Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes: What's In A Number?

Since its incarnation, more and more people have started to turn to the aggregate film rating site Rotten Tomatoes to get a critical consensus on the newest theatrical films. What exactly about RT makes it the number one destination for many of the current generation's movie-goers?

The site is simple. A percentage is created out of how many fresh (positive) and how many rotten (negative) reviews are given to a film from the qualified film critics (there are standards a writer must pass before having their reviews featured on the site). The film is then given a full and healthy red tomato or a splattered rotten one based on where its percentage of fresh vs. rotten reviews falls. A film receives a fresh rating if it stands at 60% or higher. Anything else and it's considered rotten.

I'm sure that what I'm telling you is common knowledge by now. Rotten Tomatoes is another step in the digital progression of journalism. I highly doubt many people still open up that newspaper on Thursday or Friday morning to read the newest film reviews. They are there, but they can be had a lot sooner online.

Fact of the matter is, this relatively simple formula employed by RT can be a great tool to use as a consumer if understood correctly. The film releases of the last few weeks has stimulated my thought process of what exactly the numbers Rotten Tomatoes dishes out. And are they worth anything at all at face value?

Taking the percentage given by RT to a film straight up is a bad idea. A 90% might trigger 9/10 in the mind of a quick reader, when that really means the film might be scoring more average ratings of 7/10 or something similar. Likewise, a film might also have a 90% rating but be yielding scores in the higher 8/10 range. This means that any smart user of the website should move their eyes below the large font percent rating and to the film's average score. This extra insight is still only a number with no context to place around it.

What I'm about to tell you may shock you. To fully understand why a film is getting great reviews, or why it's disappointing the mass, you're going to have to read a bit. You will certainly learn more, even if this means just skimming the quick comments the site attaches to the names and faces of critics. RT makes each review easily readable with the click of a button for a good reason.

Last week's Terminator: Salvation reviews raise a prime example as to why the percents Rotten Tomatoes dishes out shouldn't be taken at face value. I don't want to call the older film critics out of touch with society. Some are (*coughArmondWhitecough*), but labeling them all as unknowing would be ignorant and stupid. A common complaint about the fourth film in the series was that it lacked emotion. One female writer even complained about feminist malarkey. This lead to the film receiving a cornucopia of rotten reviews.

I won't argue with their complaints. Salvation was undoubtedly more action oriented than emotional. Does this make it a bad film? Maybe in their eyes. Everyone has their own opinion. But what about in the eyes of a crowd of 20-somethings that want to see Christian Bale fight robots? By not reading the specific complaints from critics, one might simply shrug off a film without fully understanding the complaints.

Another thought that crossed my mind came about when reading Brian Orndorf's review of Salvation on DVDTalk. On DVDTalk he left his review with a "Rent It" rating, which is one higher than the lowest rating, "Skip It". On Rotten Tomatoes that review transferred over as being a rotten review. Is "rent it" really negative? If Orndorf is telling his readers that the film is worth renting, but not rushing to theaters to see, dos that make the film rotten? These reviews aren't written with Rotten Tomatoes in mind. What a 2.5/5 means to one person, it might not mean to another.

In addition, Orndorf was quite the contradictor with his reviews for that week. He called Salvation "a lumbering, joyless detour into unappetizing Hollywood recycling". In his review of Dance Flick, he took a different approach by saying "I mean, come on: it's a scant 75 minutes long, contains a well-deserved swipe at the goofiness that is the Twilight saga, and features a beatboxing vagina. If that doesn't marginally entertain you, nothing will."

Dance Flick did indeed receive a fresh review from Orndorf. What I can't understand is why Orndorf didn't apply that same open-minded "let me be enjoyed" mentality to Terminator: Salvation? Was it because of the high prestige film critics hold the first two Terminators to? I don't really know, but it is puzzling. If Orndorf can muster up the strength to say he was entertained by beatboxing vaginas I'm sure he could do the same for a film about a robot war. Not to pick on the guy, I love reading his work. He's a terrific writer and knows his stuff. I just find this to be a perfect example as to why face value ratings can't be taken as anything but a simple number. And numbers lie.

Not to mention that some of the writer's that get featured on the website are not the most stable or aware people around. I already got in a jab at Armond White and I can't resist to do so again. I'm convinced that White is using his powers to become one of film criticism's biggest trolls. He dislikes great and enjoyable films such as The Wrestler, The Dark Knight, Star Trek and Gomorrah while giving positive reviews to drivel such as The Transporter 3 and Dance Flick. He was even the first to give a negative review to the new Pixar film Up. Nothing shocking there.

White writes his reviews with no one in mind other than himself. They're enigmatic, high-brow pieces of criticism that often makes no sense in the minds of other people than himself. Nobody writes or talks or thinks the way he does, and he isn't worth listening to. I personally think that film criticism should be about writing to the masses, not a platform to stroke your own ego and film knowledge off. If the reader can't understand why you like or dislike a film, what the hell is the point? If you think through your eyes only, you won't make the reader feel welcome.

To not stray off anymore, let me connect this to the larger picture. Film critics don't have the same opinions as you do. It'll never be that way. Art wouldn't be art without critics, that's for sure, but to talk their words as the final answer would be doing an insane injustice to everything art stands for. Just stay away from the likes of White and his antithesis Victoria Alexander, whose rambling reviews are more at the level of a 5th grader than a graduate student.

A few of my favorite films of the past year have been given rotten overall reviews on RT. Both Taken and Observe and Report scored under the 60% mark, meaning the films were classified rotten by the site. It's pretty obvious as to why both of these films fell under the desired 60% line. Both films were aimed more towards the younger population. Taken turned Liam Neeson into one of the most ferocious revenge heroes of the last five to ten years, while Observe and Report was a film full of the dark, cynical and sick humor director and writer Jody Hill gave us in Eastbound & Down. Hell, even Crank: High Voltage finished at 61%, barely good enough to be considered an overall fresh film. It just goes to show you that these critics might not have your needs and wants in mind.

I do hope you don't take this as a slam on Rotten Tomatoes. It is one of my favorite film database websites and for a good reason. When used correctly, the power it has as a tool for finding out what the top film critics think about a film is unmatched. It conveniently collects reviews and formulates a rating that is sometimes all too simple. Nothing is as black and white as Rotten Tomatoes makes it appear to be. By giving a little more time and using a few tools of research, some of the always important grey will start to seep into the pool of the current week's film reviews.

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