One of the reasons I decided to do a website featuring movie reviews was because accurate appraisals of movies are hard to come by. This despite the teeming millions of movie reviews on the web and in newspapers and magazines. Quite frankly, honest reviews are about as rare as smart poodles, so pull up a chair and I’ll try to explain why.
First of all, we have the critics who write reviews in hopes of being quoted in a newspaper ad. Let’s face it, the only way out of obscurity is to get your name seen by as many people as possible, and if you’re Edgar Gnurdstone of WLSR in Kalamazoo Falls, a good way to achieve this is to write a glowing review of a movie you’ve seen. Better yet, write glowing reviews of absolutely awful films, and you increase your chances further since there won’t be many good reviews for the ads to choose from. I once asked a studio publicity person if a certain “critic” (you know who I mean – he adores every movie ever made) received financial compensation for contributing favorable reviews. He said absolutely not, but that the critic in question often sends in his fawning quotes completely unsolicited. Make of that what you will. Rule number one: If a film has to rely on quotes from the Edgar Gnurdstones of the world, it’s a sure sign the established critics didn’t like it.
Beware of ads trumpeting one-word reviews, such as “Captivating!…” or “Awesome!…”. You could take any review, no matter what its overall assessment of the film, and extract words which seem to bestow praise, particularly since many critics try to find some positives in every movie they review. And some publicists seem to have no qualms about creatively editing a critic’s remarks. For example, Roger Ebert cynically lamented of The Last Boy Scout words to the effect of “although this isn’t a very good movie, it’s sure to be a hit”. The ad for the film attributed him with “…a sure hit”. Likewise, a critic for a national news magazine said of Sleepy Hollow words similar to “…the most visually stunning film ever made about the subject of decapitation” which wound up in the ad as “…the most visually stunning film ever made”. The quote was removed after the critic complained.
But the reviews which confound me the most are those from critics who are well-established in their field, and yet who still find it hard to write an honest review. A prime example is the reviews of The Thin Red Line. Director Terrence Malick is highly respected in the film community based on his previous work, but if you saw this film you know it was a disaster from start to finish. When I saw it in L.A., literally two-thirds of the audience walked out before it was over (I stayed to the bitter end). But of the reviews I saw from major critics, only one dared to break ranks and admit the film was a miserable failure. Why? Because for movie critics, reviewing films is their life’s work. Their reviews are their legacy to society. And unlike such professions as medicine or engineering, there is no clear distinction between those who are qualified and those who are not. Whether a movie is good or bad is a matter of personal opinion, so who’s to say that a critic’s opinion is any more valuable than the average schmoe’s? As a result, established critics tend to dismiss films which appeal to the baser instincts of the masses, and deify films which they perceive appeal to the intellect. It’s their way of separating themselves from the masses – of proving that their insight extends beyond that of the average person and therefore justifies their life’s endeavors. The flipside of this coin is that if you give a bad review to a film that all the prestigious critics are raving about, you are accused of lacking the intellect and/or background to comprehend the film’s greatness. Do you honestly believe critics aren’t worried what their bosses will think if they dislike a film that well-known reviewers are proclaiming a masterpiece? And the critics tend to be much more forgiving of movies made by directors who’ve established themselves as “geniuses” in previous efforts. To denounce the latest film by such a director is to call into question one’s knowledge of cinematic history. Brilliant directors are expected to turn out brilliant movies, and if the latest offering seems aimless and ill-conceived, well you’re just not getting it. As a result, mediocre films such as Full Metal Jacket get praised to high heaven, and moviegoers leave the theater scratching their heads.