Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Frequently Asked Movie Reviewing Questions

I'm approaching my fourth year reviewing, which is, well, kind of weird, and I'm still not quite sure what to even think about that. But I do know I have my readers to thank for hanging with me for so long. In honor of that I've decided to do something a little different and pull back the curtain. With the decade in movies coming to a close this seemed as good a time as any to take a breather and talk about my approach and feelings on reviewing. I tried to answer the following questions as honestly as I could, which wasn't too hard since I came up with all of them myself, but hopefully you'll be surprised by at least some of the answers.

When and why did you start reviewing movies?
I always loved writing and enjoyed watching movies but it never really occurred to me to combine the two. While on vacation in '06 I was stuck in a hotel room with a cold and while watching a couple of movies got the idea to just scribble down a couple of reviews on a piece of paper out of pure boredom. Then I started posting online. What's so funny is I never had any intention or desire to write reviews. I'm still not exactly sure how it happened and part of me thinks I'm doing it just because I'm addicted. But there's that other part that thinks I'm lucky to have a hobby I actually enjoy.

Ever think about stopping?
I always think every review is my last, and treat it like it is. And after 2008 I really thought I was done because that was just a miserable year for movies that sucked nearly everything out of me. But the great thing is whenever I seem to lose interest some movie always seems to comes along or I read something on movies that completely reignites my passion for doing it.

How do you choose which movies to review?
More selectively than I did in the past that's for sure. Before, I tried to review as much as I could regardless of whether I wanted to see it or not. That was problematic for a number of reasons, chief of which it drained my enthusiasm. Now I realize quality is more important than quantity and I review movies I want to see or I think will make an interesting review. As you can tell though, I try to hit all the major releases releases and stay clear of movies no one's ever heard of (with a few exceptions). I do this primarily for me, but make no mistake about it, I care a lot about whether people and read and enjoy the reviews. If I didn't, I probably shouldn't be doing it.

Does reviewing the movies sometimes hurt your enjoyment as a fan?
Absolutely it can, but that really depends on the film. I like to think there's a "Critic" mode and a "Fan" mode and I can shut either on or off at will, but the reality is they often uncomfortably overlap.

Are you against reading other reviews before you watch or review a film?
No, not at all. The only reason I'd ever stay clear from a review before I see a film is if it gives away key plot details I don't want to know about or for some reason I want to go in fresh. Most of the time though I find it just further informs my review to read others' takes on it and think it's a joke that anyone would think I'm just reacting to others' reactions of the movie.

I think the public's response to a movie is INCREDIBLY RELEVANT, especially if it forces you to look closer at certain aspects of the film. How could I possibly talk about Juno without bringing up the backlash against it? Or review Knowing without analyzing how Roger Ebert could have given it four stars? I could, but there would be a giant pink elephant in the room and the reviews wouldn't be nearly as interesting. I'm of the belief that reading and considering other viewpoints, whether to agree or shoot them down, can only make the piece more interesting.

Which critics (if any) do you read?
Roger Ebert is a big one and while many have accused him of slipping in recent years I still think his passion and insight is unmatched. Kim Morgan, who's actually more of an essayist, which isn't to say she's not an awesome critic and probably one of the most knowledgeable and passionate writers out there. I also read James Berardinelli, whose opinions I almost always disagree with and name I always misspell, but I appreciate his no-nonsense, analytical approach. I read too many bloggers to name without forgetting anyone, many of whom are better than the "professionals." Those are my favorites but usually I try to read as many reviews on a film as I can if I'm interested in it.

How do you feel about print criticism being essentially left for dead?
I feel bad for people who work at magazines and newspapers losing their jobs. The bottom line is that times have changed and film criticism in general just isn't as relevant to the public as it once was, which is a shame. Anyone can go online and write something, which sucks for people who made their living doing that. Then again, on the bright side...anyone can go online and write something.

How do you feel about Facebook, MySpace and Twitter?
I started reviewing movies on MySpace in 2006 and then when all the action moved to Facebook I followed it because it was the smart thing to do. It's still growing on me but I'm at least grateful it's brought (slightly) more traffic to the site. I actually like the concept of Twitter much more because it enables you to follow things, people and topics that interest you at a relatively quick pace.

What are your favorite movie genres?
Longtime readers and probably even more newer ones already know the answer to this one. My favorites are sci-fi, coming-of-age films, mystery/suspense, bio-pics, romantic comedies (surprisingly) and even though it's more of a sub-genre, dysfunctional suburban dramas (like The Ice Storm or American Beauty) People tend to think I'm a huge fan of horror but that's not completely true as I can usually only take it in small doses and find that the genre is full of too much junk to be ranked as a favorite of mine. I probably like analyzing those films more than actually watching them, which could be said of the superhero genre as well. That said, both have really grown on me since I've started doing this.

Least Favorite Genres?
Genres I'm less inclined to like are mob/gangster pictures, war/espionage films, musicals, fantasy films (with wizards, goblins, elves and such) and sports movies. That's not saying it's impossible for me to like any of those films or I intentionally avoid them, just that they have a much rougher road to travel to gain my favor. I find when reviewing it's better to honestly embrace my predisposed bias or personal preference and just work with it. We all have them. I like to think that I'm very fair and if a movie's good enough it should have no problem overcoming the odds. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Karate Kid and more recently, but to lesser extent, The Hurt Locker, We Are Marshall and Across The Universe were all able to. I couldn't have been any less interested in seeing Atonement but was surprised just how much I liked it.

Which movie(s) did you most enjoy reviewing?
Southland Tales would really have to be up there. A perfect storm converged with that one. My favorite genre, a dream cast and an opportunity to passionately defend a movie I thought was unfairly maligned. It's rare when the experience of watching a film and reviewing it become one in the same but that's what happened there. I also enjoyed reviewing The Dark Knight probably more than I enjoyed watching it. I'm Not There was a blast to write on as well since it was a biopic (if you could even call it that) on a subject I was actually deeply interested in. Not to mention it was completely insane so it was even more up my alley. And even though it's a TV series, I loved writing about Veronica Mars. It's unusual that I dip into TV for a review so that I did for that (and all three seasons to boot) should give you an idea how much I enjoyed it. I'd put it up there in quality with the best in any medium, be it film or television. With all of these I felt as if the review was finished in my mind before I even touched the keyboard.

Which movie(s) did you hate reviewing?
The Good Shepherd While I did find it a chore to sit through, I didn't despise the movie and even gave it a near-miss score of two and a half stars. The real torture was when I had to sit down and write a review of a three hour movie I had nothing to say about. I stared at a blank screen for so long I thought my eyes would start bleeding.

Which movie disappointed you most?
As strange as this sounds, probably The Dark Knight. I do think it's more a testament to all the hype than the movie's actual quality, but the fact remains that it fell short of expectations, as out of control as they may have been. And it was still the best film of '08 and maybe one of the best of the decade so it's frightening to think how good it COULD HAVE BEEN.

How do you feel about star ratings?
I hate them. I wish I were confident enough in my own writing to abandon it and believe people would still read the reviews but I'm not. My concern is always that the number of stars will inform the review when it should always be the other way around. But as someone who reads a lot of reviews I have to admit most of the time I like seeing some kind of a quantitative assessment attached. But many reviewers don't use it, nor do they need them. It really all depends on personal preference I guess. There was only one case where I refused to assign one. The whole idea of it is damaging, but I can never bring myself to abandon it.

In retrospect, ever feel like you've given any movies the wrong star ratings?
When haven't I? Not to keep beating the same drum on 2008, but I felt I gave many, many movies released that year the wrong star rating. When this happens I usually have to force myself not to adjust it later by remembering:

a) The star rating MEANS nothing in the broad scheme of things.
b) It reflected my thoughts AT THE TIME.
c) It's the actual review that counts
d) It takes two viewings to really SEE a movie.

Usually when I do my year-end list all my thoughts get ironed out and the problem takes care of itself. The good news is that I never felt I gave something the WRONG REVIEW entirely. I can barely recall more than three instances I underrated a movie but can name dozens of times where I felt I overpraised one. I like to think the star rating problem keeps lessens over time because the more movies I watch the more sure I seem to become of my opinions.

How much does a theater experience effect your opinion of the film?
Greatly, as The Dark Knight proved. That was one of the worst theater experiences I've ever had where an unpleasant environment magnified that movie's weaknesses while hiding its strengths. Repeated DVD viewings have been much, much kinder to it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Australia was really a complete mess of a movie but the theater experience was so memorably bizarre and the crowd so insane that it probably made the movie play better than it actually was. It was fun watching their energy level slowly drain as the movie just kept going...and going...and going. I'm convinced those people are still in there right now watching it. I know I'm committing a film critic sin by saying this but I actually far prefer watching movies on DVD at home than in a theater. It's cheaper, more comfortable, I can go to the bathroom or get a snack without missing anything. There are just less distractions.

How long does a review take?
I've never actually timed it but I can tell you I never do it in one sit-in. I'm the kind of person who always has to be moving around and have difficulties staying in front of the computer too long. So I might write part of it and then go back to it later or the next day depending on my mood. Unfortunately most of it is written really late at night though so sleep is lost and I sometimes wake up the next morning having not recognized what I wrote (which might be a good thing).

What's your least favorite part of writing a review?
Recapping the plot...by far. It's a pain. I wish I could just skip it and get right to what I liked and didn't.

How much do you weigh blogs views in choosing what films or topics you choose to write about?
I look at them that's for sure. I do primarily write for me but if I come up with a piece that's just not connecting with readers at all and I put a lot into it I can pretty much guarantee you won't see anything like it again. The best (worst) example of this was when I did the "Fantasy Casting" pieces. I thought it was a great idea and loved doing it. But it was like a tree falling in the forest as far as its reception and blog views. One of the worst ever. So I can't justify doing it again.The same thing tends to happen when I review older films. Those do very poorly, but when they're are incorporated into a list of some sort it always does well. I tend not to solicit too much feedback on this issue because I find people to be understandably reluctant to tell me that an idea sucks. Blog views can't lie.

Which review of yours got the harshest response?
I remember everyone unanimously, and rather passionately, disagreed with my take on Death Sentence. I couldn't believe how worked up everyone got over it and was so thrilled that no one held back in letting me know it. Sometimes it can be boring when everyone agrees with you all the time. That's a movie that will have strong reactions either way but I just thought it was two hours of gratuitous violence masquerading as grief exploration with Kevin Bacon killing everyone in sight. And this coming from someone whose all-time favorite films include A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club.

Any movie(s) you think you may have gone too hard on?

Miami Vice, Superman Returns and Birth. Especially that last one. This rarely happens so it's a big compliment to those three that, despite what I considered to be their failings, they still stuck with me enough that I'd be open to going back and giving them another look.

Do you have a review or reviews you're most proud of?
This is going to sound awful but it would be tough to name something specifically. I might have a fleeting moment where I'm really proud of something I've written but then I'm quickly brought back down to Earth after I go to reread it and find about 50 things I didn't like about it. Then I might go and read other reviews and that just about kills it for me right there. Plus I'm usually so focused on the next review that I don't like to look back. But the best answer to this question is to look above at the ones I enjoyed reviewing the most. Those are the ones I feel best about.

What bad reviewing habits do you think you have or try to avoid?

Trying to say more in fewer words than with many. Whenever I edit a review it's always to take things out and never add, which is a good sign I guess. The key to good editing is to change enough so it's more readable but not so much that it changes the message. I try to stay away from using the same adjectives or phrases over and over again, not only in a single review, but throughout all of them. I also try to steer clear of comparing the movie I'm reviewing to other other ones unless it's completely relevant to the point I'm trying to make.

Ever get writer's bl0ck?
No, never. Kidding. All the time. What I usually do is just leave the computer. If I'm not feeling it, I'm not feeling it. There's no sense just sitting there frustrated when most writing is done in your head when you're away from the keyboard anyway. When I'm stuck I do find it helpful to remind myself of Ebert's advice:

"Did you like the movie? Why or why not?"

It sounds so dumb and simple but you'd be surprised how well it works. Most of the time writers block stems from just thinking too hard or over-analyzing. I find that question helps with the problem.

Ever think of doing more with the site or more to get your reviews out there?

I have but I'm not exactly the most web savvy person in the world and am far more consumed with focusing on the actual work. Believe me I'm under no illusion that I'm anything other than a needle in a haystack online. That said, I should be doing much more in that area and plan to. Of course, I've said that before and haven't done anything.

How many movies do you see a week?
Usually only one or two. No more than your average, everyday moviegoer with the difference being I've written reviews on them. I think the max I've ever seen in a week was three or four, but that rarely happens. I only REALLY started getting into movies when I started doing this and am willing to bet a lot of my readers probably have me beat on classic film knowledge still feel like I'm learning as I go along.

What's your DVD collection look like?
Embarrassingly small. I never counted but it's barely two shelves worth. I think that's a testament to just how few movies hold up on repeated viewings or are worth owning for me. Most of the movies I have bought have been used and a lot of the time I resell or exchange them. As far as what I review, aside from theatrical releases, this whole time I've basically just been renting them for a dollar from a Redbox or DVD Xpress kiosk system in the supermarket. The amount of money I've saved on buying DVDs in the past few years is probably more than five times the salary of any paid reviewer.

Do you use NetFlix?
Not right now. About a year ago I tried it briefly and didn't like it. I found the wait for new releases to be unbearably long and by the time it came I practically lost interest in watching them. I also found updating and keeping track of movies in the queue to be a thankless task. I'm giving it another chance soon (probably by the time you read this) since the titles in the dollar machines are now pretty much exclusively Direct-to-DVD junk due to legal trouble with the studios who are losing money on it. There also tons of of older movie titles I want to see as well as seasons of TV series' I can't get because I lost HBO and Showtime. There's really no choice at this point.

Have a Blu-Ray Player?
Nope. I realize I must be coming off as the cheapest movie critic on Earth right now but I just don't see the point in investing in something that could disappear in a couple of years. I learned my lesson with laserdisc years ago and considering I don't purchase many DVDs it just isn't worth it for me when my player suits me just fine for my purposes. The only thing that really bothers me is that the Blu-Ray discs contain special features the regular DVDs don't. Knowing me I'll probably cave eventually but for right now I'm fine.

How long do you let a movie sit in your head before reviewing it?

It depends on the film. Obviously some require more time for thought and reflection than others. I usually write the first couple of paragraphs right after though, while it's still fresh in my mind. The other details take a little longer to come into focus and with some it can really take a while. You don't want to jump the gun, yet you can't wait so long that you don't care anymore.

What do you think it takes to review movies?
1. A genuine passion for movies
2. The ability to express that in writing
3. Being sure of your opinion, but admitting when you're not.
4. Having a knowledge of a wide variety of topics and reading and keeping up with what's going on in the world so you can incorporate that insight into the reviews (my weakest area but I'm improving).

Have any desire to write or direct?
I know no one's gonna believe me when I say this, but no. I did take a screenwriting course years ago and found I was more interested in analyzing the study films and talking about what goes into writing a good screenplay than actually writing one. When it came to sit down at the keyboard, I discovered I had no ear when it came to dialogue. I didn't enjoy the experience and wanted to just keep analyzing the study films instead. As far as directing, no way. The technical aspects that go into making a film doesn't play to my strengths and there are too many elements that could spiral out of control. And I can't stand not being in control. It looks like a big headache that could potentially kill me from stress. Of course this should be taken with a grain of salt since I've never tried it, but I can't envision that I ever would.

While I feel writing and directing are out of my grasp, I do think I'd make a better producer, casting director or agent than many of these studio executives being paid to tell us what we want. You may have noticed during my reviews I often pause and examine how a movie was (mis) marketed or what steps could have been taken in the production stages to make it better. But I'm certainly not "paying my dues" in an industry where I feel most of the decision makers are clueless or hold views that clash entirely with mine. I love movies and want to keep it that way.

How much does personal experience effect how you view a movie?
It's everything. I think we all see a different movie because of the experiences we bring into it. I recently re-watched a film for consideration on my decade-end list and it personally spoke to me like it never did before. It couldn't have carried the impact it did now even just a few years ago just because of where I was at in my life. Sounds silly, but it's totally true.

Would you ever judge someone by which movies they like or don't like (be honest)?
No. They're still just movies. Having said that, I'd be lying if I told you I didn't think a person's list of their all-time favorite films told me at least something about them. And if it didn't, it's likely not a list I'd be interested in reading.

Greatest director of all-time?
Kubrick. There's no other name I would mention as even coming close even though I know some would say Hitchcock, but he only worked in one genre. I don't think for a second he could do what Kubrick did whereas I have no doubt that Kubrick could not only step in and direct one of Hitch's films, but probably make it even more interesting. Spielberg is great, but I don't think he belongs in the discussion.

Favorite Director(s) working now?

No surprises here. My three favorites are David Fincher, Richard Kelly and Paul Thomas Anderson. Right now, they're making the types of movies I enjoy watching most.

Most overrated director?
Spike Lee. Never got with him at all.

Favorite Actors/Actresses
Too many to list but here are the big ones. As far as actors I'm a fan of Michael Douglas, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Sean Penn, DiCaprio, Bill Murray, Jeff Bridges, Brad Pitt, Ed Norton, Josh Brolin and Patrick Wilson. Surprisingly, also Tom Cruise, who I think has always been underrated as an acting talent. As far as actresses, you can sign me up anytime Jennifer Connelly, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman (possibly my favorite), Naomi Watts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Kristen Bell or Zooey Deschanel are in anything. Clooney and Jolie are two actors I was previously never a fan of but lately they've really been earning their stripes and I've come around.

Least Favorite Actors/Actresses?

Almost Famous notwithstanding, Kate Hudson has given one awful performance after another in some dreadful films. But I only complain about her so much because I know she's capable of better. Don't care for Dane Cooke or Jessica Alba as actors, but that almost seems too easy. I've completely given up on Kate Beckinsale who would be the blandest, most wooden actress working today if Jennifer Aniston weren't around. Everyone else would just fit into the "overrated" category for me. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson have surprisingly little to show for themselves despite being surrounded by a ton of hype and I never understood all the praise for Johnny Depp, who hasn't proven to me yet he can effectively play anything other than misfits and freaks.

Actors/Actresses you're most disappointed in?
Hudson obviously tops the list, followed closely by Nicolas Cage. I'd say Sandra Bullock also but after The Blind Side I guess the joke's on me. She's probably busy rolling around in a giant pile of cash right now.

What famous classic or famous movies would people be surprised you haven't seen?

I still haven't made it all the way through Gone With the Wind (not a knock on the film, just time constraints always got in the way). Haven't seen the Godfather Parts II and III, although I hear I'm not missing much with that last one. Never saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day either, or the Harry Potter films and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, both of which I have very little interest in (see "least favorite genres"). I've also never seen any of the Bourne films.

Any movies you refuse to see?
The Blind Side. Just kidding (kind of). "Refuse" is a little strong but...the Twilight "saga." This is actually a much bigger insult than it seems because, despite preferring certain types of movies, I'm usually willing to see ANYTHING.

What trends in the movie industry today do you hate?
Every movie released these days being aimed at the tween demographic (see above). Inflated ticket prices. Double and triple dipping on DVD releases. Movies being advertised as something they're not [i.e. Slumdog Millionaire as a Bollywood Musical, (500) Days of Summer as a whimsical "date movie"]. Certain films being shoved down my throat by the media. Movies with political agendas. Only movies released in the last month of the year getting Academy Award consideration. That last one pisses me off the most. Besides being criminally unfair, I actually think that's the major reason no one bothers watching the Oscars.

Worst Oscar snub in history?
It's impossible to pick just one and this will seem completely random but for some reason two that really stick out for me are A Christmas Story (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) being overlooked for Best Picture nominations. If I could give any two "correction" Oscars out it would be to those two films which, over time, have proven just how worthy they are. There just so few pictures released that families can enjoy together through the decades regardless of age and also be effective as perfect mainstream entertainment. When I think of the template for the perfect nominee or winner I immediately get an image of those two movies in my head. The Academy has gotten it wrong many times, but that they snubbed those two make me sick to my stomach.

Do you read the novel before seeing the film?
No. Never. Shamefully, I don't read as much as I'd like in general. I really do feel guilty about that because I know it would make me a better writer but between watching and reviewing movies and other stuff I just don't have the time. But I don't like to read a novel before watching the movie it's based on (especially if it's something I know I'll be reviewing) because I find it taints the experience and don't want to turn into one of those people whining about how "the book was better." And usually, if I've seen the movie first and like it enough to read the novel, I tend not to because I felt the movie got the job done for me.

1 comment:

dsd mugley said...

Nicole Kidman is amazing.