Having maintained this site for a number of years -- which, after all, is a REVIEW site -- opinions are what I’m constantly writing. I like this. I didn’t like this. And with these essays (separate from the short form reviews), I’m expressing opinions about even broader themes and topics.
As such, over the years I’ve often found myself thinking about the nature of opinions -- what’s a legitimate criticism and what isn’t? When have you gone too far, and when have you not gone far enough? Although one intellectually knows ones opinion is just that -- an opinion -- let’s face it, all of us, deep down inside tend to want to believe otherwise. That we are somehow expressing an objective truth, and any who disagree are “wrong“. And when I say “all of us”, I don’t just mean reviewers, but bus drivers or accountants, too. Most of us when we watch a movie or TV show (or read a book, etc.) invariably form an opinion about it -- whether we write it down or not.
But the trick is to try and maintain at least a degree of objectivity -- to be aware of your own biases and not let them overly colour your commentary.
Not only are we expressing opinions, but in a sense, we take on the role of advocate. If we like a movie, we want to convince others to like it, as well -- or at least, to give it a try (sometimes leading to reviewers misrepresenting the kind of film it is in order to convince people to see it). And if we don’t like it, we want to warn people away. (In the funny 1990s animated US sitcom, “The Critic”, the movie reviewer hero quits his job in one episode to become a truck driver -- but when he and his new found friends go to see a sci-fi movie, only to discover it’s a dull documentary, his friends tell him reviewers like him have a higher calling -- to save people like them from accidentally going to movies like that).
And in Canada, there’s an added level. Because even though the “modern” film and TV industry has been around since the 1960s, in many ways it’s still an industry that can be viewed as in its infancy. Or at least an arrested adolescence. The true commercial successes remain irregular and inconsistent, the biz never having fully coalesced into the well oiled machine that is Hollywood. As such, the industry is still viewed by many as being like wet clay…not yet hardened into a permanent form.
So everyone still sees in it endless possibilities…as long as it can be shaped properly. As long as -- to continue my arrested adolescent analogy -- it doesn’t start hanging out with the wrong crowd. So when reviewing movies and TV shows, often the reviewer isn’t just reviewing that particular production but (if only subconsciously) its place in the greater evolution of Canadian film.
So reviewers criticize movies, not just because they didn’t think it was well done…but because they didn’t like what it was trying to be, either. After all, if it should succeed, the danger is it would influence later films, the clay would set, and junior would grow up to be that man you didn’t want him to be.
And that seems to lead to a lot of hate in reviewing Canadian film and TV -- not just hate, but HATE! This was terrible! This was embarrassing! This was the-worst-thing-I’ve-EVER-seen-in-my-ENTIRE-life! And the hate can be contradictory -- a reviewer will hate this movie for being too Canadian, and hate another movie for not being Canadian enough; they will rage against one movie for being too ethnic…and another for not having enough ethnic actors in it. Honestly, more than a few times I think reviewers will decide they hate a movie ahead of time…then justify the why afterward. It can also lead to the opposite -- too much love. Movies where critics seem to be falling all over themselves to tell you how wonderful a movie is when, reading between the lines, you kind of infer that even the critic didn’t really like it that much.
Another factor, I suspect, is the incestuous nature of Canadian film and criticism, where people actually know each other, which can add a personal element to reviews (praising a movie…because you’re pals with the director; criticizing it because you know he‘s an A$$___e).
Obviously it’s hard to pin anything down. I mean, maybe the hysterical opinion really is sincere, the film really did strike the commentator precisely as they say it did. I’ve honestly seem movies that left me physically shaking with dislike -- and even I’m not entirely sure why!
But if you get too extreme in your reviews, it kind of undercuts the opinion somewhat. I mean, if you read a review of a decent budgeted movie with a recognizable cast, and the commentator says it was the worst movie EVER, and the acting was ALL TERRIBLE, etc. you can’t help thinking they are more interested in impressing you with their opinion (that they didn’t like it) than in giving an honest assessment of the film. I mean, worst film EVER? Really? Ever n’ ever??? All the actors were bad? Each and every one of ‘em???
Now sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in emotions. Some films really do just push all the wrong buttons for you. And sometimes, if you’re trying to sum up your reaction in just a few sentences, you don’t have the time (or gumption) to try and be even handed.
Sometimes critics are trying to be witty and clever and can’t resist that easy line, that snarky quip, being more concerned with how they phrase their review than in what they’re actually saying with it (note to filmmakers: try not to put the word “Dog” into the title of your film…it’s too easy a temptation for critics not to latch on to it).
I’ve been accused of being too harsh on movies…and far too kind, too. So I know it can be hard. And there are some reviews I’ve written I’ll look back over and go, “wow -- I was pretty mean!” But it was long enough ago that I don’t remember the film well enough to say whether I was unfair or not.
But generally, I’ve tried to be balanced. Some of the worst films I’ve seen, I’ll still spare a sentence or two to compliment an actor, or a plot point -- or even just the music or scenery. Part of that is because I’m trying to provide “constructive” criticism, not just criticism. If you want the movies to get better, it’s not enough just to say what sucks, but it helps to say what didn’t suck. More, it provides a better balanced review -- one the audience, and even the filmmaker himself, can take more seriously, knowing you were truly trying to assess the film, and not simply venting some personal rage and frustration on it. There are movies which, morally and politically, I haven‘t necessarily been in agreement with, yet I can still step outside myself enough to nonetheless recognize had entertaining aspects (yet I’ll still call the politics the way I see ‘em).
When reviewers review Hollywood films they didn’t like, they’ll still often take time out to compliment that reliable character actor, or at least suggest so-and-so deserves better material. That rarely -- if ever -- happens in reviews of Canadian films.
As I say, I think part of it is the reviewer takes it too personally -- in some cases, the reviewer in question (if the review is posted on a blog or a message board) might actually be a filmmaker himself, and you can suspect a whole other level of emotion at work (the commentator frustrated that this movie got financed…and his didn’t). But I was thinking about how there are a lot of people who regularly comment on Canadian film…and every time it’s to say how much this movie, or this TV show, sucked, was terrible, had nothing redeeming about it at all. And after a while you can find yourself thinking -- um, fellah, can’t you think of a single nice thing to say…even once…about anyone?
(Of course, I think it’s also because it’s easier to find common ground with negativity. If you hate something, even if someone else liked it, they still might appreciate your unstinting frankness…but if you liked something they didn’t, they’ll think you’re an uncritical dork. So commentators will just restrict themselves to saying negative things, because it’s safer than putting their neck out there and saying something positive. Better to be perceived as the man with impossibly high standards than the goof who likes dumb films! Everyone can agree Canadian films need to improve…but they’ll bitterly disagree about how or in what way).
Again -- it’s a grey area. After all, I tend to be pretty stingy in my 4 star reviews. Indeed, the majority of the reviews on my site are less than gushing. But as I say, I try -- more often than not -- to add some sugar to the medicine. I can still acknowledge when a movie (in my opinion) “almost” worked, or at least applaud a good performance or two.
And I’m not sure it does the industry -- or the reviewer’s credibility -- any good to just carpet bomb invectives over a production (or, alternately, to gush enthusiastically over a movie that even the reviewer acknowledges has major flaws).
I was thinking about this when I came upon a blog entry by Jim Henshaw -- one time TV writer/producer/actor now turned industry blogger and commentator. As a side point in one of his pieces (not even the main point) he refers to the recent Canadian co-produced mini-series of Ben Hur variously as “wretched crap”, “unwatchable drek” and something liable to induce “vomiting”…even going so far as to speculate whether the actors were drunk (although I’m sure he would say he just meant that last as a joke).
Okay, so maybe he really did hate the mini-series to that degree, but it seemed a pretty vituperative assessment for a $30 million international co-production with professional actors. But honestly, Henshaw’s comments are hardly the exception in a lot of modern commentary on movies and TV.
Since I’ve only seen part one of Ben Hur, I haven’t posted a review yet. But, I’ll admit, I have a certain soft spot for something of its ilk -- indeed, I’d actually love to see Canadians try and mount some sort “togas n’ broad swords” style epic, but with greater Canadian actor participation -- whether it be biblical, Roman, or “Clash of the Titans”-style fantasy. We’ve now got a crop of actors who are both actors, with chops, but also spend time in the gym -- Gabriel Hogan, Steve Bacic and others could easily play sword wielding he-men. I came upon another criticism of Ben Hur wondering why Canadians were making something that had “nothing to do with us” -- but, um, that’s the nature of historical epics. Hollywood made Ben Hur (at least twice) and it had no more to do with America than it does Canada (being as it’s set millennia ago).
My objection to Ben Hur is that I would like to have seen more Canadian actors in key parts. In an earlier essay, I commented that a trick producers use is to cast Canadians in Canadian movies in bit parts (reserving the good roles for non-Canadians) then give the Canadians prominent billing to create the illusion they had staring roles. In this case, Canadians Emily VanCamp and Kristin Kreuk received third and fourth billing -- pretty lofty positions. But Kreuk plays Ben Hur’s sister, who disappears part way through episode one and, if my memory of the plot serves, won’t appear again till the end. Not quite the fourth most important part in the movie. VanCamp, as the love interest, might warrant third billing…but only if her part gets considerably beefed up in part two. The only other Canadian I recognized (in part one) was Kris Holden-Ried, an actor I generally like, but so far, his part was so small, I’m not even sure if he was billed in the opening credits!
So how would I assess Ben Hur (based on, admittedly, only having seen the first half)? Generally favourable…but with reservations. Unlike Henshaw, I thought it was a well mounted, well acted production, that looked pretty lavish (for a TV movie). It held my interest. At the same time, it didn’t really surprise. And that could be a problem when we have to wait a week for the second half (that’s seven days to bleed momentum). I haven’t read the source novel, but I did see the 1950s movie a few years ago, and not too much here necessarily screamed why they felt a reinterpretation was necessary (even the star was of a similar physical type to Charlton Heston). The plot moves along and is entertaining…but rather formulaic in a pulp fiction way. For all its “serious’ pretensions, the plot could’ve been conceived by Alexandre Dumas, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Rafael Sabatini -- but they’d have provided more twists!
I’d argue a weakness was star Joseph Morgan -- even then, Morgan wasn’t bad. Not at all -- even if TV columnist Bill Brioux* did cheekily point out his vague resemblance to TV comedian, Gavin Crawford (*I initially credited that wry observation to another Canadian TV columnist, Bill Harris, but I think it was Brioux). But he didn’t really grab the screen or ignite the character -- a problem when he’s expected to carry us along for four hours! The problem might lie more with the script and direction -- the filmmakers forgot to really get under his skin, despite the narrative holding out the promise of a rich character arc. At one point Ben Hur, as a galley slave, makes some suggestions as to how to improve the rowing -- this is important, because it leads to a chain of events. But for some reason…we skip that scene. We have the characters discussing it after the fact, but that crucial -- even character defining -- scene, where he actually makes the suggestion, is omitted. And it’s hard to even imagine how it took place given the galley slaves tended to get whipped if they spoke out of turn.
BEN HUR: Hey, man, I’ve got an idea- (whish-CRACK!) Ow! No, seriously, I think I know- (whish-CRACK!) Hey! Cut it out! Listen to- (whish-CRACK!-whish-CRACK!!) Dude, that really hurts! (whish-CRACK!!-whish-CRACK!!!)
But, in general, unlike Henshaw I didn’t feel any need to vomit while watching Ben Hur. And even though I mentioned an affection for the idea of costume epics, it’s not that I necessarily have any blind passion for them on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, Ben Hur is kind of a curious story in that it is meant to be spiritually inspirational (the original novel billed as “A Tale of the Christ”) even as it’s made up. Yeah, okay, if you’re not religious, they’re all made up. But I mean, it’s not even based in biblical mythology, it‘s just the contrivance of a novelist.
So here’s a glass half empty/glass half full assessment -- in other words, if I was looking to say something negative, and looking to say something positive.
So what are some negatives about the new Ben Hur (based, imperfectly, on only having seen the first half -- my final assessment yet to be decided)? A bit predictable, occasionally smacking of a “Classics Illustrated“ feel, with the occasional action scenes a bit perfunctory. Sometimes skipping over the little character moments that might add greater depth to the bigger plot moments. A lead actor/character who is perfectly okay…but not necessarily more. The fact that in a 21st Century production set in ancient Israel, some of the actors should maybe look a little more Semitic. A sex scene that seemed a tad inappropriate given the movie’s, presumed, religious audience. Not enough Canadians in the cast (albeit, that doesn’t really relate to the entertainment value).
And the positive? Handsomely mounted, with good sets, locations, and costumes. Effective dialogue and a good pacing that is neither too sluggish nor too rushed (allowing the actors to play nuances, not just hit their marks). Good performances all around, with stand outs including Stephen Campbell Moore, Ray Winstone, and -- interestingly -- Krstin Kreuk, who imbues a steely intelligence into what could’ve been a throw away role.
So there you go: some pros and some cons. At this point, I’m more than comfortable giving Ben Hur a good review -- but, of course, there’s still two hour to go next Sunday. Plenty of time for it to lose me! So…we’ll see.
Maybe when writing about a Canadian film or TV show that they didn’t like, a reviewer/blogger/commentator should make the conscious effort to say one thing nice about it -- not to indemnify the movie from charges that it’s a bad movie, but simply to show the reviewer was genuinely thinking about it, and sincerely tried to weigh its strengths and weaknesses. And leave the hate at home.
Sometimes even a failing grade warrants an “E” for effort.
ADDED Apr. 8th: After writing and posting this, I realized I had completely forgot about one of the things that first inspired me to write about this topic! And that was the CBC documentary series, “Love, Hate & Propaganda” (appropriately titled given my essay’s topic), a series looking back at World War II era propaganda. Rather, I was inspired coming upon a blog/message board/whatever discussing it.
I’ve only seen one episode of “Love, Hate…” and it didn’t make much impression on me, pro or con. But on this message board it had made a big impression -- a very, very, negative impression. The posters HATED it, hated the CBC for airing it, hated host George Stroumboulopoulos (apparently just for existing), felt it was embarrassing, etc. Now aside from the passion of the animosity, were the reasons. As I say, they hated George Stroumboulopoulos, seeming because he wasn’t a “real” journalist -- but, um, he was just hosting the thing (lots of documentaries hire actors to narrate, people even less journalists than Stroumboulopoulos, and no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that ). Others hated it because they felt it was insensitive to rehash such a painful era -- um, okay, but given WW II era documentaries and even fiction films are a dime a dozen (the History Channel kind of uses them as its bread and butter) the CBC was hardly doing something everyone else isn’t doing.
Most interestingly, the vilifiers attacked the series (after apparently having seen only one episode) for its lack of “Canadianness”, ripping the CBC a new one for simply (in their minds) taking what they guessed was a non-Canadian documentary, then pretending it was Canadian by inserting Stroumboulopoulos as host. The problem with that argument was…it wasn’t true. Oh, I’m sure it was true about the one episode they had seen, but it wasn’t true of the series overall. In the episode I watched, which was broken up into four parts, two of those parts did explicitly involve a Canadian element -- one looked at the battle of Britain through the letters of a Canadian woman in London, the other examined the Canadian home front propaganda figure, Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl (even pointing out she pre-dated the similar US example, Rosie the Riveter). So these commentators worked themselves into a frenzy of outrage…over a false issue. Why? Why rush to judgement, and with such “just add water” instant outrage? Why condemn an entire series…after having seen only one episode? I think it’s because of what I’ve said -- they wanted to hate it. They expected to hate it before they had even watched two seconds of footage, and the why was just filled in after the fact.
That’s a problem the CBC itself runs into, as people will often condemn and attack it over some pretty questionable issues. Recently I’ve seen a few places where people denounce the CBC for filling up its schedule with non-Canadian productions, or co-productions like the earlier referenced Ben Hur -- the reason this is bizarre is because the CBC still airs more Canadian content per week than any other network (possibly more than the other networks combined)!
Anyway, I just wanted to add this bit about the reaction to “Love, Hate & Propaganda” because -- I thought -- it was a good illustration of my point.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
April 7, 2010
Back to The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies