Coming off of compiling a year end list followed closely by the Sundance Film Festival, I’ve been giving movie reviews a lot of thought lately. Here are some of the things I’ve been pondering and turning over in my head.
It’s Not Math. There’s a strange obsession among some readers when it comes to the scores at the end of reviews. And it’s not just the people who read me, either – almost any scored/starred/etc review on the web will have comments claiming that the score/stars/etc do not reflect the review as written. It’s as if these people are at home with a worksheet, and they’ve got QED written next to their finding of ‘4 Star Review.’
I’m not a fan of scoring reviews, and even after doing this professionally for years I struggle with what the scores mean. I’m partially hemmed in by Rotten Tomatoes, who has a system that defines what is Rotten and what is Fresh. Their system is a bit more forgiving than I think it should be, but it raises an interesting point: once a movie has hit the Rotten phase (essentially anything under a 7/10) does it matter HOW Rotten it is? For some people a 5/10 is exactly average, but for me it’s a disaster. Anything below that and we’re in short bus territory.
There’s nothing more frustrating than being told by a reader that my score doesn’t match my review; first of all, it does. I both wrote the review and handed out the score (at least here at CHUD). But above all, who cares? The text of the review – the careful choice of words, the decision about what to discuss and what not to discuss – should be the barometer you use. That’s the review; a numerical score is a handy shortcut, but never a substitute for the real thing.
I’m Too Kind. Somehow I’ve gotten a reputation as being a particularly hard-nosed critic. Looking back at my reviews I think I err on the side of positivity. At Sundance last year I was very kind to (500) Days of Summer, a movie I’ve come to really dislike in the months since. The film didn’t sit right with me at the time, either, but I overcompensated with the review and might have been too even handed. I look at reviews of movies I’ve forgotten I’ve seen and it’s hard to believe I gave them reviews that skewed positive.
I Change My Mind. Some readers have a real problem with this (and so do some of my colleagues), but the realistic fact is that my opinions about movies will change. They can change in a short time – maybe between an early screening and a final release – or over a long period of time. Just like all other thinking people my opinions evolve over time; but even beyond that the fact that movies are art means that a movie can work for me one day but not another. If I change as a person or if my understanding changes, my perception of the movie will change as well. The dynamic aspect of watching movies is actually something I love.
I Like To Write Very Slow or Very Fast. I only have two review modes: immediate response or considered over time. There’s a purity to the immediate response, especially because I’m always terrified of my opinion being contaminated by someone else. I have a cadre of smart, witty film critic friends, and as you can imagine we talk about movies a lot – there’s nothing worse than having a set opinion of a film and finding it utterly changed by a few words from someone else. That said, I really like chewing over a review. I write in my head before I set a word down, and spending time going over what I thought and what did or didn’t work sometimes leads to my best reviews. It’s when the time between viewing and review is in the middle – maybe a Tuesday screening for a Thursday review – that I often find myself lost.
I Don’t Take Notes. Many critics take notes in screenings, but I can’t. It pulls me out of the movie. If I’m engaged in a film it tends to stick in my head well enough that I’ll be able to write about it, even weeks later. If I’m not engaged in a movie I’m spending the time writing my review in my head. Either way, jotting things down on a pad in the dark simply doesn’t work for me. Sometimes this means I’ll avoid specifics in a review – if I can’t remember the name of a town in a movie and it isn’t on IMDB, I’ll just say it’s “a town.”
Overhyping Is Bullshit. Nothing pisses me off like being told I overhyped a movie. No, I didn’t. You did. My job is to be enthusiastic about movies when I like them; it’s you who took that enthusiasm and turned it into unrealistic expectations. This is part of the internet’s large bipolar disorder, where things can only suck or rock – should something not rock sufficiently it is deemed to suck, and further those who championed it are deemed to have caused it to suck by ‘overhyping’ it.
Look, film critics can get more excited about movies that normal audiences. That’s often because we’re in the unique position to discover movies. I see films at Sundance and other fests that you won’t see for months, and for which I haven’t seen a single image, photo or review. A movie like Catfish from this year’s Sundance is a great example: I walked in blind on a recommendation from a friend and I really liked it. I wrote a glowing review. I’ll likely talk about it more in the next few weeks/months as it gets closer to release. And someone who reads what I have to say will go see the movie and then complain that it wasn’t the greatest movie ever.
Part of it is that it’s hard to get people to the movies today. A film like Avatar doesn’t need anyone championing it, but a smaller movie like Catfish could definitely use cheerleaders. And that cheerleading gets misconstrued by some folks as ‘overhyping,’ But again, the blame has to fall on the overhyped person. My crime was being enthusiastic about a film I really liked.
This Is How I Watch Movies. Some people have expressed the opinion that critics must watch movies in ways that normal folks do not. For me this isn’t the case. I watch movies today just the way I did when I was 16 years old and renting every last horror movie at Video Van. I love thinking about what I’m watching, whether it be on a technical level or a psychological level or a political level or an artistic level. I’ve always watched movies this way, and it’s always made me happy. It makes each viewing experience rich and rewarding. And it isn’t like I only watch high falutin’ films; I love movies that are dumber and badder than most, and thinking critically about them has never kept me from also enjoying them.