Thinking About Thinking About Movies, Part 1
The simplest way to critique a movie in my mind comes from Roger Ebert whose philosophy (read the last paragraph of that review or read it on Urban Dictionary) is “a film is not what it’s about but how it’s about it.” Put simply, it doesn’t matter the subject matter, but how the movie handles that subject matter and presents it to its audience. But here we immediately come to a problem. How does one determine a movie’s subject matter and how does one determine its audience?
Subject matter to me, comes down to the logline of a movie. What’s a logline? It’s a one sentence pitch selling you the story in terms of who the main character is, what they want and what is standing in their way. Here’s the one for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” taken from IMDB:
So there’s a logline and we know what the movie is about. But to critique the movie, we need to look at how it’s about that logline. What are the personalities of the journalist and hacker? How does the story unfold? Two movies could have very similar (or even the same) loglines and be VERY different in terms of quality and thus be critiqued differently. Here’s an example of a logline I just made up that applies to two similar, but different movies.
“A teenage boy teams up with a good robot to battle a bad robot and protect the future of humanity.”
That logline could easily apply to two popular films, one awesome and the other crappy. The former of course, is “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and the latter is “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” James Cameron’s movie went about the story in a way that focused on character, focusing on John’s relationship with the Terminator as a father figure, John’s love for his mother, and their subsequent fight as a family against the T-1000. Michael Bay’s mess of a movie took Sam Whateverthehellhisnamewas (started with a W though) and used special effects to cover up for a bad story, awful characters and failed attempts at humor. Therefore, we can critique the movies as one goes about its logline in a memorable way and the other goes about its logline in a forgettable way.
Quick example #2. Here’s the logline I made up.
“A young human and a vampire fall in love and fight the forces threatening each other’s existence.”
I’m either talking about the awful “Twilight” movies, or the beautiful and haunting “Let The Right One In.” Again, both with similar stories, but one goes about it in a commercialized exercise while the other creates one of the best love stories I’ve seen, REGARDLESS of genre (genre is actually another topic entirely that I could spend a page or two talking about, but I won’t bore you in this post.) Plus its American remake is actually almost as good, but IMO there is something more intriguing about listening to the characters speak in Swedish, it just adds a quality that I really like.
But here, especially with the comparison of the two vampire movies, we get into a situation where we’re also critiquing the intention of those making the movie. Obviously, those behind the “Twilight” movies are in it to capitalize on a huge franchise and make all the money they can. Therefore, they tailor the movie to the audience of the books and render the story into dialogue akin to what George Lucas wrote in the first Star Wars prequel. So can one compare the quality of an artsy movie like “Let the Right One In” with commercialized “Twilight” despite the differences in intentions of the movie makers? The answer is yes. The inclination to make money or capitalize on a trend shouldn’t compromise the ability of a movie to go about its story in a compelling and effective way. Case in point, “Harry Potter”, particularly the last film.
So to wrap up Part 1, here’s my personal opinion on how to judge movies. It’s not the logline that counts, but how the movie is ABOUT that logline. The quality with which a movie goes about its business can be good/great, regardless of genre. An animated film can be just as good as a comedy, drama can be just as good as a horror film. To me, critiquing movies then automatically involves comparisons and contrasts to other films in the same and different genres. Thus, we can say “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” is better than any of the “Transformers” movies, and also better than any of the “Twilight” movies. I’d say it was a better movie than “Melancholia” even though they are totally different genres. One just went about its content better than the other did.