Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Reviewers, what are they good for?

Over at Ed's Place, author Ed Gorman says:
"Variety pointed out that this year five different movies that have been scourged by critics not only opened at numero uno but even had legs. This weekend's 'Van Helsing' is the latest example. I probably read eight or nine reviews of it. None had even one good thing to say about it.
"I'm pretty sure publishing operates this way. A number of bestselling writers are consistently trashed by reviewers but it hasn't damaged their careers. That's why I'm usually reluctant to show prospective editors my good reviews. How nice, they say, being polite. But they know and so do I that reviews generally don't sell books. It's like saying to the editor, My Mom thinks I'm really swell."

It is interesting, no? I know more than a few people who say they look at reviews and whichever movies are given bad reviews, they go out and see them.
I, on the other hand, like reviews. But I rarely like just one. I want to read a whole bunch of reviews to get a sense of what the movie is like and what reviewers have problems with. This is why Rotten Tomatoes is brilliant. In one burst, I can see a whole lot of reviews. And looking at Van Helsing, I can pretty much say it's not going to be very good.
But this isn't always true. Take Deep Rising, an earlier Stephen Sommers film. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 26% rating, just 2 points over Van Helsing. All right, admittedly it's kind of stupid and is all about giant monsters and explosions. But it doesn't sell itself as anything else. In fact, it gives you some characters and humor to boot.
And horror movies, I almost never trust reviewers on gory horror movies. They seem to get so blinded by blood and guts that they can't comprehend the rest of the movie.
So what do you do? I'm not sure. I usually only go to the theaters to see movies I'm sure about it. When I'm renting movies though, I'll pull out anything that vaguely interests me and give it a try. This means I miss a few good films in theaters and I suffer through a lot of bad ones at home (although at home I can turn it off without losing $10.)
In the book world, things are a bit different. I only use reviewers to tell me about books I know nothing about. Otherwise, I stick with authors I know, classic books or books recommended by authors I love.
So, use my new comment feature, tell me how you use (or don't use) reviewers.


gwenda said...

So, I hardly ever read reviews anymore. The only reviews I _do_ read I'm reading much more for the quality of the review than anything it actually has to say about the movie. Stephen Hunter, for instance, I'll read every single review by and often, if it's a pan, it makes me want to see the movie.

One of the big reasons I don't read reviews anymore is that they're uninteresting. It's the "book report" style. I saw this movie and this is what happened and I like it a lot/hated it. The writing is uninteresting; the analysis is even more so. I feel no reason to read that. And beside those points sits the elephants in the room: reviews spoil movies. Hell, sometimes TRAILERS spoil movies, these days.

I know going into a Stephen Hunter review that he's not going to spoil the experience of watching it for me.

If I'm on the fence about something or know I'm not going to see it, I also read the last paragraphs of reviews (especially Entertainment Weekly's). These tend to sum up feelings without spoiling the movie. After I see a movie, especially if I liked it, I'll seek out reviews of critics and see how they stack up to my take on it or if they reveal some hidden aspect. A perfect example was the wonderful Slate piece on ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND that seemed to say everything I was thinking but hadn't quite thought yet right after seeing it.

So, more than I mean to type and more than you wanted to know but: how I use reviews.

gwenda said...

Um, please ignore egregious grammar errors in above post. It's late and I had two glasses of wine.

Brian said...

No, don't worry about grammar and that was exactly what I was looking for, commentwise.
I think many people read reviews after they see a movie, for exactly the reasons you state. I know my friends and I do that. A well written review can give you the right words for the experience you just had, or sometimes (admittedly, once in a great while) can actually open up new ways to see the film.
I've seen a few people saying Stephen Hunter's reviews are good. At least one person suggested his reviews can help people get over Elvis Mitchell leaving the New York Times. I'll have to keep an eye out for him.
By the way, are there any book reviewers who get the kind of following Roger Ebert and these other guys do? I know Michiko Kakutani and Laura Miller are well known, but seem to get a lot of criticism. Anyone else? (Well besides bloggers. Matt Cheney at Mumpsimus fills out much of what I was just saying.)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes right after watching a film I goto Rotten Tomatoes and start reading reviews. Brian is right, sometimes a well-written review expresses how you feel. For me, after seeing "Donnie Darko" and feeling somewhat frustrated, I read Ebert's review and it pretty much summed up how I felt.

If TOO many people like something, it sends up a little
red flag for me. If it appeals to that many, it can't be
all good. As we know the average American has NO taste.
They also don't read, so many of the reviews are moot to
John Q. Hence "Van Helsing" and other big-budget Hollywood blockbuster crap makes millions...and guarantees more of the same. *sigh*

Of course, sometimes you don't need reviews. Just watch
the trailer and use your instinct (or the Force)...

CCC, anxiously awaiting "Van Helsing 2"...

Anonymous said...

Your're right: one should never read just ONE review of a movie.

I don't always agree with critics (for instance, I thought the much-lauded TRAFFIC was a big bore), but I listen to them.

However I have a few rules of thumb for movie critics, that never fail:

1. The more critics' opinions differ on THE SAME MOVIE, the more interesting it is (however flawed). Example: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, or THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Critics said these films were awful, should be banned, or were masterpieces. At least they weren't ordinary.

2. When ALL critics agree that the movie is great ON THE DAY IT IS RELEASED (they may change opinion later), then the movie is overrated -- perhaps even awful, on a second viewing. (Guilty as charged: THE USUAL SUSPECTS.)

3. "Serious" European films are always much worse than most critics are willing to admit.

That's all the rules you need... ;)

-A.R. Yngve

gwenda said...

In terms of book reviewers I follow, again Wash Post girl here -- Michael Dirda is probably the only reviewer I read no matter what he's reviewing, for the same reasons I read Stephen Hunter. I know he'll teach me something, whether it makes me want to experience the movie/book or avoid it like the plague.