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Are Audiences Becoming Too Picky?

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I remember a time when film critics were considered too picky. The general audience viewed them as writers living in Ivory Towers who scoffed at escapist blockbusters and merely praised obscure, independent films with subtitles. They were seen as too harsh on films that were merely meant to entertain an audience during the hot days of summer. This is, of course, an exaggeration as many critics praised crowd-pleasing works like those brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, David Lean and Frank Capra. While there was the rare pan for Star Wars from the likes of critics like Pauline Kael, the idea that critics were too picky and harsh on big blockbusters was an inaccuracy. That is still incorrect and in a strange way, the stereotypes seem to have switched. The general audience, that was seen as overly easy to please are now apparently too hard to please. It is not unusual these days to find critics liking certain top-grossing blockbusters more than the average viewer.

A recent example of this unprecedented phenomenon is Shane Black’s summer-starting superhero sequel Iron Man 3. The critics were genuinely pleased with the film, giving it solid marks for its action, sense of humour and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the post-Avengers traumatized Tony Stark. Audiences, especially comic book fans, were less than thrilled, finding the jokes tepid, Iron Man and the main antagonist to be weakly developed and were especially annoyed by how a out-of-left-field twist depicted a widely-recognised Marvel character. Incidentally, Iron Man 2 suffered a similar fate. While not quite receiving the glowing reviews of the first film, critics still enjoyed it for the rollicking blockbuster it was, but it was viewed as an extremely disappointing follow-up by almost everyone else.

Much of the hype surrounding the third film was that the change in director would lead to a superior effort. The general reception the first sequel received was enough for it to be seen as a mediocre film in retrospective. Richard Roeper, who praised Iron Man 2 in his initial review, called it a disappointment in his Iron Man 3 review. Why the sudden about face? To appease the less-than-rosy reception? Are critics now changing their opinions to match the consensus of general audiences? While I may not be the biggest fan of Pauline Kael’s style of reviewing, she did stick to her guns, even at the risk of losing employment.

Despite this recent trend, the perception of critics as those out to criticise and malign is still out there, even from the filmmakers themselves. At an international press conference to promote The Lone Ranger, lead actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer said the critics already had their knives out for their highly-budgeted blockbuster due to the reported production problems. This is utter nonsense, when critics had no problems with giving good reviews to World War Z this same summer, whose production difficulties and skyrocketed budget were much more widely reported. Following the critical drubbing given to Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, the director said he did not think the press should be allowed to go to free screenings of his work, if they were so willing to bash them. On the other hand, he has no problems with seeing professional critics heap positive quotes on his more acclaimed films.

Certainly Smith’s debut feature Clerks would have not been as widely seen, had film critics not given glowing reviews to the small, black-and-white amateur film. He even guest-starred in a number of episodes of Ebert & Roeper, so having filled in for one of the most renowned critics, his outburst seems especially odd, insulting and ungrateful towards that community. It is not simply the creators of the film that seek the need to spill bile towards critics, but even the readers themselves. Last year, Rotten Tomatoes disabled their comments section after anonymous users felt the need to bash and send death threats to critics who honestly did not like The Dark Knight Rises. The irony is that while most film reviewers gave Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy capper very strong marks, the public were less than enthusiastic when it finally opened in general release. They felt it was overlong, bloated and had poor story structure (which were, again ironically, sentiments shared by Christy Lemire, the former Associated Press critic who got the blunt of shameful and unnecessary attacks).

There needs to be some level of professionalism towards those in the press who review films with the knowledge that they do not walk into a lot of films with the intent to slam. BBC Radio Critic Mark Kermode admitted as such, upon reviewing Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, that despite his lack of enjoyment of the filmmaker’s other work, he nonetheless walked into the screening excited about his latest escapade (and no, not to rip it a new one, but because he was genuinely enthusiastic about what this non-action Bay effort would be like). In the mean time, with the rise of (albeit talented and humourous) web-series like “Honest Trailers”, audiences seem to walk into certain films with the intent to find flaws more than seeing the hard work filmmakers put on screen. While, yes, it is fun to explain why I don’t like a certain film, I got more joy from praising the likes of Spring Breakers or Epic than I did in panning Planes or The Smurfs 2.

It is understandable why film critics may seem like they have this attitude of gaining great joy from bashing the movies they watch, but one episode of Siskel & Ebert shows they had genuine excitement whenever they came across a film they loved (yes, even highly-budgeted mainstream ones). When they panned a film, it was with sorrow and disappointment that, in their opinion, the filmmaker did not do a better job. At the moment, it almost seems like critics have become nicer and audiences have become less enthusiastic about the films they watch. To counteract Kevin Smith’s opinion that free screenings makes critics more snippy, I think audiences paying their ten dollars leads to them being more willing to look at what doesn’t work rather than enjoying and appreciating a film’s finer points.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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