Film Reviewing 101: Are there “wrong” reviews?

By Sean Tan

Film critics have always had it tough. Critiquing of all sorts has always been a fine balancing act between ensuring one’s opinions are sound but not overly scientific. Today’s film reviewers have their work cut out for them. Not only do they have to compete for relevancy in an age where “everyone’s a critic”, the rise of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have, as Metacritic succinctly put it, “reduced critics’ opinions to a single number”.

It is unabashed about this. A diagram on its website, illustrates the problem clearly, depicting the numerous scores of reviewers as being “so complicated” and its Metascore as being “so simple”. It seems that in this age of information overload, individual opinions cease to matter, and going against the grain becomes ever more stark. In his talk at All In! 2016, Alvin Chong of Here be Geeks, warned of the perils of only sharing opinions with “friends that you have similar perspective with” as this can breed an echo chamber. Reducing the most prominent reviewers opinions to a single number might similarly result in an echo chamber across the entire film community. “Giving a score is too arbitrary, too simplistic,” Chong mentioned.

Right and Wrong

It was apt for the panel discussion on film reviews at All In! Festival to start off talking about review scores. Film reviews, or any piece of critique for that matter, usually contain a nuanced perspective or insight to add to one’s understanding of the piece, with well thought-out arguments that a reader can buy. Reducing their opinions to a score removes that. Jeremy Sing of SINdie, showed us a quote from a Spirited Away review by the legendary film critic Roger Ebert, with Ebert explaining why he loved the director’s film so much: “I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or sigh, or gaze at a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.”  It is for these reasons that Chong tells us one should never “think they are wrong even if their review go against the norm”. He, for one, doesn’t like the critically-acclaimed Birdman.

Instead of “right” or ‘wrong”, the main thing that separates a good review from a bad review is that a good review is well substantiated and justified. This is not simple. It takes a lot of experience, skills and knowledge to do so.  In a later talk, Sing did an activity where we were asked to stand on a spectrum based on our stand on the two issues of Gun Laws and Grant Censorship (Should the National Arts’ Council withhold grants to artworks because of their content?). I noticed that without hearing the participants’ reasonings, their “score” did not actually mean much, and did not at all influence anyone. When Sing asked people on both spectrum to elaborate the reasoning behind their stand, it was clear that the arguments with more nuance, depth and evidence carried much more weight, and that arguments were not disregarded purely because they were of the minority viewpoint. His main intention of the activity was to show us that one can be swayed by good arguments, and that an important trait of a good reviewer is that they are open-minded and are never afraid to admit their opinion is misinformed.

Mainstream Audience vs Reviewers “on their high horses”

An informed perspective through experience is the key to making one’s judgement more valuable. I have long grappled with the question of why professional reviewers are in a better position to judge a film, compared to the average man on the street. Why should we trust them if their taste are often so different from the mainstream audience? Why is it that a lot of the highest grossing box films, like Transformers and 2012, are universally panned by critics? Can’t they appreciate fun movies? A large part of it boils down to experience. Critics watch films for a living, and most watch films of the widest variety: from indie to blockbusters, from experimental to action, from poor to excellent.

People who have watched a thousand movies, are sure to have a better idea of what make movies tick, and have a large pool of films to draw reference from, and compare to.  Sing said that it is very important to start off with the framework that “a film is an artificial construction, crafted for thousands of hours, where everything in there is deliberate.” Having watched more films, film critics are trained to spot symbolism in the film, and figure out the director’s intent. I used to be annoyed that many film reviews often contain references to other (in my opinion, less obscure) films of the genre or of the same director. I now see why the most respected reviewers do this. Films seldom exist in silos and often draw inspiration from the rest of the film world. A good film reviewer recognise these references, aiding to their understanding of a film. They also include other films in a review in order to make analogies to their thoughts on the cinematography or sound direction of a film. One advice Sing have for aspiring reviewers is to have IMDB or Wikipedia at hand to learn more about what the filmmaker was trying to achieve.

Penning it down

Watching tonnes of movies is the first step to being a good reviewer. Reflecting and then writing a critique is the second important step. “Think about how to watch something, how to read something instead of just merely watching or reading. Due to social media, we sometimes forget to think critically about things,” Chong explains. It is a valid point, and to ensure I do that, I sometimes pen down any random quick thoughts that entered my mind while I watch a film. Sing mentioned in his second talk that to stand out from the mass of reviewers and to find a core audience, one needs to have a unique personal voice. Developing that takes a lot of soul searching and more importantly, writing. To think critically about a film, focus on the 7 core elements that make up a film:

  • Script
  • Directing
  • Acting
  • Production Design
  • Cinematography
  • Sound Design
  • Editing

Keep it Open

I mentioned earlier the importance of keeping an open mind. This mean that we have to watch  films that are panned by critics as well. There are a few benefits to this. First, we might find that we have a different way of thinking, that can help in developing our personal voice. Second, we can understand why the film was bad, and the pitfalls it made that other films can learn from. This also allows us to appreciate good films more as we then notice the elements that makes them good, as compared to the “bad” film.

A relevant question asked during the session, about changing our opinions, was on the panel’s thoughts on old films, panned on release, but benefited from a re-evaluation, like the famous ‘Vertigo’. Sing told us that “People gain insights from someone’s thoughts. If one reviewer suddenly makes sense, it might catch on.” He then brought up ‘Bugis Street’, noting that it gained in historical value as it showed how much Singapore has lost over time.

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Sean Tan is a student from Victoria Junior College and is a member of the Victoria Press.