A change of pace from the deluge of reviews.
So an interesting thing happened today, a friend of mine invited to me to teach her class about film critique over Skype. She wanted me to discuss what got me into blogging, what I normally look for in a movie, and how I compose my reviews. I only one had challenge: I couldn’t swear…but I’m not in class anymore, so this little entry’s pictures will be getting some good ol’ fashioned cussing. Ain’t life grand?
I’ve always loved watching movies ever since I was in high school. I was lucky to have a few teachers who wanted their students to have a bigger film vocabulary, so we got to watching Hitchcock films, film noir like The Maltese Falcon and classic science fiction like The Andromeda Strain. But even though I loved movies…I didn’t really know how to talk about them. I genuinely felt embarrassed about it since I thought it was “too dorky.”
But then I saw my favorite film of 2008, The Dark Knight. I just HAD to talk about it, and I thought I had exhausted the limit of the conversation with my friends. So I started browsing websites for people talking about the film and came across a podcast that I really dug. Every week, these guys would talk about movies, video games, life, and random events going on in the world. Eventually, these critics would go on to form another a website I love and continue to support today, now called Double Toasted. And slowly, but surely, they cultivated my love of film and I began talking about movies with a bit more knowledge and way more excitement than I previously had in life. Eventually, several friends had suggested I start my own website (you kind ladies and gentlemen happen to read it).
So what makes a movie good? Trick question, a movie is considered “good” because of subjective opinion alone. Several people can love a film entirely, but you’d always have people that disagree. Conversely, a film that many people straight up despise may have a special place in the hearts of some critics. Ultimately, it comes down to your own personal experience with movies and your own life.
Let’s tackle experience with films first, it’s very difficult to compare movies to each other if you haven’t seen that many flicks after all. Movies that have been regarded as the “best of all time” get these distinctions because they did something that was unique or different for the time it came out. Star Wars, for instance, gets name dropped so many times as being influential that many people forget why it was so popular to begin with. Well for the time it came out, it mixed classic science fantasy stories that were common for the time with state of the art visual effects that made everything feel “real.” These spaceships and planets were common ideas found in other books, television and movies, but nothing before Star Wars felt so tangible like you could actually be there.
Similarly, some films are well known because they pushed boundaries others were afraid to cross. Psycho basically invented the slasher horror movie genre, and Alfred Hitchcock faced wide criticism for trying to approach this subject. “Too violent” they would say, “too sexual” others would raise…”he put a flushing toilet in it!” (No seriously, people got upset that you saw a toilet flush in a movie, this was a real thing). But after people recognized how suspenseful it was, it became several critics’ go to gold standard for horror for several decades.
But those are old examples, let’s talk about something a bit more recent. Several critics heaped praise on a little film called Mad Max: Fury Road last summer, hell it got nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture…how did that happen? Well it contained a light dialogue story told primarily through visuals alone, that being pure car chases. But we’ve seen car chases for decades, what made Fury Road so special? The camera angles and blending of computer effects with live action sequences created images that were, put simply, freaking cool to look at. Many critics had never seen something so unique before, heck big-budget directors had to take their jaw off the floor. To quote the director of Star Wars Episode 8, Rian Johnson, he said so eloquently “GEORGE MILLER JUST TOOK US ALL TO SCHOOL.”
But if you’re just starting to get into film critique, and want to have an easy frame of reference for what makes a movie good or not, here’s a few helpful tips. First, figure out what makes a good character, story, or scene. Good characters are hard to come by surprisingly, and it’s what trips several movies up significantly. Overall, what makes a good character (and I’m quoting former film critic, current writer for Doctor Strange, C. Robert Cargill, for this) is the character is relatable or interesting.
Relatable characters are very common. These are your Luke Skywalkers, your Katniss Everdeens, and Harry Potters. They start the film as an ordinary person, usually down on their luck where nothing seems to be going right for them. Audiences like these characters because they can identify with their personal frustrations or problems. It could be loneliness like with Harry Potter, wanting to take care of your sibling like Katinss, you get the idea. The events of a movie challenge these characters in various ways, and you as an audience member, because you can relate to them, begin to root for their success. You feel their pain when they fall and you cheer when they win. Pretty standard stuff.
You can also find a character to be interesting, that is to say, they make a choice you personally would not make…but you’d like to see where they go. If you have seen The Godfather, Michael Corleone is THAT kind of character. He initially rejects his family’s life of crime, but when confronted with threats to their lives, he dips his feet into the life of a gangster until it consumes him completely. These characters aren’t exactly nice and you probably wouldn’t want to meet them in real life, but you want to see what boundary they’ll cross next.
Next we got what makes a good story. I’ve said this before elsewhere on this website, but I’m going to give you the simplest instruction on what makes a story good or not. It’s really easy, and you’ll be able to remember it from here until the heat death of the universe and I learned it from, of all people, the guys who wrote South Park. But they chatted with NYU writers on the subject, and they had this to say:
A bad story is when each scene is connected by “and then this happened,” whereas a good story is when each scene is connected by “however” or “therefore.” Now what do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at a recent film that has a bad story, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. No scene in that movie flows into the next. Think about it. Superman saves Lois Lane in the desert, and then Lex Luthor wants to kill Superman because…reasons, and then Batman wants to kill Superman because he destroyed Metropolis, and then they fight and then they leave each other alone and then they fight later and then…you get it. Point is, a bad story doesn’t make any sense. You have no idea what the characters are doing or why they are doing it.
Now, let’s take a look at a “good” story. Something easy like Zootopia. You have bunny named Judy who wants to be taken seriously as a cop. Therefore, she enlists the help of a con artist fox, however the fox tries to get out of working with Judy however Judy tricks him into helping her by blackmailing. Therefore the fox leads Judy to a tip which therefore leads to another tip, however someone is trying to stop them. Each scene in Zootopia leads the next, it sets up who these characters are, it sets what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they plan on doing next. What makes a story interesting is seeing how these different goals clash with each other.
Finally, you can find something interesting to talk about it in several other aspects of a film. Maybe there was a car chase scene that looked so amazing, you could feel you were there. Maybe you saw a romantic scene that made you wish these two characters would fall in love. Maybe you saw a character that made you laugh so hard, you had trouble breathing. All these little things affecting the script, acting, costumes, camera angles, direction, plot twists can affect your opinion.
Now, to the big meat and potatoes: writing an actual review. This can go in a bunch of different ways, but ultimately what you have to remember is to bring out your own voice. This is where your personal experience comes into play. Maybe a film reminded you of your relationship with a parent, sibling, or a friend. Maybe it reminded you of a specific event in your life. Maybe it reminded you of a book you read or a video game you played. These little things can have a strong impact on whether you think a movie that reminds you of these memories is good or not. Maybe you had a loss in your family, and a character’s death in a movie can really get to you…or it might not at all. Perhaps you may feel that the film failed to capture the emotions you personally felt in your own life, and therefore consider the movie to be cheap.
And when you actually start to write, don’t be afraid to let your emotions into your writing. A critique is subjective after all, born out of you, so you should unleash whatever your feeling: love, hatred, or even boredom. But what you have to explain why you feel that way, why a film resonated with you so strongly or didn’t connect with you at all. So feel free to put in metaphors, similes, hyperbole (my favorite), sarcasm, and other creative writing techniques you’ve learned over the years.
Film critique is an expression of your opinion on a movie. It’s how you describe why a film is so special or so terrible. Why you reject a film’s message or why you learned something new from it. All you gotta do, is watch more movies and practice writing. And sooner or later, you may have other people checking out your works.