Table of Contents
- Why Write Reviews
- Context Matters
- Evaluating the Elements
- Rating Process
A cursory glance at my ratings would imply that I’m prone to giving incredibly high scores. In fact, one of the most prominent concerns I’ve heard from friends who have been keeping up with the site, is that my reviewing credibility felt shaky because my ratings seem inflated in comparison to counterpart ratings on aggregate review sites like Metacritic and IMDb.
The objection has never bothered me because I approach my ratings methodically and carefully. However, I can understand the concern and want to clarify how I approach reviewing. I’ll go through my though process and break it down. Hopefully, this will make my ratings make more sense. Everything is written in the context of movies, but the spillover to other forms of media should be intuitive.
Why Write Reviews?
Reviews are ubiquitous. Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic. IMDb. Forums. YouTube videos galore. Everywhere you go, you can find someone talking about how they perceived or interpreted a work. For me, I originally watched reviews to find the “good” movies. After watching a string of movies I didn’t care for too much, I decided that I’d let the internet help me out. Before watching anything myself, I’d try and find a review first, so I could “ensure” the experience would be curated.
I learned the hard way, that just because someone has a review online, doesn’t mean that their interpretation of the content will line up with yours. That’s because our perspectives and interests obviously affect our priorities and our takeaways. Case in point- me.
For me, community and notions of belonging have been at the forefront of my thoughts, so when I see a film that attempts to grapple with the concept in cool ways, I tend to geek out. It’s why I loved and watched Aster’s Midsommar three times in theaters and am praying that the Director’s cut gets released in the states on Blu-Ray. But back to the point- despite my love for the film- I just could not get a lot of my friends into the movie. The same kind of love wasn’t there, because they didn’t have the same kind of predisposition.
The point here is that my reviews are indexed towards concepts and ideas I enjoy and find illuminating. I try and remain “objective”. That’s why I try and pay attention to every small detail and evaluate each element of the film on its own merits aside from my own personal taste. Despite that, biases are impossible to control. They come through and pervade through my thoughts and subsequently my reviews.
So why do I write despite knowing this? Catharsis.
Fictional media provides an escape and a refuge for different emotional intensities. The display of raw emotion and the ability to manipulate events and aspects of reality to highlight and bring hidden thoughts to light is something that only fictional representation can do. Whether it be a song, film, or written work – story elements can evoke something deep within. For me, the works I remember the most are the ones that resonated with a metaphysical presence inside . When I find a review, and the critic in turn brings up those themes or mentions elements that I find important, it creates a spiritual kinship. It’s like someone else gets it. But a lot of the times I couldn’t find those thoughts for certain films. So I write these reviews in the hopes of evoking the same sense of kinship I found. Maybe someone out there likes what I say and gets a good movie recommendation. Maybe they read my review and leave their own recommendation. Either way it’s a win-win.
Now that you get the why, it’s time to get the how.
Whenever I watch a movie, I evaluate it in the context of when it was released. A lot of the movies I’ve reviewed on the site are older ones and may seem outdated to people who only watch more modern films. To counteract any bias against older material, I try and place myself to the time when the movie was released.
A good example of this is Nosferatu. I personally didn’t enjoy having to wade through blocks of narration. But that was a limitation to film making in 1922, because audio technology hadn’t advanced enough to reliably allow for spoken dialogue. Holding the lack of audio against the movie would be my idea of an unjustified criticism because it targets an element of the media that the creator could not control.
However, this does not mean that bad visual effects/CG are okay. If a movie seems corny compared to movies now, it could have still seemed mind blowing 2 decades ago. If it seems bad in relation to its contemporaries, then criticisms are fair game. In this way, I keep praise and criticism of the finer elements in line with the expectations present during the films initial run.
Evaluating the Elements
There are a few key elements I look for and evaluate to determine a piece’s rating. They’re listed below along with some of their sub-components that make each of them up.
- Story (~30%)
- Characters (~20%)
- Cinematography (~20%)
- Camera Angles
- Color Palettes
- Interpretation (~30%)
The percentages next to each of the elements roughly equates to its importance when it comes to my rating calculations. Obviously things like interpretation may or may not be prevalent depending on the nature of the work, but it would be equitably distributed among the remaining categories. This isn’t a definitive guide to my thinking, but should explain why certain problems I have are more or less impactful on the final score. In the sections below I outline my reasoning on the importance of each element and their relative influence on my enjoyment of the overall piece.
The most important thing about any media – movie, television show, music video – is the story. Without a plot, none of the other elements have a sense of coherence. Thematic elements can’t be isolated as well because there’s no relation to some grander narrative. This doesn’t mean that the plot has to be robust. Some tales can be bare-bones and serve purely as a vehicle for more artistic elements. All that matters is that the story helps combine the elements into an accessible and meaningful package.
However, most stories take place in their own fully-detailed worlds with characters going on about their own lives. As such, any good creator needs to find a good way to give the audience background information without making it feel boring or out of place. Bad exposition scenes are a plenty and usually indicate bad writing in other portions of the movie. The rule of show don’t tell becomes more explicit here. Details and background moments become more powerful when we associate them with an event as opposed to a description of the same. I understand
No matter how deep a story wants to be, consistency in pacing is always a necessity. If certain portions feel rushed, then the impact of consequent moments may feel uneven or unearned. Personally, this is why I tend to forgive movies that are classified as “slow-burners.” This does not mean I like slow movies or prefer them. If a movie feels too slow, I get sleepy and irritable. Choppy pacing often leads to this feeling. For example, even though I enjoyed watching Shazam! , a lot of scenes linger on for too long, especially in the middle portion of the movie , which made the experience feel drawn out. I felt like I had been in my seat for 2 and a half hours instead of the actual 2 hours 12 minute run-time.
Stories are only as good as the characters that inhabit them. I’m someone who prefers strong dynamic characters that exhibit growth, but I don’t dislike static characters as long as they’re done well. Characters like Saitama from One Punch Man are static, but they’re so fleshed out and interesting, that the depth they present makes up for the lack of changes they go through. Good characters can make even messy plots bearable. They give me a point to latch onto and serve as the primary source of emotional investment. When they’re not present, the entire plot becomes less resonant.
When a character is dynamic, their growth has to feel natural. Their actions need to be in line with our their motivations. If they do something unnatural, it needs to be done for a thematic reason and recognized. Nothing feels worse than having a character go through a certain arc, to have that arc promptly reversed or ignored for no other reason than “the plot.” Suspension of disbelief requires a notion of predictability that comes from power scaling in the story and character decisions. When either of those tenets is deal with too haphazardly, disbelief sets in a lot quicker and becomes hard to shake off.
Once a character is established, the job of the actor becomes to give life to that role. Good actors/actresses make characters feel like they’re authentic. They naturally interact with plot elements that may not be there. There’s an emotional intensity in their eyes and actions that distinguishes them from the set pieces around them. Personally, acting for me is harder to point to. I feel like I can recognize acting that isn’t that great, but it’s harder for me to explain why. It’s just a feeling.
I appreciate cinematography, but it’s an element I’m not as well-versed at dealing with as the other ones I’ve mentioned. I don’t know the names of different camera techniques or exactly what a color represents, but I do sometimes catch onto certain shot compositions or set-ups and can appreciate them despite my lack of technical knowledge. I’m not good at understanding genres of music or what instruments are going off (outside of the basics like drums) , but I can feel the energy they bring to certain scenes and lose myself in them. What I’m saying is I don’t know why or what exactly is going on with visual or auditory techniques, but I appreciate them in spite of that. That’s what makes them so interesting to try and understand.
Sometimes when I notice patterns, I research what they could mean, and that makes the film cooler. This usually happens on a secondary watch when I know I should be paying closer attention to certain things. For example, when I first watched Kubrick’s The Shining half a decade earlier , I couldn’t really understand why the shots were so mesmerizing. However, while reviewing it this past year during my second watch, I realized how Kubrick had used one point perspective to make me gaze at certain scenes. I also appreciated the long running shots. I took them for granted and don’t see them used a lot, so I get more why they’re a big deal. Small techniques like these make the experience that much more layered. There’s always something else that can be gleamed from an advanced work, and unraveling the layers is pleasurable in end of itself.
Special effects are something I’ve taken for granted for years of my viewing. I never knew how much work went into certain scenes. After watching Carpenter’s The Thing, I had to do a double take on the release date. Despite being almost four decades old, the visual effects still elicited a primal response from me. I researched how they achieved certain “crunchy” scenes and gained a new appreciation for the effort put into practical effect works. A similar feeling came over me while watching Hooper’s Poltergeist. The CGI effects feel wonky to me, but the care and lighting in creating the scares is immaculate. Emulating the way shadows work on a set is crazy to think about when you realize how light works and flows. Some of it might feel corny to me, but I imagine watching this when it came out was a nightmare.
I love philosophy and spend a lot of my time engrossed in overthinking the meaning and symbolism of everything I read and watch. As such, the interpretative value of works is important to me. Watching how all the different parts of the work come together to demonstrate different themes is one of the most rewarding aspects of watching a story unfold from beginning to end, outside of the story proper.
The best works combine all their respective elements, juxtaposing them in different permutations to drive home certain themes. For example, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse is a film that exemplifies how to use synergies between different elements to cause the audience to ask thought provoking questions. The lighting and aspect ratio make the center of the screen become more resonant during some of the hypnotic and jarring scenes making them more visceral. The movie follows a static but deep character interacting with a dynamic but reclusive character. This helps keep the dialogue and interactions familiar but mysterious. Add on the shocking imagery and sprinkle mystery and suddenly you have a film that you can watch with all your friends and each of you can walk away with a new sense of awe and wonder.
While I appreciated the ambiguous nature of the some of the themes and questions, I don’t think a good movie necessitates it. If there’s a discernible theme that’s properly built up through the film, I’ll remember the movie afterwards. Themes can be simple. Themes can be nuanced. Complexity isn’t my primary concern. I care more about consistency and precision. A movie like One Piece: Stampede may not explore the depths of the human soul, but it reminds us of the power of friendship and adventure through it’s energetic animation and score combined with story beats.
After going through each of the above elements , I come up with a rough value of my overall feeling for the same. Yes- that’s right. After all this, it still comes down to a gut feeling. The separation of elements just helps organize my thoughts before my mind’s eye visualizes a score.
I start at a 0 and then add to the score based on how strong I felt each element was represented. Once I have the main score figured out , calibrating the decimal score is fairly intuitive process. I can’t describe it but it feels right. This does mean there’s not a huge difference, say between a 9.6 and a 9.7. Both of those movies would be huge recommendations from me. They’re more so just ways of prioritizing which movies do more well.
In spite of all of this, you may still be wondering – why do I give so many 10’s? I think it’s a paradigmatic issue. I don’t think perfection is possible or a healthy standard. To someone somewhere, there’s always a possible flaw. If that’s the case, then a 10 has to be representative of something else. If not an endorsement of perfection, it’s an endorsement of feeling.
Every movie I give a 10 to is not perfect. They have flaws. The one characteristic they all share is that they’re so engrossing in the way they tackle their themes and precise in their presentation of their stories that the flaws become irrelevant. It’s not that they’re not there. It’s more so that the experience is so transcendent, that it wipes away any negative or diminishing thoughts. For example Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness probably has issues with it. I didn’t care though, because the whole time the story was happening I was excited by what was going and curious about the nature of it all. When the movie ended, all I could do was stare with my jaw agape.
- Reviews are subjective and based on taste and cultural preference.
- I review elements of the movie in isolation and then in conjunction with each other – this helps good parts shine through.
- Perfection does not exist. As such a 10 needs a different “rewarding” condition – I use emotional resonance as my criteria.