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The reason why (some) movie reviews suck

Last year, I lamented the tendency of movie reviews to reveal too much about the plot (see here), to the extent to which you wonder whether there is a point in watching the movie at all.

Below is a classic example why so many movie reviews these days suck dogs balls.  It’s from a reviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald, just one of the most respected papers in the land.

The movie reviewed is Law Abiding Citizen (which I recently reviewed here).  If you don’t want to know everything about the movie, stop reading NOW!

Here are the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the review:

“His wife and young daughter are murdered during a brutal home invasion that opens the film. The killers are quickly caught but Jamie Foxx’s Nick Rice, a gung-ho young assistant district attorney obsessed with maintaining his 95 per cent conviction rate, isn’t convinced he has enough evidence to see the case through. As a result, he makes a deal. The cockiest of the two killers gleefully consents to testify against his accomplice in return for a reduced sentence.”

“Ten years pass and we pick up the story as the less-fortunate crim is being executed by lethal injection. It’s an inordinately grisly scene, since the drugs don’t work as they should and he dies in agony. The other killer, however, is already basking in his freedom – but not for long. Clyde is waiting for him.”

These two paragraphs are enough to ruin the film, but the reviewer doesn’t stop there.   This is then followed by stuff like:

“Clyde arranges a DVD of the operation to be sent to Rice’s home, where his unsuspecting young daughter happens to see it.”

“…Clyde is incarcerated for his act of revenge. Not that he calls it revenge. In his view, he’s on a crusade aimed at the legal system itself. Consequently, he’s determined to kill everyone who’s had anything to do with his family’s murder case.”

“The casualties are now mounting at a steady rate as Rice and Irish actor Colm Meaney – cast as a strangely laid-back detective – try to work out how Clyde is managing these multiple murders from his cell, deep in solitary.”

“At one point, the forceful African-American actress Viola Davis ( Doubt) storms in to do a cameo as the mayor, a political powerhouse with a firm belief in the motivational effectiveness of verbal abuse. She’s entrusted with the film’s silliest line.”

That’s like 90% of the movie, right there.  And about half of the review.  I understand the need to give a bit of background, but what is the point of a review like this?  And why is the Herald hiring writers who basically ruin the entire movie for potential viewers?

Dogs balls.

[PS: for the record, the reviewer gave the film 1 star]

Full UK Review: Movies

let_the_right_one_in_poster
Let the Right One In: one of the best films I watched in the UK

One thing I did a lot of in the UK was watch movies.  Lots and lots of movies.  80 exactly, in fact.  The majority are quite new, but there are some slightly older ones in there.

Here’s the full list, roughly in reverse order from most recently watched (from Flixter, don’t think I missed any):

Terminator Salvation, The Echelon Conspiracy, Tyson, Spring Breakdown,  Drag Me to Hell, Coraline, Role Models, Angels and Demons, Star Trek, Fast and Furious, The Covenant, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Marley & Me, Australia, Dragonball: Evolution, Seven Pounds, Friday the 13th, The Haunting in Connecticut, Knowing, Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa, An Inconvenient Truth, The Uninvited, Watchmen, Valkyrie, The Unborn, Push, RocknRolla, Let the Right One In, City of Ember, Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans, Rachel Getting Married, Doubt, Milk, Three Kings, W, Revolutionary Road, Leatherheads, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Bangkok Dangerous, Body of Lies, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, My Best Friend’s Girl, Gran Torino, The Break-Up, Saw V, WALL-E, Ghost Town, Starship Troopers: Maruader, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, The Wrestler, In Bruges, Twilight, Babylon AD, Death Race, Pineapple Express, Be Kind Rewind, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Transporter 3, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Changeling, Lakeview Terrace, Resident Evil: Degeneration, Max Payne, Burn After Reading, Hoop Dreams, Meet Dave, Eden Lake, Quantum of Solace, Step Brothers, The Nanny Diaries, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, There Will Be Blood, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Lost In Translation, The Dark, Mirrors.

Man, I saw a lot of crap movies!

Favourite dozen from this list (not necessarily the ‘best’ from a strict objective viewpoint, just what I liked the most):

(1) The Wrestler; (2) Let the Right One In; (3) Gran Torino; (4) There Will Be Blood; (5) Star Trek; (6) Changeling; (7) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; (8) Revolutionary Road; (9) Pineapple Express; (10) Burn After Reading; (11) Hoop Dreams; (12) Slumdog Millionaire.

Bottom half-dozen (crappiest first):

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Resident Evil: Degeneration - pure crap

(1) Resident Evil: Degeneration; (2) Starship Troopers: Marauder; (3) Transporter 3; (4) The Covenant; (5) Dragonball: Evolution; (6) Meet Dave.

Surprisingly the shit list was a lot easier to come up with.

Bandwagon Reviewers and Reveal-All Previews

I’ve got no new material and I’m getting tired of studying all day, so I’ve decided to have a rant about a couple of things.

Bandwagon Reviewers

There’s nothing that irritates me more right now than bandwagon reviewers – people who jump to unequivocally praise or attack a film without having experienced it themselves, for no reason other than the fact that everyone else is.

I like this poster better
I like this poster better

After putting up my reviews of Angels & Demons, I decided to have a look around at some other reviews on the ‘Internets’ to see what others thought of the film.  The reviews were mixed, but the general consensus was that the film was an upgrade on and had more action than its ‘dull’ predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, though the silliness of the plot and its conspiracies were heavily criticised.  As someone who enjoyed the movie, I thought the comments were fair.  The film was far from perfect, but it was, after all, based on a novel, and it already did its best to minimise the most preposterous elements of the plot.

One thing led to another and I found myself on some forum discussing the film, and I was appalled by the number of people blasting the film, and the novel on which it was based, to bits.  The problem was, almost none of these people had actually SEEN the movie or READ the book.  They had based their views entirely on an unflattering review of the film (1.5/4 stars) found on the forum’s website (and the reviewer had not read the book either).  All of a sudden, Angels & Demons had become the worst movie and the worst book of all-time.  They fed off each other, seemingly getting more and more excited at deriding a film they have never seen and never will.  Look, if they had seen the film or read the book and thought it sucked the big one or had issues with its themes because of religious sensitivities or even had genuine reservations about the film for whatever reason then fair enough.  But what do they think they are gaining from this self-validating, bandwagon behaviour?  The irony is that in trying to make themselves seem ‘above’ movies like Angels & Demons through their baseless barrages, all they are really doing is exposing their own insecurities.

One poster even criticised the film’s screenwriters, Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp, saying that those two alone were enough to for him to ‘keep away’.  Goldsmith has worked on films such as I Robot, The Da Vinci Code, A Time to Kill, I Am Legend and won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, whereas Koepp has to his name films like Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, Snake Eyes, Stir of Echoes, Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room and Spider-Man.  Just about every screenwriter has a few stinkers in their resume, but one must have exceptionally high (or phoney) standards to make a conscious effort to avoid movies written by those two.

Anyway, it got me thinking – just to what extent do film reviews alter our perception of a film, even on a subconscious level? I refuse outright to read any full review of movies I intend on seeing at the cinema beforehand (though I do try to gauge things on a more general level), but the fact is, many people make their decisions on what movies to see and avoid based purely on reviews they have seen or read.  And consequently, oftentimes those people may go into the film with a pre-conceived opinion of it, which rarely changes even after they’ve actually seen the movie because they’ve already made up their mind about it.  Or perhaps people generally have a tendency to conform to popular opinion – if everyone thought a movie sucked but you secretly liked it, would it in some way impact your outward expressions about the film?

I wonder how far this extends – do reviewers themselves get influenced by what other reviewers may have said?  I think it’s a possibility.  If all the top reviewers are declaring a film a masterpiece, would a lesser known reviewer be willing to risk his credibility by panning it (or vice versa)?  Given reviews and (consequently) word-of-mouth can essentially make or break a film at the box office, I think this raises some very interesting questions.  Sometimes all it takes is a few bad reviews from critics at advanced screenings for things to snowball and doom a film to failure (or worse, straight to DVD!).

Two things that ruin a movie

(1) Previews that reveal too much or show the best scenes

To me, the movie preview/trailer is a double-edged sword.  It’s intended to attract people to watch the film, and so they are tempted to show you the best scenes by cramming them all into a couple of minutes.  But in doing so, they tend to reveal too much, to the point where they almost need to put a SPOILER warning on the preview.  Especially if they show scenes from the end of the film where there is a twist.  When audiences actually go see the movie, they know it’s not over because they haven’t seen that particular scene yet.

Another problem is peculiar to previews for comedies, where they feel they must show all the best jokes.  I don’t know how many times I went to see a comedy because of the couple of good jokes in the preview, and they turn out to be the ONLY worthy jokes of the entire film!

My best movie experiences have been the ones where I knew virtually nothing about the film, going in not knowing more than just a basic premise.  If the movie turns out to be good, it exceeds all expectations, but if it’s crap, no advance knowledge would have rectified that.

Movies are best enjoyed when you know very little going in
Movies are best enjoyed when you know very little going in

I still remember when I was back in high school and planned to see Armageddon with a friend after school one day, but he was late and we missed it.  Instead we went to see the only other movie on at that time, a film neither of us had even heard of, called There’s Something About Mary.  To this day, that film still ranks as my best movie experience of all time.  We both came out feeling like we had torn all our abdominal muscles.  I’m sure I would have loved the movie even if I had heard about it beforehand, but going into it completely clueless made it very special.

I understand the need to sell the movie, and for infrequent movie-goers, knowing what a film is about and getting a sense of whether it is any good is crucial in deciding what movies to watch.  But for people who watch a lot of movies (like me), it can definitely ruin a movie by revealing too much or creating unrealistic expectations.

These days, if a preview of a movie I want to watch comes up in the cinema, I close my eyes and turn away.  If I have no intention of watching the film, I’ll check out the preview to see if it can change my mind.  Recently I’ve taken a liking to ‘Teaser’ trailers – they let you know the movie is coming and give you a taste, but no more.

PS: I couldn’t help but sneak a preview of Night At the Museum 2 during my last trip to the movies.  Was it just me or was the preview really unfunny?  For its sake I hope they kept the best jokes out of the preview!

(2) Movie reviews that reveal too much plot

Another reason why I don’t read full reviews before seeing a movie anymore is because they reveal way too much.

Nowadays, most movie reviews, professional or otherwise, provide SPOILER warnings in advance – but these are largely limited to ‘twists’ – and even so, simply knowing that there is a twist in the movie will often end up spoiling it.  I remember when my sister came home from watching The Sixth Sense and began raving about the ‘twist’ ending.  She wasn’t the only one because everyone was talking about it.  Consequently, despite not knowing what the actual twist was, I ended up figuring it out minutes into the film when I got around to seeing it for myself.  It was still a good film, but I wonder how mindblowing it would have been had I not been been warned about the twist in advance.  The same thing happened when I watched The Usual Suspects, though to its credit, that twist still got me!

It’s not just the twists either.  So many reviews I read these days spend half the word count (or more!) outlining the plot.  I don’t have a problem with revealing the general premise of a film because most people want to have an idea of what the film is about, but what’s the point of summarising what is going to happen in the first half of the film?  I want to know if the movie is worth seeing, not read a synopsis of the plot!

Take an example of a review of Angels & Demons I found at a respected newspaper’s website (skip this paragraph NOW if you don’t want SPOILERS!).  In this relatively short, 15-paragraph review, it tells us that: (1) Langdon wants to but is denied access to the Vatican archives, so he can’t finish his book; (2) they are about to elect a new Pope and the 4 leading candidates have been kidnapped; (3) the villain has a canister of antimatter and will blow up the Vatican if he is not stopped before midnight; (4) it seems the secret ancient sect of the Illuminati is behind it all; (5) Skarsgard’s Swiiss Guard character is against Langdon and Mueller-Stahl’s character is an ‘arrogant’ cardinal; (6) there are a number of ingeniously sadistic murders ; (7) the film has a fanciful climax; (8) the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Square and Piazza Navona are among the places Langdon will visit.

Taken together, that’s pretty much half the film right there.  If I hadn’t read the book and accidentally stumbled upon this review before seeing the movie it would have KILLED half the excitement and enjoyment.  At least the first half-hour of the film would have been sat through in boredom because the review already tells us what’s going to happen!

Okay, rant completed!  Now back to studying.

Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)

I had been importing my short Flixter entries for all my movie reviews up to now, but I thought if any movie deserved a full review, it would be Watchmen, possibly the most anticipated movie of the year for many (unless Harry Potter 6 or Transformers 2 is more your thing).

Disclaimer: I will preface this review with two comments: (1) I am going to stick to my convention of not revealing much about the plot or what happens in the movie; (2) I have not read the Watchmen graphic novel yet (thought it might ruin the movie experience if I read it beforehand).

watchmen-poster

Watchmen (2009)

Director: Zack Snyder

Main cast: Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II), Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre I)

Rating: USA: R, UK: 18, Australia: MA

Running time: 163 minutes

4 out of 5 stars

Watchmen is likely to be one of the most unusual films you will ever see.  It’s about superheroes, but it’s not your typical superhero movie.  Most of the superheroes don’t display any obvious supernatural abilities (which really just makes them people who like to fight crime and have costume fetishes).  It’s often difficult to discern who is good or evil, right or wrong.  Probably all of the main characters exhibit some form of mental disorder at varying levels of seriousness.  In a sense, they are the anti-superheroes.

As I said, I don’t like to reveal the plot for those that don’t want to know about it (but I assume most people who go to see it have a rough idea).  All I will say is that the story takes place in an alternate historical version of 1985, during the peak of the US/USSR Cold War.  This becomes clear in the opening sequences.

However, to some extent, it doesn’t really matter what the plot is about, because at its heart, Watchmen is a character movie.  The story is told in non-linear form, jumping from character to character and revealing their back stories through flashbacks.  There is a central line in the plot, a mystery waiting to be solved, but the focus is firmly on the characters – who they are, how they became the way they are, their personal struggles, their fears, desires, motivations and ambitions.  At the same time, there is this constant undercurrent about the nature of human beings, and in particular, their capacity (or lack thereof) for understanding and compassion.

The Watchmen graphic novel (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) first came out between 1986 and 1987, which explains the setting.  For many years, it was regarded as unadaptable, and after seeing this film, I got a sense of why that may have been the popular opinion.  It’s a shame that the movie was not made closer in time to the graphic novel, because the story reflects many of the contemporary anxieties of the American public of that period.  Many of those anxieties are still relevant today, but they have evolved (in the wake of 9/11) and the impact is not quite the same as it would have been.

Directing and Screenplay

Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter (who wrote the original script) and Alex Tse (who kept the best elements but amended much of it) should be commended on bringing Watchmen to life at last.  As I haven’t read the graphic novel, I cannot comment on how good the adaptation was, but as a standalone film, it was very good, though not great.  The difficulty may lie with the running length – at 163 minutes, it is very long for a superhero movie (though not as extraordinary as it would have been a few years ago) – but at the same time, you get a strange feeling that there was much more of this bizarre world yet to be explored.  Perhaps the director’s cut, which is supposedly 191 minutes (and coming out with the DVD), will be a more complete picture for those that want to see more of it.  For some, I imagine 163 minutes is already too much.

Acting

rorschach
Haley as Rorschach was amazing

The importance of the acting in a film like this cannot be understated.  For the most part, the actors in the lead roles delivered believable performances that traversed a plethora of emotions.  The clear standout would undoubtedly be Jackie Earle Haley as the freakish yet intriguing Rorschach, the best character by far.  You’re already impressed with him when he wears a mask that obscures his entire face.  You then become even more amazed when he takes off the mask.  Truly brilliant.

Not far behind is Patrick Wilson (Haley’s co-star in the magnificent Little Children), an extremely underrated and underappreciated actor who plays Nite Owl II, a slightly overweight and awkward social misfit.

If there is a weak link, it would have to be Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias.  While he may fit the bill physically (tall, lean and traditionally handsome), he doesn’t quite exude the charm and presence needed from the character.  Not to take anything away from Goode’s performance because it was adequate, but if you have to pick on someone it’s him.

Violence, Sex and Special Effects

Given the classification ratings for Watchmen, it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of incredibly bloody and gruesome violence (as well as ‘normal’ violence), a bit of sex and nudity (both real and assisted by special effects) and some coarse language (though not as much as I expected).  I’m glad they made this film for adults rather than worry about the classification and go for a toned down version that simply wouldn’t have worked.

The fight scenes were superbly choreographed – smooth, crisp and whole, thankfully avoiding the rapid cut scenes that have plagued action films of late.  And from the guy who directed 300, I would have expected nothing less.  On the other hand, Snyder didn’t shy away from some of the more frightening scenes either, displaying the pain, gore and blood in all its glory.

As for the special effects – they were good, but certainly not groundbreaking.  They did a fairly decent job with Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan, but there were times when you could easily spot things that were completely computer generated (not that you would expect them to build the real thing).

Conclusion

On the whole, Watchmen was very very good – but it fell considerably short of the masterpiece some it expected to be.  It may seem unfair, but you cannot NOT compare the film to its source material (or at least its reputation if you haven’t read it), which is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time.

There were some absolutely brilliant sequences littered throughout this movie, but it was more scattered than consistent.  Those expecting an all-out action flick might be disappointed because there are quite a few ‘dull’ character development moments in between.  I assume there will probably be 4 broad classes of reactions to Watchmen: (1) loved the graphic novel and therefore loved the movie; (2) loved the graphic novel but felt the film did not do it justice; (3) haven’t read the graphic novel and now want to after seeing the film; (4) thought it was weird and stupid and didn’t get it.

I put myself in the third category.