"I would consider this a wholly unreliable and unrealistic review...The cynicism demonstated by this review shows a man ill-equipped for his job."
The real way to tell if I'm not equipped to review the film would be if she made the exact same statement, even if I liked it. If I thought it was a blast watching The Chipmunks sing and dance, just like she did, would she still say I'm unreliable, unrealistic, and ill-equipped? She should, if I truly am that bad of a critic. She would never do that, though, and there's the rub. I don't like a film, and sometimes people get really upset. Where does the anger come from? Are there really throngs of people waiting to let the critics guide their every ticket-purchasing decision? I don't think so. I have to assume "Juno" doesn't like every single movie she sees. Why am I, as a critic, not afforded the same right without people telling me my opinion is a wrong one?
I was recently chastised for the first time ever by a filmmaker (Ursula Dabrowsky). I gave her film, the Austrailian indie-horror Family Demons, a mixed/positive review, and she came out swinging because it wasn't positive enough. She called me "John Ghoulhead" and told me to read Fangoria so that I could learn how to review a film properly. Would she be telling me that I needed to learn how to review movies if I unabashedly adored her film? No, she wouldn't.
I'd guess Dabrowski has seen films she thought were pretty good, not great. Why can't her own film fall under that category for me? There will be people who love her movie a lot more than I did, but there will also be those that hate it. If they can articulate why they hate it, in specifics, does that make them ignorant people? Certainly not. It just makes them people with strong opinions.
That's all critics are – people with strong opinions. I have a platform, and I can articulate what elements of a movie worked for me and which ones didn't (...with varying degrees of success. Most critics can tell when they've nailed a review or when they've written something limp). Those feelings are specific to me, but general to the film. And just because my opinions are public, that doesn't mean I'm breathing rarified air.
There was a blow-up this week on Kevin Smith's twitter account of all places (and the man does not seem to understand the 140-character limit. He has a website; he really should've just written it as an essay instead of twenty-plus stream-of-consciousness tweets). Concerning press screenings for his poorly reviewed film Cop Out, Smith rails, "Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I'd rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why's their opinion more valid?"
Why is the critic's opinion somehow less valid, Kevin? I saw Cop Out, and I thought it stunk. If I had seen it exactly one year ago, before I was reviewing films professionally, I would've thought it stunk then too. My job title has nothing to do with whether or not Cop Out is terrible.
I understand his point as it might relate to box office power, how the bad reviews can hurt ticket sales, but, really, how much sway do critics hold over the box office? Critics can occasionally rally behind something small and get it noticed, but those moments are rare. I think most critics inform (or affirm) an opinion. I don't write a critique thinking about whether or not someone should spend their money on a ticket for the movie that I just watched; I'm thinking solely about the movie itself.
Rotten Tomatoes, the most popular review aggregator, has Cop Out currently listed at 19% Fresh, which means it's considered "Rotten". Films with over 60% of professional reviews seen as positive are deemed fresh. That's basically saying two out of ten critics liked Cop Out. I bet if you did the same polling at the exit door of your local multiplex, you'd find a similar number. Why? Because critics are movie lovers too. Those broad scores on Rotten Tomatoes are scarily accurate of public opinion, not vice versa, and people are using the reviews to make purchasing decisions, but not in the way some folks might think.
Let's say I see the trailers and ads for Repo Men (currently at 22%) and I think to myself, "The trailer is weak, but I like those actors and I like sci-fi." I then check Rotten Tomatoes and see its Rotten score. Now I have to decide, based on the trailers that didn't impress me, if it's worth a further look. Maybe not. On the other hand, if the ads blew me away, that 22% may not be enough to keep me away. I might be one of the two out of ten people who are really going to dig it.
As a movie lover, you're going to consider the stars, the story, the genre, the creative team, and the trailers first, based on your own tastes when trying to decide if something is a must-see; the reviews come second. No one should take a review as gospel. One of my favorite critics is Walter Chaw from Film Freak Central. He can come across as prickly and sometimes too smart for his own good, and I rarely agree with him. Why do I read him? Because he's really great at analyzing a feature film, whether I agree with him or not.
That's part of the critic's job, to get in there under the hood, get their hands dirty, and take apart that movie to see how it works. The end result can sometimes be that it opens up a wider discussion, or that it makes you consider a film in a way that you never have before. A well-written review might perfectly articulate why you adore a film, in words you've never been able to quite nail down. It can help you realize the thing that was missing from a movie that should've been better. These are how reviews have worked for me for years, as a life-long movie lover. They're all elements that I hope are reflected now within my own work.
A close friend and I were talking about Alice in Wonderland recently, a movie I wanted to like (Tim Burton plus Wonderland – how could you go wrong?) but didn't. I joked that I thought it was like watching someone play a video game set entirely inside of a Hobby Lobby store. She loved it and disagreed with me. At one point during our conversation, she stated flatly, "Well, I just go to the movies to enjoy myself."
I do too. Every time I sit in the theatre, and the lights go down, I hope I'm about to see something I love. The only thing that truly divides me as a critic from Joe Movielover at that point is an armrest with a cup holder.