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Film Critics, Reviews, Ratings and the Digital Takeover

Before the Internet, we only had newspapers, magazines, television and word of mouth for our steady supply of pop culture intrigue and information. Unfortunately, these channels didn't have the speed of delivery, sheer volume of information or the value of consensus that search engines like Google offered at the digital takeover. Having information at your fingertips is empowering and it's how consumers are making their choices these days. Why wouldn't you do a quick search or reference a website before making a decision?

Getting the nitty gritty details and best price is what makes the marketplace more competitive these days. Whether you're shopping for a smart TV or deciding which movie to watch, being able to quickly reference a trusted review authority, user reviews or get finer details about what to expect can make all the difference.

film critics reviews ratings and digital takeover

The same goes for film reviews and movie critics. There was a time when readers would only have a few voices when it came to picking the right film for movie night. While a subjective process, readers would be able to decipher or learn to trust certain voices. Figuring out the critic's special interests, favourite genre, general disposition and even their rating allocation would help make them relevant to people even if they didn't necessarily agree with their ratings. In South Africa, there are two prolific and influential film critics with long track records who have managed to appear across all forms of broadcast and print.

Barry Ronge

The most prolific film critic must surely be Barry Ronge, who was widely broadcast across TV and radio, able to disseminate his opinion on up to 5 films a week. While his tastes varied, one quickly realised that arthouse films tended to land better reviews. An iconic reviewer, he was quite daring with reviews often led by emotion.

Using an /10 system that inspired the SPL!NG-O-METER, he'd use an adjective to describe each of his ratings. This meant he could offer some spectrum to each number however limiting the alliteration was to certain ratings. Adding a bit of his flair, he'd be able to rate something a "saucy 6" or "noteworthy 9" giving each /10 rating its own sub-rating descriptor.

Leon van Nierop

An author, screenwriter, lecturer and film critic, Leon van Nierop's movie reviews were more considered and serious - a respected reviewer and now luminary for the Afrikaans film-going public. His catchphrase "dis die een" still echoes in his film reviews today whether he's reviewing on his RSG radio show Monitor or in local newspapers or magazines. As an active screenwriter, he penned Wolwedans in die Skemer based on his long-running radio show and produced Ballade vir 'n Enkeling, both of which made a splash at the local box office. Leon van Nierop's televised film review featured on GMSA (Good Morning South Africa). Having been in the entertainment industry for over 4 decades, he's an established and award-winning author and journalist.

Now that the floodgates have opened, you can get opinions on film from the well-respected RogerEbert.com right through to your buddy's latest "kiff or kak" Facebook status. Film critics are now pontificating across the spectrum of media from YouTube channels and blogs through to more traditional print media and established online publications. The main reference points are IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, website repositories that offer up-to-date film information and more importantly ratings. Movie goers now feel armed with the power of IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes who can and do guide them to better movies based on their ranking systems.

IMDb's /10 Rating

IMDb's rating system provides an /10 score based on general ratings and links to critic reviews. Giving viewers a semblance of what to expect in terms of thousands of opinions boiled down to a number, it seems like a safe bet. However, it's important to know how the system works. The Independent Movie Database (IMDb) is primarily male-orientated, which is reflected in the site's Top 250 films through voting demographics and even film choice. Respected by industry professionals and movie lovers, it's widely referenced often ranking high in Google searches. However, it's not the be all and end all, often skewed by the loyal user base's tastes and preferences. In an ideal world, the rating system would be used in a way to best represent a viewer's take... but it's subject to abuse.

Besides voting syndicates using the platform to skew public opinion about certain films, there's a dedicated bunch who try their best to protect their hallowed selection of films from being downgraded in stature. Just click through one of the /10 ratings on IMDb to see the voting allocation. Almost every film has a scattered allocation of ratings with a glut of 10/10 and 1/10 ratings. There's also no way to verify a film has been watched by a user and being based on an honesty system, there's no real way to confirm raters have even seen the movie they're trashing. Influenced by public perception, boosting a film's rating just to sell more tickets or trashing it to thwart its success makes it a flawed system that somehow ends up representing a film's overall standing.

Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer

Rotten Tomatoes is strict when it comes to accepting film critics into the fold, which makes their system seem more robust. While it's easier to get an idea of what the general critic's position is based on consensus and capsule reviews, there are some issues. For starters, most people don't understand the Tomatometer percentage score that is often referenced as the standalone component when deciding on a movie. This is the percentage of critics who gave fresh reviews of a film. It's not a sliding scale comparable with an /10 rating. You can ostensibly get a 6/10 movie that has a 100% fresh score, meaning every critic who reviewed the film thought that it was fresh but otherwise just better than average.

Another issue is determining a mean score from the film critics since each of them is working on a different rating system or none at all. How do you credit a positive review with a weighting or how do you determine a score based on an /4 rating system versus an /10 one? These discrepancies can alter ratings quite substantially when pulling from a selection of less than 100 reviews. While Rotten Tomatoes have moved away from aggregating critic scores, there does seem to be a need to anchor the Tomatometer to another element for context.

User reviews have also come into play on the website, allowing ordinary film goers to flex their film critic muscle by chiming in with a review and rating. This is more quantifiable and useful to see how the audience score matches up against the overall movie critic percentage. Submitting their opinion via the same channel makes it possible for Rotten Tomatoes to offer a considered consensus, which has more credibility when linked to a user account. Taking the time to string a few sentences together also means it's easier to sift the have-seens from the haven-not-seens. Perhaps they should really be looking into forcing critics to adopt a similar type of submission scheme.

As it stands, there isn't a perfect system since each of the consensus ratings are done on an unverifiable review or rating. While Rotten Tomatoes distinguishes super reviewers and has its certified movie critics, it seems that it's coming full circle. Since social media and faceless publications have proven to be fallible often with ulterior motives, the need for experts who have become trusted authorities on fields is on the rise again. While the power of consensus and trust has become a currency through apps with link backs to Facebook profiles for credibility, these avatar-based systems can only take one so far. What entertainment journalism and news reporting in general requires is time-honoured integrity and the transparency to win people's trust without a shadow of suspicion.

Christopher Guest's Six Fingers

Christopher Guest is a name that you may have heard bandied about in conversation. While he may not be a household name, the actor, writer and director is an absolute giant in the field of mockumentaries. Having risen through the ranks on the back of the career-defining mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, he's continued to ply the same comedic energy into every one of his productions. Collaborating on several occasions with Rob Reiner in This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and A Few Good Men, he soon found a new writing partner in Eugene Levy of Schitt's Creek fame.

Christopher Guest's Six Fingers

While probably most famous for his role as the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, Guest's become the crazy glue to each of his mockumentary productions.

Guest's Wikipedia page is a treasure trove of Easter Eggs from realising he was a Baron to being married to Jamie Lee Curtis.

A generous captain of an auteur, Guest has performed and worked alongside regular co-stars Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Parker Posey and John Michael Higgins.

While a script guides the actors and scenes, there's a strong emphasis on off-the-cuff reparte for this ensemble comedies. Some of the funniest lines and moments come as a result of improvisation, comic sparring and over-extensions.

While your appreciation of his mockumentaries will be based on your connection with the story, they often feature a group of attention-starved characters who want to be thrust into the limelight and achieve ultimate recognition in their craft.

1. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap is a rockumentary about a band named Spinal Tap, who try to re-establish their presence as a serious rock band as they embrace their comeback tour with their heads held high. Filmed by a die-hard fan, their interviews and behind-the-scenes calamities become to add up. A mockumentary classic, this outrageously funny comedy set the bar high with many quotable lines - "crank it up to 11".

2. Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Waiting for Guffman mockuments the excitement and consternation of a Missouri small town musical production as rumours of receiving someone from Broadway come to light. Taken from the perspective of an awkward yet aspiring director, the so-so amateur cast try to up their game in anticipation of being discovered.

3. Best in Show (2000)

Best in Show lampooned the dog show circuit with a group of competitors being documented in this fun and ludicrous take about the tense build up to the Mayflower Dog Show.

4. A Mighty Wind (2003)

A Mighty Wind captured the hokey magic of folk musicians in their build-up to a reunion concert. Having never quite become famous-famous, their musical ambitions, old romances and self doubt kicks in.

5. For Your Consideration (2006)

For Your Consideration documented the award season buzz between cast and crew of an independent film, Home for Purim. After an unknown veteran's Oscar-worthy performance catches the air, nomination banter begins to snowball as the film gets called into question.

6. Mascots (2016)

Mascots sees a group of sports mascots trying to position themselves in their comeptitive world in the build up to the covetted Gold Fluffy award.

Beyond the Screen : Spider-Man Leak, Free Guy Boom, Petite Maman, Sonny Chiba Gone and Villeneuve in Hot Water

Every so often when we turn to cover a recent development in movie news, a week like the one behind us takes place. Rather than leave each of the stories unreported, or bother picking one and stringing it out into a suitable length, we'll be covering the five events in the world of movies making waves right now.

First Spider-man: No Way Home Trailer Leaks Online

There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the next installment in the Spider-Man film series. Theories abound suggesting a multiverse is at play, allowing previous Spider-men (Maguire and Garfield) to enter the film, Doctor Strange co-leading, as well as the confirmed cast members Alfred Molina returning as Doc Ock and Jamie Foxx as Electro.

With all the secrecy, things have been kept thoroughly under wraps; until now. A trailer with unfinished VFX has been making the rounds all over the internet, as Sony scrambles to suppress the leak with copyright take downs. The trailer is legitimate and is even watermarked with the film's VFX artist, Wassila Lmouaci's, name. Now that the cat is out of the bag, with this being Marvel's most anticipated release since Avengers: Endgame, the studio has decided to fold and release the trailer officially, one day after the leak.

Free Guy Overperforms at the Box Office

A family friendly slant, original IP-branded marketing, and great audience reception has ensured that Ryan Reynolds' Free Guy not only opened to an above estimation $28.4 million debut, but has stayed strong in the face of new competition, crossing the $ 100 million worldwide mark over the weekend.

The film is a theatrical only release, helping its earnings drop only 34% in its second week, the best hold for a pandemic era wide release to date. This theatrical release may also be assisting in generating a healthy interest in the film, as word of mouth spreads and more and more viewers are encouraged to take the trip down to the local movie theatre, rather than add Free Guy to their endlessly expanding streaming watch list.

Céline Sciamma's New Film gets a Trailer

European festival circuit films generally receive muted but wholehearted praise, there are very few directors running in those circles who command “hype”. But with the reception of her previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire being nothing short of rapturous, Sciamma has had eyes on her next solo directorial production since its announcement.

The film, Petite Maman, about an 8-year-old who meets a girl her own age in the woods beyond her mother's childhood home, has received exceptionally favorable reviews from critics who've seen it at the Berlin International Film Festival and via its French release, and English viewers can now expand their anticipation by watching the newly released trailer. Sciamma has said the film uses the work of Hayao Miyazaki as a “compass”.

Martial Arts Legend Sonny Chiba dies aged 82

The star known for his intense and ferocious performances died in his native Japan due to pneumonia, as a complication from Corona-virus, on the 19th of August. He had performed in over 200 films, most martial arts movies, of which he remains a patron saint. Quentin Tarantino re-introduced Chiba to modern western audiences, first through True Romance's Clarence's Sonny Chiba triple feature, and then by casting him as the mythical swordsmith Hattori Hanzō, who crafts the bride's deadly katana.

Chiba had achieved the rank of black belt in Kyokushin Karate, Ninjutsu, Goju-ryu karate, Shorinji Kempo, Judo and Kendo. If you'd like to watch a film of his as tribute, out of those 209, go for The Street Fighter from 1974, the first film ever released in America to be rated X for violent content alone. There is a moment where Chiba punches a man square on the head so hard that the film cuts to an x-ray of his skull caving in.

Denis Villeneuve In Hot Water over HBO Max Comments

Villeneuve has expressed disappointment at the prospect of audiences watching his upcoming sci-fi epic Dune on their TVs, since “It's a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” He has likened watching Dune at home to putting a speedboat in your bathtub. Naturally, as the filmmaker, Villeneuve is entitled to his opinion on the best way to experience the film, but that hasn't stopped a large portion of the internet from taking the opportunity to drag another artist to defend the decisions of the studio behind them.

Some Twitter users malign that Villeneuve's comments are elitist and callous towards audience members who are weary to return to theatres as cases rise. Others suggest that the director is behind the times, that he and Martin Scorsese and all the rest of the old guard need to pipe down and let the kids watch movies on their phones if they like. One wonders how many of the users voicing their complaints would actually bother to see Dune either way.

New Material: When Art Imitates Life Again

Beloved and popular South African comedian, Riaad Moosa, is one of the country's few Muslim stand up comedians. While best known for his stand up comedy, the multi-talented man is also a medical doctor and an actor. Stand up is his first love, a craft he's honed over the years. Having seen him perform at the Comedy Warehouse on a new talent showcase night, you could sense Moosa was going places based on his easy stage presence, charm, rapport and hilarious stories. He's used his doctor slash comedian narrative to fuel his career, which culminated in him writing Material with co-writer and director Craig Freimond (Beyond the River).

New Material Movie Riaad Moosa 2021

Material, a play on the word's application to both comedy and the textile business, turned Moosa's biographical story of wanting to become a stand up comic into a film narrative. While it was far from perfect, Material had the heart, laughs and spirit to make it a hit with audiences. The first film was built around a father-son relationship as a stern Vincent Ebrahim (The Kumars at No. 42) bumped heads with Riaad Moosa in his attempt to keep the family material business in the family. Spurring the dramatic core of Material, the stand up comedy added a lighter touch as Cassim's career takes off in spite of his father's wishes.

A journey of self-determination where stand up served as a metaphorical attempt to carve his own way, Material was not only funny but touching. Released in 2012, the numbers have switched around for the sequel's cinematic release scheduled for 15 October 2021. Instead of a boring title like 'Material 2', the filmmakers have opted for New Material in keeping with the original film's play on words.

Taking another page from the first film's playbook, New Material parallels story elements from reality as Moosa himself grew in stature as a performer. Now at peace with his father, Cassim is struggling to find a balance between living with his aging parents, finding time for his wife and raising a child. Not satisfied with performing to niche audiences in Johannesburg, he decides to take the show on the road with his stand up buddies played by Joey Rasdien and Schalk Bezuidenhout. A new sponsor wants more than Cassim can deliver and difficult decisions rise to the surface as expanding his national audience leads to international opportunities.

New Material also stars Rajesh Gopie, Zakeeya Patel, Kurt Schoonraad, Shashi Naidoo with Denise Newman reprising her role. Produced by Robbie Thorpe (Vaya, Beyond the River) and edited by Gavin Hood's trusted film editor Megan Gill (Official Secrets, Eye in the Sky), the sequel is in safe hands.

It's hard to believe it's been almost a decade since the original film, which won Golden Horns for Freimond as Best Director, Moosa as Best Actor and Ebrahim as Best Supporting Actor. New Material seems like it's more of a road trip, whereas Material had a strong focus on family drama. Similar to the first film, the trailer held back and wasn't a fair reflection of what to expect on screen. It seems as though the same may be true for New Material.

New Material has been ready to release for a while but due to the pandemic, one expects it was held back as lockdown measures forced cinemas to close. Scheduled for October, let's hope that the film fares well given the current constraints and patrons feel more at ease returning to cinemas. Following strict safety protocols, these environments are doing their best to comply with health regulations and with current spacing, you'll be able to spread out without knocking elbows with a stranger. While you're at it, it's probably a good idea to rewatch the first film to get you up-to-speed with the sequel.

Peter Sellers and Harmful Stereotypes at the Movies

Peter Sellers is regarded as a comedic genius, his most famous roles being in The Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove and The Party. Playing an Indian man by the name of Hrundi V. Bakshi, this 1968 film will draw direct comparisons with Breakfast at Tiffany's, Short Circuit and even Gandhi where white actors portrayed Asian characters. While Ben Kingsley's performance won him an Oscar, making it more respectable and playing the part with a sense of dignity and honesty rare for a film of its era, this appropriation would not be permissible in today's more enlightened age. Blackface or brownface, it seems that no matter how you swing it these days, it will almost always be deemed inappropriate and offensive. While there are many who would want to cancel these film artefacts, they serve as important time capsules and echoes of another time however misguided.

Condemnation of racial-facsimile was at one time an impressively forward-thinking ideal when you consider that the art of film is all about illusion. From Shakespeare's days, actors have played a variety of men, women and even props, essentially called on to use their unique performance abilities to interpret just about anything and anyone. However, taking historical and political context into account, there is a much greater sensitivity around cross-racial performances. Harking back to derogatory and racist acts that cast a long shadow in the world of film since the very inauguration of Hollywood with Birth of a Nation's overt racism and harmful representations, one can understand the stigma. The matter is further complicated by interpretation, which if used in combination with any stereotyping tends to reinforce and propagate racist views.

In The Party, Peter Sellers is playing a bumbling actor of Indian descent, who keeps finding himself in socially awkward situations. While his nationality puts him at odds with the rest of the party, making him a fish-out-of-water in almost every respect, one wonders how the film would have worked if he'd played a version of himself. We've seen the rubber-faced Leslie Nielsen do brilliant work with Frank Dreben of Police Squad without having to appropriate another race or nationality. So it appears Sellers is adopting another race to poke fun and leverage the character's foreign status. Is he trading on his accent, the conceit that he's not actually Indian and how does this campy undertone contribute to the comedy?

From the outset, Hrundi's buffoonery as an actor in a big picture discredits the character who should be blacklisted as an on-set liability but mistakenly ends up on an A-list. While the situational comedy is undeniably brilliant with a drunken waiter frequently upstaging Sellers, The Party has influenced the likes of Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and Mike Myers' Austin Powers. Mr Bean also uses words sparingly and has been treated as a sore thumb in his own society. Realising the universality of the comedy, he also proves that Sellers didn't have to appropriate another nationality to be funny. Perhaps his choosing to play a British oddball is the reason Mr Bean isn’t quite as well-received or honoured at home as he is away. Myers has always been afraid that the no-talent police would come a-knocking and after turkeys like The Guru, it seemed that his headline star days were numbered. Based on the larger-than-life swinging '60s atmosphere of The Party and his turn in the other Casino Royale as Bond, it seems as though the uproarious Austin Powers owes a great deal of his success to the late Sellers.

The Party hasn't drawn as much criticism in recent years as Audrey Hepburn classic, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mickey Rooney's racist performance as an Asian neighbour is harmful, offensive and in bad taste even during the age it was seen as permissible. One is painfully aware of how harmful Asian stereotypes have persisted in commercials and even films until recently in South Africa. You imagine Mr Yunioshi only made the final cut because of Rooney's status at the time, a short-lived and glorified cameo he'd have rather seen hit the cutting room floor in retrospect. The film is still regarded as a great in spite of this glaring racial slur of a supporting act.

Perhaps Sellers and The Party have dodged the scorn of today's cancel culture because he's no longer with us, so there's no tangible recompense or retribution. Or one could argue that his inappropriate performance has been softened by his empathy, purity of heart and “strangelove” for the character. Starting as a socially awkward third wheel of a guest at a pretentious and swanky Hollywood party, he holds a mirror up to these snooty and two-dimensional people. Trying to keep his head down, he inadvertently attracts the spotlight with his funny antics in spite of the unwanted atmosphere. While there's deep-seated othering at play, his human performance ultimately demonstrates that he's the most upstanding of all the party attendees.

He doesn't imbibe alcohol, showing he's a man of discipline and principle with a number of repeated temptations. He protects a woman from her bigwig date, who tries to leverage his studio executive power over her career to force himself on her. He's the first to get rid of the slogans on the unexpected elephant guest, another issue with The Party in terms of animal rights. He wins the heart of the fairest maiden without trying to "buy her a drink". He offers her a ride home without trying to "go upstairs". As time proceeds and his antics get funnier, he becomes the life and soul of the party. As much as he embarrasses Hrundi V. Bakshi with one hand, he offers dignity with the other, yet the casting decision still leaves a feeling of discomfort going beyond the point of an ill-conceived yet purposeful oversight.

In South Africa, the reception of Leon Schuster represents the layered complexity of the debate. A box office sensation, having famously portrayed many different characters across the demographic spectrum over the decades, his performances actually poke fun at people's prejudices. South Africa's diversity and racial history created a space for the comedian to thrive in disguises and send up just about anyone and everyone. Appropriating other cultures, playing into stereotypes and regularly immersing himself in characters for comedic effect, there was a move to discredit his work in a bid to draw the line. While many would say his candid camera deceptions constitute blackface, there are just as many people who would argue that his antics were not lampooning other races as much as they were showing up narrow-minded bigots. Schuster was attempting to fool people into believing his characters are real and while leaning on harmful stereotypes, he aimed to ensnare his mark rather than harm or offend through appropriation.

One also thinks of Sacha Baron Cohen’s exploits when it comes to over-the-top misrepresentations. Picking on Kazakhstan, ironically a move that has put the relatively unknown country on the map, something he reinforces as a positive spin-off in his sequel. Sacha Baron Cohen has remained edgy based on his inflammatory representations and views, which he’d probably frame as fatal character flaws. While ultimately a send up of America, he flirts with satire to breaking point, entertaining long standing prejudices. Luring marks into agreeing with his character’s sentiment, the ambiguity of his stance is simply blamed on backward and outdated customs as if he was a time-traveler and simply doesn’t know any better. Defining intentionality can be a minefield. While Schuster’s intentions were deemed to be pure in his attempts at poking fun rather than being on a subversive and exploitative bent there’s still a level of accountability at play. Generating this viral quality and shock value is the tightrope Sacha Baron Cohen walks and much like Joan Rivers and Ricky Gervais, if you’ve developed a reputation for being a loose canon, it can provide a level of impunity. Just how far one can go for the sake of comedy or satire, even with one's own racial or religious classification, remains to be quantified.

Hollywood is constantly criticized for whitewashing casts, from Scarlett Johansson playing a popularized role in Ghost in the Shell to performances in Exodus: Gods and Kings where white actors played Egyptians in the time of Moses. A basic litmus test for all of these situations is simply asking the question: does this sit well? Any feeling of discomfort is usually a sure sign that something is not right and gut feels should be taken more seriously in these kinds of casting decisions. One can understand that Scarlett Johansson's fame and name would be a much greater global attraction than a less famous Japanese counterpart. The Hollywood machine is ultimately a business, driven by profits, so perhaps the answer is to create awareness of these wild miscalculations and vote with your money. Support films that maximize local casting and buy movie tickets to films that take a respectful and honourable approach to casting. It seems wise to steer clear of artificial representations or if absolutely necessary, to invite other stakeholders into the decision-making process.

While there's a much greater sensitivity to entertainment products and casting today, we've still got a long way to go when you consider it was only a few years ago that Joseph Fiennes played Michael Jackson. Arguing that it's only wrong if harmful stereotyping or division is promoted, Fiennes contends that he comes from a colour blind legacy where he worked as a stagehand in a production where a black woman portrayed and owned the part of Marilyn Monroe. The controversy of casting decisions like this one rages on when it seems best to operate with even more heightened sensitivity than ever before. Whether laziness, greed, inherent racism or a combination of all three is motivating casting decisions, there need to be more measures or agencies in place to protect against or review these decisions. Most of these discussions seem to be reactionary when it's the kind of talk that should be happening more openly to create awareness rather than simply pointing the finger when someone steps over the line.

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