How to Read Movie Criticism

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How to Read Movie Criticism

A good movie critic does a lot more than just tell you what to watch.

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And finally, Bob says something that I can agree with. This article at least, was something worth reading.

Although I know I never feel bad about telling people to skip something that I absolutely hated, just because I feel they'll be completely wasting their time if they watch it.

I absolutely hate Rotten Tomatoes. So many of the critics give movies bad reviews just to be 'different'. Fucking hipsters. Sometimes, the professional reviews on RT feel like Metacritic's video game user reviews.

Good article, I couldn't agree more with your points about Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes. I do use the sites, but mostly as an easy way to look up multiple reviews of something I'm interested in.

My normal technique goes something like this - read at least one each of the most positive and negative reviews, then check out the sites I tend to find myself agreeing with the most. I can usually put together a decent opinion of how I'm going to react to something that way.

While I disagree with a lot you say in these columns and shows, one thing I am going to support you with till I can no longer breathe is your last point in this article.

A few weeks ago I finished watching The Wild Hunt and personally found it a rather fun movie about insane LARPers (I mean more insane than usual). So I tell it to a friend of mine, explain to her what it's about in general and what I thought of it...to which her first reply was "It's 6,1 on IMDB so it's probably average".

Whenever someone says something like that - countering a personal opinion with a number it makes me want to strangle them. Numbers don't mean anything. Numbers can not be used to express opinions or complex experiences.

[/rant]

Now with that out of the way and for the rest of the article: I personally have a lot of problem with some of the stuff critics say. To me in order for someone to be truly qualified to criticize something, they should have practical knowledge of it. Theoretical knowledge is nice, sure, but until you actually go write a book of fiction or direct a movie I really don't think one should demand that their personal opinions are anything else but just that - personal opinions.

Sorry Bob, but just watching a lot of movies does not make you qualified to dissect them. It makes you more qualified than most people, sure. But just looking a lot at something is not the same as actually making it.

P.S. Why am I even writing all this crap when it will just get burred in the pile of "lol awesome" or "you suck" comments that always seem to clog up threads on the internet?

<wrong thread; comment redacted>

You didn't need to tell me Atlas shrugged was boring, I got that from the trailer. I actually thought you were going to be reviewing Water for Elephants this week after I read your tweet in the Water Cooler.
I MIGHT go see Anna, but I'm still sore over your comparison to the Bourne Movies. >(

A thoughtful analysis you disagree with can be infinitely more rewarding than a mere review with which you mostly agree, and treating a critic as little more than a product tester or advice columnist doesn't do either of you any favors in the grand scheme of things.

Couldn't agree more on this, Bob. This is actually one of the reasons that I like Armond White (though he's generally hated on the Internet because he "ruined" perfect Tomatometer scores), as his critiques don't read like they're trying to be consumer reports. The whole 'X out of 5'/'X Stars' line of logic in reviews is useless, and the Tomatometer and the Netflix user reviews system tend to be, on the whole, an extension of that fallacy.

Jenx:

Whenever someone says something like that - countering a personal opinion with a number it makes me want to strangle them. Numbers don't mean anything. Numbers can not be used to express opinions or complex experiences.

[/rant]

This is a mistake on the part of the reader. Numerical scores are, in my opinion, meant to be interpreted as a scale of how much the critic would recommend the product, with 1 indicating a very very select audience and 10 being pretty much everyone. The fact people choose to interpret review scores as absolute measures of a products quality is absurd because it implies the existence of a perfect product.

Now, I thought Hanna was boring because she was basically invincible.

  • A 15 year old girl is overpowering adult Marines
  • she escapes from a CIA dungeon she's never been to before
  • she walks across the Moroccan desert barefoot
  • The tourist adults aren't more perturbed that she has no money and no Passport
  • Eric Bana eschews his snowcoat while walking to the coast, just to put it into a backpack...
  • ...so he can swim from the Arctic Circle to Europe. WTF
  • And then suits from the CIA, who have guns, attempt apprehension via fist-fight - are they retarded?

The implausibilities pile up and I'm just sitting stunned in my seat. The movie was stupid.

Grey Carter:

Marter:

Whenever someone says something like that - countering a personal opinion with a number it makes me want to strangle them. Numbers don't mean anything. Numbers can not be used to express opinions or complex experiences.

This is a mistake on the part of the reader. Numerical scores are, in my opinion, meant to be interpreted as a scale of how much the critic would recommend the product, with 1 indicating a very very select audience and 10 being pretty much everyone. The fact people choose to interpret review scores as absolute measures of a products quality is absurd because it implies the existence of a perfect product.

You definitely quoted the wrong person here, as I did not say that.

I completely agree with your points here. Criticism should never be about whether you should go and see something; it's about the why and the how.

Marter:

Grey Carter:

Marter:

Whenever someone says something like that - countering a personal opinion with a number it makes me want to strangle them. Numbers don't mean anything. Numbers can not be used to express opinions or complex experiences.

This is a mistake on the part of the reader. Numerical scores are, in my opinion, meant to be interpreted as a scale of how much the critic would recommend the product, with 1 indicating a very very select audience and 10 being pretty much everyone. The fact people choose to interpret review scores as absolute measures of a products quality is absurd because it implies the existence of a perfect product.

You definitely quoted the wrong person here, as I did not say that.

Whoops, sorry. Bloody quote system.

I wouldn't say objectivity is *impossible* Bob. I'd say that it's possible to be objective about the things for which there are and can be an objective standard of some kind, questions about things like "is the style consistent"? and "is the story meaningful", etc. I've seen lots of critics (yourself included!) who can cheerfully say "I think this movie is dreadful, but large parts of it were well done, at least".

Granted, this academic stuff doesn't really tell you whether a movie is "worth seeing" (I've enjoyed several movies that were pure fluff, yet detested a few that were incredibly well-done, and yet I'm glad I saw BOTH of them even though the latter type almost made me physically ill). I determine "worth seeing" less as "I'll definitely enjoy it" and more as "I'll be glad I saw it with my own eyes and will be able to add it to the sum total of my experience". I'm glad I went to see the Atlas Shrugged movie, for instance, even though it WAS boring.

Don't you hate it when some idiot on a forum goes like: "Metacritic says blah blah blah.."?
To that guy I say: "You, sir, are an idiot."

I find certain critics I tend to agree with for certain kinds of films, and go with that. For example, Roger Ebert and I tend to agree on everything from drama to comedy to action, but he absolutely despises the superhero genre (Spiderman 2 is the exception that proves the rule). Due to that, I tend to ignore him on these counts and find other critics for this (Unfortunately Bob, you're not that guy, as we completely disagree on Zack Snyder and as follows, tastes for "fanboy" films). As $11 is a lot of money now, I will heavily research a film, OR if a large amount of friends are going I know I'll at least have a worthwhile time there.

I almost always disagree with metacritic and rotten tomatoes, as that's just the general zeitgeist of specific critics. The problem with those and, say, imdb user reviews is that users really only post when they're passionate about a piece. Why? It's not their job. So either they really hate it, or really, really, really love it. Because of this user review scores tend to skew in the negative. It's a similar experience on Amazon and Yelp.

Still, like any medium, we shouldn't be afraid to analyze and share our opinions. We should be critiquing on these sites and clearly stating why on these forums. This way people can actually read our opinion of a piece rather than just depend on an arbitrary number or letter grade.

Yes, yes, yes!

I think this provides some insight to my own condition as well, as I am finding myself drawn towards reviews of Portal 2 despite my own opinion of the game being entirely cemented, and I was wondering why. I think I understand now:

MovieBob:
Matching your own opinions against those of others who may have a deeper/alternate insight can both strengthen or even cause you to reconsider an original reaction.

ofc objectivity is impossible, but methodical approach can point out which audience is gonna want to see what, so thats what I always seek for in reviews and what I like you actually can do.

This is why I like count downs and favourite lists like Lisa Foiles. Its not so much about deciding TO or NOT TO buy something, its about finding out more. Take this weeks Extra Credits for example.

I have seen loads of interesting things on the Escapist, not all of which I want any part of.

I don't often agree with you, Bob, but this time I do. The common idea of film criticism- telling you if you need to see a movie or not- is a lie since the opinions of a critic doesn't matter. The only opinion that really matters is your own. Instead, I like to look at film criticm as a tool for discussion. This is why favorite critics (besides Roger Ebert) are the guys from /film or spill.com. Sure I may not agree with their opinion a lot of the time, but it's the really feeling of friendship and comraderie that make what they have to say (especially if they disagree with eachother) more interesting than the average critics. There are also some critics on youtube that I really enjoy simply because they are willing to respond to your opinions via youtube or facebook.

Ok yeah this makes me feel validated. I like a wide range of movies regardless of weather or not I thought they were good movies. Sometimes just one or 2 cool ideas or scenes are enough for me to enjoy a movie.

In Battle L.A. I thought the explanation of why the aliens were attacking earth was great. Because even if you just casually watch shows about astronomy you may know that liquid water is hard to find in the universe (as far as we know). There is tons of frozen water but not many planets with huge bodies of it in liquid form covering a planets surface.

Also awesome Star Trek reference. There isn't a computer Captain Kirk can't break just by being smug to it.

Jenx:
Now with that out of the way and for the rest of the article: I personally have a lot of problem with some of the stuff critics say. To me in order for someone to be truly qualified to criticize something, they should have practical knowledge of it. Theoretical knowledge is nice, sure, but until you actually go write a book of fiction or direct a movie I really don't think one should demand that their personal opinions are anything else but just that - personal opinions.

Sorry Bob, but just watching a lot of movies does not make you qualified to dissect them. It makes you more qualified than most people, sure. But just looking a lot at something is not the same as actually making it.

While I understand the sentiment, I cannot agree with this point. Making something and dissecting something are entirely different skills, and while they can be used as experience to temper one another, they should not be dependent in either direction.

I mean, strictly following your logic, that makes Michael Bay more qualified to dissect the nuances of, say, Gran Turino than MovieBob or Roger Ebert. (And, while I can't say I wouldn't read such a review, it would not be for its merit in criticism.)

It's like asking, "What makes someone good at adding numbers?" It's not "crafting addition", but rather adding them. But that can't just be it, because not everyone who adds numbers is good at adding numbers; it's adding numbers (i.e. practical experience) plus some unknown quantity "good at adding numbers". The same is true about dissecting movies: "What makes someone good at dissecting movies?" is not "crafting movies" but "dissecting movies plus some unknown quantity "good at dissecting movies"".

pneuma08:

Jenx:
Now with that out of the way and for the rest of the article: I personally have a lot of problem with some of the stuff critics say. To me in order for someone to be truly qualified to criticize something, they should have practical knowledge of it. Theoretical knowledge is nice, sure, but until you actually go write a book of fiction or direct a movie I really don't think one should demand that their personal opinions are anything else but just that - personal opinions.

Sorry Bob, but just watching a lot of movies does not make you qualified to dissect them. It makes you more qualified than most people, sure. But just looking a lot at something is not the same as actually making it.

While I understand the sentiment, I cannot agree with this point. Making something and dissecting something are entirely different skills, and while they can be used as experience to temper one another, they should not be dependent in either direction.

I mean, strictly following your logic, that makes Michael Bay more qualified to dissect the nuances of, say, Gran Turino than MovieBob or Roger Ebert. (And, while I can't say I wouldn't read such a review, it would not be for its merit in criticism.)

It's like asking, "What makes someone good at adding numbers?" It's not "crafting addition", but rather adding them. But that can't just be it, because not everyone who adds numbers is good at adding numbers; it's adding numbers (i.e. practical experience) plus some unknown quantity "good at adding numbers". The same is true about dissecting movies: "What makes someone good at dissecting movies?" is not "crafting movies" but "dissecting movies plus some unknown quantity "good at dissecting movies"".

I never actaully said any of this in my post, at least to my knowledge. If you read it more carefully, you'll notice I said that practical knowledge to me is important if a critic is trying to present his criticism as anything more than a personal opinion beyond "well I like it, don't like it". maybe it's just me, I dunno.

You do bring up another thing I've always wandered - the merit of criticism. What exactly is the merit of a criticism to you? Is it just consumer advice like Bob mentions in this article, or is it something you give someone in order to help them become better at what they are doing.

To me criticism should be the second, and in that case I go back to my point - if you do not have at least some practical knowledge in the field, how can you give proper criticism to someone? Would you ever take seriously a critic who walks up to an artist and says "Well I've seen a lot of pictures in my life, so that means I can tell you that your picture sucks."?

(Over exaggeration IS intentional in this post)

well it looks like at least 75% of comments so far agree with Bob, so I guess this particular column is worth reading. I'll have to check the numbers on his other columns, though.

also I wish at least one would end with: Bob "Chipman" is a rejected Megaman villian whose primary attack was flinging bags of exploding Doritos.

Jenx:
Now with that out of the way and for the rest of the article: I personally have a lot of problem with some of the stuff critics say. To me in order for someone to be truly qualified to criticize something, they should have practical knowledge of it. Theoretical knowledge is nice, sure, but until you actually go write a book of fiction or direct a movie I really don't think one should demand that their personal opinions are anything else but just that - personal opinions.

Sorry Bob, but just watching a lot of movies does not make you qualified to dissect them. It makes you more qualified than most people, sure. But just looking a lot at something is not the same as actually making it.

Does one need practical knowledge in something to say whether it was good or bad? I could be driving a car, and my motor breaks down. I may not know how a motor works, but I'm pretty sure it's safe to assume that either the motor or something within the motor was a piece of crap. Would you say that I shouldn't say the motor is crap because I don't possess the hands on knowledge of motor making? The consumer decides the worth of the product, not the creator. If that were true, every piece of artwork would rival or exceed the Mona Lisa, and every video game would be better than any other video game. I would say that critics aren't any more qualified at validating opinions than you or I, but I wouldn't say that their opinions are rendered invalid because they've never directed Shakespeare.

OT: Critical analysis and Summary are always used in the way of educating others on the subject rather than persuasion. This is not to say that critique is exclusively educational, but that it helps broaden our mindset on the subject just to read it. Here's a quick pro-tip: If you are ever stuck on a paper assignment such as analysis or critique, write a summary about it. A quick paragraph or paraphrase. I guarantee you that you will discover a whole lot more about the article in question once you paraphrase it. This being said, I would agree with you on how criticism should be viewed. I think that there can be objectivity in critique, however, such as concerning fallacies within movie plot. I don't think that someone could argue that a plot-hole improves a movie.

MovieBob:
Speaking only for myself, even before I did this professionally, I found I got much more out of reading criticisms of movies I'd already seen

I find myself having the same experience. I will often look at a few reviews from sources I know I generally agree with prior to seeing a movie or playing a game just so I know if what I'm being presented in promotional coverage actually matches the finished product. When I do most of my review reading, however, is actually after I've seen the movie or played the game. I find it quite interesting to see how others experienced the same material, particularly if their opinion is vastly different than mine. It's the sort of critical introspection and discussion that naturally follows that, to me, makes reviews valuable. Of course, it's also always nice to be able to nitpick a reviewer or source when they get things actually technically wrong in a review (though this is more common in games since there is a more technical aspect to the actual play).

Jenx:
...I personally have a lot of problem with some of the stuff critics say. To me in order for someone to be truly qualified to criticize something, they should have practical knowledge of it. Theoretical knowledge is nice, sure, but until you actually go write a book of fiction or direct a movie I really don't think one should demand that their personal opinions are anything else but just that - personal opinions.

Sorry Bob, but just watching a lot of movies does not make you qualified to dissect them. It makes you more qualified than most people, sure. But just looking a lot at something is not the same as actually making it.

I think that's pretty demonstrably not true. Saying that you can't have a valid opinion about something unless you've tried to create it is untrue for anything (like, cars), but doubly untrue about most creative mediums. A piece of art, and possibly a movie more than most, is meant to communicate an experience to a viewer. It's not made so that you can get better at making your own movies.

An educated experienced viewer can tell you a lot about what the experience of viewing a film is like. And that's what you're paying for. I don't really care about how hard it was to make any given movie (other than to boggle at). I care about why I'm watching it. I was impressed with how hard it was to make 'Piranha 3D', and though I enjoyed it, I'm not going to say it was better than 'My Dinner With Andre' because it wasn't.

(and I should point out, I say this as someone who directed a couple of shorts back in the day)

For me, as a wannabe film critic, one of the most useful things about reading reviews has been to learn about the filmmaking process, and how to read films more generally. I have a pretty good handle on it now, but when I first got interested in films beyond just watching them, reading critics who know their stuff was invaluable.

MovieBob:
I found I got much more out of reading criticisms of movies I'd already seen

I completely agree that reading reviews of films you've already seen can add a great deal to the experience; it can reveal depths that you may not have appreciated, or just another take on it that you hadn't considered.

MovieBob:
subjective opinions about art cannot be properly expressed in binary

Well said. This is the main reason why I don't like using scores when I write reviews. And why it makes me a little sad that The Escapist uses them now.

I think a lot of people (because most of the people I see regularly are this way) take criticism as a too black and white affair. For example, I had serious problems with the way Avatar ended, but I wasn't even allowed to discuss that because it was perceived as me being "negative." Somehow, pointing out a flaw in the movie is equivalent to panning it all around. As if I was only allowed to say unilaterally good or bad things about it.

...Actually, nowadays, because I "insist on pointing out every little flaw when it's just a movie," I'm not allowed to say anything but good things about anything I watch. Which I think it kind of bullshit.

I agree, especially about the fact that we don't have the same film taste.

Seriously man, you crazy!

In fact, contrary to your final points, I would say that one of the great advantages of critic aggregation is that the scores don't take any personal biases into account. In my mind if a movie gets a high score on Metacritic, it will peak my interest and I will feel compelled to watch it, regardless of the genre.

This way I have discovered loads of movies that I love which I probably would have dismissed simply because they didn't sound like my sort of thing. In my mind "movie about the creation of Facebook" sounds pretty lame, but when I saw the score it got on Metacritic, I just had to check out the Social Network, and lo and behold, because of its Metascore, a movie that I probably would have never bothered seeing became one of my highlights of the year.
I can think of tonnes of examples of this, from Mean Girls to Grizzly Man in film, to

While I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed every movie which has got massive critical acclaim, I don't think I've found one which I couldn't appreciate on some level. I've always believed its possible to separate personal enjoyment of a piece of art with (some form of) objective merit. I don't think there is any hypocrisy in praising a film that you didn't enjoy or admitting that the a film you did enjoy is actually pretty crap.

MovieBob:
I found I got much more out of reading criticisms of movies I'd already seen

I completely agree because not only does reading a review after seeing a movie help the reader consider aspects of the film that they might not have noticed, but also it helps the person connect with the reviewer if the reasons behind their review are explained. If a reviewer states that an action scene is over the top or cheesy yet you thought it was a funny and clever then you know not only that you have a difference of opinion but a difference in specific tastes as well.

This why it drives me up a wall when people say a movie sucked or was stupid without giving context. Saving that a person shouldn't see a movie because its gay or stupid is lazy and unhelpful. A critic of any type of medium should be someone that helps you formulate an opinion, not gives it to you.

I don't think I'm the only one who doesn't even look/notice the "score" in reviews, but there are a lot of annoying people in (especially game) review comments that only seem to want to complain about percentage differences between recent scores.

It's also annoying that Metacritic has made critics an actual authority used to determine business practices. Like game studios being 'restructured' due to B- scores as if Metacritic is certifying the safety of household appliances not determining which has the better paintjob.

But I suppose if enough consumers blindly follow review averages on MC or RT, critics really will be the economic authority determining which art-ertainment peices are successful.

Just about everything you said works just as well if you apply it to video games as well. I think this is Yhatzee's own personal crusade, to make people stop looking at scores and start looking at the content of the (criticism?). After all, it's why he refuses to give games a score isn't it? It is tempting to follow the advice and opinions of people you admire but sometimes i walk away from a ZP with a "that game actually sounds fun, despite getting dragged through its own feces".

Showgirls isn't bad.

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