Telluride Blog: The Problem With Reviewing Films At A Film Festival

I havent seen a lot of films since getting to Telluride, but I've been seeing some of the important ones — which has really paid off. We arrived in Colorado on Thursday night. Friday was the premiere of Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, Saturday afternoon was the surprise premiere of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, and Sunday was the surprise screening of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. If you haven't read my reviews of these great films, I recommend you do as they are some of the best films I've experienced this year (so far).

photo by: Curtis Walker

The Problem With Reviewing Films at a Film Festival

A movie critic usually gets some time to process his thoughts after seeing a movie screening. In local markets, movie screenings usually happen a couple days to a week before the release of a movie. In Hollywood, this can be upwards of a month to a month and a half, especially if you're doing movie junkets.

A Film Festival is more akin to a marathon. Seeing three or four movies a day is easy. Seeing three or four movies a day and writing three or four reviews a day is hard. Critics at film festivals are always struggling not to fall behind. For example; If I've seen four movies in a day, and still haven't filed my review for the film from the night before, then I'm screwed. So the goal is to get a review in writing before I move on to the next screening. This isn't always possible, but it is the goal. Also, the age of blogging and the internet has brought a bigger emphasis on being first. You may disagree that this is important, but being one of the first reviews out of the gate can mean the difference in hundreds of thousands of readers. The result has critics and bloggers cranking out their reviews in record time following each film festival screening.

But some films require more attention and introspection. What happens is that we usually give you our initial reactions to a movie, which can sometimes vary from our final conclusive opinion. A film like Never Let Me Go is hard enough to process and review on just one screening, never-mind the fact that the story stays with you and haunts you days later. Some of my favorite films were not my favorite films the moment I saw them. I find that the great films grow on you and stay with you. Also, the culture of cranking out review after review disallows for the healthy conversation. Conversations often help me work out my thoughts on a more complex film (but again, at a film festival, we often don't have time for conversation).

I've been thinking a lot about this recently for a variety of reasons, one of which being is that my travel partner, Alex of FirstShowing, had an adverse reaction to the stylized take of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. He wrote a passionate reaction piece, which was very honest and upfront, and even recorded a video blog reaction with me defending his opinion (see that below). It wasn't that he didn't like the movie, it just wasn't what he wanted or was expecting. Here is an excerpt from his reaction piece:

I'm fighting with my own feelings. I love Danny Boyle and I admire everything he achieved in his newest film, 127 Hours, starring James Franco as the real-life mountaineer Aron Ralston, but I didn't love the film. It's great, but not amazing, in my honest and humble opinion, and I'm wrestling with why exactly I feel that way and why I didn't get pulled into the film like I wanted to. ... It is a great film, but I think it just wasn't exactly what I was hoping/expecting to see. ... I think the problem is that Danny Boyle's digital video, over-saturated style – that I normally love seeing (Slumdog Millionaire was one of my favorite films of 2008) – didn't really work for me with a wilderness story like this. I think I wanted to see more of the realistic, less stylized shots than the very trippy, flashback-filled, split-screen looks that Boyle is so well known for. And I think maybe that's what kept me at arms length (pun intended) from this.

It is sometimes hard to separate your expectations and opinion of a film. After a few conversations, I've noticed that Alex is beginning to come around a little to the film. As you see from his comment above, he did like the movie. Alex's issue with Boyle's style seems to have become less important as the film resinated with him over time.

Alex also had some strong opinions about the humor used in some sequences of the film, which he just didn't believe belonged in the story. That was until he met and talked with Aron Ralston, the man the movie was based on. At a party, Ralston assured Alex that the humorous moments actually occurred while he was stuck under a boulder for days in the canyon.

Within ten hours of filing a review and video blog, Billington's opinion has evolved and might no longer fully reflect what is on the front page of his website.

I have delayed realizations with almost every film I review at a festival. Reading a review of 127 Hours, I was struck with Eugene Novikov's observation that the film is "a sort of brutal coming-of-age story". It is an obvious observation in hindsight, but it wasn't something I didn't immediately realize. And to be technical, I didn't actually realize it at all until I read it in that someone else's review. Although I think it is an observation I could have come to given some more time for reflection (again, time we don't have).

But the statement further explains why I connected with the film's story. Anyone who has been reading /Film for an extended period of time knows I'm a sucker for coming of age films. And this film is better than your average coming of age story because you probably won't realize you're watching one until afterwards. I could write a whole review of the film from the observation alone. Yet my review is already filed and on the site, forever to be found with a google search.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want any of this to come off as me being ungrateful or complaining about my job. Traveling to film festivals and writing about new movies is one of the highlights of my year. Sharing discoveries with you guys is the thing I value most about this whole gig. I'm still not sure this blog post might be too "inside baseball" but this is just something I've been thinking a lot about while watching and reviewing films at Telluride. And I thought you guys/gals might be interested in getting a look behind the curtain of blogging reviews at film festivals.

127 Hours video blog: