Thursday, November 6, 2014

What is the Purpose of a Film Review?

What is the purpose of a film review?  This is a question that I have actually pondered for a long time.  Why should pretentious people, with their own moral and political ideas on what is good and what isn't, dictate whether or not a movie is worth seeing?  The truth of the matter is that I think film reviews should not be merely summed up in a score or a grade, or even in the number of thumbs up you give it.  Now, this is something that I am personally guilty of as an amateur film reviewer myself, but it is something that I want to change from here on out, and to understand why we must breakdown what I believe the true purpose film reviews are meant to have.

Why do we read reviews of movies before they come out?  It's simple, because we want to know if the movie is something that we will like or not.  I think reviewers often get too caught up in the breaking down of the acting or the direction, that they never really stop to actually dissect the movie and what it is about.  Reviewers tend to spend more time spewing their own personal opinions, rather than focusing on the things that most moviegoers want to know, and no it's not whether or not the movie is good, but whether or not the movie is for them.

One thing I want to know more often than not, that I don't get in most film reviews, is not if so-and-so actor is amazing in the movie (though if I'm a fan of that actor it can make me more interested in seeing it), it's more me wanting to know what the thematic focus of the movie is and what the content that relays that focus is.  So many movie reviewers just merely scratch the surface of a movie when they review it, they never delve beneath the surface to say why someone should see this movie.  A perfect case-and-point is a movie like Gravity.

You can tell me all day long how brilliant Sandra Bullock was in that movie, but what I really wanted to know from the review is why I should see that movie beyond the actor or the director.  Very few reviews actually delved too much into the meaning of the movie.  The idea of choosing to live again is a very strong idea that I found the most impactful thing about Gravity, but it's one that is just a simple blurb in most reviews (if it even exists in a reviewer's review).

This type of more in depth analysis is why reviews exist, because it is through this analysis of the film and the scenes within it, that those of us reading these reviews can start to form a picture of the movie in our minds and decide if that is something we'd be interested in seeing or not.  Of course, how do you do this as a reviewer without sharing your own personal opinions from time-to-time?  In truth, you can't.

A film reviewer, no matter how good they are, will have to share their own personal opinion at some point in their reviews, otherwise it's just a synopsis or summary of the movie that they just saw.  Besides, we often read certain reviewer's reviews because we agree with their opinion a lot of the time, and that gives us a source we can trust before seeing the movie.  It is also through this sharing of personal opinion where moviegoers can glean more about the content of the film, whether or not it includes a political idea that they just don't agree with and they should stay away from this film for that reason, or it's a moral issue like excess violence or nude scenes.  I for one will often skip a movie if I read in a review about the vast amounts of gratuitous nudity or violence in a film, and the only way to usually glean these things in a review is via that reviewer's opinions on those subject matters.  Of course, there is one more element to a good film review, and it is the one where the actual critique should occur.

A good film reviewer will not just break down what the movie's themes are and how they feel about those themes, but they will also break down how successful the movie is in conveying those themes.  Sometimes, no matter how much a movie tries to be fun, it just never succeeds.  Other examples are when you see a movie that's trying to convey a certain idea about love or friendship, and one scene can often muddy that whole idea and make it more confusing than it needs to be.  As much as I love the movie Braveheart, I have never understood the need for William Wallace and the Princess to have a romantic relationship when the whole movie is spurred on by William's love for his dead wife.  This tiny little subplot, in an otherwise perfect film, muddies the emotional resonance.  That is not to say that the film is still not a powerfully moving experience, but it's one that I think would have been even more potent had William remained devoted to his wife like he said he would and like they still try to make us believe when --  two decades old spoiler alert --- he's executed at the end of the movie.  Finally, the most important thing that a film review should do is clarify who this film is meant for and adjust the score accordingly.

If you are reviewing a Sylvester Stallone action movie, rather than stating how stupid you think all of the insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue is, you should be placing yourself in the shoes of the men and women who like movies with insane action and testosterone-fueled dialogue.  In short, does this movie deliver what the audience for this movie want, or does it falter in some areas that keep it from being a great experience for the people who like those kinds of movies?  Kind of think of this as grading on a curve, because a 2 out of 5 from one reviewer might be a moviegoer's 5 out of 5, and vice versa.  It shouldn't be the film reviewer's job to say how much he or she hates this sort of movie, but how well this movie works for the audience in which it was intended for.  If it's a kid's movie and all of the jokes and characters work for kids, then does it matter if you were bored during the movie or thought it was stupid?  No, because you, Mr. Reviewer, were not who the movie was made for, and it's your job to let the parents of those children know that it will delight their kids and check his sour attitude at the door before he writes his review.

So I've gone on a bit longer than I originally intended, but I think that this is an important thing as an amateur film reviewer myself to dissect in order to change my own practices.  Personally, I often will see that a movie has a 56% rating on RottenTomatoes and think that this movie is bad because only 56% of film reviewers like the movie.  That often isn't the case.  A movie may be a great movie to you, just because it got a 2 out of 5 rating from the guy at The New York Times, that doesn't mean that his 2 out of 5 rating is in anyway how you would rate the movie after seeing it.  This is where we need to start training ourselves as we read film reviews, not to just skip to the score and stop reading, we need to see what the reviewer actually thinks about the film rather than looking at a number that means nothing.

I have read negative reviews before for films, where reviewers critiqued something in a movie that actually made me want to see the movie.  A good example is when a reviewer harps on a movie's sentimentalism.  That reviewer might be a cynic and finds sentimentalism repulsive, but for me that's a positive.  It's all relative to each person, and had I stopped at that reviewer's negative score and read no further to understand why he gave it that score, then I would have never gone to see that movie.

In closing, I am going to no longer place a score or grade my film reviews here on the Unicellular Review.  Saying a movie deserves an A+ rating or an F doesn't accurately reflect the picture of what a movie actually is.  A review needs to be read in order to understand how a reviewer felt about a movie and why.  Just checking the score doesn't give readers any clue as to the movie they're wanting to see, and so the score is pointless.  If I liked the movie, you will be able to tell through what I write, and not by whether or not I gave the movie an A+ or a B+ rating.

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