May 27, 2007


All Toronto's dailies have weighed in with reviews of Pirates of the Carribbean 3, the most favourable by a distance giving it 2 stars out of 4.* I don't think a single reviewer managed to avoid mentioning, and lamenting, the fact that any new POTC is a reviewer-proof box office juggernaut for which a mere half a billion gross would be considered underperforming. (Just as they did last week with Shrek 3.) I expect the reviews break the same way in other metropolitan markets, but I won't be the one to find out for sure. That would be supererogatory, and I'm not even being paid for this.

Here's a thought--would these laments ring a little less hollow if they weren't invariably embedded in lardy thousand word reviews on full page spreads in which pride of place is given to a studio-approved still from said critic-proof juggernaut? Flanked on the opposing page by interviews with cast, crew, catering chef, whatever? The Toronto Star actually led its movie column this week with a front page spread interviewing Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp, each at twice the word length of its overwritten review. ("It stank," the shortest review on record as far as I'm aware, has never been copyrighted folks. If that seems too lacking in analytical rigour, add a short to medium length sentence explaining exactly why it stank.)

I know, reviewers aren't responsible for the hype machine of newspaper entertainment editors in collaboration with studio publicity departments--but would it kill you to insist that the length of a review have something to do with the value, as opposed to the shooting budget and anticipated gross, of a movie? (Not long ago a local reviewer called Kill Bill "a triumph of empty formalism"--to explain why it placed fifth on his best movies of the year list. I can remember when "a triumph of empty formalism" wasn't considered even faint praise.)

Away from Her got pretty good press locally, which isn't surprising. Sarah Polley's one of our own. It's been well received wherever it's been shown so far as I can determine, but it's hardly been publicized on anything like the same scale elsewhere--even in Toronto the Star didn't give it a front page spread with facing full lengths of Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as lead-ins to extensive interviews with both.

Independent films as good as Away from Her are rare, and films that end up in dismissive little box reviews (no accompanying pictures) are very often small ones that try something interesting and fail--in the mind of the reviewer. (The Underneath got those sorts of reviews, and I thought it was a much finer noir than Soderbergh's next, Out of Sight.) I'm sorry people, those dismissive boxes should be reserved principally or exclusively for films that don't fail in their ambitions because they haven't any--or none except to be the fastest to gross $200 million in cinema history.

* Double checking I see I was mistaken. 3 stars from the National Post, accompanying a review so lukewarm you'd naturally think this was a misprint for 2 or even 1 1/2. But how could that be possible?

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Chancelucky said...

just from the editor's point of view, wouldn't you review a movie that millions of people were going to see anyway?

I do get the self-fulfilling nature of giving even bad publicity to blockbuster movies, but very few commercial publications do very well reviewing the obscure but worthy instead of the popular but uninspiring.

I do see more obscure movies than I ever did these days. I don't know if Tsotsi was obscure, but I'd have been very unlikely to have seen it in a theater. I'm not sure how big Notes on a Scandal was either, but we rented both in part because of internet reviews. It's something blogs really do well.

I reviewed Murder Ball some time ago and it got a handful of people to see the movie.

Martin Heavisides said...

Oh, I'm aware nobody's ever likely to adopt my scheme--though if one daily of some prestige did, and held firm, and survived, others might follow suit. The problem goes deeper than this I think. Whatever people think of the quality of blockbusters (and the qualities they're admire for indicate the slippage in these categories--you sense a certain relief when, against the odds, something as unusual as The Usual Suspects has considerable success--and leads its director to a career in X-Men and Superman retoolings) there's far too much respect given to the mere expenditure of dollars as a marker. The people who bemoan the lack of quality in blockbusters still want to be on the reviewer list.