Monday, January 27, 2014

Everything Wrong with Modern Film Criticism

I've debated if I should post what I'm about to say.  I think that reviewing other reviews is often a dangerous road to go down.  Whether you're the person behind the work that's being critiqued or just an interested party, there's rarely any good that can come from providing a dissection of other people's reviews.

But for the past week I've been annoyed by a trend that popped up in the reviews for my friends' movie Devil's Due.  Critics didn't receive it terribly well, though that's not unusual for a found-footage horror film.  As much as I liked it and hoped it would be well-received, I wasn't completely blindsided by the fact that critics made a meal of it.

But what did get under my skin is that I saw a number of reviews where it was clear that the reviewer didn't even give the film a chance.  When several paragraphs of a review focus not so much on the specifics of the film, but rather the reviewer's fatigue with found-footage, I think we have a problem.  I think when you're hired to review a specific movie, the focus should be reviewing the movie - not using the film as an excuse to get into your specific issues with a genre.

And the more I thought about this, the more I realized that my issues with these reviews were just scratching the surface of what was wrong with the way films today are examined.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start off by looking at statements like this one from Todd Gilchrist of The Wrap:

Generally speaking, I have no problem suspending disbelief in order to enjoy found-footage horror – of course there’s no good reason for them to film all of the time. But “Devil’s Due” distinguishes itself, much to its detriment, by making a huge show of the characters’ reasoning, and then packaging their entirely self-sustaining “home movies” in between recordings of a police interrogation of one of the survivors. 

And the fact that the police don’t seem to believe the suspect, despite what is very obviously a mountain of footage evidencing their innocence, suggests that they didn’t find, or see, the material we’re watching. So how exactly can you have a found footage movie, if no one finds it?

Unlike The Blair Witch Project, Devil's Due makes no claims that the footage we are seeing is an assembled documentary.  It merely uses the technique of telling the story through cameras that capture the action.  It's an approach that was used rather effectively in Chronicle, and it's apparent from the first time the film cuts to the perspective of a supermarket security camera that we aren't going to be wedded to Zach's own camera.

And yet Gilchrist wasn't the only reviewer who got hung up on this non-issue. spent half their review digging into this:

This is the problem: A found-footage movie is supposedly more than merely a film for our putative enjoyment. It’s supposed to be a document, an artifact, of the world it’s set in. If the found footage is from one source — say, the memory card from the videocam some idiot used to record an investigation into a witch legend, or a monster attack, or, ahem, his own honeymoon — then, sure, this one tape was literally “found.” But when the “found-footage” consists of material edited together from multiple sources in ways that fail all plausibility tests, then something is badly wrong. 

I mean, look: I can buy that Samantha McCall (Allison Miller: 17 Again), a newlywed young woman still in school who doesn’t even want to be pregnant yet and had taken responsible steps to prevent it, might have gotten knocked up by Old Scratch in some crazy evil candlelit rite in the basement of a nightclub in Santo Domingo. What I cannot figure out, for the life of me, is this: Who assembled this footage? It cannot be her husband, Zach (Zach Gilford: The Last Stand, Post Grad), the dude with the video-documenting fetish, because as the film opens, we’re seeing police-interview video of him covered in blood being asked to explain just what happened — which we know he won’t be able to do because what cop or lawyer or jury is gonna believe “it wasn’t me it was Satan”? (And we know it was Satan responsible for whatever we’re about to watch in flashback, because the title tells us so.) 

But even if we could concoct a scenario in which he is exonerated and goes on to do some editing, huge chunks of the film consist of footage from cameras Satan’s minions secrete in the McCall house and other material that he doesn’t have access to and, in other cases, is probably not even aware of. The only other possible explanation is that the minions of Satan did some editing (using Lucifer’s supernatural powers to find the other footage), but why? They’re doing all their demonic babymaking in secret: they’d hardly assemble in one handy place all the evidence against them that reveals their diabolical plan. 

And then we have Mountain Xpress harping on the same point:

We are supposed to believe that it was cobbled together (by whom, I have no clue) from home video footage and security cameras. Banana oil. It's just a jumble of shaky, wobbly images that couldn't possibly be what they're claimed to be. Granted, the whole found-footage premise is played out and pointless, but you could at least pretend this footage (including footage that's stolen by the satanists part-way through the proceedings) could be real. 

Need I remind you the film never "claims" to be an actual documentary?

Even the New York Times got in on the act:

Though apparently pieced together from a variety of sources — including supermarket and police interview tapes — the film never reveals who did the piecing.


This film and so many others in the genre seem to have abandoned the idea that this footage must conceivably be found at some point. Switching perspective to cameras that no one is ever going to find is a cheat, pure and simple.)

A "cheat?" Really?

And CraveOnline:

That element of the found footage genre – y'know, that the footage was actually found – is now completely absent, as evidenced in a film like Matt Bettinelli-Olpin's and Tyler Gillet's Devil's Due. The shaky-cam, low-watt filmmaking is now less an indicator of the would-be snuff film aesthetic that was once a highlight of these movies, and has been reduced to mere affect, style, and an easily mocked formula. In Devil's Due, perspective switches rapidly from the camcorder-happy protagonist, occasional security camera footage, and even numerous shots from mysterious hidden cameras insides the protagonists home (hidden cameras placed by… who could it be??). In such a case, you, as a viewer, can only begin asking the most inappropriate questions about who found all this footage, and why they are assembling it for us. 

I mean....

Riddle me this, Batman. When is a plothole not a plothole? When it's completely invented by the reviewer.  Is it fair for a critic to build a box, then flunk the film for not fitting into it when the film itself explicitly avoids that box?  That's really dirty pool.

Look, I'm not saying everyone should have loved Devil's Due, but I'd have a lot more respect for a negative review that seems to hate it for fair reasons. The Wrap's review also had this gem of an unfair attack:

Suffice it to say casting one of the stars of “Friday Night Lights” in a main role and hiring hugely recognizable character actor Sam Anderson (“Lost,” “WKRP”) further undermines any sense that this is real, much less believable. 

We're 15 years from the time of The Blair Witch Project, which was probably the last time you could effectively dupe an audience into believing that a found-footage movie was an actual documentary.  Part-and-parcel of that showmanship tends to be that filmmakers cast unfamiliar faces to further the pretense this actually happened.

The problem with that is that a lot of found-footage films suffer for exactly the result you'd expect when you cast a lot of untested talent - weak performances.  A genre with the potential for the greatest level of intimacy is then hobbled by showcasing inadequate interpreters for the drama.  This (and the Paranormal Activity series) is a major studio release.  Is there any portion of the audience that would buy a ticket to this expecting it's any more real than Jack Ryan?  It's not like anyone flipped out because Captain Kirk wasn't Captain Kirk, but rather a CIA analyst.

I'd point out that it's not too uncommon for found footage actors to end up in studio films soon after.  Even if the whole film marketing is predicated on fooling the audience into thinking this is all "real," that shelf life is pretty short when a year later, the leads are staring on a CW series or popping up in rom-coms.  Two stars of 2012's Project X ended up in rather high profile projects within a year of that film's release.  Alexis Knapp turned up in Pitch Perfect and Miles Teller starred in The Spectacular Now.

But for that matter, found footage has long been making use of known actors.  Let's look back six years to Cloverfield.  Lizzy Caplan was four years removed from a very visible part in Mean Girls, to say nothing of numerous TV roles in that time.  Odette Yustman and T.J. Miller had also each done a TV series and Mike Vogel and Jessica Lucas had even more extensive TV resumes.   The aforementioned Chronicle also made use of familiar talent.

So the idea that found footage must star complete unknowns hasn't existed for a long time.  Why is this still considered a valid attack on any film in this genre?

Also, it takes a special kind of balls to call out a film for being derivative while using a review gimmick explicitly stolen from another reviewer.

I miss Roger Ebert. He always judged a film by weighing what it accomplished against what it set out to achieve.  It was this approach that lead to an infamous argument with Gene Siskel over the fact Ebert gave Benji The Hunted a "thumbs up" on the same show where he gave Full Metal Jacket a "thumbs down."

Modern film criticism is in sad shape, and to some extent, I trace a lot of this back to Red Letter Media's original 70-minute video deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.  I think there's one very astute and absolutely brilliant insight in there.  At one point, the reviewer challenges Star Wars fans to describe franchise characters without referencing their occupation or their clothing.  As you might expect, those questioned are able to give very in-depth answers when describing Han Solo or C-3PO.  When the topic turns to prequel characters, they start grasping at straws.  It's a brilliant indictment of how thin the prequel characters often are, done in a very clever way.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the lesson too many took from Red Letter Media (and I include RLM himself in this indictment) is that what made the review awesome was that it had enough material to fill 70 minutes.  Thus it beget an even longer autopsy of Attack of the Clones in which the "flaws" felt more like fanboy whining and failed to be dissected in a manner half as amusing as in the original video.

But the agenda seemed to have shifted from giving interesting lessons about drama to providing a comprehensive checklist of every perceived "sin" of the prequels, no matter how small. This is the theory behind those incredibly annoying "Everything Wrong With..." videos that frequently take potshots at major films.  There they list everything they think is a sin, no matter how pedantic.  Sometimes they identify valid plotting and character issues - but those fair points are often listed alongside minor continuity errors and gaffes.

Quality of criticism appears to be less valued than quantity of criticism.  After all, the more things you find "wrong" with a film, and the more words you can generate in tearing it down, the more objectively worse it must be, right?  Give me a succinct Roger Ebert deconstruction any day over a review that takes longer to read or watch than a full episode of Siskel & Ebert.

(I fully realize the irony of taking such a stand in what has to be one of my longer posts of late.  Hopefully you find the multiple quotes from the Devil's Due reviews relevant.  I felt it was important to illustrate just how frequently the critics employed what I considered to be an irrelevant attack.)

When I was growing up, Roger Ebert's reviews encouraged me to look below the surface and explore my own feelings about a film.  He knew how to give his opinions in a way that provoked discussion and introspection, not as a bludgeon to convince his audience that his opinion was an absolute truth.  More than that, he was fair when he deconstructed a film and itemized its shortcomings.  Was he always perfect? No.  When he really hated a film, you could sometimes sense his passion get away from him.  But he tried - and more often than not, he succeeded.

When I read the work of most current critics, I think of Roger Ebert and am reminded of a quote from Hamlet: "I shall not look upon his like again."


  1. While I can certainly understand fatigue stemming from film reviewers (professional or otherwise) often parroting tiresome commentary regarding a specific flaw of a particular film -- I can also empathize how this frustration may have taken a peak when such criticisms are directed toward a college's own project -- at the same time, on several occasions, I feel most (note: "most") are often valid in the eyes of movie critics. I think as creators and fans of movies, we often forget that critics, also fans of the medium, have probably seen more films and within a broader breadth than most of us care to dedicate time watching. So when the uptenth found footage film breaks an aesthetic that a reviewer finds jarring, and depending on what exactly said "breaking" entails, I often give them the benefit of a doubt that they're onto something.

    If there is something that I personally find disheartening about film criticism, especially in the internet age, is what I can best describe as copy-paste criticism -- when reviewers seem to take notice of one prominent critique of a hot button film that shares their dismay re-post it (with their own flavor) as a proxy to their own critical analysis.

    1. TOTALLY on board with your last paragraph. To invoke the Red Letter Media reviews again, I got so sick of prequel haters merely passing it on with little of their own thoughts added beyond a remark about how this "proves" Episode I was "shit."

      Having seen this happen in a number of other instances, I feel like many times the person passing the review on is mostly just glad to find someone else who hates a film they hated. The reasons for their dislike are irrelevant - they're just empowered by being able to point to an authority who dislikes what they dislike.

  2. If there is no pretence to make us believe that the footage has been "found" then why not just make a movie without this affectation? I think the first two reviews you take extracts from in this piece make valid points about what is clearly a distracting issue. If the filmmaking constantly draws attention to itself, interferes with logic and impacts upon our ability to empathise with characters who, for some reason, won’t stop filming no matter what horrible stuff is happening, then surely commenting upon that aspect of it is fair game? The filmmakers surely could have made Devil’s Due as a straightforward horror, using camera angles and compositions that tell the story without always making us wonder who is behind the camera and why, but they made the creative decision to go down another route. If people had a better sense of their reasoning behind that choice rather than simply viewing it as an unnecessary gimmick then maybe they would give it a fairer shake.

    1. I agree with Philip - I don't understand the aesthetic choice of piecing together a film to make it look like "found footage", if it's not supposed to be "found footage". What's the reason for that? What does shooting in that style tell us about the story and the characters that shooting it in a more traditional way wouldn't tell us?

    2. Why is shooting in continuity / hyper-continuity and using "naturalistic" performances considered the default? What does shooting in that style tell us about the story and the characters?

    3. Because once you decide that the people shooting the movie are INSIDE the world of the movie, then they (and the footage that they shoot) become PART of the continuity of that world. They are therefore subject to all of the dictates of logic and physics and everything else that anything else in that world is subject to. In a third-person narrative, the camera is omniscient and is not part of the actual world that it is filming.

  3. I love your blog and I'm thankful for all the effort you put into it. But in this case I have to agree with the reviews cited and the previous commenters. You can't consciously embrace a very distinct and self-conscious aesthetic and structure for your film, and then claim that it never had any ambitions to be what both the aesthetic and the structure clearly communicate—found footage, assembled, not by some director and editor from another dimension, but by some means internally plausible within the onscreen world. Otherwise it's just a tired gimmick with no logic. I can understand embracing this aesthetic for budgetary reasons. Budgets are part of the reality of making films, but if you going to do that, then you need to justify that choice within the film, and reviewers are right to question a film that is missing such logic.

  4. Replies
    1. I liked Chronicle a lot, but the found footage aspect of it kept me from loving it because it didn't feel organic to the story. It often felt like it limited the story. Having not seen Devil's Due I can't speak for this particular instance, but from the reviews you quoted that seems to be the biggest criticism. Like Philip said above, if the answer to the "why?" of using a gimmick like found footage is "why not?" or "It'll look cool," like it so often felt with Chronicle, then perhaps the story is better served to be told more traditionally.

  5. Soooo... your buddy's movie got bad reviews, so now you hate film criticism? You might want to check over at the Done Deal Forums where people are talking about how horrible the Black List 3.0 is because they get low ratings.

    I know that's a dickish way to put it, but that's really how it comes off. I didn't see the Devil's Due, nor did I read any of the reviews of it, but if they seem nitpicky then I think it simply comes down to the fact that they weren't blown away by the movie. There was nothing in there that elevated it high enough for them to suspend their disbelief over all the minor flaws that kept popping up.

    I find myself in the same position with a lot of found footage films. If you're taking the time to do your story in this style, then I think the "why are your characters always filming" and "how did the final product get put together" are questions that come along with the genre. If you're not going to deal with them, then just do a straight up narrative.

    1. You're certainly free to take that interpretation of it, but I do want to underline the fact that with regard to Devil's Due reviews, I never said I took exception to ALL criticisms of it. I do take issue with these two specific attacks, however, and the fact that a number of reviews failed to probe much deeper than those attacks.

      There were a few reviews that were fairer in their criticisms. I don't necessarily agree with some of those points, but they were fair attacks, and often reasonably defended by the reviewer. With these guys, I detected a strong undercurrent of "Found footage sucks" from the start of their review, almost as if they went into the theatre already preparing their review. I saw some of that with THE MARKED ONES reviews, but not having seen the film, I don't really have much basis for calling those critiques out.

  6. I actually bickered with Todd Gilchrist about this exact point on twitter. How weird. (He's a good guy; honest.) I'd point you towards my FEARnet review of Devil's Due but it's not that important. Good piece.

    1. Whoa! The prolific Scott Weinberg! I'm a fan. I actually saw your review and thought it was one of the better and fairer assessments of the film. Nice work!

  7. I read this post and I couldn't help but laugh the whole way through because of the similar feelings I had after a similar experience.

    My experienced involved a prolific review from some guy i never heard of, taking acception to the fact I "spammed" him on twitter with a link to our trailer, when unbeknownst to me he was already reviewing our movie.

    He decided that offense and his asinine assumptions about who the filmmakers were (people he never met) and his bitterness over his beloved genre, was worthy of a review filled with misguided personal attacks and lies.

    He decided to spend most of his review attacking the financial motivations of producers who were first time filmmakers and ironically homeless when his review came out. His issue was, that our film looked to good so we must be bottom feeding professionals preying on his genre. What a presumptuous joke.

    He even went so far to convince people that we were shit, that he claimed in his review that "never in the history of movies had rape ever been depicted so crudely and classlessly on screen".

    Really, in the history of film? Even more amazing, there was NO rape in our film. Just one of several glaring inaccuracies.

    I was going to keep all of this to myself and then I got an even bigger laugh when I saw that this self righteous hypocrite had the nerve to comment on a topic like this.

    You never cease to amaze me Scott Weinberg. Your disgusting misguided review will only haunt you more and more as time goes on.

    You don't have to watch my crappy first film to see his review crossed several lines. Read his review and feel free to decide for yourselves. Ps Don't look into the fact they removed comments from only that review.

    If you'd like to see my dissertation on how wrong his personal assumptions and attacks were please read my response below.

    Oh I also took the time to give an accurate criticism of the film that is acctually unbiased, because I am my harshest critic and unlike someone else, I'm capable of being honest with myself and my audience.

  8. I see your point, but it reminds me of something my father once told me about first person narration. He preferred to know why and in what context the story was being told -- Holden Caulfield on the psychiatrist's couch in The Catcher in The Rye, rather than an amorphous unknowable dictation (From Nat's unconscious? From God? From Styron himself?) in Confessions of Nat Turner. Of course Styron's book was a critical and popular success, but I side with my Dad on this one. If someone is telling me the story I like knowing who they are and why; if it's found footage, I'd like to know how it was found.