A Critic’s Manifesto

I’ve been watching the Rotten Tomatoes score for The Lone Ranger slowly climb from a rather horrific 17% today, and it’s gotten me thinking about critics and reviews and the movie review industry as a whole.  In fact, I read a blurb from one review that stated, “Everyone wants this to be horrible,” and it makes me wonder how much film reviews in the industry are shaped both by what people expect from a movie, what they want to happen to the movie, and what they think people expect and want the reviews to say.  So if you’ll excuse the rambling, unorganized and meta nature of this post, here are some of my thoughts.

I have yet to see The Lone Ranger, but it has been my most anticipated film for a while now.  I’m a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and Rango, and the fact that the producing/acting/writing/music team has reunited for this film is awesome to me.  However, I can imagine people who feel the opposite, going in dreading it.  When you get paid to review movies, you generally don’t get to pick and choose what you see.  So while my reviews skew pretty positive, it’s because I generally choose to see only films that I expect to enjoy.  However, as I have not seen the film, it’s entirely possible I will hate it and all the critics are correct.

If my choice of movie is influenced by my feelings, is my review also biased?  I’m sure it is, as no reviewer exists in a vacuum.  I give my honest feelings about the movie, so if I’m disappointed (Man of Steel) or thrilled (Much Ado About Nothing) that’s what you’ll read in my review.  But the goal of a reviewer is not just to spout off his/her opinions, but also to help inform the readers whether or not they would like the film.  My regular readers can probably get a pretty good sense of my tastes, which will help them decide from my reviews whether or not to see something, but I try to be general enough that anyone could benefit from reading.

But personal bias isn’t as big an issue to me as the way that some reviewers tend to bend their reviews to accomplish some kind of goal.  This can work both as a positive or a negative.  I can easily imagine the reviews for Bridesmaids or The Heat being inflated in order to encourage people to see the film and by association use the dollars they spend to tell Hollywood to make more female-driven comedies.  But this works the other way when critics have an agenda that movie A should be more successful for movie B.

This was very evident during last year’s Oscar season.  There is a contingent of film buffs out there who despise Steven Spielberg for his sentimentality and for being what they call “manipulative” in his filmmaking.  So while I, and many people, think that Lincoln was a better film than Argo, Argo got the better press and reviews and went on to win Best Picture (some people would argue the same happened in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, but I think that was a much closer race).  It’s easy for a critic to let his personal biases lead him to unfairly criticize or praise a film just because of his feelings about the filmmakers or the studio.

As far as The Lone Ranger goes, I have read all sorts of extended pieces from critics in the past that were anti-Disney, anti-Pirates of the Caribbean and anti-Johnny Depp.  I totally get that critics have dislikes, because I do too, though critics tend to dislike popular movies and praise indies in too broad a way.  I may hate Will Ferrell, but I will happily admit that I love Stranger Than Fiction.  Here’s a good example quote, from a scathing review in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of the movie’s three screenwriters were collaborators on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and “The Lone Ranger” shares a family resemblance with that series: It has the clumsy shifts in tone, the lack of motivation, the deliberately conflicted alliances, the mishmash of characters, the desperately boring action sequences (because who cares?) and the aren’t-we-cute treatment of the protagonists.

Why was someone so predisposed to dislike something sent to review it?  Knowing that, is there any way for him to try to be objective.  Could he ever have liked this film on its own merits?  It’s fine for him to have his views, but what makes his voice, or mine, more important than yours.  On a related note, I understand the desire to criticize the commercialization of the film industry at the expense of art, but you can’t paint everything with the same brush.  Just because Disney is a huge company doesn’t mean that it’s incapable of making good films (see Pixar, The Avengers, etc.).

I guess what I’m saying is I’m past the age where it’s cool to hate on something or to like something just because of some arbitrary rules.  I like what I like and I dislike what I dislike.  I don’t feel any pressure to conform my views to what’s popular.  And while I’m sure any critic would say the same thing, I feel like the overall trend doesn’t bear that out.  I think, for example, that The Dark Knight Rises got high marks largely because of the reflected glory of its predecessor, the buzzy current events spin and the industry awe of Nolan.

I could spend all day pointing out both ratings I think were unfair and ratings that I think were influenced by outside factors, but there are other issues as well.  Professional critics often see multiple movies in a day, while taking notes or writing reviews for other films during the screening.  We even get reviews from critics where it’s obvious they did not even watch the film (see this horrible review from Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum of Tangled).  I’ve caught myself writing reviews in my head before I even see a film, but I fight very hard to have an open mind and to put a full effort into the film and the review.  It’s not a sin to like or dislike a particular type of movie/plot/genre/actor/etc but there are reviewers who use that as a convenient excuse to halfass a review.

There’s also a discussion to be had about rating systems and metrics.  While Rotten Tomatoes is a quick and easy indicator of the general feelings about a movie, it only tells a small part of the story.  Metacritic is better, but only somewhat.  In fact, I would be perfectly happy leaving the letter grade off the end of my reviews, because I feel like that’s not really the point.  If all you’re doing is checking for a number, a letter, or a collection of stars, then you’re missing out on what the review has to offer.

And, in the end, reviews are just guides.  Just like you would trust your best friend’s opinion over a complete strangers, you should find reviewers you like and follow them.  But you should be confident in your own opinions, and be happy to disagree.  You shouldn’t let reviews and ratings sway you from something you really want to see.  Your own opinions are the most important.

So what I’m basically trying to get to is this.  My opinions are my own, as are other reviewers’, but I would never presume to tell you that you should or shouldn’t like a movie.  The most I can or should try to tell you is why you may or may not like a movie.  Everyone has a critical flop that they love (Speed Racer) and a critical darling that they hate (Borat).  But here are my promises to you, the readers, with what you can and should expect from my reviews.

  • I will review every new film I see.
  • I will never write a review for something I have not seen and watched with full attention.
  • I will always be honest with my opinions.
  • I will not bend my views in order to appear a certain way.
  • I will not treat indies as automatically more deserving than blockbusters.
  • I will not treat blockbusters as automatically more deserving than indies.
  • I will do my best to give an objective take on the film in addition to my emotional reaction, because both are important.
  • I will attempt to be positive, because that is my nature.  I go to the movies looking for something to enjoy, so I try to find the good wherever I can.  If you’re looking for a hard, cynical movie review site, this isn’t the one for you.
  • I will go into every film with an open mind, hoping to be entertained.  That doesn’t mean that I am unbiased, just that I am prepared to like anything.  I wouldn’t spend the money to go to a film I was determined to hate.
  • I will do my best to be sensitive to any issues and points of view represented in a film.
  • I will not, however, compromise my beliefs (women’s rights, LGBT issues, etc.) when it comes to a film.  I will attempt to call out any unfairly negative treatment of individuals or groups when I see it.  So if I miss something, rest assured that it’s not because I’m attempting to gloss over or ignore an issue, but that I simply missed it.  We’re all human.
  • I will do my best to differentiate between things that I simply do not like and things that are objectively bad.
  • I will not criticize a movie simply because I did not understand it.  However, I will still feel free to criticize a movie for presenting things in a poor way that makes it unnecessarily difficult to understand.
  • I will not criticize a movie simply because of its length.
  • I will keep an open mind with regards to adaptations and remakes.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being different, but being different just for its own sake is not reason enough to change something.
  • I will happily listen to your opinions, even and especially when they differ from mine, as long as they are politely given.
  • I will try to be entertaining and informative.  No promises, though.

What do you think?  Are there any biases in the film critic industry that bother you?  Have you seen any examples of reviews where the critic obviously didn’t watch the film?  Do you let reviews change your mind about whether or not to see a film?  Is there anything I should add to my manifesto?  Let me know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “A Critic’s Manifesto

  1. An interesting discussion. There are certainly critics here in the UK I have learnt to ignore because I know I rarely agree with them, most notably Christopher Tookey who writes for the Daily Mail. On the other hand there was a much respected critic called Alexander Walker who regularly infuriated me with his conservative views but I read his reviews religiously. What really annoys me is when critics openly say that they don’t like particular film genres, they really don’t deserve to be doing that job. Personally I am more likely to be critical of a film when I am expecting it to be good (I know I am not alone in this), high expectations can cause me not to give a film a fair viewing. The thing is though, I know this and I regularly question myself on it. It does work the other way though, sometimes I will really enjoy a film I have been anticipating and then when I watch it again I realise it is actually terrible. I did this with two viewings just one week apart with Attack of the Clones.

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    • Thanks for the comment! I’m the opposite of you, in that I tend to be more forgiving of a film I have higher expectations of and more critical of films that I’m doubtful about. I totally know what you mean about enjoying a film the first time and then disliking it on the 2nd viewing. I try to be honest about my prejudices in my reviews, and I try to write reviews in a way that will help readers decide whether to see it, irrespective of my personal feelings about it. I often disagree with my favorite reviewer, Lawrence Toppman, but I like the way he writes his reviews even when he’s wrong.

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      • My favourite reviewer is a guy called Mark Kermode although clearly we don’t agree on everything, he doesn’t like Pirates of the Caribbean for example. He has a fairly unfair reputation for ranting about films but his review of Sex and the City 2 was very entertaining:

        I shall look up your guy.

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  2. Pingback: Review/Analysis: The Lone Ranger | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

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  4. OMG! You NAILED IT! I was grumping to a friend (who went to film school and works for a local TV station) about the negative reviews the Lone Ranger got, and some rather more insightful and positive ones I’d seen (like yours) and reviewers in general, and whattheheck are they all on drugs or do they all have what I used to call Fannish Elitism back in my Sci-Fi Convention going days (know-it-alls who are only too happy to let you know their opinion), or are they all paid to be $*^%$*%$! obnoxious or are they all like 19 and a half with too many hormones…

    Thanks again for some thoughtful, and positive, insights.

    Sharing your web address on my blog….

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    • It’s impossible to be completely unbiased when it comes to art, but I do feel like the industry as a whole likes to group together to collectively praise or trash something because they feel it makes them look a certain way. I try to go into everything with an open mind, and I try to be honest both about the movies and my opinions in my blogging, but I’m never 100% successful. But I’ll never like or dislike something just because it’s the popular thing to do.
      Thanks for sharing a link on your blog! That’s very nice of you 🙂

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  5. Pingback: The Lone Ranger, Critics and the Box Office | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

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