Doug Thompson

I have this theory about people who review movies.
They watch a lot of movies. They see the same formulas used over and over. They are so desperate for something to break the mold, they highly praise the offbeat. They also want what they do taken seriously. Therefore, they praise things that have serious artistic ambition or reach.
The rest of us just want to relax and have a good time.
That’s why I rely on movie reviews from the trade magazine Variety.
Variety is concerned with the bottom line. That’s it, except for some mention of the film’s technical merit. A “bad” film that’s very entertaining will get described as such. More important to me, however, is that a good and ambitious film that also entertains will get a good review and a hopeful mention that it should do well at the box office too.
You could argue that I’m reducing my consideration of a film’s merit to its money-making potential. I’m making a fine point here, but I’d argue that moneymaking potential is a generally good indicator of how entertaining a movie is. Many a great film is also almost unbearable to watch. Variety will tell you that. Other critics are more willing to tell you this is something important you ought to see without telling you why you shouldn’t see it.
Take 1965’s “Repulsion.” This is one of the most appropriately named films of all time. It stars a young Catherine Deneuve as a paranoid young woman who goes insane from fear of rape while left alone in an apartment. It’s a great film. I’m glad to have seen it. I have no intention of ever watching it again.
A watchable great film, however, is a joy forever. I could watch “Maltese Falcon” or “The Gods Must Be Crazy” again tomorrow.
Throw in the fact that Variety hires people who are simply more technically accomplished than your average movie reviewer. They have to know the professional merits of the camera or sound work because they are writing for a trade paper. They also know context. For instance, I didn’t know “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” had the same screenwriter as “Forrest Gump” until I read it in Variety.
I’ve never read a Variety review and been left with the impression that the reviewer didn’t know what he was talking about. I’ve never seen a movie after reading a Variety review where I’d felt I’d been given a bum steer. They are always on target, whether the review is positive or negative for the film.
Each Variety review puts its bottom line up at the top — in boldface.
Variety reviewers write well. That’s part of the attraction too. Consider this first line from Todd McCarthy’s review of “Gran Torino,” the new Clint Eastwood movie: “At 78, perhaps the only actor in the history of American cinema to convincingly kick the butt of a guy 60 years his junior, the hard-headed, snarly mouthed Clint Eastwood of the 1970s comes growling back to life in ‘Gran Torino.’”
The review goes on to describe the main character as “Archie Bunker fully loaded — with beer and guns.” The movie is Eastwood’s “most stripped-down, unadorned picture in many a year,” a sparseness that highlights Eastwood’s “vastly entertaining performance.”
We’re not out of the first paragraph yet or even mined that one fully.
Now consider this blurb from the review of “Marely and Me,” the lightweight but very successful movie about a couple and their dog, by the same reviewer: “This perky, episodic film is as broad and obvious as it could be, but delivers on its own terms thanks to sparky chemistry between its sunny blond stars, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, and the unabashed emotion-milking of the final reel.”
I haven’t seen that one, but it sure looks like Variety was less surprised by the movie’s success than others.
I usually go to the very popular review website “Rotten Tomatoes” and link up to Variety from there. That let’s me cross-check with other reviews too.

Categories: Legacy Archive