Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Empire Reviews

I have bought every copy of Empire magazine since I picked it up in an airport and broke my "no magazine" rule. After some months of viewing the critics reviews as gospel, I began to spot the tastes of particular reviewers, and sense when the magazine had adopted a certain stance toward a movie. This goes with the territory of running a national magazine that has to balance sales and a honed taste in cinema. What concerned me was the review of Terminator Salvation.

I had listened to Mark Kermode's rant on Radio 5 - and while I enjoy his reviews and listening every week - was waiting to see what the slightly less biased view from Empire was going to be (Kermode habitually takes umbrage to a particular point, and then is unable to view the film objectively; entertaining, but frustrating). All blockbuster reviews tend to have at least half a star added while the hype machine runs, but this can be taken into account.

For some reason though, the reviewer of this film lacked the confidence of their own convictions. They seemed apologetic of their praise, dusting off old clich├ęs to dress up an explanation that read more like trailer voice-over - "The film is propulsive, barely stopping for breath. There are exciting chases, suspenseful close calls, edge-of- your-seat battles and adrenaline-charged set-pieces."

There appears to be a desperate desire for this film to be good - "For a summer blockbuster, Terminator Salvation is bursting with plot and incident. Much of it even makes sense!".

A complaint made by other reviewers of McG's film, is how derivative it is; not a problem for Empire - "McG borrows from the styles of his peers to make something that breaks few barriers but works well on a visceral level".

Coming to the conclusion of the review, we are told of a flaw, that it finishes abruptly, but even after this, four stars are emblazoned below. I was left shocked at the low level of critique, even for a Summer tent pole release, and reminded of a very similar piece of work. The review for Danny Boyle's Sunshine.

Another four star review of a so-so film, and another range of excuses, albeit far better written. The film has a lot to commend it, with great attention spent on the visuals, the creation of a believable world, and focus on character. But this was movie that borrowed heavily from predecessors, according to Empire, unavoidably - "Do the limitless realms of space and the human psyche paradoxically only offer a finite number of ways for people to go bonkers?"

To imply that we should forgive Boyle rehashing old plot lines and far better films, as there are no new genre stories, is a weak argument to say the least. Consider how Donnie Darko approached time travel, or Brick's take on Raymond Chandler, and to a lesser extent, Children of Men's fresh angle on a simple road movie. There is originality to be found, and to deduce that we should stop trying to seek out what is new, is soul destroying.

To like a film that does not break boundaries and set new standards is far from a sin, but the film should nonetheless be given a review and rating that reflects its true status. For example, we all have our taste in art, perhaps the Impressionist period. Some artists, however, still paint in a style that apes Monet or Toulouse-Lautrec. This is not to say they are without talent, or those that buy their art are at fault. But those paintings will always be sold from gift shops, and not hung in the Louvre.


Cripesonfriday said...

Nice piece, I enjoyed Terminator but to suggest it is anything more than a 3/5 popcorn movie is laughable.I agree that magazines are reluctant to really slate a big movie for obvious reasons but to criticize a movie for being derivitive is surely the cornerstone of movie criticism. It is not the reviewers job to excuse the flaws in a film ( unless the lead died midway through the film or something)This is why I don't read reviews anymore, I just use Metacritic as a barometer.
And Mark Kermode can be a fun reviewer but does tend to sometimes attack a film purely because he enjoys insulting movies far more than he enjoys praising them.

streetpete said...

I enjoyed your latest blog immensely; a good point well made.
Unfortunately, we live in a time/world where everything has been done before and even if it hasn't, that is what "they" would tell us anyway. How else do you control people, but by keeping their creative imagination under lock and key? We are born with free will and, in our youth, develop the desire to make a mark on this world - to strife for innovation in our chosen field. This is slowly drained from us as we listen to those who say they know best and we quickly believe the propaganda. We live in fear - fear that we are destined not to make that difference. This descends into indifference and apathy rather too hastily for my liking.
Crtics ram-raid us with cliches, tautology, etc and we lap it up like the little pet poodles we've become. They keep their jobs with their glib remarks and we revere every word they spout.
Films, or anything creative, should be exposed on their own merits. Of course, there are only a handful of stories since man sentient beings walked this magical world, but it is up to us to re-invent them using tried and tested forms. Critics should be masters of their own art, the aesthetics of writing reviews, and give us some veracity and belief in their convictions. I want to know what someone felt and not for them to tell me how they feel.
I lost my thread sometime ago, but I would like to recommend that you pick up a copy of Robert McKee's "Story" - an excellent read on the aesthetics of story writing. Everyone should read Jorge Luis Borges' visionary masterpiece, "Labyrinths". And, if you want to hold on to your dreams, Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead". I honestly feel that critics would benefit from the aforementioned. Oh, they could perhaps throw in a bit of Lester Bangs and a dash of Hunter S Thompson, too.
Regrettably, as it stands, "The will to labelling is better than sex" - to paraphrase a well-known quote. Critics are lazy because they know we are.

Brandy said...

I have to ask--when it comes to summer blockbusters, are we really and truly concerned with those that include thought-provoking commentary about angsty life situations? Or are we more concerned about entertainment and getting out of a movie a way of leaving behind all of our problems for a short moment in our day, week, month, or however long between films? I do not know that this is so much about what the possibilities are of reviews or reviewers (or their laziness as the case my be), but more of a sign that the reviewer knows that it does not truly matter what he or she says, people are going to see it regardless. If the reviewer gives a so-so review, then we know that the movies is only going to be so-so, even if the wording is complimentary. However, I do not think it matters what the reviewer says, people are going to pay money to see it. I know I will.

Midnight Movies said...

Unfortunately yes, Empire Magazine have no integrity. The only place currently where you can read actual film criticism (aside from online blogging) is in Sight & Sound magazine. It is part of the BFI & thus receives some lottery funding, so, they have a responsibility to their readers/subscribers rather than to sponsors/advertisers. Plus, they don't rely on the moronic 'star rating' system because they actually use intellect and language to assess the films. I have no idea why people read/buy Empire magazine. It's got pretty pictures sure, but the words are empty and meaningless.

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