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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What rules should film critics follow?

Last week the members of the Online Film Critics Society were asked what primary rules we follow as critics — click through to read them. (Yes, we’re trying to build traffic there.)

I’ll reveal my primary rule here, though:

I always think, when I sit down to write a review, “How did this movie make me feel?” And that’s what I try to convey when I write.

What’s your take, as a reader of criticism? What rules should film critics follow? Is there a rule that a film critic could break that would make you stop reading his or her reviews?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • You read my mind dearie. Your rule is pretty much the only core rule I follow, which was what I learned from Ebert. It’s our obligation to convey how we felt when we saw the film. Honesty in that regard is paramount.

  • Bluejay

    They all seem good, but I like this one in particular:

    Anton Bitel, Channel 4 Film:

    It sounds obvious, but watch that film carefully, and take notes too. Ultimately our opinions are always our own, but if we get the (easily verifiable) details of a film’s plotting wrong, readers have every reason to question the basis of our more evaluative judgements — and we are not all born with perfect recall. Often the full resonance of an apparently casual line or throwaway image can become apparent only upon reflection. Short of seeing the film a second time (a luxury that in practice is only rarely available), nothing casts light on a film’s subtle obscurities more than the recourse of reasonably detailed notes.

    Or as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

    If a film or book critic gets the plot wrong, or misquotes a line, or misnames a character, or attributes actions and dialogue to the wrong people, it makes me think they’re sloppy and makes me suspect their overall thinking.

  • The Gaucho

    Always follow your own rules, it is what got you your readership in the first place. I read your reviews because through the years I have learned that we often have the same taste, so it is useful for me to read you. It saves me time and money. Plus you can be very funny to read, especially when you hate the movie.

    Off-topic: how about a review of the extended LOTR DVD’s? (I admit that that is a LOT of work…)

  • Hank Graham

    Never take any work by either Michael Bay or Uwe Boll seriously.

  • Always remember who your target audience is for your review.

    I have been put off by so many critics who seem to be reviewing movies so that it inflates their own ego with flowing paragraphs about the directors other works and the way a movie is paying homage to something else without telling you how the movie made them feel. It sometimes feels that critics are writing their opinions to impress other critics rather than assisting the person on the street who wants to know whether a movie is any good or not. It’s not in all cases but it’s these sorts of critics who forget who they are writing for that annoy me.

  • To add to Anton Bitel’s/Bluejay’s statements, I am shocked by the number of people I read on the internet who have clearly not ever considered using IMDb — one of the most easily-accessible resources on the internet — to verify that kind of information. And it’s SO EASY! I don’t write a review without the film’s IMDb page open.

  • iakobos

    For me, it’s a matter of, “Was I entertained?” “Did the movie keep my attention?” How I feel isn’t always a good barometer of how good a movie is. Some movies are very good but very depressing.

  • RogerBW

    Not quite the same thing, but what I look for in a review is something the critic liked, and something the critic didn’t like – and reasons for both.

    For example, I like mindless violence when it’s well-done and has a sense of humour (e.g. Arnie’s early films). Should I go and see Transformers? A critic who doesn’t get mindless violence at all won’t help me make that decision.

  • The first rule of Film Club is YOU TALK about Film Club. Go ahead, chat away. Advert it, promote it, SHILL BABY SHILL we need the foot traffic!

    The second rule of Film Club is no Jar-Jar. Just ignore him and maybe he’ll go away.

    The third rule of Film Club is no Uwe Boll.

    The fourth rule of Film Club is you can critique all the films you want, but when it comes time to make a film based on that 20-year-old college-era screenplay you wrote during a 48-hour caffinated binge, have it directed by a total hack. Again, no Uwe Boll.

    The fifth rule of Film Club is Michael Bay can be a decent director, as long as he sticks to cop action thrillers. If he goes anywhere near a giant-robot genre flick again, have Uwe Boll punch him.

    How’s that for rules?

  • Dear Tyler:

    Re: relying on IMDb for fact-checking movies and all… This is pretty obscure and all, but back when Men In Black II was in the works, IMDb had a rumors part to their trivia page and they had listed a rumor that David Duchovny was going to appear as an “Agent M.” This was back when X-Files was still very popular… So I had written a fanfic story where Mulder becomes an MiB. Next thing I know, I’m getting blamed for the Duchovny rumor being on IMDb in the first place! So I don’t entirely trust IMDb these days…

  • PaulW:

    Presumably, if I were writing a review of a movie, it wouldn’t be for one that wasn’t finished shooting yet ala Men in Black II, at the time you looked at the page.

    I use IMDb to verify character/actor/crew names and spellings of those names.

  • I don’t often read reviews because I hate spoilers, and my definition of spoilers is much more narrow than others. To that end, using the “rule” how did the movie make me feel works well.

    MaryAnn, you are the only movie reviewer I read. I usually wait to read your reviews until after I see a movie. (Because I usually make my decision by the trailer.) However, I do check to see your color rating and read the first paragraph before the movie. Furthermore, I’ve made decisions to see movies I wasn’t planning on seeing from your reviews, notably Sunshine Cleaning and District 9.

  • Bluejay

    I use IMDb to verify character/actor/crew names and spellings of those names.

    Which I wish more critics did when the LOTR films were out. We could have spared ourselves a lot of “Tolkeins” and “Aragons” and “Merriweathers.”

    I find Bitel’s comment about taking notes interesting, too. I’m not a film critic, and I’m curious about how much critics feel they can absorb on one viewing. (Obviously some films are denser and richer than others.) When you get a chance to see a film more than once, do you ever feel that you catch new nuances that modify your opinion of the work? Or feel, in hindsight, that your review didn’t do justice to the film? Do you have any particular methods, notetaking or otherwise, that help you get the most out of one viewing?

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