One of the struggles of being a film reviewer is staying true to your own opinions. It’s a thrilling and enervating thing to look back on all the films you’ve watched over the course of a year -some will have been great, some will have been average, some will have been utterly putrid -but there will always be one film that rankles at you. One film which causes you to question yourself.
It’s a massive temptation to give in to popular consensus and compromise your own thoughts, which is always a massive mistake. As a movie critic, I will always review a film for myself, not the person sat next to me, but I always have to consider the target audience. Of course, just because a film targets its audience effectively, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any good. However, the latter point will at least make said film condonable if not acceptable.
But what I’m specifically talking about are the dreaded movies which conjure up a critical consensus radically different to your own. Case in point: John Cusack’s new movie The Raven has a paltry aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes wavering around the 25% mark. The film is a fictional speculation about the last days of Edgar Allen Poe’s life, in which a serial killer starts murdering people according to Poe’s writings. The film has been dismissed for its apparently sloppy script, ham-fisted direction (from V for Vendetta’s James McTeigue) and boring performances.
I’m going to go out on a limb: I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it much more than the bloated behemoth John Carter, released concurrently, and which has a marginally better rating of 51%. But is it wrong to enjoy The Raven? Acclaimed Empire critic and horror expert Kim Newman slated the movie, and if anyone knows what they’re talking about with regard to these sorts of movies, it’s him.
But the fact is, I found it an entertaining and gripping watch -not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, and one suspects a more interesting film about Poe remains to be made, but watchable nonetheless. I liked the Sleepy Hollow-esque Gothic sweep of McTeigue’s direction (the film was shot in Belgrade); the script shows a sufficient amount of respect for Poe’s writing (it opens with a classic locked room mystery in the manner of Murders in the Rue Morgue); and Cusack darkens his screen persona to convey the mania and morbidity of the great man (examining a human heart accompanied by his pet racoon).
Of course, manoeuvering Poe into the framework of a standard detective story means the unpredictable, satirical edge to his writing is ironed out as the story moves towards the inevitable conclusion when the killer is unmasked. But at the same time, the strategy makes sense: Poe is credited as the inventor of the detective genre, and it’s a nice touch to fit him inside a classic murder mystery. Add to that some effectively grisly moments (pendulum, ahoy!) and I think I have enough reasons to support my liking the movie. Bear in mind, I’m not trying to convince the film’s detractors to like it; rather, I’m supplying evidence to support my own viewing.
To play Devil’s Advocate (only without Al Pacino going hoo-hah, hoo-hah), here’s a contrasting example. Last year, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive was released to near universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Adapted by Hossein Amini from James Sallis’ book, Ryan Gosling stars as the unnamed protagonist, by day a stunt driver for Hollywood, and by night a getaway driver for crims. When he gets mixed up in the personal life of his next door neighbour (Carey Mulligan) however, things spiral out of control and become increasingly violent.
The film owes an obvious debt to classic car chase movies such as The Driver and when the film pays homage to this terse, stripped down genre of moviemaking (largely in the first half), it’s terrific. Certainly, it boasts one of the greatest opening sequences to a film in 2011: Gosling and some hoods evading the police in the wake of a job, with the sounds of the car’s engine, the creak of Gosling’s riding gloves and the insistent tick-tock on the soundtrack creating a gripping atmosphere. It’s beautifully filmed by Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (stupidly excluded from the Oscars -the look of the film pays homage to Michael Mann’s Collateral in all the right ways).
But, but, but. We then come to the movie’s second half, and for me, the magic of the preceding 45 minutes fell away in a queasy stew of head splattering gore, which seemed to come from a completely different movie entirely. It wouldn’t be a problem had the movie established more effectively Gosling’s apparently psychotic persona. But, aside from a telling bar scene in which he threatens to kick someone’s teeth down their throat, the eruption of violence seems to come out of nowhere, and I felt cheated that I’d been led in believing it was going to be one type of movie, only for it to smack me around the head with gratuitous nastiness.
I’m aware that this is very much the minority opinion (although I’m certainly not the only one with this view -check out Kenneth Turan’s review in the Los Angeles Times), but I should stress I didn’t hate the film at all. On the contrary, it has many strengths, including the inspired against-the-grain casting of Albert Brooks as a violent mobster. The film was simply a game of two halves, and as a result didn’t make my top 10 list of 2011, unlike many other critics around the world.
But to give in and go soft on the movie simply because many other people enjoyed it would be betraying myself. It doesn’t simply apply to film reviewers -if a film has been rapturously applauded and you don’t like it, you have to say so. The key lies in how well you establish your argument. The ‘this film sucks and you is wrong’ mentality, so prevalent on IMDB and YouTube, doesn’t qualify as an effective argument because it’s fatuous and infantile. Contextualising the film and using evidence to support your views will see you through even the most controversial opinions.
At the same time, it’s important to recognise how fickle and amusing the very notion of opinion is. That is what earmarks film reviewers from average punters -the ability to recognise the validity of someone else’s opinion, no matter how ludicrous, as long as it’s well-reasoned. In which case, I have to be really on my game when claiming that Speed 2 is good for a laugh.