Rotten Tomatoes and Buzzfeed – A Reminder of how Criticism Works 

I came across a Buzzfeed post about Sister Act 2 and its low Rotten Tomatoes score. It currently sits at a 7 percent “fresh” rating, which Buzzfeed points out places it below Catwoman and only one point above Gigli.

This is apparently a travesty. (I haven’t seen Sister Act 2, but that’s not important for this piece.) After all, “the sequel is phenomenal” and “all your favorite nuns are back.” Lauryn Hill is also used as a selling point, something that hasn’t been done since her Unplugged album flopped 13 or so years ago.

How many of you bought this? Quit lying.

What strikes me is how the writer Mat Whitehead of the article did nothing to back up his point that Sister Act 2 is some sort of misunderstood gem that the critics got wrong. No, it’s about how the critics are wrong because they don’t conform to their “feels.”

I thought we went over this, but it looks like we’ll have to go over it again.

There is a difference between your “favorite” film and the “best” film. Your favorite film is something that’s used to describe you and your personal beliefs. Your favorite film may conjure powerful memories of a time you miss. It can provide a connection to someone you loved that is no longer in your life. Or it can just entertain you no matter how many times you see it.

Sister Act 2 may fit that bill for someone. I can’t take that feeling away. But that does not mean the film is automatically a good one!

Say Whaaaaaat?

It’s really hard to explain how something is good in a way that other people can understand. This is especially true of art (like movies) because it does hit people at a personal level. But I think I’ve figured out a way. To be good, a movie must do three things:

1) It must give us, the audience, a credible and emotional experience that we could not experience in our lives. This is why I think Boyhood is a great film – I felt as though I had experienced that boy’s life even though I never will. This is also why I didn’t like Frozen, because I never once felt like I was sharing the same emotional experience as the characters, no matter how often the film insisted that I was.

2) The film must skillfully accomplish the goals it set out to accomplish. The fairly recent Dredd movie was a good one because is was so incredibly executed. Ditto Mad Max: Fury Road, which is essentially a prolonged chase scene but one so breathtakingly awesome that no one cares about its flimsy plot.

3) The goals in the second item must be something worth doing in the first place. I call this the “Picasso Toilet Painting” test. Sure, Picasso could paint a picture of a toilet. In some ways, it would be a beautiful painting. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be full of crap no matter how Picasso executes it. He can’t turn around and say, “Well, I painted a toilet. What did you expect?”

It’s the same with filmmakers who waste their talents on a bad subject. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I hear people say, “Well, it was supposed to be a big, dumb comedy for teenagers!” It’s not a good goal to play dumb and you don’t deserve praise for achieving it. The goals you begin with should be worthwhile to both yourself and your audience.

This brings me back to the Mat Whitehead’s post. Sister Act 2 may have merits that critics did not acknowledge and may fulfill each of the three qualities listed above. But Mat doesn’t try to do to examine the film at all. It’s a statement about how this movie MUST be good because it’s supposedly better than universally loathed films like The Room but has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score.

Films are not math problems. It’s not about finding what quantity is larger than the other. It also shows Mat doesn’t know how averages work. There are 194 reviews of Catwoman compared to 28 reviews for Sister Act 2. Catwoman has far more negative reviews than Sister Act 2 but the fact that there are more reviews means that its average score is likely to be higher. But anyway, if you are going to examine a film, you need to examine the qualities the film has and the goals it sets out to achieve.

From all appearances, Sister Act 2 was an unnecessary sequel that was not made for artistic reasons but made to cash in on what the studio hoped to be a new franchise right before Whoopi Goldberg’s status as a leading lady sadly and suddenly vanished. It was a cash grab. The bar was already set low and there doesn’t appear to be a great need to examine it. Again, I haven’t seen it, but Mat’s post isn’t the sort of glowing recommendation that’s going to make me seek it out.

Now look at something like The Room, which Whitehead mentioned. That film was ineptly made; it has terrible performances, appalling production design, and a script seemingly written by an eight year old who had been left alone in the woods with nothing to eat but a jar of paste. And yet, it is so demented that it becomes an accidental commentary on Oscar bait dramas. The performances are bad and the plot is garbage. But I could say the same thing about a lot of Best Picture winners. (Looking in your direction, Crash.) That’s a worthwhile goal and it even created the appropriate emotional response. I sit there watching the film and I feel the actor’s pain as they are forced to march through another of shooting this incoherent nonsense. It’s a feeling I’ll be unable to capture any other way. Had Tommy Wiseau set out to deliberately make The Room in that way, it would be a comedic masterpiece.

It is possible to find merit in a bad film. And I haven’t even gotten into how much “fun” I think it is to watch The Room or how good a time I had with my friends when I showed it to them for the first time. That’s a personal experience, one that cannot be rated.  And that’s the difference.

So, Mr. Whitehead, if you’re going to launch into a diatribe about how misunderstood a film is, come to the table with something more than pictures of a young Jennifer Love Hewitt. Those are easy to find and add nothing to an article.

See?

On a final note, I know it’s been forever since I wrote a review of a new release. I’m really, truly sorry about that and will correct that next week when Black Mass gets released.

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