Movie critics get fooled, too

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If you have ever placed the good judgment and viewing skills of film critics on a pedestal, if you always check reviews before deciding to watch a movie, and if you avoid anything that’s popular but critically panned, I urge you to watch a film many critics named one of the best of 2012: “Cosmopolis.”

It is also one of the worst films of the year.

“Cosmopolis” is directed by Canadian David Cronenberg (also responsible for “Videodrome,” “The Dead Zone,” and “A History of Violence”) and stars Robert Pattinson as an obscenely rich young man riding through New York City in a limo and encountering all sorts of characters while he loses his entire fortune in the course of one trading day.

The film was praised for its topical plot, its shrewd casting and its brilliant adaptation of ideas from its source novel by Don DeLillo.

One critic even placed it on her ballot when voting for the 10 best films ever.

Despite only a modest rating (65 per cent) on the public review site Rotten Tomatoes, many year-end lists and polls placed it in the Top 10 of 2012.

But the movie is objectively bad.

Not only is it simply not enjoyable to watch (the first hurdle for any marketed entertainment), the story itself is badly told.

We are told that he’s a brilliant investor, but we’re not shown that — leaving the audience unconvinced.

His character is completely unsympathetic (and intentionally so), but then we are expected to believe in his crying fit during the funeral procession of a man we never see (alive). Finally, the climactic scene is interminable, and clichéd in just the most embarrassing ways. (“Fight Club” did something similar, with similar themes, 13 years ago. Then, it was original. And good.)

The lesson? We all know filmgoers can be fooled by flashy previews or sequences that appeal more to the gut or heart than to the brain.

Many big film studios exploit this and already have your money by the time you realize your disappointment.

Film critics are supposed to be above this, but there are a whole other set of movie manipulations that are aimed at critics and trip them time and again.

They are mesmerized in the same way by fancy shots, high-minded dialogue and quirky character behaviour. And in both cases, what gets ignored is whether the story (conveyed by the writing and directing) is compelling and makes sense.

That’s the hardest thing for a movie to do right, but when it does the results are transcendent.

“The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Godfather,” and “The Social Network” are all endlessly re-watchable because the story, characters and cinematic presentation of each resonate deeply.

That’s what we should look for, but like a pickpocket, the studios make you look the other way while they take your money.

Though many film critics are unreliable, film criticism itself is a valid form of journalism with many excellent practitioners (try Googling: Wesley Morris, Philip French, Mike D’Angelo, and David Denby; my own far inferior blog is at letterboxd.com/khannaford).

Good critics occasionally exercise bad judgment (all but one of the above were fooled by “Cosmopolis”), but largely they watch sharply and construct reasonable arguments to ground their verdict.

The savvy viewer would be wise to sample many critics (at mrqe.com, say) and choose to read regularly the ones whose judgment they trust.

Then you can avoid being distracted while your pockets are emptied.

Keith Hannaford writes from St. John’s.

Geographic location: New York City

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Recent comments

  • wavy
    February 07, 2013 - 11:10

    No David, you're just a rude, condescending and pretentious arsehole who's only motivation for getting on the Telegram discussion boards is to verbally attack and insult other people's opinions to get a rise out of them. Time for you to get a life, man.

    • david
      February 07, 2013 - 11:20

      Would you be the pot, or the kettle? I'm sure it's just wooosh...right over your swollen-but-vaccous head.

    • wavy
      February 07, 2013 - 11:54

      And there you go again with the personal attacks; you really are a one-trick pony, aren't you David? Time for someone to call you out on your BS. It must be exhausting being so miserable, purposeless and insignificant you feel compelled to cowardly berate others from the safety of your keyboard. Do have nothing more to offer?

  • wavy
    February 07, 2013 - 11:03

    Interesting read, Keith. For me, if I had to pick just one, you could add "Fargo" to that list of endlessly re-watchable films. How do you think critical reception impacts the process of nominations and handing-out of industry awards such as the Oscars, SAGs, etc.? Everyone has an opinion on and can think of at least one movie per year that, despite receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, is seemingly deemed unworthy of such accolades and therefore gets shut out during awards season; these often tend to be big-budget, Hollywood blockbuster-type movies. For example, The Dark Night Rises and The Avengers were two of the best reviewed movies of 2012 yet came up empty as nominees in major Oscar categories. Thoughts?

    • fogNL
      February 07, 2013 - 11:24

      I haven't seen The Avengers, but I did see the Dark Knight Rises. I'm not much into the "super hero" movies, but, I did watch the first two of this trilogy, and for the most part, they were pretty decent. I came out of Dark Knight Rises almost laughing at how bad it was. So many things just didn't make sense, and there were huge plot holes, cliche dialog, etc. There's too much to really dig into right now, but, in my opinion, it was terrible as a whole. Now, as for "hollywood blockbuster", big spending, specialist effects, etc., it was good. But the only way I could have enjoyed that movie was to switch my logical brain off and just be wow'd by the presentation.

    • Keith Hannaford
      February 07, 2013 - 12:06

      I'm interested in films that are made artfully. (However, that's not to say that I see much worth in films so dense and avant-garde that even the average engaged, intelligent viewer can't interpret them.) While great entertainments, I don't think Avengers or TDKR can quite touch the films Oscar is honouring (even if they themselves aren't even quite the best). The most well-made superhero movie I've seen lately, however, is Chronicle. That's one movie I wish the Oscars hadn't overlooked. Watch that then re-watch the Avengers and see which you'll be thinking more about the next day. // Fargo is a dear favorite of mine as well. As for Oscars, SAGs, etc., critical reception doesn't have much input a) because of politics and b) because critical reception these days can provide little consensus. But if you watch all Best Picture nominees, you're guaranteed to watch at least 3 or 4 genuinely good movies (I recommend Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook of the ones I've seen so far; didn't care for Beasts of the Southern Wild or The Master).

  • david
    February 07, 2013 - 08:41

    Keith, do you understand how inherently corrupt the "movie reviewing" industry is? Disregrading that important issue, do you understand the basic concept of an opinion? In short, you simply don't seem 'aware' enough to be involved in this endeavor.

    • Keith Hannaford
      February 07, 2013 - 09:26

      I understand that ""movie reviewing"" is a dying industry and a growing art form. Reviewers are being sacked left, right and center because print media can no longer justify the cost of employing them, given the rise of labour-of-love criticism on the internet. But that is precisely where the art is flourishing; the internet has given many small critics a chance to be heard and each one has so original a philosophy that those seeking them out can easily find a soul-mate. If we submit to the "just my opinion" viewpoint, we strip all the fun out of art criticism. If you think that way, you haven't got the disposition to be a critic. A critic has to believe that movie reviewing has an objective basis; indeed it has more than one. You can judge movies by their theme or message, by their storytelling coherence, by their popular appeal, etc. (I choose storytelling more often than not). There are rules to how you tell a story or express a theme or manipulate audience reactions and arguing about whether those rules have been broken is a legitimate and fascinating activity, one it seems you'd best avoid.

    • david
      February 07, 2013 - 09:47

      One other thng...you have too thin a skin for it, too.