Friday, April 27, 2007

How Do I Review?

This essay is long overdue. Very early on with the Film Walrus, I intended to give an account of who I am as a film critic and how I go about reviewing films. I had trouble coming up with a good format to frame the discussion and kept putting it off.

Recently my friends Mad Dog and Magus reminded me of my omission when they started the the Grump Factory, an up-and-coming pop-culture-eclectic blog that included introductions and provided direct insight into the writers’ goals and views. A second reminder came today, when I received an essay back from one of my classes: History of Modern Art. I found myself agreeing with the mid-level grade, but disagreeing with all the reasons. In written comments the grader attacked my choice of thesis, my choice of examples, my use of a numbered list and a word that he didn’t understand (but which was used correctly). Almost none of it identified what was actually wrong with the paper: the lack of inspiration, the lazy formal analysis and the general absence of historical contextualization.

It made me think: How would I grade the paper? How do I grade art in general? I do it all the time, even if unconsciously. More relevant to this blog: How do I “grade” film? What matters to me in a film when I am writing a review or deciding on a score?

The Grump Factory may sneak out of the last question by refusing to give number/letter ratings, but my borderline-OCD/computer-science-oriented genetic make-up insists that I score, rank and list movies with compulsive excess. Oversimplification is very dangerous, such as when an entire movie is reduced to a number, or worse, a Boolean thumbs-up/thumbs-down status (Ebert has stated in multiple interviews that the review is more important than his hand, but he still perpetuates the system). Hopefully this essay will help show the complexity of reviewing a film, and encourage readers of any review to look beyond the numbers, thumbs, stars and letter grades.

To me, one of the key tricks is to take lots of factors into account. Judging a movie on only one or two elements comes off as ignorant (you leave out a lot), short-sighted (what if you change your mind on one of those main points?) and useless to others (they will probably have different preferences and hang-ups). You can never harm a review by taking into account too many elements.

As usual, two of my goals are honesty and self-awareness. I will list aspects of film and how important I think they are to my rating of a film with some details about my philosophy towards each element (some overlap is inevitable). None of these ideas are set in stone and I try to remain open-minded and capable of change. I do not necessarily want to believe the same things in ten years that I believe now. Growth can be a good thing.

Subject Matter

Not generally that important within some basic limits. I like to think that a movie about anything can be excellent or terrible based on how the film is done. That being said, I obviously have natural bias towards subjects I am already interested in. Lacking a predisposition on my part, I feel it is often the duty of the writer/director to convince me that I should be interested in their subject matter.

I prefer characters and plot to non-narrative modes, but even that is not a strict rule.


This can be fairly important in terms of my personal taste, my purchase of films and my rewatching habits. However, as with subject matter, I feel strongly that anything can be done right and I’ve found movies I love in every major genre. I have a preference for sci-fi, noir, horror, mystery, giallos and art films and a tendency against westerns, romantic comedies and teen sex comedies. Drama, action films, adventures, biographies, period pieces, documentaries, experimental works and many others fall on pretty neutral ground.

In general, I try to take genre standards into account with the numbered ratings. I try not to compare apples and oranges when ranking films or determining relative number scores. That being said, my personal bias for or against a particular genre probably affects my ratings by as much as a full point.

I do not require a film to be easily codified by genre and no movie will lose points purely because it defies genre-labeling or mixes genres.

Technical Craftsmanship

Extremely important. The skill in terms of editing, set design, mise-en-scene, composition, framing, movement, staging, cinematography, lighting, sound, music and all other technical aspects are of great interest to me. They need not be any particular type (for instance, minimalist mise-en-scene can be as good as dense ones, long takes can work as well as fast editing), but I am a believer that the formal aspects of a film should compliment and augment the other elements: story, theme, style, mood, etc. Craftsmanship does not have to involve high production values.


Very important. There is little worse than a film that is completely generic. Style does not have to be extremely overt or fully consistent, but I like a film that has a dynamic atmosphere, a compelling method of storytelling and some originality in terms of look and feel. Style can make a familiar genre, plot or convention seem fresh again.


Almost completely unimportant. A $100 million CG-enhanced, celebrity-packed widely-released film has almost no intrinsic advantage in my book. Even low-budget films can establish an intriguing visual and aural atmosphere without needing loads of cash. Money can make a film look good only if used right, which requires craft and style. I also feel that the look a film does not necessarily define it, and excellent writing, acting and originality can overcome financial lack.

Writing (Story & Dialogue)

Important; often extremely important. My personal taste usually tends towards engaging stories with clever plots. Oft-told stories are not an automatic failure, but need to prove themselves in other ways, while I see originality as a nearly instant advantage. Sequels are required to contain quality in their own rights. Remakes are under obligation to improve or reinterpret the original and will usually have a disadvantage in my book. Plot holes are bad, but non-sequiturs and ambiguities can have their place if they are intentional. I try not to nitpick plots, but frequent or foundational problems in the story are inexcusable. I also feel that dialogue should be realistic for realistic films and should generally make sense within the internal logic of the film. Depending on the film, conspicuous wit, linguistic dexterity or even silence may be well-suited.


Usually very important. Much like the writing, realism is important for realistic films. Acting is often the most important quality of extremely realistic films such as family dramas or biographies. However, ideas about realism change over time. I tend to be a big fan of alternative acting modes and appreciate expressionism, melodrama, hyperbole, restraint, dehumanism and any other acting mode done well and with purpose.


Not very important. A movie can be any length it needs to be so long as it remains good throughout. The only caveat is that a lousy movie is made worse by length, and more responsibility lies on the director to ensure that all his material merits the final cut. I tend to think that efficiency is a worthwhile trait and I will often note if a film could have been trimmed down to make other elements (such as pacing or story) flow better. Length remains a difficult area for many critics to overcome.

I judge the value of films based on their full length. I try to consider not just how much I like the ending, but how the overall film worked.


Average importance. I find that it is very important to synchronize my personal mood with the pacing of a film to best appreciate it. I can tolerate very slow films and very fast films, so long as they are interesting and well-made. Pacing (especially slow pacing) is often a hang-up for many viewers and so I try to remain open-minded. Establishing a pace unintentionally unbefitting of the style, mood, genre or plot can be devastating. This is one area where I feel consistency can be important, in either “velocity” (steady pace throughout the film) or “acceleration” (steady change in rate throughout the film) or “rhythm” (deft alternation of two or more rates). Pacing should not be confused with mere editing rate (number of cuts).

Historical Context

Somewhat important. I try to take historical context into account, but it can rarely change my rating of a film by more than a point. I treat movies from past time periods as though they were in their own genres with their own conventions, rules, themes and preoccupations. I judge old films with such things in mind, but sometimes historical context can’t save a film where hindsight knows better.


Slightly important. I attempt to remain open-minded in terms of ideology and I think many philosophies, opinions and standpoints and interesting and worth consideration. Even those I don’t agree with can be committed to film capably and insightfully. It saddens me that currently more than 45% of votes for “Fahrenheit 9/11” are 1s and 10s, when I doubt any professional film critic could argue either rating successfully.

Objective intentions aside, I am unlikely to give even the best neo-Nazi recruitment video a very high score and so clearly some ideological value does underlie my opinions.

Whenever possible I like the ideology to be a minor element of the film and I think too much focus on it can be distracting and/or preachy.

I am also against antagonism towards the audience (for instance, shocking material used as a weapon to make the audience uncomfortable or sick without redeeming artistic or thematic merits) and breaches of ethics (killing animals needlessly, causing physical harm to another person, violating privacy or personal rights, etc.)


Very unimportant. I have almost no need to connect emotionally with fictional characters or stories. When it happens and it works, all the better for the film. I think an emotional connection between a film and a viewer can be powerful and valuable, but it is often unreliable and untranslatable between viewers. I try to communicate my specific emotional reaction to a film in the review, but I leave that out of the final score and focus on judging whether the acting, writing and other elements were successful and fair in generating the emotions.

Sense of Humor

Ranges wildly based on the level of reliance a film has on comedy. For straight-out comedy, sense of humor is extremely important and so the film must appeal directly to what I think is funny. There just isn’t any objectivity when it comes to humor. Also, I tend to be pretty demanding on comedies, especially those that prey on lowest common denominator taste’s of audiences without even trying to be good movies in other respects.

Shock Value

Ranges wildly based on the level of reliance a film has on shock. A film which exists only to shock can not score very high. Shock, like emotion, can have an important place in film, but should not be leaned on to carry a movie. Shock value usually dates quickly and so I don’t trust it as a sign of lasting quality.


Can be important depending on the case. At its best, kitsch can reverse almost all the elements I’ve listed, making “bad” become “good” and creating pleasure out of former disadvantages. Kitsch is best when it occurs unintentionally.

Auteur Status

Very unimportant. Even new movies by my favorite directors are judged by the same standards as always. Points don’t carry over between films.

Other Opinions

Hopefully fairly unimportant. I try to decide my rating before I look at the ratings of other critics our sources to prevent myself from being subconsciously biased. However, I do think discussion of films and exposure to other opinions is important and can vastly improve the appreciation of a movie.

Personal Taste

Extremely important. Almost every review will contain a great deal of personal taste even if I try to be objective, so I won’t bother to deny it or choke it out. I do try not to score a movie more than two points away from where my most objective formal analysis would place it.


Unknown said...

An excellent description of what you consider from the major aspects of a film.

I think most people develop/have genre preferences. Being able to (somewhat) overcome them by watching the unfavored ones more objectively (not hating it just because of that) is key, and something that normal film viewers (and perhaps some prof. film critics, too) struggle a lot with.

The way you deal with pacing is also distinctive, something I feel marks "maturity." It's a shame that people dismiss things with slow pacing so easily, but then again, it's nice that sometimes (goodbye dragon inn?) you also get...bored.

Molly said...

Personally, I think that your reviews are some of the best that I read. Even before you defined your categories, you always made the reasons for your judgements very clear, which is so important. You are the anti-"USA Today."

Patti said...

Have I either stolen my opinions from you or did we reach the same conclusions? Sometimes I think I just steal everything I think from you and our sisters.

Mad Dog said...

Why thank you for the name-check. :3

FilmWalrus said...

I was scanning back over this and noticed I had written "breeches of ethics." Awesome! I got to get myself a pair of those...