Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Welcome to Overpriced Popcorn: Film Reviews for the Rest of Us

Here we go, the inaugural blog posting.  Starting a new project is always a bit daunting, and I hope people find some enjoyment in this one.  You'll be wondering what the tagline "Film reviews for the rest of us" is all about, and that's what I mean to address in this first post, before I dive in with the reviews.

It's not even a little bit of a stretch to say that most people hate film critics. Perhaps the most commonly uttered phrase about movie reviewers is, "if they say a movie sucks, by all means run out and see it because it's probably great fun." How often have you wished that someone out there would step up to the plate and review movies the way YOU want them?  How often have you wished that a reviewer would come along whose word you can take at face value? I know I have--I've even made posts about it on message boards and social networking sites, wherein I've been publicly called a snob for that opinion by people I considered real life friends.

This is a project I've bandied around for a long time, and it was the aforementioned friend calling me a snob and saying my opinions are invalid that finally spurred me into action.  I kind of hope it pisses him off--because his comments will never see the light of day here.

I'm not going to claim that I am unequivocally the guy whose reviews are going to solve all of your "should I see it or not?" problems--to do so would be pretentious and arrogant at best.  But I'm going to try to post an "everyman's" view of the films I see, removed from the already arrogant and pretentious "experts" out there.

You're wondering what my qualifications are, I suppose.  Truthfully, I've got qualifications equal to just about any movie reviewer out there.  I have been a movie buff since I first saw Star Wars at the age of three in 1977. I own nearly 1,000 films on blu-ray, DVD, and other media, spanning every genre from cult to western to sci-fi/fantasy to drama to horror to comedy to adventure to documentary to get the idea. I went to film school where I completed credits for a certificate in film studies and took such classes as American Film History and World Film Traditions, as well as Westerns and the Samurai Film and several semesters of filmmaking courses.

By way of full disclosure, I was not AWARDED the certificate, because though I had satisfactorily (indeed, with a 3.9 GPA) completed all courses necessary, I did not take at least half of them through the University of Pittsburgh, but transferred them from Point Park College.  Even though the courses were offered at the SAME school--Pittsburgh Filmmakers--because I didn't give Pitt the money, they denied the cert.  Typical college politics. But the credits are all there on my transcript to show that I did indeed complete the requirements; a loophole about which I was not informed till it was too late left me in the dirt, there.

Suffice it to say, I've got the educational background as well as over 35 years of avid movie watching to guide me.

Why I'm Doing This
Now, why take this on?  There are two classes of people among film fans that are, in general, the absolute WORST: those are sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and film critics.  Sci-fi/fantasy geeks are rough because they tend to view everything through one lens only: does it hew identically to the source material?  Since no adaptation film does, they tend to denounce just about every adaptation film.  That the recent spate of Marvel superhero movies have gotten such good press from the sf/f geek community is nothing short of a miracle. Geeks, you see, will say that John Carter was a mixed success at best because they changed it so much from the book; often times, capturing the spirit of the work without the literal hewing to the description and dialogue in the book is lost on the sf/f geek community.  I'm not saying that's a universal, but it's a rule of thumb. Geeks feel betrayed when a film attempts to appeal to a general public outside of their community.  They feel like they had hope that at last their beloved properties would be given respect, and they view any changes to those properties as a slap in the face and as a distinct lack of respect.  They wonder, "Who cares about the general public, anyway?  If they didn't see the genius of the X-Men back in the 80's during Fall of the Mutants, they're not going to see it now anyway."

As a geek, I am not immune to this--the recent Conan film, though I enjoyed it on its own merits, had me seething with geek rage over the fact that the filmmakers claimed to be Conan fans, claimed to be giving us the Conan that Robert E. Howard wrote at long last...and then did nothing of the sort.  While I felt Jason Momoa was quite impressive as the eponymous Cimmerian...the story was trite, the MacGuffin beyond stupid and impotent, and the presentation of the world absolutely hideous--nothing at all like Howard's presentation of the Hyborian Age. Still, unlike many in the sf/f fandom community, I felt the film had a lot of merits and would have been more than willing to go watch a sequel in hopes that they'd get a bit more right the second time around. 

Film critics, on the other hand, are too jaded and, in some cases, too educated to be in tune with the pulse of the general public.  They want every film, regardless of what it is, to be the Citizen Kane of its genre, and when it doesn't live up, they dismiss it out of hand. Unfortunately, they're too often wrong, and they can destroy a film before it even gets a chance to find its audience.  The recent John Carter film is a prime example of this--there's a crop of "elite" movie critics out there who have lambasted it...some before it was even pre-screened for critics, before they could possibly have seen it, based apparently on leaked information, trailers, and photographs. And here's the rub, and here's what I hate about most well-known critics today: have you noticed how many of their reviews read like there was one original source and they took a thesaurus to it?  Movies aren't that objective that you need to have the exact same complaints as the other ten people. 

They also say inane things like, "Green Lantern was a poor film because the story was simple, there was little character development, and it's been done before."

Really?  It was a superhero origin movie. What the Hell did you expect?

Here's a glowing example, using Green Lantern, of how movie critics are utterly disconnected from their audience. That film was pretty well lambasted by critics--Rotten Tomatoes has it at 27%.  I took my 62-year-old father to see it.  As we were in the car, he turned to me and said, "You know, I'm a little nervous about this.  You know how much you love Star Wars? Well, when I was a boy, Green Lantern was my favorite superhero. I can't tell you how much I loved Green Lantern. I just hope they get this right."

From the moment the movie began, I sat in the theater and I watched my 62-year-old father turn into a 12-year-old boy right before my eyes, and stay that way for two hours.  It really moved me to see it.  As we were leaving, he was beaming (and if you know my dad, he doesn't beam).  All he said was, "that was my Green Lantern."

In my book, the producers, writers, and directors of that film did something absolutely right, if they could have that effect on a man my dad's age, who has seen a lot in his life and rarely shows excitement about anything.

Yet, film critics said things like, "Thinks it is more impressive than it actually is. Faced with over-blown effects, characters look flat and disappear into the background without a whimper, thanks to an insipid script and the film-makers' unwillingness to flesh out anyone but Hal Jordan."

If you want further proof of how off the pulse the fingers of movie reviewers are, look at just about any movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and compare the film critics' ratings to the users' ratings.  There's generally at minimum a 20-40% difference, with actual filmgoers finding the movie more enjoyable than critics.

Here's my theory, backed up by nothing more than my own, personal experience.

These people are far too jaded, and they've trained themselves to look for the bad instead of being balanced.

What's my experience on this?  It happened to me.  When I was first in film school I became the worst kind of movie critic, finding something wrong in every movie out there. And it was really stupid, insipid stuff, like I'd dismiss a movie out of hand because there was a minor visual continuity error in one shot of one scene. I also would rant about how Hollywood always thinks it can do it better than the original, and you can't do it better than the original (which really, begs the question, "why make a movie out of a book or comic at all?")

The truth is, I later came to realize, sometimes things don't work on screen that work in a book...and Hell, sometimes, things don't work in books.  Take Watchmen, for example.  This is one of the most controversial films around, in terms of "did they get it right or wrong?"

I'll tell you one thing: for a movie, the ending of the film was way better.  Hell, the ending of that film would've been way better had Alan Moore had the sense to do it that way himself.  Seriously, a rubber tentacle monster in New York cooked up by scientists and special effects teams forced to work in slave labor?  This is what's supposed to scare people into submission?    The ending of the film, on the other hand, worked in spades--it played to the fear of nuclear holocaust that the comic mentioned over and over, then just turned into a forgotten red herring. It made sense in the context of the story, and it didn't kill my suspension of disbelief with its over-the-top ludicrous nature.

Some things just don't work well on screen, and have to be altered. And yes, sometimes they take the altering a bit too far--what they did to the Venom storyline in Spider-Man 3 was something of a travesty.  Having Eddie Brock ask God to kill Peter Parker? Seriously?

Let's not even get started on what they did to Phoenix in X3.  Turning one of the greatest villains (arguably, the greatest) in the history of the book into glorified set dressing was a pure mishandling of the character and did not do credit to the themes that the franchise had established up till that point.

And yet, call me crazy, I found X3 a lot of goddamn fun to watch.

So, where does that leave us?  The aforementioned friend called me a "literary snob" for sticking up for John Carter and suggesting that any critics who felt the story was overcomplicated or "incomprehensible" were in fact too dumb to be allowed to see movies, let alone review them. He also said that I represented a minority of a minority and implied that my opinions were worthless as such.

I counter that he has no idea what "snob" means, because I was, in fact, countering the elitism and snobbishness of the general mainstream movie critic media.  Snobs look down on properties, they don't defend them.  And a literary snob would hate that film with every fiber of his or her being because it is utterly changed from the source material in almost every way save the overall mythology at its core. That is to say, they got the Martian cultures mostly right, but the story was "inspired by," at best, rather than "based on." And yet, being a fan of the original books, I'll still defend that movie till my dying breath and I think these elitist, snobbish critics have caused its early demise--it will, however, gain a massive cult following on home video.  This is a shame because it means we likely won't get the sequel and I'd love to see The Gods of Mars on screen.

This brings me to an important Disclaimer: I don't consider my opinions on these subjects any more or less valid than anyone else's. I do, however, think that they represent the side of the fence where those people who actually pay to see movies sit. 

So, that's why I'm here.  I'm here to counter the elitism of your general mainstream movie critics by giving a review that one could argue comes from the "audience" side of Rotten Tomatoes. As at heart I am a member of the sf/f geek community I'm not going to lambast them, but I am here to tell them to take a step back on occasion, breathe, and look at a film for what it is, rather than what they'd hoped it would be, before passing judgment.

And maybe, just maybe, with a little luck, you'll find my reviews are the ones you come to when you're trying to decide if you should see a movie.

That being said, if you've slogged through this blog, I'm sure you'll have figured out what I mean by "the rest of us."  If you think that generally movie critics do their job well and your tastes align with theirs?  This isn't the place for you. If you think that any film adaptation will automatically suck if it doesn't hew 100% to the source material, this isn't the review site for you. If you can't handle the fact that occasionally I'll be lambasting the film critic community at should probably go somewhere else.

However, if you're like me, and you want to see reviews from the standpoint of that 20-40% higher agreement rate than that with the critics? This will hopefully be a site you'll enjoy.  Stick around, I've got some things planned--I'll be tweaking the site layout over the next few weeks until I get it just so, and I'll have at least two reviews to kick things off this weekend: John Carter, and The Hunger Games. 

Also, please note that since I'm not one of the "elite," I don't get to do advance screenings of these things, so my reviews will come a bit later, and may be a bit reactionary to the existing reviews as a result.  

How It Works
I have been reviewing books and films on various sites around the net (small time) for awhile, and have developed a kind of "trademark" style that will translate naturally to film.  I will be reviewing every film in three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good and The Bad are pretty self-explanatory.  These are the things I liked about a film, and the things I did not like about it, from the standpoint of writing, acting, directing, how closely it hews to source material (if applicable) and if that's important to this film, and why.  I'll be as detailed as possible, and if I venture into spoiler territory, I will note that in the title of the film review, so those looking to avoid spoilers can do so. The Ugly takes a bit of explaining, because it doesn't mean only that which is distasteful.  It's the section wherein I review the aesthetics of the film--how it looks, the cinematography, the makeup and FX, all of that good stuff.  This section will discuss both the well-done and the crap in the aesthetic presentation of the film.  Expect most commentaries on 3D to be in this section, for example. 

At the end of the review, to keep in line with movie review standards, I'll summarize my points and give the film a rating of one to five buckets of popcorn.

The Rules of Engagement
So before we get started, one last thing: the rules of engagement. I'm going to keep moderation of posts and comments at a minimum here, as I believe in the free exchange of ideas.  That being said, understand something: you're in my house and I expect decorum and respect.  I can't ban you from looking at this site (blogger hasn't given us that power yet) but I can make sure that your comments are never seen here again, if you choose to flame, start fights, or make personal attacks. Disagreement is fine--it's your right to disagree with someone.  But understand the limits and lines: making a generalized statement about the film critic community is FAR different than making a direct attack against Roger Ebert.  The former is permitted here; the latter is absolutely NOT. Likewise, we do not make attacks or flame me or other posters. Them's the rules.  If you don't like it, kindly piss off.  I'm sorry if that seems harsh, but it's something I feel strongly about. I don't have time in my life for Internet flame wars these days; I'd prefer just to delete the offending comment and move on.  So, with all of that on the table, I do sincerely hope you enjoy what I've got to say!



  1. Er, um, I, uh, hate to say it, man, but I don't hate film critics. In fact, one of my friends is a professional film critic.

    But I do agree with you about sci-fi geeks as film critics.

  2. Figures that after all those clear disclaimers, my first comment would be someone choosing to announce that this isn't the blog for them...

  3. I'm an old lady in Seattle (who attended, for a very short time, grad school at the University of Pittsburgh) who had a lot of fun watching John Carter with friends from my writers' group and just watched Cowboys and Aliens from Netflix last night. Which I also had fun with, mostly picking out bits and pieces that reminded me of other movies - most particularly "The Beast of Hollow Mountain" with my old heart throb from 50's Westerns, Guy Madison (told you I was an old lady). Wherein the warring ranchers and Mexicans stop fighting each other in a love fest of killing the T-Rex stuck in a swamp in the desert. Great fun!

  4. Glad to see you doing this Jason. My wife and I usually giggle at films that get bad reviews from critics, as they are typically the movies we most enjoy.

  5. I'm ready to read reviews! That said, you know I don't listen to anyone about anything. :) But I am supporting you and you go out WAY more than I do, so tell me what to see!