Friday, August 5, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: Why Are the Critics So Blue?

Each week in the summertime, film critics and pundits prognosticate which movie opening that Friday will be the biggest Box Office draw over the upcoming weekend.  Well, last week, the critical blogosphere was set a-"Twitter" when the Sony Pictures kiddie flick The Smurfs eked out a slight edge over the Spielberg-produced western/sci-fi film Cowboys & Aliens.  Now, this wasn't the first weekend ever that the pundits were mistaken or misjudged the bankability of a film.  This was, however, one of the few times in recent memory when the numbers were so close and both films were not entirely beloved by the critics.  In fact, before last Friday's opening, The Smurfs had a critical rating of 0% on (since then the rating has gone up, slightly, to 21%).  Cowboys & Aliens fared little better with those same critics gaining a 44% from the site.  Which is not good compared to other recent Summer fare like the final Harry Potter (which earned a 97%), Captain America (a 79%) and Crazy, Stupid Love (which also opened last weekend with a 75%).  To some, the critics were still proving that they have lost touch with audiences (Meaning: Critics = Snobs!).  To others, it was another example that the general pop culture masses worship the lowest common denominator (in other words: People like Sh--!).  I, personally, saw it as a mix of both of those with a slight edge that we haven't quite seen before but has only popped up recently.

In these days of constant technology and everybody-and-their-brother blogging (and yes, I recognize the irony!), there are so many voices out there and each of those voices/opinions can get very critical (Believe me, I know!).  With so many opinions flying trough the web, it becomes harder to decipher which person should be listened to and which "critic" would agree with an audience member's taste most.  And since film -like most other artistic mediums (TV, Theatre, Art, Music, etc.)- is completely subjective, everybody's tastes differ and what people look for in what entertains them shifts from person to person.  With that (obvious!) fact stated, it is not a surprise that critics and audiences will differ and it's sometimes surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

But this past weekend was different.  Why?  Because I believe (In my little opinion!) that there was a little bit of a cause-and-effect happening here.  To me, it wasn't surprising that The Smurfs made money because Sony Pictures used the same marketing campaign 20th Century Fox did back in 2007 for their more-than-modest kiddie hit Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Both films obviously had "kid appeal" and those kids drooling to see the movie(s) would drag their parents to the movie theater (most likely around Opening Day!).  But I sensed there was something else going on as the pundits closely watched the numbers over this past weekend.  It also seemed that the more the critics disliked The Smurfs and the more bad reviews the film received, the more there were people going to see it.  It's like these audiences were saying to themselves: "Well, it can't be that bad!"  (NOTE: I have yet to see the movie, so I don't know exactly how bad or good it is!)

In my childhood (back when The Smurfs was just a fun Saturday morning TV cartoon!), film critics were just a bit more respected.  We didn't always agree with them, but we respected their opinions and realized that this was their job and they knew what they were talking about (most of the time!).  Now, with everyone able to be a "critic" and with this day of instant-anonymous commenting, audiences want to try and judge for themselves.  Audiences have kind of woken up and realized that they can do what the likes of Bosley Cowther, Pauline Kael and Gene Siskel did (and what the likes of Roger Ebert, Peter Travers and Leonard Maltin still do!).

A lot of this also comes on the heels of a devastating Oscar season for the film critics.  Last year, David Fincher's edgy The Social Network was winning every Critics' Prize along the pipeline (including the Golden Globe!).  But come Oscar night in February 2011, it won only 3 awards and none of them were Best Picture or Best Director.  The winner in those categories was the sentimental audience favorite The King's Speech.  A couple Oscar analysts summed it up to the fact that the critics were too soon with their praise and awards and were also to universal in their praise.  They pointed it out that it is rare that every critic likes the same film.  So, this past weekend, I feel that the audiences who went to see The Smurfs (and walked out saying that they liked it!) were responding to the rarity that every critic hates the same film.

I would like to point out one other thing before I let you all go (probably to go see The Smurfs!).  In every review I read of the kiddie flick, I noticed that the critics' distaste for the movie did not come from the film itself (although it is said to be pretty bad!).  It seemed that the critics (some of whom had general praise for star Neil Patrick Harris) were more disgusted with this specific genre.  This type of kids movie based on some nostalgic children's icon of the past that is really made by a studio for the purposes of making money.  Every single review I read (and I read practically all of them in research for this column!) bemoaned this corporate stronghold within the Hollywood community that just markets a product and not a quality film.  But this Critics vs. Corporate (re: Art vs. Commerce) debate has raged on for years and with the results from last weekend, it isn't likely to stop anytime soon!

But what do you think readers?  Have film critics completely lost touch?  Do audiences love a film more when the critics hate it?  Or do audiences truly just enjoy low quality films (or TV shows)?  And what effect will this have in the future if this is what our kids are loving when it comes to entertainment?  Or do people just not give a rat's a--? Speaking of rats, before you all want to let loose on the critics and begin "the hate," I want you to take a look at this scene from the 2007 Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille which best describes what a critic is all about.

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