August 10, 2017 by bck1402
Writing movie reviews is just something I do, and it’s been going on for a few years now. It’s not something I get paid for; it’s more for fun. Not that it attracts much attention either. It’s also partially to do a little writing from time to time every week.
It started out years ago, simply as some writing practice and a way to put down some thoughts to paper. I liked movies, I liked going to the cinemas to watch movies and I’d read reviews in newspapers and magazines. It seemed like something I could do… and mind you, this was way before there was an internet too. Just one little exercise book, or ten, and write about the movie I’d just watch. Then there was a dry spell, not for the lack of movies but other things came up. I was writing short stories, or full length stories… or rather writing and drawing my own comics.
When I got used to the Internet and looked into ‘blogs’ I figured I could continue writing those reviews. A few other now defunct sites at first, then I started using Weebly and WordPress, just to see what either side could do, and while the WordPress site ended up as my main blog, the Weebly site ended up with the reviews. Sure, a few reviews ended up on this side, but those were often more in-depth analyses rather than just doing a review.
So, here’s what I look at in a movie when I end up writing a review.
Casting and Performance
It used to be a problem but nowadays, casting on most movies seem to be almost on point so long as you can afford to cast who you’re after. It’s not always perfect and given the amounts of money going around, more often than not, the cast do as best as they can with their materials and seldom is anyone lagging behind the others. Of course, that eagerness to break the typecasting where certain stars are concerned can result in less than stellar performances. This could lead to major disappointments in either the star’s performance or consequently, the whole movie. A more current example would be Tom Cruise in The Mummy.
Going against type can be a good thing for some performers. The late great Robin Williams was always known for being a comedian, but some of his best cinematic performances come from dramatic turns such as those in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society, or the chilling turns in Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Dramatic performers finding success in comedy is rare. Leslie Nielsen was one who became more famous for his comedic turns in Airplane! to Police Squad (or The Naked Gun movies) but was more known for dramatic turns prior to the 80s. If you want to see some of the more prominent dramatic stars of today trying their hand at comedy, there’s always the notorious Movie 43.
So performance can be good, or even unexpectedly good, or they can be bad… and even intentionally bad, like when an actor (and using that in a non-gender form) decides to purposefully deliver a hammy performance as a way to amp up a character or characteristic. For that, you could look to a majority of the Valerian cast.
Sometimes the quality of the performance has to also tie in to the next aspect.
Story is king in whatever medium it comes in, but there are those accompanying aspects that can determine how a story is told. Great artwork can elevate a mediocre story in a comic. An animation style can enhance or detract from a story in a cartoon or anime. A writing style can determine the flow of a story in a book.
Movies are far more complex compositions with numerous contributions from many facets. The performance of an actor is just one. The writer, or writers in some cases, can be viewed as one of the more important factors. The director’s touch can be considered all-encompassing, but it’s not to diminish all the other people involved in making the movie.
While the originality of a story may grab my attention, and there are so many stories out there that originality is hard to come by, it’s more how the story is told. So while a movie might churn out a slightly below average story, the production might make the movie a lot more entertaining than one might have expected. The inverse is also quite likely where a really good story on paper may suffer from uninspired movie production (see the whole of the Black List – that reportedly respected list of excellent unmade scripts).
Also, the length of a movie can determine the overall flow of a story because there is a tendency for some movies to be overly padded just to reach a specific run-time; an average of about 130 minutes these days. 30 years ago, the average was between 90-100 minutes and any move reaching 2 hours was considered long; 3hrs would have been an epic. Action movies these days might even push the 150-160 minute mark. All that might also come under the aspect of editing.
So ultimately, where story is concerned, I’m more concerned with how the story is told, how much padding there is, if such padding may lead to plot holes or discrepancies, if the story raises more questions than it answers, or even the overall intent of telling such a story. That last one may lean more towards horror movies and why I avoid most of them. It also would explain why I can enjoy such schlock as the Sharknado movies. Sometimes, it’s really just for the fun of it. As to how the stories are told in a movie, that’s the purview of the next aspect.
There are two people who may have final control over the movie. One is the producer and the other is the director. While the director is often credited with the overall presentation in the end, the producer has been known to seize control of the final product from time to time. Despite that, it’s often the director’s vision that drives the overall production.
Then again, there are two approaches to this. One is the director who has full control of their movie and we’re talking about the likes of Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and their peers; those who develop their films from script to screen.
Then there are the director-for-hire gigs where the director is just there to put the movie together for better or worse. Sometimes, they get to make their mark, put their signature into the movie in one way or another. Otherwise, it’s just a job. Straddling that fine line between creative freedom and controlled production would be the movies of either the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the DC Cinematic Universe, where the vision of a shared universe spread over several movies have certain guidelines to be followed. It’s not always the case (see Edgar Wright and Ant-Man for Marvel Studios, or Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman for DC Movies.)
Still, it is ultimately the director’s product most of the time, so we get to see how that director will handle the story, the actors and all the other aspects of the movie and how it was put together. Certain directors have their own style, so you can easily spot a movie by Steven Spielberg from the way he frames, lights, or shoots his scenes, or one from Edgar Wright from the way he shoots, edits, pace or even use transitions in his scenes. Even Christopher Nolan has his way with editing, pacing and story structure. Tim Burton has a quirky design sense, David Lynch plays with sound and vision, Jonathan Demme had his characters speak directly to the camera! These are just some of the ‘bigger’ directors, but others have their own style too. How much of their own style they can incorporate into their movies is always interesting.
Especially how they bring everything else together.
At times, some of the other disciplines catch my attention. This may be attributed to my education which incorporated film studies, or my own personal interests in these fields such as editing or cinematography. I read the books, watched the documentaries and studied the ways of the masters in certain fields of film-making, leaning a little more into the aspects of design work. This could cover anything from basic character designs, to the costumes, the sets, the props, etc. Some books covered the entire process from the germ of an idea to the script, pre-production to post production and a little on marketing as well. Lots of books throughout the late 80s-mid 90s on film production filled my personal library.
There’s also the music or score.
It doesn’t happen for every movie, and it’s not always one or another would stand out. When they do, it may or may not be completely subtle work that one may actually notice. For example, they say that clothes can make the man, but often, it can be quite a challenge to have a character either stand out in a scene or completely blend into the background; to make a character important or utterly normal to the story. Colour coordination may be taken into consideration to ensure your actor doesn’t disappear into the background too, but not be overly contrasting as well. It’s all part of design work.
Then there’s the music that can underscore the emotional aspects of scenes. I’ve had my favourites in the past and few of the current composers hold a candle to the masters such as Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, James Horner and more, but the likes of Ramin Djawadi, Michael Giacchino, or Brian Tyler and many more have forged their own paths with their own style. How these composers handle the scenes and the emotions can be a life and death of a movie too.
Despite all this parts making the whole, it sometimes can come down to how entertaining the movie is.
Often, this can be that knee-jerk response; that in-the-moment excitement. I might take a couple of days after watching a movie in the cinema before writing the review. This is more to let that excitement factor to peter out a little and see what really sticks in the mind. Do I still feel excited or entertained if I think about the movie a couple of days later?
There are many aspects that can raise or lower the entertainment value of a movie, and that can very from person to person. Some people enjoy action movies and so long as the action set-pieces are beautifully executed, one can be entertained even if the story is just there to hang the action around it.
So the entertainment value can override a mediocre story or overall movie with sub-standard performances. It’s also how cult movies come about, that one can overlook all the imperfections in a movie so long as it entertains like crazy. Sometimes, it even helps to elevate those low-budget independent productions to something greater, or help those so-called box-office disasters find success on home video.
For me, the box-office take doesn’t factor into the quality of the movie.
It doesn’t matter to me if a movie opens at number one or not.
There was a time when the box-office takings were a major factor in the success or failure of a movie, but not so much for well over a decade now. Studios determine the success or failure of a movie on the box-office take these days but the system is incredibly biased. They don’t appear to care if the movie they’ve produced is good or not, just how much it can make in that opening weekend. If it doesn’t hit that expected target within three to five days of opening, the movie is automatically a failure. So long as the take exceeds the expectations or the initial budget of the movie, it’s considered a success, enough to keep churning out a sequel if needed. It’s also why we had that string of really ridiculous spoof movies year after year. They were incredibly cheap to make and could easily make bank, doubling or even quadrupling their initial budget over an opening weekend. It never mattered if the box-office take would plummet 90% the following week or that the movies were really drudge.
The other thing I don’t factor in is awards.
I don’t think many people actually care either given how some of their favourite movies often get passed over or ignored by the more prestigious recognisers (like the Academy Awards, The Golden Globes, The BAFTAs, or even The Razzies) or they might be recognised for being super-popular (People’s Choice, MTV Movie Awards, etc.). Everyone might have a different thought about what might be the best movie of the year, and it’s always different choices for different people.
Anyway, does all that make me a qualified critic?
I sure don’t call myself one.
I just review the movies I watch in the cinemas.
I might occasionally critique on some of them a little more in depth. I can draw on over 40 years of TV and movie addiction with a deep deep immersion during the age of home videos (and pre-copyright enforcement) which had some of the very best to some of the very worst movies i’ve ever seen. Drawing comparisons between what’s come before and what’s showing now is easy enough. Add in the passion for film, a dash of film studies, some personal research and studies…
– perhaps not a full blown critic but one capable enough to be fair in the reviews. Sure I have my biases too, but I try not to let them get in the way of trying to be fair while churning out anywhere between 500-1000 words per movie.
I don’t know how many people or readers actually care in the first place.
I’ll just keep going and hopefully, someone, somewhere might find it informative or useful.