Highly Critical

 By Shamus Oct 5, 2006 13 comments

I really enjoy good movie reviews. I’m picky, though. Up until recently the only reviewer I could get into was Ebert, but he is sadly in the hospital right now and thus not writing any reviews.

99% of the reviewers out there get on my nerves. Newspaper movie critics, I swear, have some sort of “Mad Libs” style review generator:

[Name of movie] is a [adjective] film that never [verb]. It seems like [person involved with movie] was [screwing the movie up in some way] on this one.

So all the movie blurbs sound like this:

Talladega Nights is a slow-moving film that never gets out of second gear. It seems like director Adam McKay was asleep at the wheel on this one.

The Illusionist is a less-than-magical film that never materializes. Edward Norton was never able to pull the rabbit out of his hat on this one.

Titanic is a shipwreck of a film that never holds water. James Cameron was in over his head on this one.

And so reviews are filled with clumsy puns, statements of the blindingly obvious, and painful forced metaphors. Do these people really get paid for this stuff? These boilerplate reviews drone on, and it is clear the critic has no idea what movie reviews are for. The reader isn’t wading through this prose because they want to know what the critic thought of the movie. They can see that for themselves by looking at the thumbs up/down, number of stars, percentage rating, or whatever other system is used to distill complex subjective opinions into hard numbers. No, the reader is there to be entertained.

A writer who thinks that saying that “the movie Click! is a real turn-off!” is entertainment is someone who’s particular skill set might be more suited to other parts of the newspaper. I suggest they be given the job of writing wedding announcements, obituaries, and – when they are feeling particularly vivacious – maybe a few want ads.

Movie critics should not be erudite stiffs who would rather analyze a movie than enjoy it. They certainly shouldn’t be pompus elitists. They should be witty and interesting, even when the movie they are talking about isn’t. Especially then. People like Dave Barry or James Lileks would be perfect movie critics. It doesn’t matter one bit that they might not like the movies I do, or that they do not posses encyclopedic knowledge of every work ever put to celluloid. The important thing is that they can find new and clever ways of saying the same things over and over, because that is 90% of the job. The job has nothing to do with picking winners, predicting popular movies, or educating the great unwashed masses of dolts who watch Adam Sandler movies instead of attending Sundance. It has everything to do with making people want to read and maybe even talk about the reviews themselves.

While I’m waiting for Roger Ebert to recover, I’m really enjoying the reviews Alex is putting up over at his new site. Unless this site is a web of lies and deception, then Alex is a mere 21 years old, which is pretty depressing for me. At 21 I would not have been capable of putting together a paragraph that would be worth anyone’s time, much less turning out interesting movie reviews.

Back in 1998-ish I used to read movie review site titled “Girls on Film”. The site was pink and (I guess) aimed at female readers, but their reviews were witty and interesting and I never really felt left out by the by-women-for-women intent of the site. Eventually the dot-com thing got underway and the site expanded. The staff grew, features were added (I can’t remember what the other stuff was now, since I ignored everything that wasn’t a movie review) the navigation became more convoluted, the site got less responsive, it was bathed in ads, newer (less interesting) critics came on board, and the whole thing went to crap. Googling around today, it looks like the thing is gone for good.

Good review sites are hard to come by. I tend to apply the same criteria to them as I do when looking for enjoyable blogs: I like clean, fast-loading sites with a personal voice, which is about as different from newspaper critics as you can get.

I just wrote, what? Eight or so paragraphs outlining how thousands of movie critics are doing their jobs wrong and how they sould change to better suit my tastes? That is hubris, right there.

I love the internet.

1313 comments. That's a baker's dozen.


  1. I agree with you about most movie reviewers. I have found one I rather like. I’ve been following Eric Snider since he wrote for my college paper. He’s a professional now and does a better job than pretty much anybody. He comes across a bit like Dave Barry and Lileks–possibly because he also does humor. He posts his reviews online at http://www.ericdsnider.com/movie.php with helpful grade-style ratings.

  2. Ubu Roi says:

    For a number of years now, my nearly-foolproof system has been to look at what the critics say, and unless it’s a total piece of dreck (like, say, the DOOM film), reverse the critic’s reason for the conclusion. Like so:

    “Boring, wordy, and slow” = subtle and deliberately paced character drama, builing the tension, slowly.
    “Fun, slam-bang action-fest” = there is no plot, or you can drive a tank through holes in the writer’s clumsy attempt at one.
    Obscure and irrelevant subject matter = film strove from realism rather than dumbing itself down.
    “Spectacular epic” = halfway competant CG crew.
    “Oscar-worthy performance by [blank]” = actor/actress’s botox wore off, and they could at least grimace like a 4 year old. Alternate meaning: “I will perform sex acts on this star if they will give me an invitation to the next premiere.”

    It works quite well….

  3. I’ve been a fan of James Berardinelli’s reviews for years:

    http://www.reelviews.net/master.html

    I haven’t been to a film in a theater since I saw “The Matrix”, but I visit his site every couple of days and read every review he posts.

  4. Ubu Roi says:

    Ok, the above typo’s are proof that I’m REALLY braindead today.

  5. By the way, Berardinelli’s day job is as an engineer. He is addicted to watching movies and sees several per week. He finally found a woman with a similar affliction and they’ve been happily married ever since.

  6. I expected some witty kicking of Charles Solomon here… ^_^

  7. Alex says:

    Wait a second, if Roger Ebert comes out of hospital you’ll stop reading me? I’ve got to tamper with some prescriptions …

  8. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Wait, Shamus did you just review reviewers. “Kiff I think we have a conundrum”
    but seriously I think I’m going to start calling YOU Shamus the Impossible

  9. Cineris says:

    “Movie critics should not be erudite stiffs who would rather analyze a movie than enjoy it. They certainly shouldn’t be pompus elitists.”

    Drat, and I was thinking of making a hobby out of movie reviews.

  10. actually, Jammer’s reviews have always been superb. He limits himself to Star Trek, Galactica, and a few others, but his reviews are routinely focused on continuit, plot, and characters. He accepts the premise of teh film and then ccritiques from the inside, but still goes meta when its necessary. Ive been reading him for over ten years, or one third of my life. I can’t recommend him highly enough.

  11. Alex says:

    I enjoy films precisely because I’m analysing them. I enjoyed X-Men 3 because I was expecting to hate it and was thus surprised, and because I could see how all of it “had” to go the way that it did. Of course, when you look at X-3 like that you’re looking at it from a manufacturer’s perspective, but if that’s how you have to appreciate a movie (rather than your brain exploding from thinking “why did they move that bridge? That’s a lot of effort”), I suppose it’s cool.

    Unless you’re insufferable about it. I can’t suffer insufferable people.

  12. Roy says:

    Well, the site may be gone, but it looks like you can still read some of their reviews- the girls from Girls on Film have a book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Girls-Film-Lise-Carrigg/dp/0060953101

  13. BeckoningChasm says:

    http://www.jamesbowman.net

    I enjoy his reviews even when I don’t agree, but he doesn’t review a lot of popular stuff.

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