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a critical mistake
why movie critics can't be trusted
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)
7.21.06
film

A few weeks ago, I turned down advice. I went against the conventional wisdom presented to me by the Internet and went to the movie theater to watch The DaVinci Code. I was shocked. Blown away. Was it because of the moral implications of the movie? That (spoiler here, sorta) the thought of Jesus Christ as a father and lover broke down the theological bonds of rational faith and my world was sent careening, caterwauling, into a spiral of madness and secularism? No. Actually, I was surprised that it didn't suck. Not only did it not suck, it was even mildly entertaining.

But why should it have sucked? It was directed by Ron Howard who, okay, doesn't have incredible directorial credits, but they're not always terrible. I enjoyed Splash back in the 80's. Didn't everybody? It features Audrey Tatou who, in my mind, might be the most attractive and talented actress since Jennifer Connelly. It had Tom Hanks who, well, he was okay in A League of Their Own and Bachelor Party. Ian McKellen is a perennial favorite. And, of course, film adaptations of books never live up to the original work, but it was written like a movie. So how could my expectations have been so low? Because it seems that every single review that I read declared it as a travesty of filmmaking, spastic, unentertaining, or just downright terrible.

Maybe it's fitting that such a controversial book would garner such terrible reviews. Maybe the feeling of polarization that the content of both the book and film created between the Catholic Church and the rest of the world raised expectations beyond what one should have reasonably expected from a book-adaptation popcorn-flick. But hey, it's not Crime and Punishment, it's The DaVinci Code. What kind of movie did they expect?

Let me throw some quotes at you:

"...director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have conspired to drain any sense of fun out of the melodrama, leaving expectant audiences with an oppressively talky film that isn't exactly dull, but comes as close to it as one could imagine with such provocative material..."

"When you boil away the hype and hysteria, all that remains is a pedestrian murder mystery that isn't sufficiently challenging or scandalous to raise anyone's hackles."

He clearly didn't read the book. How about this one, from the New York Times:

"It seems you can't open a movie these days without provoking some kind of culture war skirmish, at least in the conflict-hungry media."

Holy crap.

I wonder if The Break Up got reviewed with that much gravitas. I'm sure Jennifer Aniston's ass could provoke a culture war skirmish somewhere. Maybe... 8th grade? Does Over the Hedge contain some sort of theological implication about squirrels that I missed in the previews? What the hell?

Does everybody realize that, regardless of the content, it's just a movie? That it's fiction?

Wishy-washy actor-types can talk all they want about how they want their movie to change the world, but in the end, how many really have? Even if it had been brilliant, six months from now, when people are looking back at their summer, will they be marvelling, "Oh my god, remember when we saw The DaVinci Code? That's when everything changed!" No, it'll be, "The beach vacation was so fun this year. I can't wait to go back." Hell, we're a month out, now, and I'm fairly certain that nothing significant has happened on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly based on anything generated by Tom Hanks, or even his haircut.

To borrow a phrase: When you boil away all the hype and hysteria, all that remains is a gaggle of self-important talentless hacks who are so caught up in the Hollywood/media circle-jerk that they employ nothing but hyperbole so that their headline can be published highest. All so that they can get their quote on the back of the DVD case. It's a race to be the first to pan, and the first to rave. It's a crapshoot to see which one the movie-going public will eventually agree with, so they can point back and say, "See? See? I was right!"

Lighten up! Just because somebody printed it on 16mm film doesn't make it an epic journey of a thousand souls. Just because it's not the most brilliant piece since the gay cowboy movie, doesn't make it a waste of $11. When critics can finally latch onto those two facts, the entertainment world will be a better place.


ABOUT ERIK LARS MYERS

Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

more about erik lars myers

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 12:33a

I take a few things into consideration when reading reviews of anything:

1) Opinion, no matter who is saying it, is still just one person's opinion. Doesn't matter how much critical knowledge weighs in, really, because when's the last time a reviewer said, "I personally hated it, but I can see why 90,000 other people will love it."

2) When it comes to movie reviews, Roger Ebert is so on the take, he might as well be a pusher for the Mob.

3) Reviewers often have a hard time concealing their sarcasm if they really didn't like something. That dislike may not be based on anything valid - but they can't be impartial if the dislike is strong enough.

4) The law of averages. If 10 out of 10 people like something, it might have some credibility. But if only 4 in 10 like it, then who's "right?"

Now, I like most of what Ron Howard does. So I'm sappy. I also like many of the things Tom Hanks has been in. It's a "Big" hangover I can't shake. I positively adore Audrey Tatou and Ian McKellen. But after reading the book, which I found to be a zippy thriller but otherwise underwhelming, I had no desire to see the movie. I didn't need to read a review of the movie to come to that conclusion.

Reviews are like more detailed trailers, really: just a little preview of what you can expect. It's still a crap shoot, no matter what.

sandra thompson
7.21.06 @ 8:31a

Oh, let's see, along about fifty years ago I learned that there were a whole lot of film citics who consistently didn't agree with my tastes, and there were a few who consistently did, and then there were some who did sometimes and didn't other times. For instance, nobody on the planet except my elder daughter agrees with me that Brad Pitt is a brilliant actor and Tom Cruise is not just a pretty face. All actors make horrible choices at least sometimes, and my favourite directors commit mayhem on my sensitivities once in a while. I don't usually like a lot of car chases and explosions, yet I LOVE the Mission Impossibles and Mr and Mrs Smith. (Do ya think maybe the stars influenced me at all? Hmmmm.) There's just no accounting for taste and nobody's perfect. There, you've had your cliche quota met in one swell foop.

erik myers
7.21.06 @ 9:59a

Reviews are like more detailed trailers, really: just a little preview of what you can expect. It's still a crap shoot, no matter what.

Ah, but they're not. Trailers are content, plain and simple, and you can make your own decision on it based on what you see. Reviewers are telling you how good/bad it is.

If they were actually just detailed trailers, it'd be great. It'd be more information to make an informed decision with, but 9 times out of 10 it's judgement, not information.

The problem is that is that movies aren't judged for what they are. They're judged for what they aren't. Look at the reviews for the recent Pirates of the Caribbean. Half of them are diatribes about why it isn't the most brilliant movie to come out this year.

And it isn't. But to quote a friend of mine: "It's a fucking pirate movie."

Also? Opinions are only useful if they're right. ;)

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 10:27a

There is a difference between "Reviewers" and "Critics." Reviewers give you a recommendation, a thumbs up or thumbs down. A real critic doesn't do that. A critic analyzes the movie.

A good piece of criticism stands alone, you don't even need to see the movie that's being dissected in order to enjoy a good discussion of it. There's a reason the NY Times doesn't list star ratings with their reviews; that's crass, by their standards. The best critics, in theory, don't care if you see the movies they discuss.

brian anderson
7.21.06 @ 10:51a

James Berardinelli, who reviews movies online, ran a piece on Sunday which divided the fraternity into "elite critics," "popular critics," "quote whores," and "non-critics" (this last being, essentially, gushing fanboys or entertainment reporters). Mike, your definition is what he calls "elite critics" and matches up with the classical definition: someone who discusses the craft and attempts to draw conclusions about how the content-producer can best accomplish what they're attempting to do. What he calls "popular critics" (and which you call "reviewers," which is, I think, better terminology) are essentially like a published friend-recommendation, and you always have to figure out first if you have the same taste in films. The hard part comes when someone writing a movie review—or criticism—is unclear on which of the motivations they're pursuing.

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 10:54a

"Critics" are often found providing opinions of things that will almost always be subjective: art, entertainment, literature, cuisine. My question is: why bother? So you went to art school and some instructor told you Dali is the best artist ever, and that's your basis of comparison for everything else? If I like Matisse more, that makes me "wrong"? No.

Tom Leonard used to provide movie criticism on "CBS Sunday Morning" of movies that the target demo wasn't going to see anyway. It was a pointless exercise, thus, it was his "review" of the movie. So he was a critical reviewer.

So I have a tendency to use the terms interchangably.

[edited]

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 11:04a

So Tracey, you don't think there's a use for people who, as A.O. Scott said in the article I linked on the boards, search and illuminate the art that sometimes arises from commerce?

Or for people who interpret art at all?

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 11:08a

Oh, on the contrary - to try to interpret art is necessary for the function and continuation of society.

But without independent thought and contribution, it's pointless. Thus, no one opinion can carry the weight of the medium.

I look at critics/reviewers in the same way I analyze advertising. The method by which I acquire knowledge about a product or service should not be the only means by which that product/service is judged.

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 11:14a

I don't trust any singular critic. There are a few whose style and intelligence and writing I respect and enjoy the most, but I think sites like metacritic or even the far inferior RottenTomatoes are really useful in getting a cross-section of opinions. I love reading criticism, even someone like Armond White, who can be totally off the wall.

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 11:19a

And see? As primary critical columnists ourselves, it's important to distinguish that it's not so much what the critics tell us that matter, but how.

Criticism is an art form in itself: if it provokes thought, provides insight and encourages exploration of ideas, it's done its job.

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 11:26a

Yes. So when everyone is up in arms wondering "Are critics necessary?" the answer is YES. Because what they are really asking, in the face of box office contradicting critical opinions, is: "Are REVIEWERS necessary?" And to that I say, no. As Brian said, all a reviewer does is spread word of mouth, a role that can be just as easily handled, and is more reliable when handled by, a friend.

brian anderson
7.21.06 @ 11:36a

I think one of the reasons people get up in arms over critics is because they feel that society imbues them with some authority. A reviewer doesn't speak for anyone else, but the media present them as if their opinion was more important than anyone else's. With the rise of mass media as culture-bearer, there's a disconnect where it sounds more like pronouncements from on high than a conversation between equals.

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 11:41a

But I'm a bit more altruistic: everyone has the opportunitiy to provoke thought, provide insight and encourage ideas, but many choose not to. So while I may enjoy reading your opinion (as an "unprofessional" critic) or A.O. Scott's (supposed "professional") opinion because you both put it out there, nevertheless, you're both still just two guys.

Critics often position themselves as the primary fountain of knowledge (see again, Tom Leonard) and rest mightily on that platform. I don't think of them as "necessary" as much as I view their opinions as writing I enjoy to read. They are rarely objective, so just because they aren't shills of the movie industry doesn't mean they don't have a personal stake in their contributions.

tracey kelley
7.21.06 @ 11:42a

Heh. Brian said what I sorta said, only sooner. Does that mean we agree? :)

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 11:44a

Man, is Erik ever reaping the benefits of me having a similar column all ready to go!

erik myers
7.21.06 @ 11:48a

Yeah, baby! Go! GO!

erik myers
7.21.06 @ 12:49p

So, to liven this back up again.

I think it's possible that critics (or reviewers or whatever you want to say) are irrelevant if they're not in line with public opinion.

Which sounds like a terrible catch-22, but honestly - if they can't call it right for the general public, then who's their audience?

mike julianelle
7.21.06 @ 12:57p

You're not necessarily wrong if you're not in line with public opinion. That's outrageous. Reviewers attempt to SWAY public opinion, critics write about the art, they don't so much try to convince someone of something as generate discussion by promoting their own interpretations.

jael mchenry
7.21.06 @ 1:15p

What bothers me about the discussion of critics vs. public opinion is that it implies that there is a single, monolithic opinion that the entire public shares.

Obviously, this is a fallacy.

Also a fallacy is the idea that a movie's quality has anything to do with the number of people who go see it, therefore I don't think anyone can make a solid argument that the huge-ass gross of the new Pirate movie means that it's any good at all.

As others have said above, the proper use of criticism is to find critics who *tend* to agree with you, and then read their reviews to see what you will have a good chance of liking or not liking. They are neither gods nor monsters, and shouldn't be treated as such.

robert melos
7.22.06 @ 4:43a

Critics pontificate their opinions to distract from the fact they have little or no talent of their own. Take Roger Ebert, writer of the epic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Try sitting through that one sober.

If something entertains you that makes it good because you enjoyed it. I do enjoy hearing the critics extend their claws, arch their backs and rip into something, but I usually will see a film based on my own interest in it. Or if I'm channel surfing and bored and discover something that catches my interest.

tracey kelley
7.24.06 @ 9:24a

Heh. Erik and Mike have the pulse of the nation. On CBS Sunday Morning, David Edelstein freaked the hell out on the plight of the critic while blasting "The Lady in the Water."

It was kind of funny.

mike julianelle
7.24.06 @ 9:26a

I like Edelstein.

erik myers
7.24.06 @ 3:24p

The plight of the critic.

It must suck to get paid to watch movies, eh?

dan gonzalez
7.28.06 @ 1:17p

Have to chime on this. We all know there are schools of criticism for various art forms. These are theories and tcritics are their practictioners. There is a rationale at work beyond random, unfounded opinion and they can be instructive but never completely authoritative for obvious reasons.

I think what Erik is saying is that there are very few of these folks left in mainstream journalism. Just as good, objective, investigative journalists are almost extinct, so is the disciplined critic. What we have, as Mike aptly pointed out, are wishy-washy reviewers who may work a little insight into a piece, but because of a variety of subjective factors are minimumly useful and instructive in the end.

brian anderson
7.28.06 @ 2:13p

It must suck to get paid to watch movies, eh?

It probably goes both ways. How much would they have to pay you to sit through Freddy Gets Fingered?

erik myers
7.28.06 @ 2:23p

Touche.

kevin roger
7.30.06 @ 11:19a

Erik (and others), the "critics", however defined, got it right, DVC the movie was a below average adaptation of a mediocre book, the point being, it could (in the right directorial hands, with the right actors) have been a terrific fun movie.

As for controversial, well, in your (and the pope's) dreams maybe. It is a work of fiction based, loosely, on the "controversial" (and truly terrible) work of Baigent & Leigh from the '70s, more full of holes than a string vest, which was completely discredited even before it was published. Just for example, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are an obvious forgery. But the premise is fun to speculate about, which is probably why Dan Brown decided to write a thriller round it. Personally I prefer The Last Temptation (both the film and the book), but it has fewer splosions.

mike julianelle
7.30.06 @ 7:56p

The Last Temptation is a GREAT movie. Can't stress that enough. The book is on my list.



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