Monday, March 12, 2012

"John Carter" and 10 Tips to Movie Reviewers

My wife and I just saw "John Carter." Totally enjoyed ourselves. It was absolutely worth the $37.50 ($27 for two tickets and $10.50 for the medium drink and medium popcorn - I'm in training, hence the mediums). I'm thinking I'll buy the DVD when it comes out, too. Fun, exciting, great to look at. Lynn Collins is hot, Taylor Kitsch was a very good new face, Ciaran Hines headed up a marvelous supporting cast, and the creatures were totally cool looking. Oh, yeah, and the music was great, too. Just a very satisfying afternoon at the movies for a kid like me -- having refused to grow up. The theater was almost full, which was a good sign on a Sunday afternoon. All ages, too. Fun. Really fun!

On the way home we started talking about all the harsh reviews on this film. Hum. What are these guys smoking? Was it "Citizen Kane?" No, not supposed to be. Was it "Avatar?" No, didn't try to be. It was an adventure movie that was meant to take us to Mars for a couple hours on an journey with a hero who gets stranded in a foreign land, fights some really bad guys, makes some friends along the way and meets a pretty girl. It was a big Disney movie based on a classic science fantasy work by Edgar Rice Burroughs from one hundred years ago. Why all the negative reviews? What did they expect?

Anyone in show business has a love/hate relationship with reviewers. (Rant for Another Day Notice: I'm not referring to them as critics. Film critics are something else entirely and there aren't many of them anymore.) We love reviewers when they are nice to us and we hate them when they aren't. Hopefully, we are able to take them all with a grain of salt and keep doing the best job we can. Of course, if you are not in show business and read a bad review, you may inclined to avoid something if you read a bad review. Fight this urge! You'll miss out on many enjoyable surprises if you blindly follow any reviewer's opinion. Particularly, when reviews like many of those for "John Carter," where actually discussing the business of making "John Carter" and not the actual movie "John Carter.".

In the 24 hours since watching this movie, I've gone back and re-visited many of the reviews. The one thing I noticed is that, I almost always agree with Roger Ebert. He's fair and while he may ask questions like "why this and not that," he'll always stop and say something like, "But I must not review a movie that wasn't made." Good on you, Roger. I have come up with a few tips I think movie reviewers ought to try. I call them the Ten Tips for Better, More Relevant Reviews. Yeah, it's kind of a pretentious, but reviewers can be pretentious and none of them are going to read this blog anyway, so WTF. Here  they are.

Ten Tips for Better, More Relevant Reviews
  1. Watch a movie like a regular person. (I know, you don't think you ARE a regular person, but you are writing for regular people. So learn to talk to your audience. Not every one who reads your reviews is an industry insider.) Pay for some popcorn like the rest of us, leave your attitude at the door, sit down next to someone (not all by yourself on the end of an aisle) and let the movie wash over you. Laugh, cry, invest your emotions for a couple hours in the experience. Audiences have to do some work, too, you know. The same is true for watching a play, listening to a concert, or reading a book. You, as an audience member, are expected to play along for a little while.
  2. Review the movie that you are watching not the one YOU would have made had you chosen to be a lowly film maker instead of the heightened literary genius you are. Don't be a wimp, just admit that what you really want to do is be a screenwriter or maybe a director. Hell, everyone in Hollywood is a hyphenate. We'll understand.
  3. Don't review the trailer as part of your review. For me, trailers have always served more as awareness tools rather than 1-to-1 comparison utilities. Trailers are marketing tools made by trailer houses and designed to elicit a reaction like, "Hey, I love that actor!" or "Oh, man, that looks <insert appropriate adjective here>" or "okay, not my cup of tea." They are not meant to represent everything the movie may or may not be.
  4. Shut up about the budget of the movie. Yes, "John Carter" coast a ton of money to make. So what? What do I care when I sit down in the dark to watch? The amount of money a studio spends on a movie is a business decision. It's on the people who make the film NOT the people who watch it. It's a risk they know they are taking. A low budget film that makes a bazillion dollars is not necessarily a "better movie" than a more expensive one and vice versa.
  5. Don't complain that there aren't any "big stars" in the movie. Every actor starts as a nobody. They become famous later. Besides, once they DO become big stars, your expectations of them and their salaries are going to influence your reviews. So, do yourself and us a favor and just review the actor's performance not their StarMeter. 
  6. Stop comparing the movie to the book. Wanna know somethin' weird? We know that they are two different things. We actually are aware of the fact that some things we really like about the book may not make it into the movie. Yes, we have our opinions about these things, but let us judge for ourselves. Besides, if you read the book 30 years ago your opinion about whether or
  7. Stop comparing movies simply because they are in a similar genre. Not all science fiction movies can be compared to each other any more than all films with boats in them can be compared to "Titanic."
  8. If you think someone or something is particularly terrible -- tell us why. Don't just make a critical statement and expect us to infer your reasoning. For the most part, we are intelligent people who are interested in movies and in what you have to say. Otherwise we wouldn't be reading your review. We are not mind-readers, however. Besides, as I tried to explain to my first wife, "Just because," ain't a reason.
  9. Don't try to impress us with your journalism background or the depth of your film school language. We know how smart you are because you have a job writing for a living and we like to read what you write. (Well, except Entertainment Weekly writers. Jury's still out on some of them.) Face the fact that most movies are meant to entertain. As Lina Lamont would say, " bring a little joy into our humdrum lives."
  10. Don't judge the movie before you see it. We know the difference between a "preview" and a "review."  In fact, don't even write a preview. Let one of your staff writers (I believe you would call them "minion") handle that job. 
If you need an example, here's a pretty good review from a blog at The Houston Press. It holds pretty close to most of the tips. Of course, the other option is for everyone to just stop reading reviews entirely. But then, what would guys like me have to complain about?