Cinephilia: Your review sucks

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Why listen to movie critics when I can offer an equally informed and competent opinion? Aren’t they just talentless hacks bashing other people’s work because they can’t make any of their own? Why follow a movie critic’s recommendation since most of their choices are artsy snoozers? The truth is, most critics’ reviews lend credence to these objections.  

Movies are like George W. Bush: everyone has an opinion about them, but some are far better than others. I’m reminded of my mother who, after every sad conclusion of a film, states “I didn’t like that ending.”

As a rule, film critics ought to use objective analyses that go beyond this kind of subjective response. If I were to only write about my feelings or experiences while viewing a film, what would differentiate my opinion from that of the masses?

The film critic’s competence and craft lie, at the very least, in an analytical approach to assessing film form, storytelling, and how the two fit together. Film form has to do with the choosing a close-up instead of a long shot or something in between, along with the lighting, set design, and performance of the actor,s among other aspects. Storytelling has to do with the narrative — a film’s theme and plot.

Ideally, there should be a happy balance between subjective experience and objective analysis when evaluating a film. But too many reviewers sway too far to one side.

Recently, I howled with laughter as I watched the Schmoes Know YouTube review channel, with reviewers Kristian Harloff and Mark Ellis talking about the recent film, Unbroken. Their review focused mainly on their emotional responses, while occasionally attempting to assess the film form with buzzwords.

“It’s just [the] combat that she shows in a different style that I felt was very interesting and very intense,” Harloff says. Ellis immediately interjects, “I felt like I was inside the plane!” They did not explain why it was “very interesting and very intense” or why “it felt like [he] was inside the plane.”

Reviewers like Ellis and Harloff are the reason film criticism is perishing. On the Internet, where every schmo has a voice — and sometimes a very loud one — popular criticism has overshadowed good criticism. The film criticism found in popular print publications is often no better, and many reviews are padded with buzzwords meant to be on DVD covers and TV ads. For instance, in his review of Foxcatcher, film critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone uses adjectives like “mesmerizing,” “masterwork,” “hypnotic,” “haunting”, “revelatory,” “unique,” and “unforgettable,” without ever explaining why these terms are appropriate.

Before I start to sound too cynical, let me say there are some critics doing tremendous work. One I always enjoy reading is Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor of rogerebert.com. His prose is funny, informative, touching, and sometimes more enjoyable than the films themselves. His writing may be inaccessible for some, but at least he offers insightful reviews which supply reasons why a film is good or bad that go beyond his emotions.

It is integral that the critic understands storytelling, film form, and the relationship between the two; this is what separates them from those who evaluate films based on their emotions.

Critics should interpret stories for the readers so that when they see a film working on multiple levels, they can understand its artistic value instead of writing it off as a pretentious critic movie.