Thursday, October 8, 2015

Haters gotta hate (and other movie criticism cliches)

We're all movie critics now. We're all able to pound out our opinions about the latest films we've seen on social media and blogs and podcasts. And that's fine, because it can be invaluable in deciding whether to see a new film or not, when you can find a million different takes on it.

Unfortunately, this has also led to a proliferation of shoddy criticism, with tonnes of unprofessional and unhelpful reviews that don't say anything, or take far too long to get to the point, or are just the usual shit.

I did a bit of proper movie reviewing for newspapers for a while, but gave it up because it was ruining the whole movie experience for me. So I might be a total hypocrite about all this, but I still read tonnes of new reviews for every film I want to see, and there are a few things that bug the shit out of me when I read, hear or see them in a new movie review. They also often apply to music, book and comic criticism, because they're everywhere.

1. “It's a poor script”

All critics are writers, but not all writers are critics, so the easiest way for critics to sound like they know what they talking about it to criticise the script. But just pointing out that something has a poor script is worse than useless.

Because I have no idea what they're talking about. Is the dialogue cheesy, or is the plot hackneyed? Is it lacking in any redeemable themes, or is the tone of the whole thing out of balance? Are the characters made out of cardboard, or is it all just a bit too predictable? Is the story too long, too short, or too flabby? Is it unoriginal, or tired, or cliched?

Scripts are more than just one thing – they're a blueprint for the final film, and can be strong in some areas, and lacking in others. A lot of scripts are universally poor, across all of these areas, but often there will be some neat characterisation in the middle of a sludgy plot, or an unexpected twist in a movie with cringe-worthy dialogue

Critics who make the observation that the script is rubbish, and then just leave that comment sitting there like a turd on a hot-dog bun, might think they sound smarter than the film-makers by saying this, but they're really not saying anything.

2. “Of course, you hate the same shit I hate because we all hate it”

Look, I know my fondness for Prometheus and the last Star Trek films are rightly frowned upon by all right-thinking people, because they really do have those poor scripts on multiple levels. But I still like them for the spectacle, style and intensity, and I've re-watched both of them in the past few weeks, and enjoyed the shit out of them both.

So it's always annoying when it's just assumed that everybody hates the same thing, and the arrogance in that assumption is the most irritating thing about it. Reviewers can always admit they personally don't like stuff - that's what they are there for - but they should also note that these things aren't always universal, and can't always be projected onto the review's aduience.

It can, of course, be bloody useful, as it tells you a lot about the reviewer, and can help you decide whether you trust their opinion or not. A number of recent negative reviews for High Rise, Ben Wheatley's new film, had me worried that it would be the first of his movies that I wouldn't dig, but then those reviews always said something ball-numbingly dumb, like 'Everybody knows the ending of Kill List is weak', and I knew I didn't have to give a shit what they thought.

3. “Everybody else is wrong about everything”

There is that old hypocrisy again, because just after proudly standing up for some recent sci-fi silliness, I have to say that contrarians drive me nuts.

It's all right to disagree with the great critical consensus, but when you're constantly panning well-received films and sticking up for the universally derided, you might not be that trustworthy, because you look like you're only doing it to stand out. And you might stand out as a lone voice in the wilderness, but in the end, that's because nobody wants to hear what you're on about, because you're so obvious about it.

You often see it when somebody starts moaning about how Pixar ain't all that, and then they're slagging off John Ford movies to sound interesting and clever, or stiffly pointing out that the Star Wars prequels are actually better than the originals, or having the absolutely radical opinion that Watchmen isn't the greatest comic ever.

Good luck with all that.

4. “Weirdness is just for weirdness sake...”

Yeah, that's why they call it weirdness. That doesn't mean it's pointless, it's a stylistic choice, and often an effort to create contrast with our mundane reality. It can create intensity, and abstract images can produce gloriously unexpected responses.

But people are still saying that David Lynch films are a bit weird, as if that's a new observation, and it's become a cliché to say it in reviews of Grant Morrison's comic, almost as predictable as “Pow! Zap!” headlines in mainstream publications. Nothing new there.

5. “A total mix of Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978, dir Albert Band), Three Kings (1999, dir. David O Russell),  Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Peir Paolo Pasolini) Turkey Shoot (1982, dir Brian-Trenchard-Smith), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir Emeric Pressburger) and Bad Timing (1980, dir Nicolas Roeg), with a dash of It's All Gone Pete Tong (2004, dir Michael Dowse), Grizzly Man (2005 dir Werner Herzog), Detention (2011, dir Joseph Kahn), The Lives of Others (2006. dir Florian Kenckel von Donnersmark) and Machete Kills (2014, dir Robert Rodriguez).”

We get it. You've seen some films, but you forgot to include a point amongst all the references. And you forgot to add your Powell in with your Pressburger.

6. “Of course, Joss Whedon's films are everything that's wrong with modern cinema...'

Another one that keeps getting trotted out as if it was something new, and as if it was something provocative, is pointing out that Joss Whedon isn't that good, actually.

He's clawed his way up from script doctor, to TV showrunner, to writer/director of a couple of the most staggeringly succesful blockbusters ever made, so no wonder every third reviewer has to point out that he is everything that is wrong with modern film-making, just to show how hip and interesting their opinions are.

It's just old, we've been hearing the same complaints since the fourth season of Buffy, and now that's he's directed a couple of massive Avengers films, it's everywhere. The backlash against a backlash against a backlash (x20).  If you don't know whether you like Whedon's TV and movies by now, there isn't much of an excuse, and sniffing at everybody who poured into his blockbuster craziness is nothing new.

I like his films and TV. They make me laugh, and sometimes they make me feel things. Doesn't matter if it's a huge, ball-busting blockbuster, or some silly TV show about a cheerleader who kills vampires.

7. “And then this happened, and then this happened and then!”

If I wanted a synopsis, I'd go to, or read it in Sight and Sound.

8. “It's not what I expected/wanted it to be”

This might be the craziest generilsation in a list of crazy generalisations, but reviewers who can't leave their baggage at the door are just the worst.

Anybody heading into a movie screening for the purpose of review has to leave behind their preconceptions about the film, and approach it on its own merits. They have to forget the things the filmmakers might have done in their professional or personal life, and not be influenced by anything outside the two hours in the cinema.

It is unavoidable, and nobody on earth could watch Leonard Part 6 again without thinking about how Bill Cosby is almost certainly an awful fucking human being. But you've got to try.

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