I don’t read reviews

Listening to the latest Filmspotting, where they talk about and remember the late Roger Ebert, Adam Kempenaar notes that he never reads reviews of films he hasn’t seen yet. I think Slate’s Dana Stevens said something similar on the Culture Gabfest‘s segment on Ebert earlier this week.

This makes sense, for them. They are film critics and want to see a movie (and write a review, I imagine) with as “fresh” a pair of eyes as possible. (Kempenaar also said many times that he avoids trailers.)

I, too, don’t like to watch trailers or read reviews for movies I haven’t seen. I follow Stevens on Twitter and enjoy her writing there and of course the Culture Gabfest is one of my favorite podcasts, but I don’t read her reviews of new movies. Similarly, I regularly skip the review portion of Filmspotting, at least if there’s a good chance I will see the movie in the near future. After seeing a film, though, my routine is to a) read the “Trivia” section of the film’s IMDb page (where else might one learn that X-Men: First Class “is the second time that January Jones has been cast in 1962 opposite an actor with a pork based name”?), b) read Dana Stevens’ review, c) listen back to Filmspotting’s discussion, if there was one.

Obviously movie reviews are meant to be read and listened to by people who have not seen the movie. This is why they have to be vague when it comes to plot details that might happen later in the story, can only hint at twist endings and, in general, are not the place to go if you want in-depth analysis. (Although Filmspotting, while avoiding spoilers, does go deeper into the themes and motivations of the subject than a print review might. Which I like – after I’ve seen the movie.)

I’m too young and too born-in-the-wrong-country to have ever watched Siskel & Ebert on television (although I do remember being aware enough of them that when Gene Siskel died in 1999 I was sincerely saddened), but the format of two or even more people having a conversation about movies (like they do on Filmspotting) is one I find very appealing – under the right circumstances.

Critic-at-large John Powers bemoaned the binary conclusion of Siskel and Ebert’s reviews when he talked about Ebert on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2011:

The trademark feature of “Sneak Previews” was that moment when Ebert and Siskel gave movies thumbs up or thumbs down, a hugely influential shtick that reduced film criticism to a simple-minded consumer guide in which ideas barely matter.

True. But in deciding whether I want to watch a movie in the theater, wait for the home video release or skip it entirely, I don’t go to any exhaustive discussions of the work – I check the IMDb rating, the Rotten Tomatoes score and the general vibe I get on Twitter. (The people behind and in the movie play a role in the decision as well, of course.)

Once I’ve seen it, though, I want all the discussion I can get. And not one where you have to be careful not to spoil anything or have to sweep half of the movie under the rug.

The best place for this kind of conversation on the web, as far as I know, are Slate’s Spoiler Specials featuring Dana Stevens and various guests.

But that leaves a whole lot of reviews and discussions that go too far if you haven’t seen the movie and want to avoid spoilers but not far enough once you’ve seen it and want to know what the critic made of important plot-twists and character motivations.

Am I alone (or in the minority) on this? I gotta be – if people didn’t read them there wouldn’t be movie reviews anymore. But isn’t there a demand for more full-on discussions of movies?

Any critics (professional or amateur) reading this, don’t you wish you didn’t have to tip-toe around the story’s surprises and give up deeper analysis in fear of “ruining” the movie for the reader?

One thought on “I don’t read reviews

  1. I’m with you: no reading or listening to reviews before seeing a film. I stopped reading reviews beforehand after a supposedly non-spoiler review gave me just enough information to figure out “The Sixth Sense” before I saw it. Grrr…

    However, fear of spoilers isn’t the only reason why I don’t read reviews in advance. I also don’t want go into a film with someone else’s opinion unduly influencing me. It works both ways — often I won’t tell friends what I think of a movie if I’ve seen it before them, because I don’t want to give them any preconceived notions about it. The only exceptions are if they’re not planning to see the film anyway or if they’re wavering about seeing a film and I feel strongly one way or the other (“Yes, go see it!” or “Don’t do it!”).

    Also, like you, the first thing I do after seeing a film is to check its IMDB page. I check the bulletin boards in addition to the Trivia section. Yes, you have to wade through all the trolling, but you can often find nuggets of information, insights, or merely funny comments that can be entertaining. The comments on “The Fountain” were invaluable to helping me understand and appreciate the film more! Plus I like seeing if anyone else had the same reactions — the same likes, dislikes, and nitpicks — to a movie that I did (validation).

    Then I read reviews. I usually go to the Movie Review Query Engine — mrqe.com (“marquee” — clever, eh?) — for links to reviews for a film. I read reviews partly for validation and partly for insights that I missed. As an aside, I’m surprised by how often critics get plot details wrong. Granted, they’re usually not major plot developments, and maybe taking notes during the film makes them miss these details, but, depending on the gaffe, it can make me question the value of the reviewer’s opinion.

    I will read reviews before seeing a film if I’m not planning to see the movie. Once in a blue moon, a review will make me see a film that I might not normally rush out to see. The results have been mixed. I got suckered into seeing “The Mill and the Cross,” based on its reviews, got two friends to see it with me, and regretted it. Nice visuals, but what a snooze-fest! I also saw “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” because of the raves it was getting — including Dana Stevens’ review (“If you are a member of the human race, you should see this movie”). Is it sacrilege to say that I was underwhelmed?

    On the flip side, seeing the New York Times slideshow of visuals from “The Fall,” (accompanying this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/movies/11kehr.html) was enough to convince me that I had to see the film. And many years ago, I went to see an obscure Canadian film, “Perfectly Normal” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100347/reference), thanks to a positive review in our free weekly paper. Those two films — “The Fall” and “Perfectly Normal” — are my top two favorite hidden gems. Alas, “Perfectly Normal” is old enough and obscure enough that it’s not available on DVD (I still have the VHS). You won’t find a better mix of hockey and opera in a film!

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