Monday, September 21, 2009

Question of the Day: Do your initial reactions towards a film change over time?

Our question today comes courtesy of Jason Bellamy from The Cooler fame. I don't really need to pimp the blog much because I am sure that all of you already visit Jason's superb site. Here's what Jason was curious about (it's a great question, too):

Generally speaking, are your first reactions to movies overly forgiving (too positive in retrospect) or overly critical (too negative in retrospect)?

My assumption is that the average (few times a year) moviegoer tends to like most things he/she goes to, in part because they only go to things they think they will like and want to like. But what about die-hard moviegoers, bloggers, critics? We see more movies, so that suggests we're harder to please. Then again, we love movies in general more than the person who only sees a few a year, right? So maybe we work harder to like things that, at first glance, don't seem like much. But the spirit of the question isn't 'Do you tend to like or dislike the majority of the films you see?' It's about that initial reaction. Over time, looking back at reviews or what you thought coming out of the theater, are you generally more forgiving of the film in question or do you find that you have a habit of overpraising films that two weeks later you don't even remember seeing? That's the question I'd be curious to hear some bloggers debate.

Great question, Jason. So...what do you all think? I'll save my thoughts for the comments.


  1. "Generally speaking, are your first reactions to movies overly forgiving (too positive in retrospect) or overly critical (too negative in retrospect)?"

    For me, it depends on the film or the filmmaker. If it is a film that has been hyped to the sky and by the time I'm seeing it I'm already sick of it then it has to do a lot to win me over. Conversely, sometimes a film can get royally savaged by the critics and then I will go into it with ultra-low expectations and be pleasantly surprised as happened with MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM.

    I will admit to having a blind spot to certain filmmakers so I tend to maybe give some more leeway on a film even if it's not their best effort but if the film really doesn't click with me then even that doesn't make a difference. For example, went into BURN AFTER READING with high hopes. Love the Coen bros. and most of their films but, with the exception of Brad Pitt's performance, this film was a big disappointment for me.

    So, it really depends.

  2. That's a tough question. At times, I have a deep visceral negative response to a film that fills me with loathing and the the sensation of feeling trapped in the theater. At other times, I may like a film, or at least find it mildly tolerable, and then I'll wonder if my reaction was influenced by an enthusiastic crowd, or a pleasant meal beforehand, or other external factors. I try to trust my gut response (what else does a critic have?), but there are times when one has second thoughts later. I think, overall, I tend to dislike most movies, but that doesn't detract from the pleasure of an excellent film.

    Given enough time, some initially dismissed films return (usually to DVD) in alienated glory. I was way more impressed with The Last Days of Disco 21 years later.

  3. J. D. - I took my daughter to see Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and I was pleasantly surprised, too! It's an odd, philosophical little film. So, I guess this indicates that I'll see anything and I go into any movie with an open mind. I even went into Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen with an open mind - though I couldn't keep my mind open long enough for that one.

    To answer the question: when it's involved writing a review or a response to a film - I pretty much feel I have been true to how I first saw it and I don't hold any regrets later on. If I praise a film really highly - as I've done in the past with There Will Be Blood and Inglourious Basterds - it's because it has touched something in me that signals this high-praising response, and part of that feeling is another feeling - the feeling that I know I'm going to feel this way much later. It's an elusive thing, but I recognize that feeling when I feel it.

    If a big-name film doesn't touch me in that way, it gets a much more subdued review.

    Lately, so little has touched me that I find myself being very critical of most movies I've seen in the past couple of years.

    An exception might be in regards to a little, imperfect film with no pretensions that succeeds at what it has intended to do - provide action, terror, or whatever. If the humble film succeeds at entertaining me, I play up the praise - and I know I'll feel the same way later because I know it will entertain once again.

  4. J.D.:

    I think everyone has those blind spots for certain directors -- we may as well just call them what they are: biases. It's hard for me to feel like I didn't get what I wanted out of a Michael Mann film...that doesn't mean I don't understand the complaints against a film like Public just means that they didn't bother me because those particulars about a certain director that bother people don't bother me.

    It gets really interesting when we think about our favorite filmmakers who make bad movies. You mentioned the Coen Bros. I remember seeing The Ladykillers in the theater and yawning most of the way through it. Every joke fell flat, and when one did work I was too bored and tired of the film to care. I remember talking to my friends about the movie not about how the Coen's had lost it (that would be absurd), but how the movie was the worst of the year -- an already poor film made all the more offensive because it was made by great filmmakers.

    Was my gut reaction a bit harsh? Probably, and I'm sure if I caught the movie on cable today I may not think it's so bad, but going to theater and anticipating such an oddball comedy from two of my favorite filmmakers...well I felt robbed of a good movie. So I think my reaction reflected that confusion and disappointment.

    Thanks as always for commenting, J.D.

  5. FilmDr:

    I trust my gut, too; however, I know myself and my tendencies to use hyperbole after I see a movie in the theater (I think it's because I always wait for DVD, where you don't feel as offended by a bad experience when you're at home on your couch) because there's a lot of anticipation and other factors (as you mention) that can dictate how you feel about a movie.

    I tend to praise smaller films I see in theater more than mainstream films because I want people to take notice of the Goodbye Solo's of the world...people are going to see Inglourious Basterds and have opinions about it regardless of what I have to say about it (or most critics for that matter), but sometimes given enough hyperbolic praise a review of a smaller film can catch a readers eye and make them say "I wonder if I should see this to see if it really is that good."

    Great response as always. Thanks.

  6. Hokahey:

    I like what you have to say about your initial reactions towards smaller films. I do the same thing.

    I think I am with you on how films affect me from the get-go. I tend to think of my reviews and my film experiences as isolated incidents. I remember seeing The Dark Knight in the theater and being exhilarated by it. I thought it was great, and it was all I talked about that week. However, the more I thought about the film and read the engaging online discussions about it, I found myself wanting to watch it again. My second and third viewing of the film were interesting: my exhilaration subsided with each subsequent viewing.

    And I don't think it's just a case of it being an action film and knowing when the action is coming (I still get excited and keyed up watching Indiana Jones movies or something like the Lethal Weapon films) was a case of the movie just not working away from a big crowd who was as into the action (and the hype) as I was.

    After the hoopla settled down I realized the movie was a bit plodding. It's still a good exercise in the genre, but it's not nearly as good as I made it seem in my review I wrote after I saw it in the theater.

    I wouldn't change a word of that review though, because that's how I felt at the time, and every critic should be allowed to re-evaluate their feelings towards a film, and every review should be seen as something of its time -- not something that transcends. A film can get better or worse upon subsequent viewings, and there's no way the initial gut reaction review can encapsulate how we cinephiles wrestle with certain films.

    That wrestling can be either negative, or positive: us as film-lovers trying to explicate further into the film's themes (think about the great discussions around the blogosphere in 2007 when No Country for Old Men came out...especially those in-depth think pieces launched by Jim Emerson on his Scanners blog). Regardless of what it may be, the gut reaction criticism is only good as a gauge for how the film made the reviewer feel that day or week.

    It's hard because I am very much a gut-type movie reviewer, but I hope that I always make it clear that just because I am really exuberant about a film doesn't mean that I think it is necessarily one of the greatest films of all just really made me happy that day, and that's something that should be celebrated with the most poetic hyperbole. It's what loving film is all about, hehe.

    Thanks for getting me thinking this much about it, Hokahey. I loved your response...obviously, hehe.

  7. I suppose I should take a shot at this, huh?

    For whatever reason, I find that over the years it often takes me two times to truly fall for a movie. Some of this has less to do with seeing the movie twice than with letting the movie settle for a few days. The films I love I keep thinking about, so if I'm still thinking about it a week later, that's a good sign.

    Even when I fall in love with a movie on first viewing, I'm often home before I realize it. To cite some examples, I was certainly blown away by No Country for Old Men the first time I saw it, as it unfolded, but the final scene with Tommy Lee Jones totally threw me. I didn't dislike it, I just didn't fully grasp it. It took thinking about it more and then, especially, seeing the film again and noting how the final account of the dream lines up with the narration at the very beginning for me to truly appreciate it.

    Of course, sometimes it just hits me. Sunshine and The Fountain are two flawed films (that a lot of people dislike) that I adored immediately, instantly, even while recognizing the "flaws." As many above have said, I trust my gut. If it moves me, it moves me.

    But this year I've been surprised at the number of movies that I liked that I now often forget about. The perfect example is Public Enemies. I fell for scenes in that movie more than the movie itself, but it stayed with me for weeks. Then just recently something jarred my memory of that movie and I realized I hadn't thought about it at all for just as long, as if it never existed. My mental checklist of what was good this year didn't even include that as a contender. Maybe that's just the result of age, or a busy work schedule.

    Anyway, to wrap up this ramble: While I don't discount my immediate reaction, if film delivers twice then I know it has the goods.

    Good thoughts everybody. Thanks, Kevin, for posting the question.

  8. Jason:

    I like what you say about a movie delivering the good twice. I often drive home from seeing a movie with no music in the car. I let the experience (if it's a good one) wash over me. I had the same experience with No Country that you did. Another film I had to think a lot about was There Will Be Blood. I didn't think it was necessarily great, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I knew I had to write about it, and basically my initial review was nothing more than talking about specific scenes and how troublesome I found the ending. I've seen the film three times since, and I'm still unsure about the film...but there's something about the film that makes me like it (or not be so troubled by the ending) the more I watch it.

    My exuberance for a film is often penned with hyperbole that hopefully tells my readers (and me) that I am thinking about this film, and the praise I am giving it is reason for me to see it again and make more assessments of the film.

    I agree with you too about movies that I've liked that I've forgotten about. I was excited after I saw Public Enemies to see it again (remember I entitled my review of the film "Take One"), but I haven't felt the urge to go see it again.

    I do still feel a strong urge to see Inglourious Basterds again...but really that's probably the only film that has elicited a strong response within me weeks after my initial viewing (I guess I would throw Goodbye Solo in there too, but neo-realist films aren't always the ones getting you out there for second helpings in the theater).

    The inevitable year-end list I will construct will be interesting because I am sure I will re-watch a lot of the films I claimed to be some of the best of 2009.

    Thanks for your response and for proposing such a great question.

  9. Hokahey:

    It's good to see someone else who dug MR. MAGORIUM. I have a feeling it will be a film that will be re-discovered and re-assessed years from now.

    Kevin J. Olson:

    I know what you mean. I had the exact same reaction to THE LADYKILLERS. I had such high expectations which were promptly crushed after seeing it. I've caught it on TV since then and still feel that it is one the Coens' worst films.

    And I certainly echo your feelings about Michael Mann. I feel that way about Terry Gilliam as well. I'm willing to give him a pass even on films I know aren't his best (THE BROTHERS GRIMM for example) just because I like his body of work so much and him in general based on countless interviews I've read.

  10. I find I am usually over forgiving when I first review films, especially if it is a energetic crowd-pleaser I see in the theater and is directed by one of my favorite directors -- for instance....THE DEPARTED, which I heaped mounds of praise on, and I still really really really like, but...c''s not one of the greatest films of all time.

    I also tend to do this with critically acclaimed films I don't particularly care for...for instance, my initial review of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was mixed as I felt I must've missed something, but later on, I freely admitted how much I wholeheartedly hated the film.

    And my initial opinions can change over time...I have grown to not totally despise PULP FICTION, for instance. I hated it when I first saw it, but I know see certain elements I can respect. Meanwhile, I have probably over praised INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

  11. David:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I had the same reaction to The Departed...and now I don't think much of it, but boy did the theater I see it with have a lot of fun watching it together. A better experience than movie once you get down to actually watching the movie.

    I tried to give Slumdog a chance, but the editing just killed the movie for me. I was pretty harsh upon first seeing it, and I tried to give it another go...but I pretty much felt the same after the second viewing. Danny Boyle is not a good director.

  12. In 2003, I was in 7th grade and was so caught up in the LOTR hype that I couldn't appreciate the subtle, quiet comedy of Sofia's Lost in Translation. Now the film has broken free from the "Oscar hype", however, and has truly emerged as the sparkling gem of a movie that it was before the inevitable post-awards show backlash began.

    From the eyes of a ten-year old in 2001 who knows nothing about Spielberg other than his box office magic, A.I is an entertaining fantasy. As one gets older and acquires knowledge of Kubrick and how much of his influence hovers over the film (yes, even in the last half hour), A.I. becomes something more- a one of a kind EPIC in filmmaking. I'm not so sure I disagree with Armond White putting it in his top ten of all time.

    Huston's The Misfits feels like loud, preachy Arthur Miller nonsense the first time you see it. Wait for it to air again on television, and suddenly all of the scenes that initially appeared hammy now feel so right: Marilyn Monroe expressing hysterics over the corralling of doomed wild horses; Montgomery Clift not knowing how to act in a situation where the majority is against him; an intoxicated Clark Gable calling out to a son that isn't there. A film I once laughed at and now adore.

  13. I am definitely someone who is not given to hyperbole and who has strong sales resistance, so hype is not something I buy or sell. I find that I am able to keep my critic's eye focused at the same time as my movie lover's virtually all of the time. I may discard a few reservations when I write a review because I know that I am the first to latch on to any negativity in a review I read - there are just too many things to see and do to waste time on a film that kind of delivers the goods. If I believe in a film, despite its flaw, I may mention the flaws in passing, but do not dwell on them. "This is a film that's worth your time" is a line that comes up frequently in my reviews.

    My opinion of films changes with time and even venue. I gave a negative review to Lillian Gish's "La Boheme," which I first saw on DVD. I had a chance to see it on the big screen several years later, and I did a 180. All the subtlety of her performance came out in a larger-than-life setting. I've learned from that experience to look more closely at films at home.

    Naturally, memory can be faulty. I recently had an experience with a "holy grail" type film for me that when I got my hands on it many years after initial viewing was not at all as good as I remembered it. Age, a more educated eye, and changes in style can make a big difference to my perception of film.

    On the whole, though, I feel pretty confident right now in my first assessments.

  14. Adam:

    I still haven't seen A.I.. Hugo Stiglitz regular Sam Juliano will kill me upon hearing that I still haven't watched it, hehe.

    Yes, sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the hype of movies.

    Oh, and I love The Misfit's.

    Thanks as always for stopping by.

  15. Marilyn:

    I also don't like to dwell on the flaws of a film, but sometimes those flaws have to be discussed if they are the reason the whole movie was derailed (I'm thinking about Slumdog Millionaire here).

    I love what you say about viewing a film at home versus viewing a film in the theater. I remember seeing re-issues of The Godfather and Alien in the theater and noticing much more about what was occurring in the periphery. Now, obviously some of that stuff is more noticeable if you've seen the film numerous times (as was the case for me with those two films), but like you I started thinking that I really need to pay attention more closely when I watch a film at home.

    Often times I'll mark a time code so I can go back and look at more intently. This has been especially rewarding since I've been doing the blog, because when I need to grab screencaps for my post it allows me to look at certain scenes more intently -- sometimes a shot at a time.

    I feel pretty confident in my initial assessments, too, but only in general terms. I rarely go from extolling a film to not liking it all in the span of a year.

    Thanks for your always wonderful comments, Marilyn.

  16. Kevin - it's so nice to hear someone else state they didn't care for "Slumdog Millionaire" and admit that Danny Boyle is not a good director.

    My hatred of the film caused quite the debate oh so many months ago, though no one seems to care or talk about the film now. How quickly memories fade.

  17. David:

    I agree with your assessment of Slumdog. It's quite possibly the worst film to ever take home the Best Picture prize. It's a hyper kinetic mess that never works from a narrative standpoint because Boyle's obnoxious "directing" got in the way of me trying to care about the characters. And has there been a more boring or banal protagonist? For a movie about hope, I certainly didn't care one iota if Saleem ended up living happily ever after because the film introduces him to us in such an unlikable light.

    My review is on the blog...just check the tags on the right.