an angelic face).

Anna

 
At 5:29 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

My issue with critics about this movie is that most of the worst criticism has been because the critic just didn't get it, not because the plot is convoluted or riddled with holes.

T&T don't dumb down to the viewer. Another light bulb goes off every time you see DMC. There's so much story, so much action, so many hints of this and that and so much going on inside each character that you can't soak it all up the first time you see the film.

Maybe that's why almost everyone I know (offline) has seen the film more than once.

Call me a cockeyed optimist but people forking out their nine bucks over and over again sounds like a good thing.

 
At 8:23 PM, Anonymous trawsars said...

"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."

Scott, I'm not sure I agree with this. There's a certain type of reviewer I detest, the type whose reviews amount to nothing more than "if you like this kind of movie then this is the kind of movie you'll like."

I'm a discerning viewer. I like genre stuff, action-adventure, scifi/fantasy, the occasional rom-com. And I've seen plenty of good *and* bad examples of each. It annoys me no end to read a review of, say, STEALTH, that says I'll like it if I like action movies.

I much prefer critics whom I know has no overwhelming bias for any type of movie, who can judge each movie on its own merits and what it's trying to accomplish, whether high or lowbrow. They're the ones who told me XXX wasn't actually too bad, but XXX2 is a waste of time. Coincidentially, they're also the ones that told me DMC is good but not as good as COTBP, which I entirely agree with.

 
At 1:54 PM, Anonymous friarduck said...

Scott, I'm like you; I try not to read reviews anymore, since people just don't know when to stop talking about the plot. To that end, I just check out the score on two websites: rottentomatoes.com and metacritic.com. They compile a bunch of different critics, supply a fairly vague comment from each, and then come up with a numerical rating regarding the movie's "quailty" of the film. The websites are weighted differently, so the ratings from each, taken together, give me a fairly good representation of how this movie will play to me.

Just a helpful suggestion. -FD

 
At 2:28 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Though I like to critique movies as a hobby, I definitely have different standards depending on what audience a movie is trying to reach ... Pirates is obviously a different movie from, say, Manhattan ... I also try not to think too critically about any movie while it is unfolding, trying as hard as I can to simply be a fan

 

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