Saturday, March 6, 2010

R3V13W3R$: On Movie Reviews

When it comes to saying which movies are good or worthwhile, there is lots of disagreement. Although the baseline is much better than with music - you might dis/like a song for far more reasons than a movie - because film reviews tend to be a little more consistently reliable. Still, this information age we're living in allows lots of people to voice their opinions to the world. The result is that you might find a reviewer who genuinely enjoyed Deuce Bigelow 2.

Look at that poster above. I actually really enjoy that movie (so bad it's good). But what's the dividing line? There may be some people out there who liked "Ecks versus Sever," but their numbers are few (thankfully). In fact, there are many different factors that can decide whether you like a movie or despise it. Let me run down a few...

Difficult to distinguish the reviewer's taste
I realize that I should really thank my mother and father for taking me to all those movies when I was growing up. My father, especially, must've sat through a lot of hellish cinematic experiences just because he had three children. And my parents really hate gross-out jokes, specifically ones relating to the body. Every time they see one, they obviously want to be somewhere else. Try two examples:

Big - Tom Hanks used to be a make-you-laugh-hard-comedian. Nowadays, his comedies tend to be much more sedate - comedies that make you smile, not collapse in giggles. Look at that trailer - it was a movie with heart and laughs. [Yes, I want to hit myself for those last words]. As you can see, he uses silly string in a way I never thought of before. I was smiling, as was much of the audience. My parents thought it was gross and nasty, though it's plainly two "kids" playing around. The scene isn't even long! I guess this didn't help...

And let's not forget

Ned Ryerson!

Groundhog Day - This movie is one of the best comedies I've ever seen. I love love love Groundhog Day. Yet that moment at 1:20 in the trailer above did not go well with my parents. Bill Murray has completely given in to nihilism, and crams food right down his gullet. My 'rents were revolted.

Both Big and Groundhog Day were perfectly fine comedies, but certain jokes can really clash with someone's tastes. I covered "Room of Death" a little while back. At the end, I noted an IMDB review that warned of intense sex and nudity. That reviewer glossed over a ton of murder and gore, warning of
"heavy sexuality, including hardcore graphic sex in at least one scene on a TV screen, so keep the kids away." 
Really? The movie's taxidermy, peril, and murdered children are really the reasons to keep the kids away, stupid. Do you know where your reviewer is coming from? Do they warn you about their irrational dislikes or pet peeves?

I'll share one of my own: I watched "From Dusk til Dawn" with 8 friends, mostly girls. Maybe 30 minutes in, Cheech Marin rants like a carnival barker, but for a bordello. Cheech says "p#%%y" 27 times with 22 different adjectives. It broke the experience for me, and getting back into the picture took a while. Even if I'd seen it by myself, my brain would've said "excessive, nasty, childish, misogynist. I'll barely watch this again, much less buy it." Others agreed.

You have to also consider standards. Some folks don't have any. Some do, but drop them in the moment. I still go to see summer blockbusters. When I do, I might ignore giant plot-holes or poor characterization if I'm being sufficiently entertained. At times, it has more to do with what you want and accept at the moment, and far less to do with the artistry and quality of a picture.

Sometimes standards decay, too. There are sci-fi fans who are so starved for good genre pictures that they give great reviews to "decent" genre flicks. A friend of mine thought that "Pitch Black" was great sci-fi. I felt it was a mediocre film that brought me no joy. I've also heard many people say that their children really love the Star Wars prequels, preferring them greatly over the original series. Although children can't be expected to have adult taste in movies, they're simply not prepared by the modern kids' fare they're used to seeing. These poor fools just don't have a higher bar than that.

Some films have a special appeal for specific people
This goes beyond taste. Sometimes there is something in a movie that makes particular people connect with it. If you're a girl whose boyfriend has problems with your bisexual past, "Chasing Amy" might be really special to you. Even if you weren't a fan of Kevin Smith films (or his style), you might find yourself giving that movie high marks. This dynamic can also go the other way - a movie about the Klan might not go over well with someone who lost relatives to racially-motivated violence. Some examples:

Streep is great, but it's hard not to hear "Mrs. Doubtfire" in her voice

Julie and Julia - was largely panned by critics, yet loved by an acquaintance. Reviewers said that the tale was fairly trite, and that the Julie character was very self-absorbed and self-flattering... Yet my acquaintance related to the experience of Julie, and that made her see something more in J&J. There's nothing I could really do to mess with opinions formed like that, and there's no reason why I should...

WatercolorWorld! Bad hair on Woody, tho...

A Scanner Darkly - I really enjoyed this moving-watercolor movie. I liked a lot of the actors in it. More importantly, I love books by Philip K. Dick, and so I had to see it. I spoke to two friends just after I'd put my rental back in the mail. They both thought it sucked. They didn't see anything impressive or interesting in the work. But I had read the whole novel, and had a very difficult time with it. A lot of the things that were written on the page just didn't read the right way in my mind. I didn't get the tone of a lot of the dialogue, and there were a couple of plot elements that were so subtle that I missed them. Unlike me, my friends didn't need or appreciate any clarification on the book. Maybe ASD does suck, but I have a high opinion of it regardless.

I should also note that some movies "work for you" because of the circumstances. I've had a great time at the movies with my brothers and my friends. So great, in fact, that when my inner-reviewer kicked in, I realized I wouldn't have liked those movies as much if I saw them by myself (or in other company).

My brothers dragged me out to see "Star Trek VI," and I had a great time. For all that, I never felt motivated to watch it again. Same thing with "The Last Boyscout." Any movie I see with my brothers is probably going to get a review half-a-grade higher than it might "really" deserve. With some good companions, I have a solid time regardless of what I see, and that improves my opinion of a film.

Some folks just don't get it
Satire is a very dangerous form of comedy. It's not the fact that it's often been used to attack governments and society in general. Sometimes, people just don't realize that you're being satirical. So if you make a foul joke because you're mocking someone else's foul behavior, strangers in the room will think you're one nasty piece of work. Only after many offenses did I decide to abandon satire. Anyone might misjudge a particular work, and miss what someone is truly trying to do...

Great nose-tap

Superbad - Well-known and -respected British reviewer Mark Kermode thought it was atrocious and horrid. I understood that the male leads were not "stand-up guys," but I couldn't see why he was ripping the movie apart so thoroughly. I remembered that I saw it with a girl, and we were both laughing hysterically throughout.
After I thought about it, I realized what made it a different experience for me: it was so odd that I didn't take it at face value. More importantly, I saw it on a date. The girl I was with laughed as hysterically as I did.
All this completely helped me gloss over Superbad's basic plot: one boy wants to get a girl drunk and date-rape her so that he'll have a gf over the summer break.
Looking at Judd Apatow's film that way, Superbad becomes a superbly vile piece of work. But my date and I never took any of it seriously, and we were laughing before the context could kick in... It helps that they get beat up a lot.

Don't watch this video, just read my review from last May

Brick - That same British reviewer above clearly didn't get something about Brick's protagonist: Kermode saw that the lead is a quiet outcast who wears glasses, and he thought, "Oh, he's a nerd."
I can't imagine anyone seeing that movie and believing that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was playing a bookworm. An ass-kicking, courageous brainiac who asks a library-loving friend to do research for him? No, the friend was the nerd... While Mark Kermode did like the movie, he still missed something quite blatant. And it made me wonder how many reviews might be influenced by misunderstandings like that.
Staying with Brick: I strongly recommended it to a relative. When I asked for her thoughts on it, she said it was "cute."
I can't imagine using "cute" to describe a movie dealing with teen pregnancy, greed leading to murder, drugs, and a fractured teen romance that sounds like a bad divorce. No, "cute" simply isn't in it. But that relative is older than I am, and she must've fixated on the high school setting. She must not have seen the importance and seriousness of what those characters were doing, much less going through.

There's an even more divisive, movie I can think of - "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane." The movie was trashed by reviewers, yet I and my friends loved it. For a lot of people, the rampant misogyny in that picture is a huge turn-off. But I noticed the sexism cut both ways: the ladies are generally cheap and trampy, but the guys are all slimy jerks. Those women are no good, but neither are the men. That disdain for all people creates a balance - yes, it's hard to use "balance" when talking about an Andrew Dice Clay project. And that balance made the misogyny in "TAFF" acceptable when it would've otherwise killed the experience.

Some movies just don't work for you
On occasion, you can't make your internal film-reviewer turn off. Perhaps the movie has asked too much of your suspension of disbelief. Maybe you're a veteran in the NYPD, and you can't ignore some big errors in police behavior, equipment, etc. Or you might lack the knowledge of a country or people - knowledge that would explain things that seem senseless to you. Or you hate 3D and CGI effects, and you can't believe that a stunt looked better 40 years ago than it does today.

Sometimes, no matter what, you don't like a good movie because it just doesn't work for you. And here's an example that may surprise you...

Hey Malkovich! Think Fast!
Being John Malkovich - I recognize that it's a good movie. The special effects and direction are brilliant, the plot is new and impressive. It contains great jokes, as well as a lot of "meta" material for people to consider. I can't blame anyone for loving BJM. However, despite good company, and an excellent date that night, I started having a bad time by the half-way mark.

I won't review Being John Malkovich now, but I will say that the characters are badly handled. For me, the writing falls apart when it comes to the emotions and changes in the parts. As a result, I hate the plot developments that follow after the first 30-45 minutes. I truly can't stand that movie, and I don't know if I ever will. But I try to be reasonable, so I realize that BJM just didn't work for me.

Reasonable minds can disagree
In the end, reasonable people can come to different conclusions about the same movies. I've already reviewed "Color of Night" here. It's one of my guilty pleasure favorites, and I recommend it to people. But look at the scores: 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4.7 stars out of 10 on IMDB. Would those ratings instill any confidence in my recommendation? No. Would I suggest CoN to everyone? Also no (not to kids or prudes).

Roger Ebert is, of course, also a highly-respected movie reviewer. Still, I think some of his reviews give a free pass to glib garbage; others trash perfectly fine movies. Was he just in a good mood that day? Has a weakness for romantic musicals? Hates independent horror movies? For all that, I only follow the weekly podcasts by Mark Kermode. Why? Because he's a true student of film. He's written several books about it, discusses the topic both conceptually and practically, and holds a PhD in English whose thesis was on film. He also has a very high regard for horror films (that was the thesis topic), so I know that he doesn't pan flicks just because they're B-movies, or feature ghosts and gore.

Even in that case, I strongly disagree with some of Mark's opinions and conclusions. I only check Roger's word when I'm researching movies, usually older classics; he tends to make great observations that I myself have missed. I find that both Kermode and Ebert write accurate reviews most of the time, yet we don't agree on some very important - and hard to define - points. I do give far more weight to Kermode's reviews than Ebert's, but I often turn to both of them to hear what they have to say.

I'll close with this final note: for two years, I've used The AV Club's reviews to weed out what I watch in theaters. I respect their writers' dedication, taste and knowledge, in general. But I'm really reconsidering this practice, and may stop it altogether. Every time I see a "C+" next to a movie I've been waiting for, I have to ask myself: would I enjoy this movie anyway? would it waste my time? and can I really trust this one person's opinion? Even aggregate reviews would keep me away from "Tango & Cash" - a ride everyone should sit through (at least) once...

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