I was at a gathering a few weeks’ back, loitering strategically close to the nibbles and booze, when someone asked me “how’s your film writing thing going?”. It’s nice when this happens; partly because it distracted me from the popcorn chicken and onion rings which I was consuming at an alarming rate, but also because, given the opportunity, I will talk anyone’s ear off about films.
We were merrily chatting away about how Paddington was unexpectedly lovely and how we differed on the recent Hobbit film, then someone said “Just don’t talk to her about Transformers!” – cue raucous laughter. Let’s just say I don’t like Transformers films very much.
“But you can’t be too critical of those kinds of film can you? They’re switch your brain off stuff!” someone remarked. Yet every time I hear this I die a little on the inside. That comment suggests that things like Transformers, The Expendables, Pirates of the Caribbean and all those other popcorn blockbusters are beyond criticism because they’re aiming low.
For starters, if you said that in front of Misters Bay, Stallone or Bruckheimer they’d almost certainly fight back. No matter what the consensus about the quality of their output, these people are professionals and they’re not deliberately shooting for the bottom rung of the ladder (even though that’s where some of their shots tend to land). Also, I would hope that they’re always trying to improve their work. No one likes to hear about their own shortcomings, but critiques and peer review (as long as they’re constructive) are essential for growth, especially in a creative industry. Genre aside, directors who are too close to their material or those that have a team of ‘yes men’ around them need outside opinions to give them some perspective.
Secondly, reviews should always answer the question “Is this film successful in what it’s trying to do?” rather than be – as Birdman says – “a bunch of crappy opinions backed up by a bunch of even crappier comparisons”. If the Expendables series is trying to be a fun, kick ass action story featuring a roster of classic action stars that’s fine, it shouldn’t be criticised for not being Citizen Kane. But when Expendables 2 has awful CGI blood spatter and dialogue delivered so badly it actively pulls you out of the film, it’s worth highlighting.
And it’s not as if reviewers favour the cerebral over spectacle. The critics I admire wouldn’t think twice about pointing out the flaws in Terrence Malick’s latest portentous offering or Jean-Luc Godard’s most recent Nouvelle Vague snooze-fest. The good guys are never afraid to call an auteur out on delivering subpar fare. Equally, things like Avengers Assemble and The Raid series garnered positive reviews across the board and encapsulate everything good about uncomplicated, fun, blockbuster cinema. They do so by being coherent in plot and action, being brilliantly directed and containing a multitude of great performances.
The absolute least a film should try to do is engage the viewer and make sense within the confines of the film’s world. If a film doesn’t meet those criteria, regardless of whether it’s Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it should be pointed out.
Now more than ever, cinema trips are a planned event rather than a spontaneous outing, because they’re so expensive. For a regular adult at a normal 2D screening you’ll get little change from a tenner; for a family of four it’s more like £30-40 and that’s before all the overpriced snacks and soft drinks. It may well be that I’m just a penny pincher but if I’m spending that much money I want to know that I’m going to see something decent, and reviews are a great way of making sure you get your money’s worth, especially if it’s a film you’re on the fence about.
Equally you shouldn’t take anyone’s word as gospel – there are always going to be people who will go and see something regardless of the reviews. If you worship at the altar of Michael Bay and genuinely enjoy the Transformers movies that’s great, and I envy that you can get something out of them that I can’t. What isn’t great is saying that someone else shouldn’t point out the flaws in that film because of its perceived lack of artistic ambition.
We all have our sacred cows; mine are the Harry Potter movies. I can never say anything bad against them because the books and that story are so dear to me. However, there are many things wrong with the films. I’d never deny that the dialogue could be better and the ‘why don’t they ever use the time turner again?’ question needs addressing amongst a million other things.
In the real word, bad reviews don’t mean all that much. Transformers 4 topped many a list of worst films of the year and yet it still wound up in the top 5 highest grossing films of 2014. But regardless of impact on a film’s success (on which negative reviews have a debatably negligible effect), nothing should be above reproach and legitimate criticisms shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
But if you don’t agree with me that’s fine, other opinions are always available.
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