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Respectfully, Yourself: Six Critics Rethink Their Worst Reviews

Like it or not, film critics are human. And as humans, we make mistakes. When it comes to the highly subjective task of reviewing a movie, a lot of things come into play beyond what you see on the screen and hear from the speakers. Was the critic in a bad mood? Was some kid kicking the chair? Was the reviewer on medication? Or did he simply have an unhealthy fascination with one of the main characters?

Whatever the reason, I occasionally go back and tweak my reviews as they mellow in my mind or my appreciation for them matures. This is actually an unpopular habit. Pauline Kael, the relentlessly celebrated, late film critic, was well known to never watch a film more than once or revise her opinion on a film. Her reviews were her gut instincts, and once they were put down on paper, they were sacrosanct, never to be revisited.

I believe this is an unhealthy way to live one’s life, unwilling to accept that our first impressions may be wrong. Imagine if you never changed your mind about any person you met, any food you tasted, or any music you heard. You’d have no friends and the same tastes and interests you had when you were eight years old. That’s hardly an enlightened way to live your life. We’re humans, not androids.

Without further ado, I present six re-reviews of films from our archives, as revisited by the critics who originally wrote them. Why did we say what we did originally? And what made us realize we were mistaken? Read on!

(See earlier entries in the ‘Respectfully, Yours’ series at RY #1, RY#2, RY#3, and RY#4.)

– Christopher Null, Editor in Chief

If Lucy Fell, Christopher Null

Did I really say ‘great supporting characters and subplots’? Did I really say Eric Schaeffer was one of our ‘most promising up-and-comers’? Maybe it was an appreciation of Elle Macpherson and the idea that she might actually fall for a schlub like Schaeffer.

The fact of the matter is that I was in a great mood the night I saw If Lucy Fell. The audience loved it, and their laughter only fueled me to give the flick a great review, which I wrote the moment I got home. This is fundamentally a harmless movie, it has some funny moments, and it’s definitely a fun little comedy — much like the equally harmless and goofy cable mainstay Love Potion #9.

But If Lucy Fell is hardly a comedy for the ages. I’ve seen it again in recent months and it barely kept my attention. What I once saw as funny I now recognize as juvenile and a little stupid. I can only presume that on first viewing I fell into the same trap that captures people who say they like Adam Sandler movies. The absurdity makes you laugh for a moment, but it doesn’t last. Now when I watch If Lucy Fell, the oddball humor doesn’t have much of an impact at all.

So there you have it, a classic tale of how preconceptions and a little bit of good vibes can make you see completely crazy things.

Original rating:
New rating:

The Cat’s Meow, Jeremiah Kipp

After casually dismissing Peter Bogdanovich’s latest film during its theatrical run, I’ve come to rediscover its charms and its subtleties on video. The Cat’s Meow is unquestionably a lightweight, but nowhere near as blasé as I’d originally thought.

Bogdanovich can’t resist idolizing Hollywood style, even as he skewers their hypocritical snobbery and belief that the moral rules of society don’t apply to them. That paradox keeps Cat’s Meow captivating and elusive. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with Kristen Dunst (as silent movie starlet Marion Davies) revealing that she’s not just another pretty face. Underneath her winning smile is a hint of desperation. Eddie Izzard steals the show as Charlie Chaplin, emanating brilliance and lust with a dancer’s poise and a clown’s bravado. The murder mystery aboard the yacht remains indifferent, but the way these studio players evade their problems, addictions, embarrassment, and love suggests that there are larger themes at work underneath Bogdanovich’s veneer of slight comedy.

Another nice touch: The scenes are mostly told in long takes, with the camera seamlessly following multiple characters as they drift through the various rooms aboard the yacht. This technique never calls attention to itself, telling the story with an old-school elegance. In today’s world of fast cuts and whiplash camerawork, it’s refreshing to find a film that would fit comfortably among the studio pictures of yesteryear.

Original rating:
New rating:

Rush Hour, Blake French

Chris Tucker is a good comedian, Jackie Chan can do cool stunts, and they both have energy and charisma. When director Brett Ratner blended their charming qualities, he created the box-office smash Rush Hour. It is easy to like the movie because of its special effects, explosive action, and comedic elements, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quality film, and neither Chan nor Tucker demonstrate any remote acting talent in their roles. Although I originally gave the film a positive review, I now regret applauding the film as loudly as I did.

In my review, I wrote: ‘By themselves, Chan and Tucker do not provide anything inspiring or refreshing, but when they are combined, they form a surprisingly entertaining comedic duo.’ While I still think Chan and Tucker are entertaining for a while, I now understand that a movie cannot run on energy alone. Rush Hour is nothing more than an average buddy-comedy action flick that provides an entertaining diversion for a couple hours, but as soon as it ends, you forget everything. It’s disposable Hollywood tripe.

But that didn’t stop Rush Hour 2 from receiving the green light, nor did it prevent Ratner from directing. I feel guilty for recommending the original Rush Hour based on his direction. Yes, he did find ‘the perfect combination of action and comedy,’ as I said originally, but he failed to give the movie any depth whatsoever.

Original rating:
New rating:

Unfaithful, David Levine

It takes a big man to admit his mistakes, and since I’m pretty
big, I realize I may have been a little harsh in my review of Unfaithful. But while I accept some responsibility, I must bring others down with me as well. My opinion of the film has changed since first viewing, but what I am about to write is purely the fault of Cinemax.

In my initial review, I expressed disappointment with director Adrian Lyne’s lack of originality. In fact, I saw his effort in Unfaithful as just a pieced together collage of the best parts from several of his earlier films. I still hold this against the film, but after multiple viewings, I have re-discovered many of the finer touches that make Unfaithful an intoxicating piece of work.

I grappled with the idea that Diane Lane could receive an Academy Award nomination for her role as the adulterous Connie Sumner. At first, she seemed to be just another Kim Basinger-like, piece of eye-candy for Lyne’s borderline pornographic lens. Lane does play that part very well, but what I failed to notice is how well she wears both the passion and pain she feels – you can see it all over her face. One moment, she is a giddy schoolgirl in love and the next she is a frantic mother considering the consequences of her actions.

One of the best scenes in Unfaithful occurs when Richard Gere’s Edward Sumner confronts Paul, the interloper of his marriage. Lyne brilliantly lets this scene materialize without allowing Edward to quickly resolve his pain in the manner we would expect. Lyne instead permits Edward’s emotions to slowly unravel as he staggers through Paul and Connie’s love nest. The two even share a drink before things come to a head.

So why do I blame Cinemax? After sitting tortured through the first screening in a theater, I probably would have never given the movie the time of day in my own home. But since Cinemax plays Unfaithful over and over during the only time I watch television, after the umpteenth viewing, I have come to appreciate (or maybe just accept) the complexities of Lane’s performance and Lyne’s direction. Damn you Cinemax!

Original rating:
New rating:

The Legend of Bagger Vance, Robert Strohmeyer

Okay, I admit it: When I reviewed the 2000 Robert Redford feel-good The Legend of Bagger Vance, I was deliriously high under the influence of a double dose of Charlize Theron Kool-Aid. Somewhere along the way in my viewing-probably around the time Theron’s top came off, I lost control of the faculty for critical thought. As a result, what amounted to little more than a two-star cheesecake packed silly with formulaic situations and sappy droplets of backwoods wisdom somehow came away with an unrealistic four-star rating.

From Jack Lemmon’s hokey heart attack to his (pardon the spoiler) slack-jawed recovery before the final credits, this movie’s boorishly didactic dialogue is, at times, too much to bear. Matt Damon’s performance as the ruined golfer Rannulph Junuh betrays the lingering innocence of Damon himself, who struggles to portray the drunken rage necessary for believability here.

Ultimately, Bagger Vance is not a terrible film. But it’s far from great. While Will Smith manages to deliver roughly the same depth of character audiences have come to expect from his performances (whatever that’s worth), the dialogue in this flick leaves no room for the sort of personality driven banter that vaulted the Fresh Prince to stardom.

Not that I’d ask for more Smithness in this picture. It’s just that the overplayed wisdom of this character grates harshly on the nerves after a while.

In my original review, I deemed Bagger Vance ‘a strong, memorable film, filled with rich dialogue.’ In retrospect, however, little of this film stands out in memory. And the folksy dialogue simply doesn’t stand up to a second viewing. This movie turns out to be just another flick I saw at a screening, and leaves me with nothing of value to reflect on – except that one scene with Charlize Theron, which can probably be downloaded from the internet without the hassle of sitting through two hours of Damon and Smith.

Original rating:
New rating:

Le Cercle Rouge, Mark Athitakis

It’s hard to work up too much pity for critics, I know, but have a little sympathy for how anxious our work can make us feel sometimes. A responsible critic is in a bind. He wants to both to be fair and to express a strong opinion. We want the hate mail – hey, it’s proof that people are reading – but we also want people to agree with us and our view of things. But the biggest worry a film critic is the weight of all that film itself. If we say a movie is ‘stunningly original,’ is it really so? If we say an actor has turned in his finest performance, have we forgotten about some earlier movie we didn’t see or only half-watched? Do we have the right to say anything at all about Japanese cinema if we haven’t seen every last Ozu? If film critics look like schlumpy, hunched-over folks with a dazed look in our eyes, it’s because we’re buried under the weight of all the movies we haven’t gotten around to seeing.

So, then, I apologize: I reviewed Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 classic Le Cercle Rouge before I saw Rififi. The heart of Rouge is an extended heist scene, performed in complete silence, and brilliantly done. It is, I wrote, ‘an extended virtuoso sequence… what Bullitt did for car chases, Le Cercle Rouge does for robberies.’ A month or so later, Rififi showed up in my mailbox via Netflix. Watching the half-hour-long, completely silent heist sequence, two thoughts propped in my head:

1. Goodness, this is brilliant filmmaking.
2. Crap. Wish I’d seen this before I started frothing about how inventive and original Rouge is.

(Actually, I had a third thought about why French filmmakers in the ’50s and ”60s had such an admirable reverence for American noir, and what that said about both French and American filmmakers. But I digress.)

Of course, the production notes pointed out that Rouge was a Rififi tribute. How much does all this matter? Practically speaking, I doubt anybody much cared; nobody wrote me an angry letter (dammit!) calling me on my ignorance of Rififi. And I certainly don’t think any less of Le Cercle Rouge – it looked like a great film before I saw Rififi, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it just as much watching it again, after. I gave it four and half stars then, and I’d give it four and a half stars now.

But personally, it bothered me – there’s a pang of stupidity that comes along with moments like that. But what mainly bothers me was that my ignorance created a missed opportunity – I lost a chance to recommend two great movies, not just one. And that’s part of the reason critics become critics; when we care, we’re people who are consumed with bringing the news about things that are good and bad in the things we see. We’re excite
d by all the interesting things out there that we fear you might be missing. And we’re worried about all the stuff we’re missing ourselves.

Original rating:
New rating: the same, just different

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