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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Can a movie ruin a good review?

Jim Emerson at the Chicago Sun-Times blog Scanners poses an intriguing question:

Can a movie ruin a good review? Conversely, can a review actually improve upon a movie? Sure, good criticism (whether positive or negative) should encourage you to see a film in new ways you may not have recognized before. Just as cinema itself is a way of looking at the world through someone else’s eyes, criticism is a way of looking at movies through someone else’s eyes. Yet, the movies themselves don’t change — only our perceptions of them (we’ll put aside William Friedkin’s “French Connection” Blu-ray for the moment). On the one hand, a piece of film criticism is kind of like an adaptation. It offers an interpretation of the original, but does not replace it. Other “versions” still exist, just as they always did.

I can think of several examples of criticism that I think is superior to the work being criticized, in the sense that the critic is writing about an idealized version of what’s on the screen — the movie we might wish was on the screen, rather than (or in addition to) the one that’s actually there. A clarification: This has nothing to do with whether the critic is divining the filmmaker’s intentions or not. It has everything to do with what the critic is seeing in, and getting out of, the film.

I’m on the wrong side of this to properly answer this question myself (for one, I almost never read criticism anymore, I’m so busy writing it). But have you had that experience? Have you read a positive review and then been disappointed that the movie didn’t live up to that review? Have you seen a film in a different, better light than you might have absent a particular positive review? How much does criticism impact your own perceptions of a film?

Can a movie ruin a good review?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • I’ve definitely enjoyed some movie reviews of yours far more than the movies themselves (in the case of bad movies), and in the case of good movies, I have gotten some additional enjoyment from films after noticing positive aspects you’ve pointed out that I might have missed otherwise, or even from contemplating different interpretations after the fact when I don’t agree with something you’ve said about the film but are interested in that separate angle. Thoughtful film criticism definitely adds value to my experience as a moviegoer.

  • JoshDM

    I tell ya, after watching it recently, The Princess Bride is so overrated.

  • I watched “REPO: The Genetic Opera” based on a couple of reviews I had read. One of them panned it mercilessly saying how awful and over-the-top it was, and the other praised it for how over-the-top and humorous it was.

    Between those two reviews I was prepared (more-or-less) to see something over-the-top and that I was free to choose how I felt about it. In the end I embraced the camp and let myself be entertained by the music, acting, and joy that the creators poured into the film liberally without spending a lot of angst on logic, science or reality. It became for me a film about just that – embracing what you love and letting it be what it has to be.

    There have been films, however, I was glad I never read reviews for. An example is “Children of Men”; because I am afraid it would have scared me off had I caught a hint of how bleak it was (despite the hopeful notes in it) I would have likely skipped it (and missed a fantastic film).

    Other films I was excited to see and reviews killed all the joy of seeing them: “Land of the Lost” looked to be goofy fun with a cherished childhood TV program, but every review I’ve seen has put that expectation to rest as wishful thinking. Too bad.

    Your review of “The Taking of Pelham 123” has made me interested in seeing that film even though I had fully intended to give it a miss as another needless Hollywood remake. You’ve hinted that it might bring some unique perspective to a classic tale (which is what redeems a remake).

    My only complaint about reviews is that some reviewers seem to revel in spoiling it for the viewer – revealing critical plot points or just summarizing the plot (which isn’t necessary to tell what it is about a film that makes it good). The fact that you don’t is one of the reasons I keep coming back here to read your reviews. Well done!

  • Robert McCoy

    It all depends on who is doing the reviewing. I pay attention to MaryAnn’s reviews because I know she understands nerdy fandom. Other critics, let’s say the traditional intellectual type, do not cotton to the fanboy/girl ideal. Sometimes their reviews feel more like a college thesis than an actual review, ignoring the more important visceral reaction great cinematic experiances create.

  • RyanT

    Usually it’s me reading a review (or a bunch of reviews) that’s so negative that my expectations for a movie becomes so lowered that when I actually see the film, it’s not so bad.

    Examples: Transformers, Terminator Salvation. And I can’t think of anything else for some reason.

    But the latter especially. People were calling it the worst thing ever, you included, so I was prepared to see the worse thing ever. And it wasn’t. So I was happy.

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