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David Poland

By David Poland

Do Any Film Critics Actually Review Films Anymore?

Okay… so I am exaggerating from the top. I know that there are writers who actually review movies… and not the books or scripts or previous versions from which they were spawned. You just wouldn’t know it to read Variety. And since Variety has become the #1 embargo breaking website in the film world – and they are so anxious to be #1 in something, even if they have to act like #2s to do so – you will get to hear it from Variety first.
It’s time that all you “who reviewed first” worship blogs start paying attention to where those reviews are coming from and how consistently wrong they are.
(Note; There is no embargo on The Lovely Bones specifically.)
Che, Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds, Where The Wild Things Are, The Road… and today, The Lovely Bones.
The potential was certainly there in the book, which reminds of Dennis Lehane’s successfully filmed novels “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” in its devastating emotional trauma, but offers the distinctive perspective of the most entirely plausible omniscient narrator in modern literature.
a bit reminiscent of…
“The Road” reads extremely cinematically. Filled almost entirely by spare but vivid physical descriptions of a decimated United States in its death throes after an unexplained catastrophe, and with limited dialogue, the book serves up images and tense situations that practically leap from the page as potential movie scenes… Some things were obvious…
Are you are film critic or a book reviewer? Because it seems to me that the job is about looking at what the filmmaker produced and not what you, as a film critic, decided the movie should be.
I am sick to death of this crap. It’s not only lazy criticism, but it is destructive (especially when embargoes are being broken to be FIRST!) to films… particularly films that audiences actually will like, perhaps love. 90% of the people who will say, “I hear Variety hated it” won’t ever read the review or have any idea who at Variety reviewed or whether they were typing out of their ass.
I have always felt that Todd McCarthy was above turning long-form written reviewing into “thumbs up, thumbs down,” but this seems to be his default more and more often.
Can we all try to come to an agreement that a movie is a movie, a book is a book, and the job of a professional film critic is not just to tell people whether they personally liked the movie and what personal reasons they have for that position?
What makes me crazy about Todd’s smackdown on The Lovely Bones, which mostly comes down to complaints about what wasn’t in the movie that was in the book, is that he so clearly does not get… really… has no clue at all about… what Peter Jackson (with Walsh and Boyens) is after. There is nary a sentence in the review about the emotion of the film or the central theme of the measure of love. This is outrageous. We just get to read, repeatedly, about the book and the shots that McCarthy didn’t like as much as other shots.
Peter Jackson’s success or failure can be argued. (And I will make my argument later.) But reading this review, like reflecting on the reviews mentioned above, was like reading someone’s account about the greatest sex they ever had only to realize that 90% of the text was about the eyeglasses she wore because you didn’t know she needed glasses because she was wearing contacts when you met and glasses look great on some women but these glasses didn’t really suit her face and yadda yadda yadda…
And I see this more and more… and almost always on the most challenging, emotional, groundbreaking movies. Meanwhile, disappointing mediocrity gets a pass so often these days it boggles the mind.
I was having a conversation this morning about Scott & Phillips and why the show is completely respectable and not that exciting… and why Siskel & Ebert were great. It’s not because Roger & Gene were so much more insightful than Michael & Tony. It’s because Gene & Roger had real passion… they didn’t know enough to hide it… and movie lovers responded because those are the arguments they want to have over dinner or dessert or drinks after the movie.
So you would prefer The Lovely Bones with no effects images. Great! I don’t care. Tell me in some real ways how those effects change the dynamic of the overall movie. Did you even understand how the “changing wallpaper” relates to the emotional state of the character who is in limbo? Did you even consider trying to understand it? Or were you just sitting there with an anti-CG chip on your shoulder, waiting to find an excuse to smack down a filmmaker who just delivered another very successful audience movie?
Go back and try again… The Road is NOT about the apocalypse, Todd McCarthy… The Lovely Bones is NOT about seeing the murder or investigating the rape of that girl, Xan Brooks… Where The Wild Things Are is NOT a silly romp meant to speak down to children, David Denby… AntiChrist is NOT just about shocking the bourgeoisie, Owen Glieberman.
Analysis of what is better or worse, what one likes and doesn’t like are all fair game. But If you don’t get the basic idea of what the movie is trying to get to, trying to judge the work in any way close to objectivity is folly.
Be clear. I am not talking about differences of opinion. This is not, “Why did you like Star Trek sooooo much when it was just good?” This is not, “I love that film and whatever you say against it sucks.”
This is about a movie, in this case, where the recurring theme is love – parental love, love between children, the first hints of romantic love, and the peace of knowing where love stands – and the negative reviews are about not being graphic enough or not liking the computer graphics.
There will be plenty of people who don’t much care for this film and whose opinions I will respect because they are based on something connected to what IS on the screen. But I cannot abide reviews about what is NOT on the screen, unless it smartly speaks to the context of the filmmaking and some element that might have changed the dynamic in a real way.
Peace out.

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32 Responses to “Do Any Film Critics Actually Review Films Anymore?”

  1. Devin Faraci says:

    On the fence with this. On the one hand, you’re right about the ‘first’ reviews – they too often come from total maroons. But that’s different from reviewing adapted material from the POV of someone who likes the original. While I try to avoid looking at adaptations from that angle, there are many, many people out there who are fans of the book THE LOVELY BONES and want to know how the movie adapts the book. I think that’s a legitimate angle to take in a review, just as it’s legit to compare a sequel to the original or a remake to the original. Again, I try to not do the point by point comparison game – the film is a different entity than the novel/game/TV show – but I get that there’s an audience that demands such reviews.

  2. Foamy Squirrel says:

    “Can we all try to come to an agreement that a movie is a movie, a book is a book, and the job of a professional film critic is not *just* to tell people whether they personally liked the movie and what personal reasons they have for that position?”
    I’ve emphasised “just” in order to clarify the argument – if it hinges around the “just” – so saying they should offer more than opinion, I tentatively agree (with caveats). If your argument hinges around the primary focus of the review (opinion vs. analysis) then I disagree. Critics should certainly do both, but a review informs while a critique deconstructs – they’re two separate things and should be for two separate audiences.
    The job of a review is to inform audiences whether they should put down their hard earned cash for this product. That means if they didn’t like it, that opinion should be up front – not buried behind paragraphs of deconstruction, and certainly not accompanied by spoilers *coughBlindSideReviewcough*. In that respect, knowing whether the effects distract from the experience matters – if you want to argue it adds a layer of insight to the character, then it’s no longer a review.
    A critic should certainly provide analysis and insight, but this is a post-facto artefact for people who have already seen the movie rather than for people looking to know which movie they should go and see. Given this is an embargo-breaking review, I think you’re gnashing your teeth when you shouldn’t.

  3. Thank you!
    I was just talking to someone about this. I can’t stand the idea of reviewing a film for what it isn’t, rather than what it is. And even though I was not impressed with The Road or Inglourious Basterds, Che even, I’d like to think it’s not with the empty criticisms that are becoming so prevalent.

  4. My cardinal rule has always been ‘review the film that you saw onscreen, not the one you had in your head that you expected/wanted to see’. Also, you’re a critic, not an artist involved in the film. So it’s not your place to say ‘oh, if only he had made this artistic choice and not that one’. Review of final products are not the same as giving advice at a test screening. I’ve certainly had issues where my enjoyment of a movie was hampered by my feelings of the original book (the last Harry Potter movie and it’s climax comes to mind), but it’s our job to separate the two as best we can, rather then revel in what was better in the book.

  5. Don Murphy says:

    Meanwhile, over on Facebook, Jeffrey Lyons has double posted, offended that Rod Lurie didn’t include him and (shudder) Ben among his list of favorite critics (it’s okay he did include you David).
    Of course, critics are so three years ago. You can’t even put a fork in them they are so done.
    Unlikely Scenario #384 in late 2009- ANYONE saying “Well the critic in Variety said….”

  6. LYT says:

    I think if a movie is adapting a best-seller — or comic or game — familiar to millions, the audience will want to know how it differs, as many of them will in fact be going in with a certain movie in their head, and possibly need to be warned what they won’t get that they may expect.
    This should not be the entirety of the review, but it is, I think, a valid part.
    It’s one thing if you’re reviewing something like Wanted, based on a comic only hardcore comic fans have heard of — few will bring preconceptions based on the source. But in reviewing, say, The Passion of the Christ, it is interesting and important to note where the film deviates from the New Testament, and where the author stands on that particular text. Upfront biases and all that.

  7. qwiggles says:

    I agree with your principal about reviewing the film, not the adaptation-that-wasn’t, Dave, but I think McCarthy does gesture toward doing that, even if his balance is wrong (and it is).
    Comparing the visual scheme to Teletubbies is a slap that is independent of the book, as is his complaint that there are no meaty scenes for the actors to chew on. And it seems to me that both are criticisms of failed emotion: if Heaven looks like Teletubbies and if the actors look stranded on earth, there is some sort of emotional disconnect going on.
    The main problem with his review as I see it is that, though he does address the film’s aesthetic, he spends far too long ass-kissing a novel he doesn’t even seem to remember: a book that depicts a “devastating emotional trauma, but offers the distinctive perspective of the most entirely plausible omniscient narrator in modern literature”? What? Purple prose much?
    Let’s not forget that The Lovely Bones reads like second-rate young adult fiction for Oprah’s set, either — that it isn’t some sacred text that PJ mucked up. Maybe the hazy, kaleidoscopic view of heaven he went with was necessitated by the fact that what heaven looks like in the novel is pretty silly, when it’s coherent. And the mother-police offer romance so many are mourning struck me as pretty trite to begin with.

  8. While I didn’t read too thoroughly on this as I don’t want the movie “Lovely Bones” spoiled in any way, I will say there’s sometimes NO way a movie can be removed from the book it was based on. A great example is “The Road” which is a great movie. A great movie I would never tell anyone “oh jeez, GO see this!” but I respect what it is…as a good film. In fact, I ONLY like it because I love the book it was based on. As a stand alone movie, it’s superfluous.
    The book is superior and in fact, the book -vs- movie of “The Road” is a primo example of why “true” adaptations never, ever work. As a movie “The Road” doesn’t work. Framed in a “I read the book” way, it’s better.
    No one who hasn’t read the book “The Road” is loving this film. Although “Lovely Bones” wasn’t an Oprah book club member…still. Sometimes you can’t extract one from the other.

  9. LYT says:

    “No one who hasn’t read the book “The Road” is loving this film.”
    I am.

  10. Hunter Tremayne says:

    Bravo, David. Attacking ambition and celebrating mediocrity is not only sad but dangerous.

  11. The Pope says:

    For me the purpose of a film critic, whether writing a review or offering a critique, is simply this: to inform the reader. And if the critic is good at what they do, eventually the reader will become sufficiently informed so that they no longer require the critic to offer opinions as to HOW and WHY the film succeeds or fails (and there lies the rub: a critic is somewhat akin to a teacher for eventually the student outgrows the relationship… and what critic would admit/accept to losing “my readers”?)
    All to often, critics do not bother to explain or even discuss the HOW or the WHY. The reason for this is simple. The vast (99%) of critics do not know how to read a film (thank you James Monaco for that phrase). They simply do not know the reasons why the camera is placed in a certain position, why the editing pattern is designed in that way, why the sound is manipulated to such a degree. At worst, they do not even understand screenplay construction while at best, the critic has only a tenuous grasp of acting (what they really have is a simple “I don’t like that actor because I do not warm to them”). And so, it always comes down to “story.”
    Which brings me around (finally) to David’s point about reviewing the film of the impression I had in my head in response to what I read in the book. Yes, they are complaining about what was “left out” but what they are really saying is that what was left out was really important to them… as director of the film. I say this because when people read a book, they direct it in their own heads. And boy, is the direction always right. And the casting is always spot on and the performances always perfect etc. But since we agree that that is neither film-making nor film reviewing, let me limit myself to saying that pretty much everyone thinks that cinema is an extension of the novel (and the 19th century psychologically realist novel at that). Where does that leave surrealism? Or modernism? Or the filmed essay (Godard did so much in that, we have to thank him). Anyway…
    It never ceases to amaze me why a critic never suggests how a film, if it has faults, could be improved, either in terms of casting, structure (plot points etc), and finally direction. That is because they think that being a film critic means to criticize. Few may ever admit it, but a lot of critics like bad films… because it allows them to blow off about how bad it is… while never suggesting how it could be improved. By addressing such issues, they would then be informing the viewer/reader as to what to look out for the next time they watch a film. Too many people THINK they know what directing is about (telling the actors how to deliver their lines, where to put the camera), but in actual fact, the vast majority of the time directing is about directing the audience. Either putting their head in a vice and showing them exactly what you want them to UNDERSTAND (a la Michael Bay), or cutting them loose but giving them hints as to what they might THINK (a la Michael Haneke).
    Seems that however poor film criticism has become, it is going to become a whole lot worse because now with the internet, everyone is a critic. Even my niece, and she is only six.

  12. BobBurns says:

    Good for you David Poland. McCarthy’s review is outrageous. Have been bitching about it for days. A Peter Jackson film will be quite different from a Clint Eastwood film, even when they start from the same material.
    I loved Mystic River, but if I’m going to see TLB by Jackson I expect to see his vision of the afterlife. Heavenly gazebo, my ass.

  13. montrealkid says:

    Great stuff DP. This kind of film criticism – where critics review the movie that *wasn’t* made – has become more prevalent over the past few years and it’s professionally dishonest. It seems that critics have forgotten that they are writing for an audience and not each other.

  14. movielocke says:

    *slow clap*
    where the devil is the “share” button so I can post this to facebook?

  15. a_loco says:

    “It never ceases to amaze me why a critic never suggests how a film, if it has faults, could be improved, either in terms of casting, structure (plot points etc), and finally direction.”
    Sorry Pope, but the reason critics don’t offer suggestions on how to improve a film is because they’re suppose to critique the film in question, not create a new hypothetical good one. If critics did start trying to improve the bad films, then they might as well get into screenwriting themselves.

  16. LYT says:

    I don’t know…in film school, we were taught to critique using the starting point of “if he went out and made this movie again, what would you tell him to do differently?”
    That said, space constraints rule all in today’s print criticism. Give any decent writer 1400 words, and he or she will totally get into potential improvements. Give ’em 500 (far more likely), and you’ll get a highlight reel of the most prominent things.

  17. jennab says:

    Dave, can you just be the change you’d like to see in the world, with your often meandering, tangential but nonetheless charming reviews (I’m talking video) and leave the bitch-slapping to others?
    The common thread in your criticism of your peers is that “they’re not doing it right,” whatever “it” is…and “right” simply means “not like me.” As for readers, if your aesthetic is not in sync with a certain critic, don’t read ’em.

  18. Do people still care what Todd McCarthy thinks? I wrote him off back in 1994, when he shat on Love and a .45 for being a Pulp Fiction clone, even though PF had only come out three months earlier.

  19. That’s a common problem, Edward. Critics constantly accuse movies of ripping off a prior movie or cashing in on recent events, even if prior movie was in production and finished around the same time, or the historical event just happened. For example, critics jumped all over the girl-on-girl sai fight in The Mummy Returns, claiming it was ripping off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, The Mummy Returns had a trailer with that scene out in November 2000, one month before CTHD became a pop-culture phenomenon. And just Wednesday I had to rebut someone on the radio who claimed that The Princess and the Frog was intended to cash in on Obama’s election. Nevermind that the film was in production for several years.
    When I dabbled in improv a couple years back, Luke, it drove me nuts to have to discuss other peoples’ sketches in the vein of ‘well, what if you had done this instead?’. It’s not my place to substitute my artistic instincts for yours, only to judge whether your artistic choices were worthwhile.
    Just my two cents.

  20. palmtree says:

    Exactly! All the critics I hate are guilty of this. In fact, I prefer a reviewer who may not know films very well, but at least limits the comments to the film itself. For that reason, I cannot stand Kenneth Turan, who loves film but can’t over the fact that some movies portray violence in a graphic manner.

  21. palmtree says:

    …but can’t GET over the fact…sorry

  22. Bob Violence says:

    I wrote him off back in 1994, when he shat on Love and a .45 for being a Pulp Fiction clone, even though PF had only come out three months earlier.

    McCarthy’s review never even mentions Pulp Fiction, only Reservoir Dogs (it’s also not even a particularly harsh review by his standards)

  23. Bob Violence says:

    My modest proposal: Let filmmakers figure out the One True Way to make movies first, then it’ll be that much easier to figure out the One True Way to write film criticism

  24. LYT says:

    Scott – improv is very different, I think. And how do you judge if artistic choices are worthwhile? There must be something to compare them to, no? Whether it be another film, or a hypothetical one with better choices.
    If I were to say, for example, that Louis Leterrier’s Hulk movie should have brought back Eric Bana instead of casting Edward Norton (hypothetically – Norton was of course better!)…am I guilty of substituting artistic instincts, or just making a comparison EVERYONE is likely to think of?
    What if I say George Lucas should have given Jake Lloyd some direction in the Phantom Menace, since Lloyd did show chops in other movies? If one is going to say that something is bad, I do think it’s helpful to imagine how it might have been good had some aspect not fallen short.

  25. David Poland says:

    As in religion, Bob V, there is no “one true way.”
    There are a million ways to write criticism, including one in which you bemoan the things you read in the book and imagined would make better cinema than the choices the filmmakers made.
    But there is The Golden Rule.
    Consider the work of the filmmaker as you would want others to consider your work.
    If you can’t or won’t do that…. if you refuse to put the film that is on the screen ahead of the film that might be in your head… you have no business calling yourself a professional film critic.
    Everyone has an opinion. Everyone gets their opinion. But the job of criticism is a trust… both with the public and with the film. And we all must fight – sometimes even fighting ourselves – to deserve that trust.
    Speaking to Scott/Luke conversation… I do find myself “what if” ing sometimes. And I don’t think it is inherently wrong or unfair. I just think you have to approach it knowing that if you were involved in making the film and if your idea was great, it still would come out differently than you imagine in your head, as a film is work done by a parade of artists. If you were the director and you had a singular vision, that group would serve you and your vision and try to help you create it. But as another person on the team, ideas are often taken… but still aren’t what you might do if you were in charge.
    In the case of both The Road and Lovely Bones, the highly emotional experience of those books had to vary a lot for people. And the choice by the filmmakers to take – as filmmakers almost always must – a narrow swath of the books for the film… a swath of their interest and not everyone’s (PJ has 10 hour-plus to roll out the Rings)… is inevitably going to leave some people feeling cheated. But a professional critic, while certainly, in my opinion, allowed to say, “I kinda wish they had gone in a different direction” must not publish the film for that basic choice. It’s just not fair pool.

  26. Joe Leydon says:

    The thing is, a movie based on a book (or play, or another movie) would not exist without the source material. To put it another way: Whatever the merits of the film — and I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t judge — Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones really isn’t Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. It is PJ’s response to, or interpretation of, The Lovely Bones. He invites comparisons to the book by the simple act of adapting it. And it is entirely fair to criticize his choices regarding what to include or discard, just as it is entirely entirely fair to criticize his casting, framing, pacing, etc. If he wants to make a movie that will be judged solely on its own merits — well, sorry, then he should write an original screenplay, and film that.

  27. IOIOIOI says:

    Joe, I have that argument with Harry Potter fans all the time, and my response always comes down to this. There’s a book, there’s a movie, and judging the book on the movie is silly. WHY? THE WORD ADAPTATION! It’s an adaptation.
    So PJ and the Ladies may not have written the Lovely Bones, that’s their version of the LOVELY BONES. I mean, Mario wrote the book, but Francis Ford made it the Godfather. You dig?

  28. Bob Violence says:

    If I’m not comparing it to the source then I’m just going to be comparing it to other films — which makes sense on a basic level (films are films, books are books, etc.) — but if filmmakers are catholic enough in their attitude towards art to avoid walling off films from other media, why should critics draw the line? Judging a film on its “own terms” has a nice ring to it, but it exists in pretty much the same platonic space as “objective journalism.”

  29. Joe Leydon says:

    IO: But I don’t think anyone (probably not even Mario Puzo)claimed The Godfather was some great work of literature. Just as no one thought enough of Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H to complain about the liberties Robert Altman took with the book. The Lovely Bones, however, falls into a different category. When you tackle something like that, you shouldn’t be surprised if you face a lot of comparisons. I guess what I’m saying is: The more substantial/important/prestigious the source material, the more your film adaptation is likely to catch grief if it doesn’t seem to measure up. Again, I haven’t seen the movie yet. In fact, I haven’t read the novel yet. So I cannot really make any comparisons. But I’m not surprised that others are.

  30. I think what drove me nuts about ‘what if’ing in a classroom, Luke/DP, was that we were forced to constantly play ‘what if’ on sketches that worked perfectly well as performed. It’s one thing to say ‘this movie is terrible, here’s how it might have worked better’, it’s another thing to say ‘it was perfect, but here are some things you could have tried to make it even more perfect to my specific taste’. You’re right, it’s not as black and white as I maybe made it seem, it just goes back to friends who drive me nuts because they basically play the ‘oh, Pirates 3 would have been better if Jack’s boots were blue instead of red’ game. Right or wrong, I’ve certainly done it before, but I try not to.

  31. Cadavra says:

    I’m reminded of the time a visitor to William Faulkner complained about how Hollywood had ruined his novels. “No, they didn’t. They’re still there,” he calmly replied as he pointed to his bookshelf.

  32. Okay, I was mistaken. I had the wrong Tarantino movie. Still doesn’t change the fact that McCarthy has his head quite far up Tarantino’s ass, to the detriment of his critiquing skills concerning anything that could be remotely considered in the same realm as Tarantino.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon