Movie Reviewer Confidential: Director’s Cut

I was invited by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) to participate as a panelist at their “Critical Conversations” event on April 21st. They asked me to contribute something for their blog. I did, but it was too long. The following is the unedited “Director’s Cut” version of my contribution:

I have been asked on numerous occasions “what makes you so special that you get to write about movies in the newspaper?” It’s a fair question, to be honest. The truthful answer is that I was perseverant in convincing the editors at the Chronicle Journal that they needed a local perspective on new release movies, as opposed to (or at least in addition to) the professional (yet often pretentious and patronizing) reviews they publish.

I would regularly post long, rambling rants about movies on Facebook, and a few people commented that they enjoyed reading my take on film, and have I considered writing professionally about movies, etc. My cousin Mark was the one that reached out to me and told me that I should pursue it. And, taking his advice, I made it happen. Thanks Mark!
I sent a few emails back and forth with the CJ for a while. It eventually led to them asking me for a sample of my writing, then a sample of something about a current film, then a sample of something that was only 400 words in length. After hearing nothing for a while, I randomly got an email from the CJ in October of 2010 asking for a review of a recent film, and they needed it ASAP! 

Elated, I giddily checked the new releases and saw that the first film I would get to write about was Saw VII. That was a fun review to write. The CJ was impressed enough with my writing abilities that they offered me the opportunity to contribute a weekly movie review, which I am eternally grateful for, and have been providing to the CJ ever since. 

I understand, however, that what people mean when they ask me why I get to write about movies for the local newspaper, they aren’t asking me how I got the gig, they are really asking me why I get to. I was told by someone “so you like movies, big deal! Hey, I like food, maybe I should write for the paper about food! What makes you so special that you get to write about movies?” 

OK, fair enough. First of all, I present a disclaimer: I do not consider myself a “Film Critic”. That is a title reserved for the likes of Richard Crouse, Leonard Maltin and the late Roger Ebert. I consider myself a “movie reviewer”. Whats the difference, you ask? A critic, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally.” Sure, I suppose by definition I judge the merits of artistic works professionally, but I consider myself a film enthusiast, and not a film historian. I am not approaching my reviews with the intent of academic criticism. I am not a film scholar, and while I may touch on various aspects of film theory or the technical aspects of filmmaking in some of my reviews, I am primarily informed through my enthusiasm for and self-taught knowledge of film. My reasoning for judging the merits of film is not to have my little articles join the annals of film criticism history. Instead, I am reviewing films to try and inform the average movie-goer about what’s new, what they might like, and what they may want to stay away from, from the perspective of an average filmgoer. 

But I do bring something to the table beyond what the average movie-goer does, and that is my ability to write about art, and my ability to separate subjectivity and objectivity. These two skills come from four years of studying art, art theory and art criticism, and writing about art. I admit that a 400 word limit is not nearly enough to truly present a formal critical analysis of a film in a manner anywhere near similar to how I would have written about art during my studies, but the basics are still there. 

I try to present my views on a particular film in a way that is understandable by my readers and relates to their perspective. I recognize that a fair portion of the movie-going public primarily cares about who’s in the movie, what’s the story, does it have a connection to a pre-existing franchise that they enjoy, and maybe who directed it. I also recognize that the general movie-going public will also appreciate awesome special effects and beautiful cinematography in addition to a good story and great acting, but might not realize that they may also be interested in knowing who shot the film or how the special effects were created, etc. I see it as my job to present interesting information about a film and how it was made, in addition to my own informed opinion, all while juggling the 400 word limit that I often exceed. 

Opinion is the most subjective part of a review, of course. My taste in film may differ greatly from yours, but I always try and base my opinion from an informed place. One of my greatest pet peeves is when someone proclaims that something “sucks” or is “the best ever”. You may prefer one thing more than something else; that is an opinion. It get’s tricky when subjectivity and objectivity begin to dance together. For example, a guilty pleasure of mine is the Transformers franchise. I could technically proclaim that Transformers: Age of Extinction sucks, and then back that up as a statement of fact by pointing out the shoddy directing, poor dialogue, lazy script, bloated plot and many more cringe-worthy aspects of the film. However, I enjoyed it. It was fun to watch. It had cool effects, it was action-packed and featured childhood characters that brought me a sense of nostalgia that made me happy. In spite of the fact that I enjoyed the film, I would never proclaim it as the best movie ever the way my 9-year-old self might have. 

Alternatively, if I were to proclaim that The Godfather sucks simply because it was long, didn’t hold my attention and wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed watching, I would look like a fool. Objectively, The Godfather is one of (if not the) greatest films of all-time. (Oh and for the record, I LOVE The Godfather). 

One of the things I also try to do when presenting a review of a film to my readers is to know what type of movie I am reviewing. In my opinion, there is no way that there can be a single linear list of movies ranging from best to worst. I personally have two lists: a list of my FAVOURITE movies of all time, and a list of what I think are the BEST movies of all time. Some titles may appear on both lists, but for the most part each list is comprised of different titles. The trick, from a reviewer’s perspective, is to write a review that discusses the film from the context in which it was created and exists. I would never approach a review of The Godfather, Black Swan, The King’s Speech or Moonlight the same way that I would approach a review of The Avengers, Transformers or Smurfs 2. 

While I consider film to be an art form, films are created for many different reasons, the same way other art forms are utilized to create art for different reasons. Sometimes a film is a movie, a big-budget product meant to appeal to the masses in an effort to make the most money; other times, a film is a work of art, difficult to watch and not as easily accessible by people who aren’t interested in those types of movies. I respect both types of film, which I think is important. It’s so easy to dismiss movies that are created as entertainments simply because they lack the artistic merits or integrity of a movie that is being created to function solely as art. I get very excited when those rare films come along that are comprised of both worlds. Movies that have mass appeal but also exude artistry and challenge viewers, all while receiving both critical and box office success. 

There are so many more things I can ramble on about, but I will end here. What I want to leave you with is a piece of advice. Go into the theatres with an open mind. Open yourself up to new film-going experiences. If you are someone that scoffs at the idea of watching a lowly, lowly comic book movie, give one a try! If you only ever watch the bubblegum popcorn flicks, try watching a film that you’ve never heard of! You will be surprised to discover that there are many gateways and connections between the various genres. Yes there is a lot of crap out there, but it’s so exciting to find the really great films hidden amongst the dungheaps.      

7 thoughts on “Movie Reviewer Confidential: Director’s Cut

  1. Congrats on the invitation to be a panelist for a NOWW Ryan.
    A good, quick history of how you came to be writing movie reviews. I know you love films, and that interest shows in your reviews. You are more than qualified to write them, let the nay-sayers complain. Just ignore them. Keep on doing what you are doing.
    Anything that encourages people to explore outside the comfort zone is a good thing. Keep us the good work!


  2. Love that you quoted Oxford, such an Ignatius thing. ha ha ha

    I agree, going out of your comfort zone is key. I begged and bartered with my girl friends to just take a chance on Deadpool, and now they all swoon over Wade Wilson.

    Mission Accomplished.


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