Ever read a film review and felt like you’ve heard it before? That’s not surprising – many reviewers repeat the same phrases, tropes and irritations in their work until they’re as familiar as old boots.
We’ve decided to list the worst culprits here… while also acknowledging that yes, we’ve probably been guilty of some of these too. But we’ll try not to be from now on, honest guv!
1 Giving the director all the credit
Being a director is hard. We wouldn’t like to do it. On call day and night; worrying about budgets; wrangling actors, crew, producers and everybody else under the sun, including the sun itself if you’re shooting outdoors (good luck with that). On top of that, you’re trying to produce a film so great it’ll not only make money for the studio, but also have critics saying your name in revered tones, like they do with Akira Kurosawa, John Ford or Orson Welles.
However, in the vast majority of cases directors are not responsible for writing what they’re filming. They’re working from a script written by one, or more, screenwriters, and wouldn’t know how to whip up a screenplay themselves if you doubled their salary. And yet, when the film hits cinemas, critics talk about the film as if it’s theirs and theirs alone.
“Steven Spielberg’s ET!” Nope, actually Melissa Mathison wrote it.
“Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland!” Sure, if he changed his name to Linda Woolverton and worked from Lewis Carroll’s book.
“Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island!” Nope, it was adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Laeta Kalogridis.
We could go on, but you get the point. Some of this director-hyping is down to space: magazines in particular have to squeeze a lot of words on a page, and listing the team of eight writers behind the latest Transformers blockbuster might be a little tough. But forgetting them entirely and pretending the film was conjured from the mind of its director in an ultimate feat of auteur cinema? Bad form!
Give those writers their due – the film wouldn’t exist without them.
2 Calling female characters “the love interest”
Do we really have to explain why this is annoying? It’s obvious, right? Alas, critics the world over still dismiss a story’s female character as nothing more than someone for the main bloke to ogle, even when they actually have other things to do in the plot. Of course, many films do simply cast women to be a “love interest” and nothing else, so there is that, but reviewers should probably be criticising this, not supporting it by using the phrase so glibly, as though it’s perfectly acceptable.
Still don’t get the fuss? Just for a moment, then, imagine how different film-reviewing would be if all men in movies were described as the “love interest” for the female characters. Han Solo? Princess Leia’s love interest. Neo? Trinity’s bit on the side. Spock? That Vulcan bloke who pops up to snog Uhura from time to time. Wouldn’t that start to irritate you after a while? Review after review, day after day, year after year? Good. Let’s wipe out that phrase for all eternity and call it even.
3 Rolling out stock phrases
Films involving car chases are “high-octane”. An actioner is a “rollercoaster ride”. Comedies are a “fun romp”. A horror movie contains “pulse-pounding terror”. Cartoons are “for all the family”. A thriller is “edge-of-your-seat”. A stupid film is described as “leave your brain at the door” entertainment. Some movies do “what what it says on the tin”. Others should be avoided “like the plague”. Others are a “bloated mess” or “epic”.
Yup, you’ve heard them all, and many more like them, and that’s because it’s hard for reviewers not to fall into these patterns. You try writing three film reviews a week for years on end without repeating yourself, especially when so many of the films you see are mediocre, and therefore tough to sum up wittily while a deadline gallops towards you…
However, writing like this is still a form of laziness that needs to be reined in, lest it become ludicrous (such as the variations of “Brilliantly brilliant!” that you see on movie posters on a fairly regular basis). Clichés are clichés for a reason – they become white noise after a while and lose their meaning. And nobody being paid to write should be boring.
4 Being entitled/showing off
It seems to come as a surprise to some critics that films aren’t made for them and them alone. They’re so wrapped up in their little world of critiquing that they forget there are other people out there who might see a film simply because they want to be entertained, and these people might also want to take younger members of their family along, too. So when a movie comes out that dares to widen its audience by cutting out sex, violence and swearing (gasp!), these critics get rather unpleasantly annoyed.
Take Prometheus as an example. Many film journos, understandably, wanted an experience as terrifying as Ridley Scott’s Alien (whoops, sorry, Dan O’Bannon’s Alien) had been back in 1979. Therefore, when news of the movie’s 15 certificate hit, rather than the hoped-for 18, they were furious. Clearly, by ensuring the film reached a wider audience, the filmmakers had diluted it to such an extent that it would be crap. How dare they!
And okay, yes, in the end Prometheus wasn’t great, but the fact professional journalists had written it off before even seeing it spoke volumes about their entitlement.
(Also, for the record, we know casual viewers did the same thing, but film reviewers are supposed to be objective, aren’t they? Or at least, that’s the plan.)
The other thing critics can forget is a fairly crucial one: their audience. If you’re reviewing an unbroken camera shot at the start of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and comparing it to Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 historical masterpiece Russian Ark, you’re being a tad pretentious, no? Sure, Russian Ark is a cool film, but you can’t assume everybody reading your piece has seen it (unless you’re writing for Sight & Sound, of course). By name-dropping an obscure segment of Russian cinema, you sound a little bit as though you’re showing off, and you’re also making your readers feel inferior for not knowing the reference.
And yet critics do this a lot. Some may argue that they’re trying to broaden viewers’ minds, and that’s laudable. Just don’t do it so… well… smugly. Okay?
5 Giving away too much of the plot
Now this is a tough one. How do you review a film without revealing too much in the way of its story? If your review is 200 words, it’s a doddle. If it’s 1,000 words, you’re screwed. You want to analyse it, pick at it, unravel its weaknesses or expound on its triumphs, but you’re talking to people who haven’t seen it yet. All they want to know is if it’s worth them parting with their dosh – and they want to enjoy reading about why, without coming away knowing too much. What a tightrope walk.
The trouble is, while the vast majority of critics can navigate that thin wire with nonchalance, others simply don’t care about revealing spoilers – particularly in films they’re slating. If a film has a terrible ending, they’ll either reveal it or hint so strongly that people can guess it in advance. If a character dies, they’ll make a thinly veiled reference to there being some kind of tragedy, or that you’ll need tissues. If there’s a twist, they’ll gleefully build it up so that when you finally see the film, you’re trying to work it out rather than being blindsided by it.
But this kind of behaviour has to stop. As revered film critic Roger Ebert put it in an article from 2005: “The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.”
Of course, there is another factor to consider here. We’re now in an era in which film trailers ruin plotpoints simply by cramming so much into them. But that’s a discussion for another time…
What other things do reviewers do that annoy you (that isn’t just disagree with your opinions)? Let is know in the comments below!