The Shining

Pop Quiz: what do films like Night of the Hunter, Fight Club, Scrooged, Predator, A Christmas Story, and The Shining all have in common? They are all films that received mostly bad reviews upon their initial release. In regards to The Shining, famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick even received a Razzie nomination for Worst Director; which is just baffling considering how revered Kubrick is amongst most film lovers. Of course, over time, these films went on to become either “classics” or gained a strong and loyal fan base. Though time can change one’s perspective, even some of the top critics admit to “getting it wrong” every now and then, it does make me wonder about the value of negative reviews these days?

I have been pondering this question for a few weeks now partially due to a conversation I had with fellow film blogger Bob Turnbull at TIFF. We were discussing a film that we were not particularly fond of when Bob remarked that he was not going to write review about it. His reasoning was that he would rather focus his energy on the films he liked. “What good would my negative review do for the film?” he questioned, to which I had no real answer. Sure my knee-jerk reaction was to try and assemble some argument about the importance of being able to critically assess the film. However, I knew deep down that he had a point.

Due to the nature of the film, it was pretty obvious that it probably would not be seen outside of the festival circuit. At best, we guessed it might get a VOD or DVD release in North America, but even then it would be tough for the film to find an audience. So what good would publicly being critical of the film really do? It is not like the filmmaker or the studio is paying any attention to the negative feedback. If anything it might make finding funding for the director’s next project, which could turn out to be a masterpiece, a tad more difficult. However, even that is highly doubtful as it is making the grand assumption that one person online, or even a group of people, has that type of clout.

While we would like to think that every critical voice has an impact, the fact of the matter is most filmmakers do not care what is said on blogs or on social media. At times they do not even seem to care what the professional critics have to say. This is especially true from a big studio perspective. Despite receiving negative reviews, both of the films in Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups franchise still made a killing at the box-office. Regardless of how many people jump on the bandwagon of dumping on the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman; the Man of Steel sequel is going to make a lot of money worldwide.

Sure it may be easy, and sometimes even fun, to just focus on the negative. It is hard not to develop that false sense of authority in deciding what constitutes a bad film. However, at the end of the day, what good does all of this do? I think Bob is onto something in regards to channeling his time into something positive. Instead of joining the line of individuals harping on the lack of merits in something trivial, say Movie 43, it might be time to focus more of our effort into promoting the films we actually love. This includes the higher quality films that will instantly provoke conversation (e.g. 12 Years a Slave), and the smaller gems that left an impression on us even as they struggled to get noticed (e.g. Upstream Color, Gabrielle). With so much negativity these days in the realm of online film discussion, it is time get back to all the positive things that makes the medium of film so captivating in the first place.


  1. I deeply believe in this whole line of thinking: That it is far better to help build something up than waste time tearing something down.

    My only worry is that there’s a visible counter-effect…that the films that go undiscussed are automatically deemed “bad” by the follower.

    1. In regards to the counter-effect, I think the risks of that happening are rather minimal. In fact, I think the majority of the films that go undiscussed are a casualty of our desire for self-importance/popularity (e.g. the need for website hits/ television ratings/ newspaper sales) rather than being deemed a “bad” film. There is hive-like mentality that persists amongst film lovers (both film bloggers and the general public); we always want to be in the conversations that everyone else is having. Since films with some sort of star power are more likely to be available in most markets, people are more willing to watch what all their friends/peers are seeing; rather than take a risk on a title that is smaller but good. This is why so many bloggers spend the majority of their time talking about the high profile films that hit theatres each week. Even though it means wasting most of the time tearing down Battleship or Grown Ups 2, they know it will guarantee their site a lot of hits. I can sing the praises of Denis Villeneuve films like Maelstrom or Polytechnique until I am blue in the face and chances are good people will ignore both films.

      If Drive was not such a hit, would most people be seeking out the earlier films of Nicolas Winding Refn? Even a great film like Steve McQueen’s Hunger was largely ignored until Shame got a lot of buzz. As much I enjoyed Blue is the Warmest Color, I am convinced it would not be a “must see” film for most had it not won the Palme d’Or. If anything, people seem to be far more willing to embrace films that look bad from the trailers Mars Needs Moms, Movie 43, Piranha, etc, rather than pay attention to a really good film (say The Amazing Catfish) that is not universally praised (e.g. critics awards, Oscar noms, etc.)

  2. Courtney, I generally agree with this line of thinking and get bored quickly by writers that are clearly just trying to be negative to get a rise out of readers. I don’t ascribe to the fact that we shouldn’t review films if we have issues with them, however. The key factor is the approach to the material. Writing a short review and saying “hated it” or something similar accomplishes little. This is especially true for smaller movies.

    On the other hand, giving any film a more detailed analysis can be worthwhile even if we don’t love every part of it. This still identifies it as an interesting movie even if we weren’t that fond of it. Smart readers can figure out if there’s enough for them to want to give it a shot, and that can happen even if the movie’s not that great. Still, I also get worn down by the negativity that can permeate the blogosphere. The reactions are often way too simplistic, and I think we’re on a similar page about whether those posts are worth doing.

    I definitely agree with the hive-like mentality from both general audiences and bloggers. I’ve been veering more away from giant films lately (partially due to schedule challenges in getting to the theater), and the number of hits and comments have gone pretty far down. I can’t complain, though. It’s led me to a lot of great movies!

    1. I do not deny that there can be value in identify interesting aspect of movies that I may not be particularly fond of. I can even understand if a person had a particular expectation for a film and felt the need to explain their disappointment. However, if someone is going to see Sandler’s Jack & Jill just so they can trash it, or watch Sharknado simply to jump on the “it’s so bad” twitter conversation, then what is the point?

      I am really enjoying your approach to tackling films these days on your site. Watch what you can fit into your schedule, even if it is not necessarily the bigger titles. My lack of regularly commenting (something I need to work on) is more due to a lack of time on my part rather than a reflection of content. As you pointed out, at the end of the day, discovering great movies is the high that we are constantly striving for…regardless of the popularity of the film.

      1. Courtney, thanks for the kind words about the blog. It’s been tricky to find time to watch movies and write lately. Having two kids makes it really tricky. Still, I can’t complain. It’s actually been cool to give up the idea of seeing everything and just dig into different niches. Also, there are so many films that I need to catch on DVD.

        I agree that attacking obviously bad movies just seems lazy. There’s only so much time, you know? I know that some writers want to see all new movies, regardless of their value. I just feel like there’s so much to see from the past that I can filter out certain movies right up front. Of course, I have been wrong in my assessments a few times.

    1. Cinema is indeed expensive, not just for the viewer but the reviewer as well. Aside from those who are fortunate enough to attending press screenings, most bloggers are essentially paying to see a film like Bucky Larson just so they can tell their readers how bad it is. This seems counterproductive as they end up giving the film extra publicity while sacrificing both their own time and money.

  3. Love this essay, Courtney. I’m not sure when it happened for me, but sometime within the past few years, I made the conscious decision to use my blog as a source of positive promotion. Now, that isn’t to say I won’t review a bad movie. I detested last year’s This is 40 and wrote a grade F review of it on my site. But I was never mean or vindictive in my review. I simply tried to state why the film didn’t work for me.

    This notion of snarky blogging, of using vitriol as a means of gaining attention, it’s frankly nonsense. I don’t read or comment on any blog that spends the majority of its time bashing stuff. Because, like you said, what’s the point?

    I also stopped assuming things of filmmakers in my reviews, which is something I tended to do when I was younger. I don’t presume to know why a director made this decision or that one, I just accept that the decision was made and politely argue if I think it was a good or bad one.

    Some of the reviews I read for my short film, Earrings, were so nasty. And many of those negative reviews “knew” why I included that shot or that line of dialogue. They “knew” what I was trying to do. I would read these reviews and laugh, because these people had clearly missed the intention of what I was going for. But that’s the way it goes. Everyone has a computer and everyone has an opinion. My rule of thumb, I would never publish something on my blog that I wouldn’t say directly to the filmmaker’s face.

    Again, great question you posed here. Hope my response wasn’t too long!

    1. You raise an excellent point about presumptions in many reviews. I think we have all been guilty of that at one time or another. Just because someone watches a lot of films, it does mean that they know anything about the actual filmmaking process.

      I also like your policy of not writing anything that you would not say to the director’s face. It actually made me think back to a somewhat negative review I wrote recently. While I do not think I was overly harsh, I wonder if I would have said it in exactly the same way had the director been right in front of me. This is something all writers should keep in mind. I know I will try to be more mindful of that moving forward.

Comments are closed.